Mapping the Limits of Social Movement Organizing: Comité 21 Maart

Recently, I attended Samen Tegen Racisme & Discriminatie (United Against Racism and Discrimination). The meeting was organized by Committee March 21, an alliance of various social organizations. This coalition is planning a city-wide (Amsterdam)—possibly even a nationwide—demonstration against racism and the goal of the meeting was to outline a strategy. The invited speakers were Mustafa Ayrancı, Mohamed Rabbae, and Sandew Hira; they respectively represented Turkish, Moroccan and Black organizations. Mercedes Zandwijken moderated the meeting.

The meeting left me drained, exasperated, depressed. I’ve been to more meetings than I can count in which straight, cisgender, middle-aged men were positioned as “leaders.” What I witnessed on Monday wasn’t new. Before the project got its legs, it was already heading down an all too familiar path. Their forthright admission that the proposed concept suffered from “blind spots” seemed, in light of what was missing, procedural.

Sexism was one of the (many) –isms that was conspicuously absent in their concept. Sexism is what is often missing. If there is an all male panel, it’s not a minor oversight. If the one Black woman speaking acted as moderator, it’s not a minor oversight. If women were overly represented in facilitating capacities, it’s not a minor oversight. Oversights can be structural. I take up Sara Ahmed’s suggestion that we should walk differently. Walking differently is not, she writes, “that those behind come to the front, but that staying back gives you the time to question, to ask rather than tell.”

The meeting was characterized by an all too common desire for quick-fix solutions—rather than a drive to engage in an unflinching paradigmatic analysis of anti-blackness. On the one hand, racial profiling was on the agenda, yet structural racism in the Dutch “justice” system was not. None of the speakers mentioned the problematic language used by “anti-discrimination” bureaus in the Netherlands. Judging from what I’ve witnessed, Committee March 21 remains wedded to an implicit belief, if not an unshakable trust, that democracy and juridical-administrative processes will offer “solutions.”

What is often overlooked in glib renderings of oppression is the historic role of democracy and the law in maintaining and facilitating anti-black practices. Anthony Paul Farley remarks in Sadomasochism and the Colorline: Reflections on the Million Man March that the justice system produces “the very spectacle—black criminality—upon which it relies to justify its existence.” We cannot ignore the fact that the relationship that Black people have with the law has historically been a violent one. Neither can we brush over the fact that the thingification of Black bodies was sanctioned by law.

Last year, a judge ruled in a court case brought against Zwarte Piet’s presence (during the arrival of Sinterklaas) “that it must be clear in what way the figure of Zwarte Piet oversteps the legal bounds.” The Court sided with the mayor of Amsterdam and ruled that “the objections are not sufficient in order to argue that public order is at stake.” A society’s conception of public order—that is, a reflection of societal norms of conduct, and so on—rests on policing practices, which, as we all know, disproportionately impact racialized groups.

What troubled me was the fact that the “current” convergence was framed as extraordinary. Over and over the speakers stressed that racism is getting worse. I wondered, and am still wondering, what they meant by racism is getting worse—which not only obscures the historic embeddedness and mundane nature of racism, but also confuses the upsurge of undisguised racism with sudden and consistent increases in degrees of intensity.

The present developments, which are unfurling amidst persistent waves of economic downturns, have been disturbing, and demand, beyond question, an immediate response. However, there is nothing exceptional, unusual, or startling about the current state. The bleak truth of the matter is that Black people have been dwelling in a permanent state of emergency. There have been protests against police brutality and structural racism since at least the 1930s. Still the organizers acted as though what they are attempting to do hadn’t already been done.
Image source ANP
Image source ANP

By framing the present as exceptional, Committee March 21 places itself, and as a result this “movement,” outside a crucial historical context. The “contours and contents of the shared historical present” are not connected to a past of Dutch protest. Moreover, this dehistoricized representation of social protest in the Netherlands frustrates the construction of a much needed popular archive of resistance. Returning to the scenes of Black protest in the Netherlands inevitably means facing failure, loss, eroded networks, solidarity ties made threadbare by time and neglect, ambivalent gains—and the racial limits of democratic inclusion.

It also entails reckoning with the sober(ing) fact that minority organizing in the Netherlands has predominantly centred on the preservation of cultural and religious identities, rather than the development of critical political agency that goes beyond issues of inclusion, or exclusion. The emphasis that Sandew Hira placed on culture reflects this underlying perception that one’s cultural identity matters more than, for example, one’s racial (or queer) identity. Notwithstanding, the reluctance of Afro-Dutch folks to race-based mobilization—the fiction of post-raciality runs deep, even within the “Afro-Dutch community”—there is an incipient move to assert a Black identity. Sandew Hira used a fabled US Black experience, the Civil Rights movement, as a lens through which to interpret the current developments in the Netherlands.

Joy James and João Costa Vargas have argued that the Civil Rights movement required “angelic” advocates of civil rights. “The angelic negro/negress is not,” as they write, “representative, and his or her status as an acceptable marker for U.S. democracy is predicated upon their usefulness for the transformation of whiteness into a loftier, more ennobled formation.” As a result, the Civil Rights movement was marred by a heterosexist politics of respectability, which led to the marginalization of women and queers, and mostly benefitted an acceptable Black middle-class.

Neither the civil right gains, nor the election of President Barack Obama signalled, as Frank Wilderson asserts, an end to anti-blackness. Wilderson notes that “Neoliberalism with a Black face is neither the index of a revolutionary advance nor the end of anti-Blackness as a constituent element of U.S. antagonisms.” In this light, Hira’s invocation of the spirit of the Civil Rights movement, without being attentive to the lessons drawn from its myriad failures, is an awkward, if not ill-conceived, attempt to latch on to the supposed “success” of the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the “new Black movement” is reproducing the same shortcomings as the Civil Rights movement, along with a few of its own.

With careful and deliberate rhetoric, racism was safely deposited in the (far) right corner of the political spectrum. Strangely enough, the Left, the PvdA in particular, was carefully shielded from accusations of racism—even though the PvdA is the coalition partner of the much maligned VVD in the second Rutte cabinet. Lest we forget: political parties across the spectrum responded dismissively to the ECRI report and the protests against Zwarte Piet. The wholesale dismissal of both the report and the complaints painfully highlights the limits of existing political measures.

Even in the face of debilitating social, and economic conditions due to the steady dismantling of the welfare state, folks still remain attached to democracy’s “clusters of promises,” its “compromised conditions of possibility.” But what if democracy is the problem? What if democracy needs black exclusion and death for it to work? “Death stalks us,” as Joy James baldly states in Black Suffering in Search of the “Beloved Community”, “as a political reality.”Regardless of lofty democratic ideals of equality, non-Western Allochtonen have on average a higher mortality risk than White Dutch folks. Moreover, Black folks have twice the infant mortality rate as White Dutch folks.

Minority politics in the Netherlands has been a managing of suffering, one way or another, considering the circumstances. It’s been a politics captivated, if not captured, by the phantom of compromise—the polder model—and neither compromise, nor dialogue has brought about any change in the structural condition of blackness. From the position of the Black, a liberatory politics is impossible within the grammar of the rights discourse. “A black grammar of suffering,” as Andile Mngxitama notes in Words Don’t Come Easy, “ends dialogue and demands justice.” And the question of justice is, as M. Shadee Malaklou writes, “a question of human ontology, of guaranteeing the life chances of the Blackest, most wretched and damned bodies on earth, not because these bodies qualify for human ‘rights’, but in spite of the fact that they don’t.”

The ongoing struggles of social movements require, Ann Cvetkovich notes, “patience with feelings of failure and despair that need not necessarily be debilitating.” However, in “the new Black movement” there is no room for political depression—even though, our negative feelings have important political implications for the future of activism in the Netherlands. A politics of melancholy, of trying to work with instead of against loss, that is centred on taking feelings into account “means the disruption of politics as usual, a need to slow down in order to see what the feelings might be.” One of the consequences of the everyday affective life of racism is “an inability to trust white people or a tendency to assume the worst in any encounter with authority.”

Rabbae’s impassioned speech in which he claimed that the Netherlands has lost its innocence and argued that White allies are integral to the “movement” invisibilizes the affective life of racism. Perhaps more tellingly was Rabbae’s plea for solidarity, in which he (inadvertently) drew attention to the problematic aspects of “being in solidarity.” He stated that “[We] used to stand in solidarity with Chile. Back then, we did not think that we would be, especially now, in need of solidarity in our own country.” His statements not only strengthened the myth of Dutch racial innocencea myth which Gloria Wekker has debunked—by presupposing its veracity, they also recentred a White subject. Moreover, his statements lent force to the idea that the struggles against racist oppression are the purview of Black and non-Black people of colour.

The analyses offered were far from intersectional; they were reminiscent of the fundamentally weak additive models of oppression, which are, as Patricia Hill Collins tells us, “firmly rooted in the either/or dichotomous thinking of Eurocentric, masculinist thought.” Intersectionality, a Black feminist term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is essential. An intersectional praxis is movement building. An intersectional praxis allows us to reveal the interconnected ways—ways  which are too often overlooked—in which various axes of oppression stratify our world and shape our experiences.

Attending to the intersection of sexism and racism and homophobia, for instance, draws attention to the complicated ways in which race, gender, and sexuality are imbricated—a fact that Siobhan Sommerville details lucidly in her superb essay Scientific Racism and the Emergence of the Homosexual Body. The imbrication of race and sexuality (and thus the overlap of racism and homophobia) makes it the more singular that one of the speakers, Sandew Hira who presented himself as the face of “the new Black movement,” positioned homophobia as an opinion.

When Ramona Sno challenged Hira’s position, she was summarily accused of not wanting to dialogue with people who have a differing opinion regarding homosexuality. She was, then, “advised” not to turn her back on “the community.” Audre Lorde incisively remarked in Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference that “whenever the need for some pretense of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes.”

It’s all well and good that the Committee proclaimed their openness to “discussion” and “critique,” however, I cannot help but think it a “pretense of communication,” considering the cavalier responses of the panel to Ramona Sno’s criticism. It’s not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressors. For a reason as to why, I return to Audre Lorde’s words,

“The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

If you sign on to fight against oppression (which is more than just “being against it”) I not only expect, but also demand that you put in the work to educate yourself. Being involved in anti-oppression work takes a little bit more than just showing up.

If our main argument is that racism is institutional and structural, that racism was and is foundational to the formation of the Netherlands, then we cannot but strive for nothing short of the eradication of the nation-state. It is senseless to strive to become “junior partners,” or “enfranchised slaves” in civil society. “For a black person to be integrated,” James and Vargas remark, “s/he must either become non-black, or display superhuman and/or infrahuman qualities.” The inclusionary model of civil society can never contain Blackness because civil society is founded on anti-blackness—the symbolic and literal obliteration of the slave is the condition of possibility for Enlightenment humanism. An unflinching paradigmatic analysis of anti-blackness calls for a politics that has yet to appear.


6 thoughts on “Mapping the Limits of Social Movement Organizing: Comité 21 Maart

  1. Beste Egbert, Veel dank voor deze analyse en die over het werk van adb’s. Ik ga het inbrengen bij RADAR en Art.1(nu samen met RADAR). Als je het goed vindt dan wil ik graag nog een keer met je afspreken. Hartelijke groet, Marjan


  2. Dear Egbert,

    Why is @wearebots offline? Not sure if it’s a temporary issue and myself I’ve been offline for some time but right now I am not able to access your twitter feed…

      1. Thanks for getting back. Enjoy the break, even though we do miss your twitter presence. Keep on writing in any case in this blog or elsewhere; keep up the good work!

  3. Miss your facebook presence but still a lot to read on your blog. I finally found the time to read this article and its great.. The last two sentences say it all. Post enlightenment thinking is based on an orientalist evolutionist sexist and nationalist understanding of the world and the only chance for change is by deconstructing that entire framework.

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