This is Not America: Dutch Rhetoric and its Denial of Racism

“The word Black
has geographic power,
pulls everybody in:
Blacks here—
Blacks there—
Blacks wherever they may be.”

Gwendolyn Brooks, A Primer For Blacks

Gwendolyn Brooks, image taken from: http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/gwendolyn-brooks-271.php

[This is, like all of my writings, a work in progress.]

Modern technology has made it very easy for reports and images of US anti-black racism, as a framework for understanding anti-black violence, to travel. These images of US anti-black violence that circulate across the world shape how anti-black violence is read and perceived in specific geographical and cultural contexts.

Back in 2011 when the Dutch fashion magazine, Jackie called Rihanna an anti-black misogynistic term Rutger Bregman, a historian who taught a university level course on the history of racism, argued in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant that “Only American neurotics think we’re racists.” Bregman argued that racism is an American thing. I want to focus on how in Dutch public discourse US anti-black racism is used as a yardstick against which the self-image of Dutch non-racist tolerance can be measured.

Specifically, I want to think through what it means for White folks in the Netherlands to deploy the representational grammar of Black suffering and anti-black violence in the US in an attempt to deflect charges of racism at home. What happens to our understanding of anti-black violence when domestic expressions of anti-black violence do not match the realities of anti-black violence in the US? How does this complicate anti-racist practices of people of African descent in the Netherlands?

I will argue that transnational, queer, anti-racist feminist activists should engage in a global dialogue, and think about what it means to do anti-racist work not only locally, but also in a globalized context.

Even though the cultural and geographical contexts in which anti-black violence takes place differ widely, I believe that expressions of anti-black violence are part of the same grammar. It is a racial grammar of violence—following Hortense J. Spillers—which positions the black body as the quintessential object of gratuitous violence, and renders Black suffering unintelligible.

In Katibu Ta Galiña: From Hidden to Open Protest in Curaçao Joceline Clemencia anatomizes the protest songs of enslaved Africans under slavery in Curaçao. Katibu ta galiña “refers to the way the slaves were both regarded and treated, as animals, sold by the shon as if he were selling chickens.” Clemencia notes how the speech of the enslaved—especially, when wanting to talk about their suffering and exploitation—had to be muted and hidden from being understood.

Thus, “[t]he world of oral protest,” Clemencia notes, “possesses its own language […] Those who did not know how to use it had no possibility of communicating their feelings about social conditions because slaves were not allowed to speak freely.” For the enslaved, speaking freely was dangerous and, as such, Black suffering became unspeakable. Joceline Clemencia remarks that “For outsiders […] these texts contain lots of non sequiturs and imperfections. Standard grammatical rules are out of place here. This makes translation rather difficult; the best one can do is to give the general sense of the lyrics […] To the ears of the shon and the priests the music sounded like a lament. They did not understand it as a protest.”

Saidiya Hartman notes that the incommunicability of Black suffering “can be attributed to a racist optics in which black flesh is itself identified as the source of opacity, the denial of black humanity, and the effacement of sentience integral to the wanton use of the captive body.” Under enslavement Black speech and by extension Black suffering became as undecipherable as the “markings on the captive body [which] render a kind of hieroglyphics of the flesh whose severe disjunctures come to be hidden to the cultural seeing by skin color.”

The enslaved became, to a certain extent, silenced speech, camouflaged by the opacity of blackness. Moreover, the language of the enslaved, Papiamentu was consigned, as Igma van Putte-de Windt and Monique S. Pool note, “to the status of ‘a very poor language’ and ‘damaging to the intellect of children’,” which only helped mark our nonhuman status. As Akira Mizuta Lippit remarked, “Without language one cannot participate in the world of human beings.”

Attending to these under examined aspects of enslavement will put a serious strain on (contemporary) articulations of “freedom of speech,” or as it is commonly expressed in Dutch “freedom to express one’s opinion,” and how protest or dissent can be publicly articulated; a matter which proved to be particularly relevant in the “Zwarte Piet debate.”

The mayor of Amsterdam Eberhard van der Laan was quoted in a Dutch news paper as saying that protestors against Zwarte Piet are welcome [at the Sinterklaas parade], however, they must “use their common sense.” He conceded that wearing a T-shirt with protest slogans is allowed. “That falls under freedom of speech. However, anyone who makes noise will be asked to leave. It should be a nice party, without disturbances.”

There is a form of injustice (hermeneutical injustice) that occurs when a society lacks a conceptual framework for understanding the experiences of those it has been treating inhumanly. We still lack a language (a lack facilitated through denial) to address the ontological violence, enacted on the black(ened) body through the Middle Passage and slavery. In the bowels of the slave ships the Black subject position became defined by fungibility and accumulation—a fleshing out of silence. In this space of silence the suffering of the ungendered black body, whose speech cannot be deciphered, was rendered generic and homogenized to represent injustice in general.

One of the major challenges has been finding constructive ways to counter the dominant paradigm of White Autochtoon Dutchness, which declares that there is no anti-black racism in the Netherlands. Racism is always that which happens there and which happened then. The dominant paradigm routinely invents and finds the point of origin of anti-black racism in the United States, or in a sealed off past.

Racism is, thus, not only contained spatially, but also temporally. It is always happening outside of one’s immediate surroundings. By imagining anti-black racism as something uniquely US American (or South African for that matter) and confining it to specific geographical and distinct temporal locations, the Netherlands is able to assert itself as a place where anti-black racism currently does not exist.

Worryingly, established Dutch academics deploy this rhetorical gambit by using US American anti-black racism as a benchmark against which to assess whether something qualifies as racist or not. Jan Willem Duyvendak mused in an article entitled Dá-hag, Dá-hag Zwarte Piet (Bye, Bye Black Pete) whether Zwarte Piet and the course of the discussion about him are, indeed, evidence that Dutch are racist, or, at least, more so than Americans. Duyvendak assesses that there’s a big difference between Americans and Netherlanders as regards their respective levels of “colour consciousness.”

He graciously admits that the experiences of Dutch Black folks should be acknowledged and given attention: our emotions should be respected. Moreover, if we experience Black Pete as racism, then he should be abolished. And yet he also believes that “the accusation of racism is often made too quickly, and moreover it is too massive, too imprecise: it does not cover what happens.” He concludes that racism is a too strong of a word.

There is a “constant struggle in public discourse over what is recognised as racism, and who is allowed, and has the power, to define it.” Racism is simply deemed a marginal force whose impact and significance is on the decline. In 2012 the University of Amsterdam organized a conference  whose main aim was to tackle the question, “Whatever happened 2 Racism in the Netherlands?

By implicitly locating racism in intentions, attitudes, and conspicuous White supremacist expressions the conference helped preserve the myth of a racism-lite Netherlands. Rather than an elusive anomaly racism has been, as Barnor Hesse has argued, constitutive of Western societies. Race has structured “the political and social lives of people—without being accountable to any spoken or written discourse, simply because it’s performed as a shared social and institutional orientation.”

Historian Han van der Horst put forward that “Witte dominantie and witte privileges are poor translations of the terms white dominance and white privilege, coined in America.” He further contended that “‘Witte’ is, in effect, an Anglicism.” One could argue that Van der Horst’s point of contention is, following Alastair Bonnett, “that the cultural, economic and political power of the USA affects the formation and dissemination of race equity ideologies and movements.” There are many things that could be said about privileging “Anglocentric conceptualizations of Whiteness.”

However, Han van der Horst’s main aim is, in essence, not to critique the dominance of Anglocentric critical discourse, but to redefine racism. He claims that “racism in the Netherlands is not structural, but informal in nature.” As such, White dominance and White privilege, he claims, are not useful critical terms for social analysis in the Netherlands; a belief which is held by Dutch academia. The concept of Whiteness is “virtually absent as a Dutch paradigm” in Dutch academia, which is surprising to say the least. Especially, since Zeus Leonardo argues that “whiteness is a global phenomenon and there is very little space on the globe unaffected or unpartitioned by white power.”

The move of White Dutch people to hold anti-black racism in the US (or Apartheid for that matter), as quintessential expressions of “real” racism, and thus define racism in terms of structural violence against Black people, exposes “a moral and symbolic framework that constructs the world as polarized by forces of good and evil, represented in the oppositions between lightness and darkness and between black and white,” a model whose contemporary relevance has been denied—yet is symbolized in the Sinterklaas tradition. Both Apartheid and anti-black racism in the US are characterized by a deep racial antagonism: White is placed in firm opposition to Black.

This confinement of anti-Black racism to specific geographical locations has serious consequences for anti-racism in the Netherlands. If anti-black racism is conceived of as a specific US American evil, then what place does anti-racist discourse, which is imagined as having emerged due to US hypersensitivity (re Han van der Horst’s comment), take in the Netherlands?

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