“I Didn’t Mean To!” Tracing the Roots of ‘Dutch Innocence’

“In his Discourse on Colonialism (1951), Aimé Césaire wrote that Hitler slumbers within ‘the very distinguished, very humanistic and very Christian bourgeois of the Twentieth century,’ and yet the European bourgeois cannot forgive Hitler for ‘the fact that he applied to Europe the colonial practices that had previously been applied only to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the Negroes of Africa.’”
—          Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror

 “I’m always annoyed about why black people have to bear the brunt of everybody else’s contempt. If we are not totally understanding and smiling, suddenly we’re demons.”
—          Toni Morrison

In Dutch Colonial Nostalgia across Decolonisation Paul Bijl observes that colonial nostalgia in the Netherlands “imagines Dutch society as an essentially white nation, sadly victimised by black and brown immigrants who have taken over the role of violators of Dutch innocence from the Germans.” Recent White cries attest to the exactitude of Bijl’s observation: Black and Brown immigrants are supposedly taking advantage of Dutch hospitality—to be a host, it seems, is to be a victim. What’s more, the Netherlands has now completely lost its ‘innocence’ because people of colour are talking about racism, and apparently talking about racism, according to the Dutch intellectual elite, is what causes racism.

Praten over racismeAt the heart of these debates lie contrasting and irreconcilable motifs of “Dutch innocence” and racial terror. The discourse on Dutch innocence, however, is not incompatible with the reality of racial oppression in the Netherlands; on the contrary, it hides its reliance on racial terror. Benjamin Schmidt delineates beautifully in Innocence Abroad how the Dutch shaped their national identity as innocent, tolerant, and benevolent by looking to the Americas. Schmidt explains that both the Americas, and the Amerindians were “imagined, appropriated, and manipulated” by the Dutch republic in its quest to free itself from Spanish tyranny. Schmidt writes that “the Dutch construction of America” served a whole range of purposes. In a perverse vein, it provided the “myths that justified their [colonial] actions”—the Dutch republic advocated Dutch colonial involvement in the Americas as a way to ‘liberate’ Amerindians from Spanish tyranny.

Dutch innocence, when viewed up close, is not so wholesome and not at all innocent. The Dutch have carefully crafted an idealized national identity, by drawing on the rhetorical discourse of victimization wrapped in a cloak of legitimacy and anchored in a blameless morality. What emerges, then, is the image of the fair-minded and balanced entrepreneur, who—through hard work, and armed with a self-righteous belief in his own rectitude—feels like he (for it is most definitely a he) is made to tread—against his will—on politically charged ground in order to protect what is justifiably his. In Colonialism, Slavery, and the Slave Trade: A Dutch Perspective Peter Baehr cites historian Jurrien van Goor who argues that “the Dutch acquired their colonies almost against their will,” which he terms “reluctant imperialism.” Despite any moral reservations the Dutch may have had, the Dutch invested considerably in and benefitted financially from colonialism. Moreover, the performance of Dutch innocence and benevolence is very much indebted to racial terror; both the Dutch “Golden Age” and “Dutch innocence” are structured on the genocidal impulse of the colonial machine. The Dutch used the suffering and exploitation of the Amerindians to further their own cause. Mason Stokes marks the rhetorical use of the pain suffered by bodies of colour as a defining feature of Whiteness. Stokes understands whiteness as “a way of being that requires a consideration of others solely for the larger purpose of articulating and buttressing the ego, the self.” Sara Ahmed, too, refers to the self-referentiality of Whiteness, which sustains the “narcissism that elevates whiteness into a social and bodily ideal.”

As a result, Black and non-Black people of colour are more often than not measured against the performative norm of whiteness. In a recent article on racism in the Netherlands Sinan Çankaya draws our attention to some of the implications of the privileging of sameness and Whiteness as a social and bodily ideal—or to put it differently, one’s closeness to blackness. Çankaya argues that integration policies perpetuate Autochtoon Dutch cultural superiority. Interestingly, Çankaya posits that this sense of superiority, which is part and parcel of colonial (affective) relationships, springs from culturalism, that is “hierarchization and the exclusion of people based on their cultural norms, values ​​and principles.” By claiming that culturalism—rather than racism, or, say, cultural racism—is dominant in the Netherlands Çankaya replicates the common anxiety to mention racism, which has led folks to claim that we lack “elegant terminology to discuss this subject.”

The thread of Dutch superiority is also laced through Dienke Hondius’ noteworthy essay Bitter Homecoming: The Return and Reception of Dutch and Stateless Jews in the Netherlands. She observes that “Antisemitism in the Netherlands was more a sense of non-Jewish superiority, and of self-evident Christian, liberal or socialist supremacy.” Anti-Semitism in the Netherlands is characterized by “a patronizing attitude of a government towards a minority in its society, determining what is good for the minority, and as such controlling the relations between the majority and the minority.” Christine Levecq adds to Hondius’ and Çankaya’s assertions by illustrating “how early Dutch attitudes toward the other combined a sense of superiority with a discourse of openness, fairness and innocence.” Both Levecq and Schmidt highlight the centrality of “Dutch innocence” to Dutch identity, and, consequently, the sense of Dutch superiority. Levecq writes that “the discourse of innocence and justified expansion was deeply bound up with the idea of a virtuous Calvinist nation.” In addition, Levecq shows that the Dutch obsession with innocence and morality and respect for the other was staunchly maintained even as more colonialist visions were being shaped.

The specific nature of Dutch superiority (which is itself a discourse of “love for the self”) leads Hondius to the conclusion that “hate was not necessary.” She observes that “passivity, resulting from [the] distance, was enough” to create Anti-Semitic conditions. Hate does not, as Sara Ahmed informs us in The Organization of Hate, reside positively in any one subject. Rather, “hate is economic,” and as such “it circulates between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement.” Hate aligns “individual and collective bodies through the very intensity of its attachments.” According to Ahmed, in histories of racial antagonism, “hate is not simply present as the emotion that explains the story (it is not a question of hate being at its root), but as that which is affected by the story, and as that which enables to story to be affective.” Affective connections, that is the specific ways we come to feel about certain bodies which inform ‘automatic responses’ (fear, hatred, disgust, indifference), are an integral part of race-thinking. “The ordinary white subject,” Ahmed notes, “is a fantasy that comes into being through the mobilisation of hate as a passionate attachment closely tied to love.” Moreover, when race-thinking becomes one with bureaucracy, that is when “it is systematized and attached to a project of accumulation, it loses its standing as a prejudice and becomes instead an organizing principle […] Racial distinctions become so routinized that a racial hierarchy is maintained without requiring the component of individual actors who are personally hostile towards [e.g.] Muslims.”

In the case of the Jews, the fusion of race thinking and bureaucracy “resulted in a profound neglect: the neglect of Jewish needs, which led to denying Jewish identity, denying Jewish specificity, and overlooking the Jews. This was the case before, during and after the Holocaust.” The cumulative effect of the denial of Jewish identity, Jewish specificity, and the neglect of the Jews caused a “chain reaction of exclusion.” Hondius remarks that, “[T]he bitter aspect of this chain reaction is that it derives from and is defended with good intentions based on the notion of non-discrimination.” Unlike Çankaya, Hondius does not delimit the Dutch sense of superiority and the “chain reaction of exclusion” to the space of culture, but sees it as a feature of racial power, and, by extension, of Dutch governmentality.

Even though, Çankaya’s analysis falls short on several counts, he makes an astute observation when he writes, “If a coloured Dutch person [sic.] regards Zwarte Piet as a gezellige expression of a Dutch tradition, then that person simply belongs here.” As a sign of our sociability, and our belonging we are required to participate in racial terror masquerading as a kind of cosy kindness. Our belonging is contingent on our recognition of Zwarte Piet as a ‘harmless’, ‘innocent’, and ‘non-discriminatory’ figure—indeed, our belonging depends on our gezellige, which connotes a knowing intimacy and ‘non-hostility’, acceptance of racial terror. Blackness, as embodied by Zwarte Piet, is (re)presented within the structuring affective context of gezelligheid—a network of intimate affects—as infantile chaos and incompetence. Zwarte Piet, as a cultural ritual, is not innocent. “Relations of power are, as Angela McRobbie observes, “made and re-made within texts of enjoyment and rituals of relaxation and abandonment.” Moreover, racial pathologies, anxieties of race reproduction and anti-black violence are at the heart of the arena of this intimacy. The figure of Zwarte Piet, an “obscene remainder of racial terror and enjoyment,” is positioned as an unproblematic basis for sociability.

Martijn Dekker, a political anthropologist and lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, argued in a recent article that racial prejudices, masked as jokes, are not only “useful to find our way efficiently in the world around us, but they can also be liberating.” Racial terror, whether in the guise of Zwarte Piet, or masked as racist jokes, is reframed as something we can all come together and bond over; in fact, it is perversely something that is “emancipating.” Dekker further posits that “by questioning prejudices in a funny way one can get rid of their sharp edges […] What’s more, politically incorrect humour is often quite funny.” Being able to tell racist jokes, as Thierry Baudet has argued, becomes a sign of post-raciality and thus of equality.

Hodan Warsame over Thierry Baudet

“Racist jokes are a sign of equality? Now that is a joke…” Hodan Warsame

In Wie Zwijgt Stemt Toe (Silence is Consent) Janet Lie rehearses some of the arguments White Dutch folks use in their defence,

“This is funny, blunt Dutch humour. That is our culture. We are not politically correct. We are a nation where just jokes can be made about skin colour and origin, especially because we know that it is all good.”

Debra Dickerson remarks insightfully, that “however, vicious, brainless, knee-jerk, or crudely racist a sentiment may be, once it is repackaged as merely ‘un-PC’ it become heroic, brave, free-thinking, and best of all, victimized.” The rationalizations put forward by White Dutch folks re-narrate Whiteness as ‘innocent’ and political correctness as intolerance, and silencing of an ‘opinion’. ‘It was a joke’ serves as “both a claim to be doing something permissible (i.e. joking) and a denial of doing something criticizable, which is contrasted to the joking.”

The arguments put forward by the likes of Dekker and Baudet are hardly new. In A Touch of Blackness I write that,

Under the banner of post-racialism racism in Dutch visual culture is played mostly for laughs, and/or for its shock value. Recently, Dutch theatre maker Hay van der Heijden argued in an op-ed, entitled The Vara (a Dutch public broadcasting association) is not ready for bothersome Blacks, for the right to poke fun at minorities. Van der Heijden states in no uncertain terms that being the object of mockery is a sign of true emancipation. He posits that minorities “sparsely enjoy the right to be the subjects of satire, humour and mockery, and are thus in [my] opinion, by definition, discriminated against by our times.”

Not being the object of racial terror becomes, in a perverse way, a sign of discrimination. Dekker, Baudet, and Van der Heijden expect us to display gratitude for racist humiliation. Making racist jokes is not perceived as a mode of ‘doing’ that reinforces the reality of anti-Black racism.

lampedusa-zwarte-piet-cartoonA frame-by-frame translation of the cartoon

1: “Sinterklaas, Sinterklaas*!” “What now, Piet?”
2: “An iceberg!!” “Yeah, right. Is this another one of your corny jokes?”
3: “Once again a boot with refugees capsizes near Lampedusa. The question now is: How did this happen?”

(credit: LaZeefuik – Check out her blog!)

Black suffering and the death of Black bodies are presented as a triffling matter, something to provoke laughter, or cause amusement. Moreover, anti-Black violence is rearticulated in a way that belies the ongoing salience of the grim calculus of slavery; these dynamics expose the complex entanglements of pleasure (desire) and violence (horror)—what Christina Sharpe calls “monstrous intimacies”—at the heart of Black and White subjectification ‘after’ slavery. Black and blackened folks are placed in specific affective registers of attachment: either paternalistic care, pity, marginal concern, objects of humour, or objects of fear, disgust, hatred.

Of course, if you would ask any of the persons involved in the publication process of the above-mentioned cartoon, they would readily admit that what happened in Lampedusa is a tragedy and that they feel sorry for the victims. However, the propriety of feeling pity does not necessarily prevent folks from exhibiting assaultive behaviours. In Humour and Hatred: The Racist Jokes of the Ku Klux Klan Michael Billig, citing Freud, writes that the “‘economy of pity’ can be ‘one of the most frequent sources of humorous pleasure’.” The discourse of pity rests on an unequal power relationship; it locks the suffering person in a paternalistic relationship, which “establishes a hierarchy that perpetuates the power of the person who originally provided the help.” Feeling pity or empathy for “those poor Black folks” not only serves as ‘evidence’ of White benevolence, but also, as Saidiya Hartman has argued, as a rationalization for somatic ‘enjoyment’ of black suffering. The Black subject is fixed at the ambiguous nexus of violence and pleasure, and, what’s more, is perceived to feel less pain from resulting consequences of racial inequities.

Frank Wilderson asks us, “how do we theorize a sentient being who is positioned not by the DNA culture but by the structure of gratuitous violence?” Wilderson’s poignant question forces us to reckon with “what is at present only intuitive and anecdotal: the unbridgeable gap between Black being and Human life.” The organizing principle of racism dictates that Black life is not a precious life worth saving. Sinan Çankaya’s hesitation to use the term racism is a telling symptom of this structural malaise, or in Wilderson’s words “the unbridgeable gap,” and characteristic of the institutional misdiagnosis of the political and unconscious life of racial antagonism, which expresses itself in its most mundane form as a ‘not-naming’. What we are witnessing in the Netherlands, and across Europe, is the exploitation of the productive indeterminacy of culture and race “for the monopolisation of virtue and a defence mechanism against the loss of self,” both in an economic, and political sense—what Sherene Razack names “a way of purifying and regenerating one’s own race.” Moreover, these instances of anti-Black violence, which I have described, are not isolated. These events are not contained; they stand in relation to other events, and must be read alongside anti-Black violence in Europe, which ranges from throwing bananas at Black folks to the EU border policy which disproportionately kills Black people.




5 thoughts on ““I Didn’t Mean To!” Tracing the Roots of ‘Dutch Innocence’

  1. Excellent article, but please find alternatives to ‘allochtone’ and ‘autochtone’. Neither word is used in English (including within Academia) when describing ethnicity, and is certainly not within normal discourse in the same way as it is in Dutch.

  2. Yes I understand why you use them. I speak and translate Dutch and have had the same problem myself when translating. The use of the word allochtoon has also come under criticism in the Netherlands because it implies intrusive or unwanted material. It is thus dehumanising and excluding. The words are borrowed from geography/ecology and would never be used in English to refer to ethnicity. People will literally not understand this terminology, still less use it.

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