The Language of Racial Innocence

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

James Baldwin

What recent events have yielded is that a lot of White Autochtoon Dutch folks, when facing the charge of racism, feel that it is their self-image—as good, non-racist (and thus “innocent”) citizens of a tolerant country—and their moral character, in particular, that are being threatened.

The outward appearance of benevolence, tolerance, and innocence has been central both to the Dutch national self-image and to the political manufacture of the White Autochtoon Dutch identity. The Dutch have become so invested in the image of their being tolerant, “good” people that to many the unrelenting stream of reactionary and racist comments directed at anti-blackface campaigners came as a “complete surprise.”

Moreover, the uncompromising conclusions of the fourth report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance caused an epistemic shock, i.e. “the shock of experiencing a belief system catastrophically collide with empirical reality.” The report challenged the belief in the inherent goodness, tolerance, and non-racism of the Netherlands. It comes, then, as no surprise that analyses exposing the racist roots of the figure of Zwarte Piet have often been met with outright denial, and insistent appeals to innocence and good intentions.

Sylvia Witteman, a Dutch journalist
Sylvia Witteman, a Dutch journalist

“Can that nonsense about racism stop now? The Dutch are not racists! Negroes/niggers are sweet! Enough already!”

Even in the face of resounding evidence against it, the myth of the Netherlands as a generous, welcoming, and tolerant (non-racist) country has proven unshakable. The constant retelling of this myth has worked to strengthen the conviction that if a White Autochtoon Dutch person is benevolent, welcoming, tolerant, and committed to a progressive liberal agenda, then any charge of racism against them is spurious, and a base act of ingratitude. Many of the racist comments echo accusations of ungratefulness: we are taking advantage of the goodness of White Autochtoon Dutch folks. We are abusing Dutch tolerance and hospitality and should go back to where we come from.

These preoccupations with generosity (and by extension empathy), innocence, morality, and the national self-image preclude deeper inquiries into entrenched, oppressive structural social processes that shape the lives of racialized Others in the Netherlands. The turn to innocence is essentially a move to deflect: it is a move to silence any critique of the systemic privileging of Whiteness.

Appeals to innocence and ignorance attempt to obscure the collective power of White Autochtoon Dutch folks to control society. Most mainstream analyses have failed to take into account racialized embodiment and the relation of White Autochtoon Dutch embodiment of non-racism to power: in other words, the behaviour of White Autochtoon Dutch folks toward racialized others, or their lived experience in relation to racialized others. The problem is not the “good” or “bad” intentioned individual, but the systemic privileging of “Dutch-looking” people.  Appeals to innocence, ignorance, and good intentions erase accountability, and mask how White Autochtoon Dutch folks have benefitted, and are still benefitting, from Whiteness, which is always already imagined as innocent.

Racial innocence, which frames racism and racialization as questions of individual affect and bad intentions, draws on the Dutch national discourse of tolerance and benevolence and its colourblind and depoliticized discursive repertoires. As such, racial innocence has been a necessary element in a neoliberal State multiculturalism, that promotes “anti-discrimination,” or rather  “non-racist,”  policies, which centre on the individual, and are driven, ironically, by racialized discourses of progress and equality. Despite progressive policies and a commitment to equality, structural racial inequalities continue to be reproduced in Dutch society.

Unlike the common understanding of racism as intolerance (or hatred) of other races, racism is not only a question of blatant acts of intolerance or hatred. Stephanie M. Wildman writes in Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America, that “White people are so eager to distance [ourselves] from racism and spend so much time trying to demonstrate that [we] are not racist, that [we] fail to see the systemic privileging of whiteness. This privileging ensures that extreme acts of racism, as well as daily microaggressions, will continue to exist.”

In order to understand the mechanisms of Whiteness we need to focus on everyday racism, since it “draws attention to how structural forms of violence are so frequently lived, how their invisibility or normalization is another part of their oppressiveness.” It’s the colonization of the “normal” by Whiteness that makes racism so insidious. Racist notions find constant affirmation, for example, in ordinary—supposedly neutral—practices of government, expressions of pop culture, and run-of-the-mill interactions.

For instance, when I am told that “I’m not like one of those Antilleans,” it is not a compliment: it’s a racist comment that suggests that the stereotype of Antilleans, to which I do not conform, has a basis in fact. What’s more, I cannot distance myself from “those Antilleans” without being used as an “example” to discipline “those Antilleans” who fail to adhere to the dominant, acceptable ways of being. Neither can I embrace the statement as a compliment, because by so doing I grant it validity. As a Dutch Caribbean, I cannot and should not distance myself from “those Antilleans.” In either case, Whiteness gets re-centred.

By the same token, “good White peopleshould not distance themselves from “those bad White people.” As Redmond tweeted to Femke Halsema,


“That’s not good enough. It shows your discomfort with explicit racist rhetoric, but what about institutional racism.”

Many White Autochtoon Dutch people have publicly displayed their revulsion over racism. William Miller asserts that “moral judgment seems almost to demand the idiom of disgust.” The language of disgust has become a necessary factor in communicating their anti-racism, and stressing their sensitivity to injustice.

Peter Breedveld

The act of distancing masks the mundane operations of Whiteness, by rearticulating racism as a problem of specific individuals. Moreover, it grants “Good White People” the exceptional status. The desire to be the “right kind” of White person (that is, non-racist), on the “right side” of the debate, requires, in fact, the singling out and the stigmatization of the “wrong kind” of White person. Partly because of their speaking out against racism, “Good White People” are perceived as “not the wrong kind of White person,” i.e. innocent. It says quite a lot when PowNews—a reactionary, race-baiting media platform—writes this kind of copy,


“Domrechtse vinexbewoners en brallende crypto-nazi’s gingen zaterdag naar het Malieveld om te roepen dat Zwarte Piet niet racistisch is.”

“Domrechtse [a derogatory term for opponents of the multicultural society]  Vinex residents and blustering crypto-Nazis went to Malieveld on Saturday to holler that Zwarte Piet is not racist.”

Again, it is not “those White people” who are the problem, but the systemic privileging that is built into society.

In the act of distancing, “Good White People” often take on a mantle of moral superiority (“I am not like those White people”). It is the White person who positions themselves as “good” who gets to boast moral superiority. The moral superiority battle, which Bart Smout discusses in a recent article, is a clash between White Autochtoon Dutch people (in conflict over White consensus). The moral claims of Black folks are not  taken seriously, at all.

“The colonizing of the moral reason of modernity by racialized categories has been effected for the most part,” as David Theo Goldberg argues, “by constituting racial others outside the scope of morality.” Racialized discourse consistently constitutes Black people, and by extension our actions, as morally deficient. In a recent letter, Eberhard van der Laan, the Mayor of Amsterdam, determined that “disrupting the Sinterklaas parade clearly is, in moral terms, a bridge too far.”

Black people who speak out against racism are not seen as claiming moral superiority; we are read as being bitter, and labelled racist for mentioning racism. Sara Ahmed lays bare, with great acumen and clarity, this dynamic in Feminist Killjoy (And Other Willful Subjects). She writes,

“feminists are read as being unhappy, such that situations of conflict, violence, and power are read as about the unhappiness of feminists, rather than being what feminists are unhappy about.”

Ahmed continues,

“Political struggles can take place over the causes of unhappiness. We need to give a history to unhappiness. We need to hear in unhappiness more than the negation of the ‘un.’ (…) We can learn from the swiftness of translation from causing unhappiness to being described as unhappy.”

Due to the epistemic violence of racism, I am systematically at a disadvantage in communicating what I know. Miranda Fricker has termed this systematic disadvantaging  epistemic injustice; it is when someone is wronged specifically in their capacity as a knower. The resistance I face when I speak out against racism does not arise from my claiming a position of moral superiority. It is centred on White disdain for Black people, those “racial others outside the scope of morality.” It is literally a “How dare you challenge me!”

In addition, by challenging colourblind ideology, which is embraced as morally desirable by virtue of its principle of “not seeing race,” I not only reaffirm the attributed position as racial other outside the scope of morality, I also leave myself open for accusations of “playing the race card,” and adding fuel to the fire. Steve Martinot writes in Skin for Sale: Race and The Respectful Prostitute that “the white proclamation of colorblindness exonerates itself by condemning any black person who questions it. If the one color “colorblindness” can still “see” is white, its edict of equality (as white) implies that only whiteness counts.”

If Whiteness is what counts, then as long as White people, as a group, which includes both “good White people” and “bad White people,” refuse to acknowledge the implications of Whiteness, the elimination and transcendence of oppression will be near impossible.

One vital implication of Whiteness is that the black body is the indispensable object at the heart of White sociality, the Sinterklaas festivity—to which the violent reactions to a proposed change to Zwarte Piet attest. The Foundation Minima Club Groningen Province “reportedly received death threats and members were called NSB’er and SS’ers” after the Foundation indicated that “[f]ive of the twenty helpers were going to be painted in different colors.” They quickly changed their minds. As Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared, “Zwarte Piet: the name says it already. He is black. (…) I cannot do much about it.” What matters is the familiar racial order. What’s more, one’s safety and welfare is manifestly dependent on conformity with the White Autochtoon Dutch consensus.

Race, as Martinot (citing Jean-Paul Sartre) states, is “a social relation between the collective or consensual white socius and the objectified other as racialized.” The witnessing of racial pain and, “the slipperiness of empathy, the ways in which the pain and suffering of Black people can become sources of moral authority and pleasure,” are liable to reaffirm, especially in light of the aforementioned moral concerns, the structural, unequal relations of power. Not only can expressions of empathy toward, and care for, the hurt feelings of Black folks help construct, maintain , and further a self-image of the “good White person,” but they can also re-inscribe racial power relations.

The current declarations of empathy often centre on a White individual’s moral self-image rather than a desire for structural societal change. Moreover, this voyeuristic empathy stigmatizes Black folks as emotional, over-feeling subjects in need of help, and fixes us as the cardinal targets of White sympathy and White self-decriminalization.

Thus, feeling empathy toward those of us who experience racism not only suggests that the problem of racism belongs to people of colour (we are the ones who feel its effects), but also that the sympathetic feelings of White Autochtoon Dutch people are indispensable to effective anti-racist work. As a result, both racism and anti-racism become matters of feeling.

The charge of racism is seen, then, not as an articulation of a political analysis, or a structural problem, it is seen as a moral condemnation. Racism is not understood as an active political project, but as a (temporary) disruption of an otherwise inherently equal, tolerant, and “happy” society. As Sara Ahmed noted, our seemingly permanent unhappiness gets individualized and decontextualized from the sociopolitical contexts that have given rise to these persistent bad feelings.

Recently, the protests and some statements by anti-blackface campaigners, which expressed indifference or antipathy toward pro-Zwarte Piet campaigners, have been interpreted by some as “anti-white racism.” Despite the massive wave of vile and vicious anti-black sentiments, there have been accusations of White Autochtoon Dutch folk being victimized by “reverse racism.”


“What, ironic? You read very selectively if you ignore the racism faced by White Dutch.”

The general tenor is that pro-Zwarte Piet campaigners feel they are being denied their sentimental attachment to their “beloved Zwarte Piet.” The tone of the public debate has been, when not hostile, treacly sentimental. It has become a battle of feelings, in which the warm feelings of pro-Zwarte Piet folks are pitted against the hurt feelings of anti-blackface folks.

In The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics Lauren Berlant points out the pernicious aspects of what she calls “national sentimentality,” which she defines as “a rhetoric of promise that a nation can be built across fields of social difference through channels of affective identification and empathy.” Berlant posits that,

“[S]entimentality has long been the means by which mass subaltern pain is advanced, in the dominant public sphere. It operates when the pain of intimate others burns into the conscience of classically privileged national subjects, such that they feel the pain of flawed or denied citizenship as their pain (…) Identification with pain, a universal true feeling, then leads to structural social change.”

It is only natural, then, that empathy, as a moral emotion, emerges as a powerful antidote to racial tensions. The absence of pain or bad feelings “becomes the definition of freedom.”

I recently noted how anti-discrimination work is now framed as “emotional labour,” as tending to the needs and feelings of people of colour (those who feel racism), on par with charity work. If racism resides in “the hearts of individual people,” then anti-racism becomes a simple matter of affective self-management. Even though, anti-racism as emotional labour isn’t, generally, sold for wages, it does have exchange and moral value: it functions as a badge of honour, and offers protection against accusations of racism.

In the neoliberal market driven Dutch society doing anti-racist work has accrued symbolic value, which means that endeavours to be a “good” White Autochtoon Dutch anti-racist are expected to be recognized, if not praised. Moreover, thinking about racism in moral terms places a distinct focus on the moral identity of White Autochtoon Dutch folks, which disallows open explorations of what it might mean to be an anti-racist White Autochtoon Dutch person.

What is lacking is an analysis of the relation of “good White people” to racial violence. What kinds of experiences, actions, and ideas are imagined to “produce” anti-racism and social change? What does it mean for anti-racism to be perceived as being oriented toward certain bodies (only bodies of colour), or affects (like empathy)?  All of these questions remain suspiciously unaddressed.

What has become blatant in the past weeks is that the image of the innocent White child, who, in effect, stands in for the injured White adult, has fused together the symbolic politics of generosity and the sentimental ideology of childhood innocence with the geopolitics of belonging. [Sinterklaas is about giving and the Netherlands has given racial minorities freedom, and a place to stay]

By rescuing the innocent White child, who represents an unspoiled morality, the injured White adult is saved. If the primary cultural focus is to heal the injured White Autochtoon Dutch subject, or rescue their sentimental attachment, instead of confronting structural racism, then White Autochtoon Dutchness gets re-centred.

In the end, the rescue and preservation of racial innocence, White virtue, and morality are deemed more important than fight against the dehumanization of Black people.

18 thoughts on “The Language of Racial Innocence

  1. I also shared your article at my little anthropology alumni group on Facebook, here’s your first response from them: “Interessant stuk, hoewel ik wel sterk het gevoel krijg dat je het intussen nooit meer goed kan doen.”

  2. There is so much in this article, and I’m only half-way through, but let me just thank you for the “epistemic injustice” analysis, which has been one of the things I’ve found very difficult to understand in the Zwarte Piet debate: this strange “objectivity” argument, which somehow assumes that people who are not subject to racism are better judges of what qualifies as racist. I guess the bottom line is that I am willing to forgive people for their ignorance, but if a black person tells you that something is racist, and you not only not take their word for it, but dismiss their comment *because they are black*, that is just crazy to me. Thank you for laying out how and why this works, so at least the pure bafflement can stop.

  3. Funny that someone else has the exact same feeling I’m getting after reading this article. After this piece, I indeed don’t see any form of argument which doesn’t lead to being labeled as something. It’s too bad that consensus seems like such a hard thing.

    Yes, I support changing Zwarte Piet to just Piet with all human colors that Holland has to offer. (Throw in a few soot stripes for fun)

    For that opinion, I’ve been called a ‘traitor’, probably because I I used to be play Zwarte Piet when I was younger. I have warm feelings about the whole tradition. Yes, I appreciate people who cherish that tradition and no, I don’t think changing it in the future denies them their warm feelings about the past.

    No, I don’t see myself as racist but of course know that I have prejudices too. There might even be some white guilt involved. And oh yes, racism towards whites most definitely exists, and historically probably for good reason. But I’m just not pointing fingers at anyone and blaming people for how they feel. And that’s still kind of the aftertaste to this article..

    In the mean time: Can’t we all just get along?

    PS Sylvia Witteman is kind of out of context. I think she was actually joking there, and ‘neger’ is a hard one to translate. It’s not necessarily ‘nigger’, that would be ‘nikker’ in Dutch…

  4. This article really stirred up my way of viewing this whole debate, and racism in general. I’ve always thought that the fact that Zwarte Piet has no negative connotations for [i]white[/i] Dutch, meant that it’s an acceptable figure. [i]If there are no bad intentions, then how could there be people who feel offended, who feel there is racism?[/i] Of course, it’s not for us to decide if people feel offended. This is not about white people being accused of racism, but about black people feeling there [i]is[/i] racism. I have to point out thought that I think there are a few things the article fails to underline.

    Aside from all the self-preservation and wanting to be innocent, I think many people just don’t want Piet to be racist. It is, as you say, a hard epistemic shock. It is the complete disruption of a figure that has been deeply embedded in pleasant childhood memories. This, then, easily touches one’s identity, which makes the discussion erupt in a battle of feelings and a constant proclamation of innocence. Lastly, people don’t want to see Piet changed for nothing more than a fear of the unknown.

    Another important factor is, I think, that the idea that there are only a few people behind the anti-blackface movement. An argument I’ve heard a few times is that there are more than enough black people who don’t have any objection against Zwarte Piet. I’ve seen reporters on TV ask black people if they minded Zwarte Piet, and they answered no, adding to the argument. White people don’t think there actually [i]is[/i] a problem, because it’s so unheard of outside the discussion.

    Well, that was it. Thank you for the insights.

  5. Generally a good article, but the words Allochtone and Autochtone are meaningless in the English language when discussing racism. The words come from academic Geography and are never used in a social context. Furthermore the use of the words in Dutch is controversial, not least as it means ‘material that does/doesn’t belong to its surroundings. It comes across as a ‘scientific’ gloss on racialism, and is part of the language of exclusion. A third generation black person will still get described as an allochtone, whereas a white equivalent generally won’t be. Please find alternative translations in future. I also advise changing your use of it in Dutch wherever possible

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mike.

      “Autochtoon” and “Allochtoon” are both used by the Dutch Government and institutions like the Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau (for an example: click here)

      The use of the word “Allochtoon” in Dutch are far from controversial. It’s rare, yes, to see White Dutch being referred to as “Autochtoon.” But then again, the focus is always on the “Allochtoon” population.

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