On the Containment of Blackness in Dutch Anti-Racist Organizing

Politics is death that lives a human life.
— Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics

In the recent calls for solidarity, the violence enacted on Black flesh has often been used as a springboard to launch analyses that bury under the heading “we’re all in this together” the specificity of anti-blackness. The specificity of Black positionality is brushed over (by both Black folks and non-Black people of colour) in a rush to pursue a ‘happy’ politics of solidarity.

Racialized Bodies
Sometimes I feel like “racialized bodies” rhetoric in academia falls into the same trap as the designation “people of colour”
Racialized Bodies 2
collapsing difference and invisibilizing historical and contemporary singularities of Blackness and anti-Blackness

To put it bluntly, “anti-racism” work is, more often than not, anti-black, since it tacitly proposes a move away from, or the containment of, blackness either through a politics of respectability, or by way of appeals that “fortify and extend the interlocutory life of widely accepted political common sense.”

Blackness functions in Dutch politics as more than a designation of skin colour. Blackness is attached to, or rather imposed on, anything that is threatening to ‘the Netherlands’, i.e. everything that is non-White, non-Autochtoon, non-Dutch. In Dutch political language, blackness is coded as excessive, uncontained, a source and representation of disruption, both pleasurable (think: diversity) and threatening (think: criminality) to the epistemological and ontological boundaries of the prevailing social and moral order. Blackness is thus repeatedly associated with a kind of undisciplined libidinal force; both diversity and criminality disrupt a norm. The realities of subjection are not only entwined with the term black, but also inscribed on Black flesh. As such, Black flesh (a dark skin) has come to represent the dangerous effects of excess. In short, black does not refer only to race, but should be seen, like Allochtoon, as a political identity of Otherness. The tension between black, as a political identity, and the Black (as a life form) manifests in the contrast blankzwart.

According to the Stijlboek NRC, the blankzwart binary is only used in reference to people. The use of ‘white’ and ‘black’ is, as per the style manual, more appropriate in other contexts, for example when it comes to schools. Thus, when referring to the predominance of respectively Blanke (White Autochtoon Dutch) and black(ened) (both Black and non-Black Allochtoon) students in particular schools, they do not write about blanke and zwarte (black) schools, but white and black schools. A school, then, with Blanke students ‘becomes’ white. Blank (a racial designation) is reserved for people, whereas white only applies to objects. In contrast, a school with black(ened) children is simply black. Thus, when translating Black, as a racial designation, to an object/thing black undergoes no shift in register, or kind. There is no ideological, nor semantic distinction between the blackness of humans and the blackness of objects/things.

What becomes clear is that blackness on the scale of human to object remains static, which scripts the Black life form as an abjected flesh object and commodity. The black(ened) life form is enveloped by blackness. The permanence of blackness underwrites its inherent fungibility. The fungibility of blackness “meant that slaves were money, were animals, were gold, were cotton, were rum, and on and on.” “This condition of being owned and traded is not,” as Malia Bruker notes in reference to Frank Wilderson’s work, “simply an experience, like, for example, the experience of wage exploitation, but it is the essence and ontology of blackness.” In his work Frank Wilderson has argued that “the possibility of becoming property is one of the essential elements that draws the line between blackness and whiteness.”

Whiteness Through Investment

As a racial designation Blanke (White) or European is not, despite the contemporary understanding, self-evident or stable. In colonial Indonesia, the West Africans who were recruited to fight in the Dutch colonial army were categorized as European. The loyalty of these West African recruits was ensured “by granting them special benefits and privileges.” Both in colonial Indonesia and South Africa, Japanese were designated ‘honorary whites’ and enjoyed the privileges that came with said category. In Indonesia the Japanese came to be considered ‘honorary white’ due to a treaty that Japan negotiated with the Netherlands. In South Africa the category ‘honorary white’ was applied to the Japanese “to encourage continued Japanese investment.”

Whiteness (as European, citizenship, a mobility, a set of privileges and benefits, as affordable only for the monied) can then be defined as a guaranteed return on investment. Whiteness was extended to non-White populations because these populations extended the life of the nation. So, as Katerina Deliovsky and Tamari Kitossa remark, “the power of whiteness resides not only in its cloaking quality but equally in its status as a property right and a franchise that can be extended to a variety of groups at the expense of socially defined black people.” In terms of positionality within the ontological structure of humanity, Whiteness defines the Human and blackened (that is, the racially pathologized) subjects are construed as lesser-Humans. The status of non-Human, however, is reserved for the Black.

The violent manufacture and systematic objectification of the Black as Neger/Nigger is what gives “Blanke” its coherence. The desire of White Dutch folks to be referred to as ‘blank’ (as “being empty spaces” or “void of expression”) is driven, and this is mere conjecture, by a White Dutch impulse to escape history, or to wipe the historical and cultural slate clean, an impulse to rewrite history as unmarred by blemishes. Painted on a fresh canvas: Wit, with its close relationship to the tainted English word White, simply doesn’t perform that work. Moreover, this desire reinforces the idea of ‘Dutch innocence’. As Frantz Fanon remarks, “sin is black as virtue is white.” And after having been accused of committing the sin of racism, White Dutch folk have succumbed to moral preoccupations with the rescue and recuperation of a sinful (that is, racist) Dutch nation-state, which has led to disidentification amongst the elite in the Netherlands: the tokkies, a derogatory term for the working class, have been termed the true racists.

Ze doen alsof alleen enge tokkies PVV stemmen. Maar zo zit een electoraat niet in elkaar.

However, anti-black racism was and is foundational to the Netherlands; anti-blackness has been a guiding principle not only in the formation of its class system, but its legal system as well. Berteke Waaldijk notes that the Dutch colonial government “used the ‘race criterion’ to decide to which legal system (both for civil law and criminal law) a person was subjected, they excluded indigenous Indonesians from civil service and judicial careers, and in the first decades of the 20th century political representational rights were based on racial distinctions.” This division was “similar in its legal inspiration to the system of apartheid developed in South Africa.” Even though indigenous Indonesians were not incorporated in the political ontology and the legal framework of White Dutch, or to put it plainly: human beings, the Indonesian legal system was recognized.

So, despite the fact that both Black folks and Indonesians were enslaved, exploited, killed under Dutch mercantile colonialism, Indonesians were imagined to inhabit a separate and recognized legal sphere. Enslaved Black people in the Dutch Caribbean, however, existed outside a social pact. As Gert Oostindie dryly notes,

“The fundamental assumption was that in the WIC territory—both the West African trading posts and the West Indies—there was no indigenous culture worthy of mention. In Asia and particularly the East Indies, the Dutch acknowledged the existence and value of indigenous cultures, and to some extent respected and assimilated local elites and their power and prestige. In the Caribbean colonies in contrast, there were no such concerns.”

As such, the social life of Black folks in the Dutch Caribbean existed outside culture and the law: they were not part of any recognized (that is official) legal system. The Dutch had no slave laws; slavery was introduced “without a law of slavery,” and the Dutch government did not, even after the introduction of slavery, establish a law of slavery. Black folks were denied “access to the courts to seek redress for wrongs committed against them either by their master or by a third party.” The Dutch legal system, then, “did not generally recognise the slave as a person according to law (except when he/she committed an offence).” The Dutch government had, as Guno Jones notes, informed Parliament in 1821 that the enslaved were things not people. “They are,” in the words of the Dutch government, “the property of their master: non sunt personae sed res.” In a case (1736) against a runaway slave named Claes the Court “held—among other things—that the slave was a thief of himself (fur sui ipsius) and stolen property (res furtiva) that could be vindicated by its owner.” Anti-blackness has been an integral part of and has profoundly shaped the legal structure in the Netherlands. Dutch law was and is inherently and undeniably anti-black. Therefore, the incorporation of Black folk would undermine the very meaning and coherence of Dutch Law itself (notwithstanding anti-discrimination laws, which merely serve as band-aids). In order to be coherent, Dutch law needs to construct the Black as outside the rationality of law, as chaos. As such, anti-blackness is constitutive to state power in a manner distinct from the logics of Orientalism and anti-Indigenous colonialism.

You Know It, When You See It

The fact that skin colour served “as a proxy for adaptability” is important. The reading of race-as-surface codes race as something that is immediately visible, readable; something that one can touch, index, and consume. Ien Ang and Jon Stratton have argued that, “the category of race should be seen as the symbolic marker of unabsorbable cultural difference.” For folks who are phenotypically Black, as opposed to the blackened, race goes beyond “the symbolic marker of unabsorbable cultural difference,” race functions a bodily marker, and a reading of race as “unabsorbable cultural difference” hides the fact that “phenotypic Black folks,” who have “no indigenous culture worthy of mention” are first and foremost coded and read as Black. The phenotypically Black, or the Neger/Nigger, is fixed in blackness—as opposed to the blackened who can slip in and out of blackness. There is no mobility for the Neger/Nigger. The neger, or nigger, serves as the quintessential unabsorbable difference, and the figure of the nigger is what “animates race as a mode of perception and ideology of difference that persists despite inconsistent logic and troubled classifications.”

Black Girl Dangerous
Non-Black people of colour often want “solidarity” with black people, not because they see us as human beings also suffering under the weight of oppression, but because they see our hyper-visibility as a tool they can use to talk about their own suffering without any real regard for ours. This needs to stop.

Even though, the Neger/Nigger is not alive, to reference Robert Reid-Pharr, it is “nonetheless strangely, inexplicably available for animation.” Saul van Stapele writes in “Kleurenziend” (Seeing Colour) “Met negers wordt iedereen bedoeld die niet blank is, en dan met name de jonge mannen.” (By Neger/Nigger is meant anyone who is non-White (non-Blank), and in particular young men.) In Dutch media Moroccans/Muslims have been referred to as “sand niggers,” while Chinese/Asian folks have been branded “yellow niggers,” White Dutch folks have been called “white niggers,” even Black folks have been labelled “black niggers,” which shows that the Neger/Nigger (and therefore blackness) is the bottom.

Op @BNR Jort Kelder noemt collega "witte neger" omdat hij niet in staat is om vroeg op te staan.
Op @BNR Jort Kelder noemt collega “witte neger” omdat hij niet in staat is om vroeg op te staan.
Zwarte Neger
Tilburg Oerlestr Overval met vuurwapen. Zwarte neger mager zwarte jas en muts palestynse sjaal gryze sokk over

Non-Black people of colour (as well as White folks) are ‘rendered visible’ through anti-blackness. Thus in the Netherlands talks about race are invariably talks about the “visible epistemology of black skin.” Slavery and its afterlife, anti-blackness, and the inanimate figure of the Neger/Nigger suture not only the Dutch state (as a White nation), but also Dutch values of ‘unity’, ‘reasonableness’, and ‘consensus’. The racial state manufactures and organizes through an anti-black agenda racially pathologized social subjects; these subjects are coded as suspect, dangerous, resistant to integration, and a threat to “the Dutch way of life.” The organized subjection of racially pathologized social subjects is essential to White supremacist nation-building—even or rather especially now within the multicultural racist state.

The organized human fatalities and orchestrated subjections of racially pathologized social subjects has become essential to the state since it demonstrates the power of the state to control and exploit populations. Consequently, these blackened populations are subjected to surveillance (racial profiling), violence, and premature death. The “rights” of Black and blackened populations need safeguarding only insofar as they are not a burden to society. As Çağatay Topal has argued in the case of Germany, not even full citizenship (which is coded as White as well as male) can insure “a ‘secure’ status” for racially pathologized subjects.

De boze burger
The angry citizen feels disadvantaged compared to migrants, and believes that the government deliberately gives newcomers preferential treatment.
De boze burger 2
The angry citizen has little contact with foreigners but has nevertheless a distinct idea [of foreigners], and tends to form his opinion through the media and hearsay.

The citizen addressed in these excerpts is Autochtoon and male, that is a White Dutch man.

Blackness is, thus, not only the baseline against which non-Black people of colour are measured, it is also the baseline against which risky populations, that is Allochtonen/immigrants, are created. Non-Black people of colour are measured on the blackness scale. Race gathers its libidinal force from anti-blackness; the closer to blackness the riskier you are. As such, phenotypic Black folks represents the quintessential risk. Black(ened) folks are considered a threat to civil society, the established norm, or to leefbaarheid, are scripted as essentially implicit financial risks and risks to property. Ruthie Gilmore’s definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death” is very helpful. Race, as a function of power, comes into being through direct relations of terror, trauma, and death.

Thus, in the “economy of racial visibility” skin colour serves not only as a signifier of adaptability, social value and moral worth, but also as a signifier of risk. The anti-black measures of the Dutch state code Whiteness (through terms like bakfietswijk) as safety, comfort, security, and Blackness as liability, or risk. The Black(ened) carries death-productive capacities that threaten the life of the nation, for example its traditional laws and political values. Through surveillance the death-productive capacities of the Black and blackened are managed; surveillance reduces the effect of the danger attributed to populations that cannot be absorbed. Black folks cannot be absorbed, however, we can be contained (as property in ships, in detention centres, in neighbourhoods). This extends and fortifies the idea of death (blackness) as defined through enclosures and containment. In this framework the production of safety/security/Whiteness/leefbaarheid as a life-possibility boils down to risk management of human capital through the containment of dissent.

By privileging ethnicity (ethnic minority or Allochtoon) as an organizing term in Dutch discourse on race, anti-blackness as an organizing principle gets erased, or side-tracked. Even though, the blackened (or in other words racialized) Other is a motile concept, as Dutch political discourse suggests, bodies marked as phenotypic Black cannot move out of the political category “Black” with the same ease as non-Black bodies of colour who are scripted as Black politically: phenotypic Black folks are, it seems, permanently fixed in blackness.

On what grounds do we gather to organize?

What are we appealing to when we demand for our oppressors to “acknowledge our humanity”? The call uttered by Allochtoon folk to be seen as fully Dutch, however understandable, is animated by a desire to be “recognized as not being fully black.” Sylvia Wynter notes that White supremacy is “not merely defined by the colour white but rather by the entire WASP/English complex.” Likewise, Dylan Rodríguez observes that,

“White supremacy is not reducible to a singular blueprint or paradigm of socially organized dominance—that is, “racial dictatorship,” white institutional monopoly, or (proto)genocidal violence—but is a dynamic and flexible social determination, produced and affected by historical conditions and political relations of global, local, and intimate (bodily) power. In a sense, it reaches its highest point of social and institutional articulation when it has been “liberated” from the conventions of the apartheid logic and manifests within the normative political and cultural structures of (postracial) democracy, liberal humanism, and (national) progressivism.”

All of the proposed ‘solutions’ place the onus on the excluded and are geared toward inclusion in the existing system: we need to claim our belonging, our place at the table, close the racial gap.

Andy Smith
But anti-racism contestation presumes the goal is closing the racial gap within constraints of the settler contract.

But what are the problematic publics brought into effect as space is made at the ‘debate’ table? Sylvia Wynter has argued that these proposed strategies serve only “those categories of people who attain to our present middle-class or bourgeois conception of being human,” by which Wynter means those who “could behave in such a way as to prove [they are] not a nigger.” [Wynter’s emphasis]

The Black is not a human being, but a “sentiently and socially dead and therefore not deserving of enlightened moral sympathy or defence” life form, that wants to be recognized as Human; the Black aspires to live life as a human being in a world that sees her as a Neger/Nigger. Thus, acts to facilitate the recognition of the ‘humanity’ of the Black on the terms established by the Enlightenment will only remain merely aspirational, that is actions of breathing life into a system and concepts that are deadening. The question is how to bring about Black liberation, by either remixing, or abandoning humanism, when the state and civil society insure themselves against the fugitive longings of Black life forms. Merely inclusion in the existing system, which systematically enforces “white existential entitlement to health, bodily integrity, and freedom of movement,” does not an equitable system make. Moreover, any appeal to the rule of law (and “rights”) keeps us, as Anthony Paul Farley notes, “within the time of the original accumulation, with the primal scene of accumulation.”

Both Black and non-Black “anti-racist” organizers in the Netherlands resist the existing order in a way that poses no threat to the global capitalist system; on the contrary, their actions strengthen the life of the anti-black Dutch state and the terror of citizenship. Though both Black and non-Black people of colour “anti-racist” organizers speak about the lived experience of the Black, they do not attend to the fact of blackness: they assume we all are share the same ontological base with White folks. Quite often White folks and non-Black people of colour end up speaking for Black folks. The cultural debate centre De Rode Hoed in Amsterdam is organizing a debate on “cultural and sexual diversity” with the title Mag ik je neger noemen? (May I call you Neger/Nigger?) and none of the panellists are Black.

Seada Nourhussen Rode Hoed
Niet “de neger omdat het moet,” maar “neger omdat het scoort.” Maar een “neger” in het panel: ho maar.

Frantz Fanon observed that the dominant ontology of the Human person “does not permit us to understand the being of the black man.” He further notes,

“For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man. Some critic will take it on themselves to remind us that this proposition has a converse. I say that this is false. The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.”

Supposed anti-racist projects ‘cite’ the time of slavery by animating the figure of the Neger/Nigger, an item that was listed in “the account books that identified [them] as units of value,” while ignoring the historical specificity of blackness. The figure of the Neger/Nigger is still a unit of use and value: since their manufacture the Neger/Nigger has generated cumulative representational power in the racial imagination, shaping even how we understand ‘freedom’, ‘progress’, and ‘anti-racism’. Therefore, any anti-racist project that leaves the specificity of blackness and anti-blackness and the position of Dutch Caribbeans by the wayside is not ethical. The struggle of Dutch Caribbeans is not merely an anti-racist struggle; it is, I should say, primarily an anti-colonial, anti-imperial struggle. We cannot engage in liberation politics without grappling with anti-blackness. As Katerina Deliovsky and Tamari Kitossa write in Beyond Black and White: When Going Beyond May Take Us Out of Bounds, “the significance of anti-blackness must be apprehended, not as a superior form of oppression but as a form that gives shape and context to the oppression of other racially marginalized groups.”