The Netherlands and Its Discontents, or: How White Dutch Folks Started Worrying and Urged ‘Us’ to Take Rioters Seriously

Taking the ‘riots’ in Ferguson following the extrajudicial murder of Michael Brown as a point of departure, Femke Kaulinggfreks and Matthijs Ponte argue in a recent article that ‘we’ in the Netherlands should “take rioters from minority communities seriously.” The authors state that in the Netherlands, ‘we’ are able to look critically at the situation in Ferguson, however, when it comes to racial tensions in our own country ‘we’ lack the ability to provide a critical analysis. Kaulinggfreks and Ponte attribute this lack to the fact that ‘we’ probably see American society as much more unequal and racist than Dutch society. Throughout the article, the authors make a slew of rhetorical shortcuts that need to be made explicit and challenged.

First, the authors invoke a ‘we’ that is implicitly White Autochtoon Dutch, and clearly rules out my perspective as a Black man. Second, the authors yoke together disparate acts of dissent, or as they put it “disruptions of public order,” and create, thus, a broad protest animated by a coherent ‘sudden’ surge of ‘discontent’, which erases their respective specificities. Moreover, Kaulinggfreks and Ponte use in their article the vacuous and simplistic gloss ‘ethnic minorities’—a gloss that implies a level of homogeneity that is decidedly problematic. The political actions of ‘Muslims’ and ‘Afro- Caribbean Dutch’ are spoken of in the same breath under the umbrella term ‘community activism’, and this equation oversimplifies further a complex web of political relations. Third, the authors use forms of protest in the USA, namely the Civil Rights movement as a gauge, and contrast forms of political dissent in the Netherlands to forms of political dissent in the USA—a move that, ironically, leads the authors themselves to make the same mistake that they’re “pointing out.”

In all fairness, Kaulinggfreks’ and Ponte’s article is short and sketchy. However, the work that the comparative form, which is central to the authors’ argument, performs is not insignificant. Moreover, the rhetorical shortcuts and assumptions that underlie their piece work in concert to not only secure ‘Dutch innocence’, but to also mobilize White racial anxieties.

Kaulinggfreks and Ponte write,

“A direct comparison with the situation in the US is inappropriate, simply because the situation in the Netherlands is less severe than in the USA.” [my italics]

The use of the comparative presupposes that anti-black violence in the USA and violence against the composite of ‘ethnic minorities’ in the Netherlands are of the same quality, but only differ in degree, or intensity. However, as I have written in a previous post, “anti-blackness is constitutive to state power in a manner distinct from the logics of Orientalism and anti-Indigenous colonialism.”

The analogizing to US Black suffering and the implicit levelling of anti-Muslim and anti-black violence in the Netherlands have ethical implications that are not made explicit in the article. Throughout their article the authors implicitly equate ‘post-colonial’ subjects and ‘Muslims’ to paint a picture of ‘racial tension’ that makes no effort to distinguish between how the different species of ‘ethnic minorities’ have been specifically positioned in relation to White Autochtoon Dutchness. This is a common ill in Dutch social analysis, that I myself, in the spirit of full disclosure, have fallen victim to. With that being said, such a broad equation of the ‘post-colonial subject’ with ‘Muslims’ “presumes or insists upon the monolithic character of victimization under white supremacy,” a presumption or insistence that erases specificity.

Even though the authors express a concern for the plight of ‘ethnic minorities’, they make no effort to interrogate critically their engagement with anti-blackness, Islamophobia, and transnational anti-black violence. As such, the violence enacted on US Black folk is not only used as a springboard to raise concerns about the general failure to listen to ‘ethnic minorities’ in the Netherlands (and its possible consequences), but it is also used to narrate anti-Black violence in the Netherlands as “less severe.” From whose perspective is anti-black violence in the Netherlands “less severe” than in the USA? What—or to be more precise—whose level of anti-black violence (Dutch or US American?) should serve as a baseline? How does one quantify racial violence?

To me, White evaluations of the severity of anti-black violence in a world that is anti-black sound an awful lot like “on our plantation we treat the Blacks better than on that plantation yonder.” Overly general assessments such as “less severe” do not do a single thing for Black folks here nor in the USA. Such general statements do, however, ease the souls of White Dutch folk: these statements make the Netherlands look good. Moreover, such ‘measured’ and ‘mapped’ levels of intensity, determined by the number of sensational and egregious vio­lent ‘incidents’, make the Netherlands appear as though it is far more reasonable and balanced than the USA.

In light of the above-mentioned rhetorical shortcuts, it is important to note the authors have chosen the extrajudicial murder of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests across the USA to serve as an entry point for analysis and not the extrajudicial murder of the 17 year-old Dutch citizen Rishi Chandrikasing. Rishi Chandrikasing, who was unarmed, was chased down and shot by a police officer in The Hague in 2012. The experience in Ferguson is a lot closer for Black(ened) folk in the Netherlands than the authors suggest. In 1995, for instance, several police officers from Baltimore participated in an officer-exchange programme with police officers in Rotterdam. US policing techniques are not confined to the US, they, like PredPol, travel: the police in Amsterdam developed its own predictive policing system, CAS: Crime Anticipation System, which is now used “to intelligently allocate manpower where and when it matters most.” Moreover, as Rinaldo Walcott reminds us,

“Policing violence does not just begin with a gun drawn and discharged; it begins with the assumption of who is already a suspect and a criminal. It begins with profiling.”

Racial profiling singles out those of us who “always-already signify violence,” and as such ‘deserving of violence’, before we even have committed an act of violence. Frank Wilderson observes that,

“there is violence in the world which is coordinated with Negrophobia. There’s the fantasy of a Black as a phobic object, an object that will destroy you and you don’t even know how it will destroy you, just an anxious threat, you know. And he says, okay, that’s a fantasy, but what’s important, what psychoanalysis hasn’t really figured out, is that what’s important about this fantasy is that it is supported and coordinated with all the guns in the world. . .”

The fantasy of the Black as a phobogenic object enables Whites to maintain a sense of cohesiveness and solidarity; it is this fantasy which is “supported and coordinated with all the guns in the world” that enables relationality to occur. “The Black becomes,” as I’ve argued in a previous post, “almost literally the ground on which the dance of relationality takes place.” Black flesh, then, functions as the entry point through which the comparative “less severe” gains its rhetorical value and affective force. It is also through this fantasy that the spectacle of violence enacted through the killing of the Black body in the US can serve as a baseline measure that facilitates the placement of the Netherlands on a scale bar of racial violence. Black flesh, as Frank Wilderson “functions as the map of gratuitous violence.”

Anti-black violence in the US, in which no Humans are involved, has become paradigmatic for European, if not Western, conceptions of racial violence and ‘racism’. Framing the USA as providing the paradigmatic blueprint of ‘racism’ produces and reproduces particular ways of understanding the world in which certain kinds of violence are actively narrated as ‘less significant’ to the Netherlands, instead of examining racial violence in the Netherlands on its own terms. Thus, the graphic and disturbing images of Black suffering that condemn White America purify the anti-black violence enacted by White Dutch folks making it “less severe.” The possibilities for ‘Dutch innocence’—a concept that is untenable—is opened up by violence enacted on the US Black body. It is through these elisions and historical, as well as contemporary, erasures that the authors can ‘objectively’ gauge the level of anti-black violence in Dutch society.

My—according to the authors—“less oppressed” Black body is called upon to perform affective labour (that is immaterial labour) in their well-meaning quest to “lay bare” and “address” racial tensions in the Netherlands. By implicitly comparing the ‘aliveness’ of ‘Afro-Caribbean Dutch folk’ to the ‘deadness’ of Michael Brown, Kaulinggfreks and Ponte appropriate my body to give testimony against itself. To paraphrase Elizabeth Alexander, Kaulinggfreks and Ponte deliberately gloss over the histories that my body knows. Black bodies in the Netherlands as well as in the USA—both dead and alive—are appropriated to produce ‘Dutch innocence’, which comes into being through an ability to extract value from the already “ontologically dead,” and sites of death that are ‘alien’, but still recognizable, to the Netherlands. As such, through the fantasy of the Black as a phobogenic object, the authors can extract useful social valence from US sites of death without upsetting the ‘relative political innocence’ of the Netherlands.

Every time I read about anti-black violence ‘happening somewhere’—yes, the scare quotes matter—my world becomes smaller. I am faced with the soul crushing reality that there is no sanctuary for the body marked as black. Even though, the intensity of anti-black violence in the Netherlands is historically, socially, and spatially contingent, it exists nevertheless on a global continuum of intensity. In Low Intensity Ethnic Cleansing in the Netherlands, Paul Mutsaers and Hans Siebers argue that low intensity forms of violence “must be studied in their own context without losing sight of that common denominator.” Thus, low intensity violence, “whilst not overtly genocidal,” has clearly “genocidal effects” through what Sylvia Wynter describes as “ostensibly normal, and everyday means.” Both “slow death” and political exhaustion of all practical avenues to the point where Black existence becomes incoherent, or the continuous negation of Black life are indicative of forms of low intensity violence.

The illusion that Dutch democracy is ‘safer’ and ‘more just’ than US democracy and that the Netherlands treats its Black population more humanely is a convenient fiction. And such comforting notions should be dispelled post-haste; they provide a balm against considering the possessive investment of the Dutch in global anti-blackness and genocidal violence as a result of “enslavement and/or of parasitically profiting on any conceivable level from Black abjection.” The authors draw upon the economy of enslavism, which transformed and continues to transform Black flesh into a fungible and accumulated object that could be put to any specific use—including the production of White subjectivity. Enslavism is, as Sabine Broeck argues, not “the isolated disembodied entity apart from, outside the white subject’s abjectivizing agency on and against Black being,” with a limited temporal and spatial sequence, but it should be considered “as the primary psychosocial and cultural, collective, and individual training site for capitalist white human sociability.”

We live in a world that is “structured by the twin axioms of white superiority and black inferiority, of white existence and black non-existence, a world structured by a negative categorical imperative—‘above all, don’t be black’.” As such, echoing Sabine Broeck’s theorizing of enslavism, anti-black violence doesn’t ‘happen’; meaning, it is not an occurrence that is sharply localized at a single point in space and instant of time. “The Black,” as Christina Sharpe also notes, “is characterized by gratuitous violence.” As such, the Black “is openly vulnerable to the whims of the world.” There is no closure to the violence and injury. Those of us fixed in Blackness inhabit a place that lacks spatial and temporal coordinates. Blackness constitutes “the abyss into which Humanness can never fall,” and “the non-existence of blackness (understood as inert matter) is precisely what makes the rest of the world legible.”

The reading of the Civil Rights movement, which has gained its legibility only through “a socially acceptable way of illustrating racism,” as Black protest, or at any rate an explicit model thereof, leads Kaulinggfreks and Ponte to make some odd claims in the course of their article; they write,

“we are not used to ethnic minorities protesting publicly against institutional racism and claiming political space in their own way in the Netherlands.”

“We are not familiar with the kind of community activism that emerged from the civil rights movement in the USA. However, we are seeing more and more young activists who have been inspired by the American tradition, such as the group that disrupted the recent commemoration of the abolition of slavery.”

(The group did not disrupt the commemoration itself; the group of about 20 protesters interrupted the speech of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Employment Lodewijk Asscher.)

Both authors seem less interested in critically examining the different dimensions of Black protest than in preserving the image of the Netherlands as a ‘racism-lite’ country. To cast the Civil Rights movement as the definitive model of Black protest is to invisibilize other forms of Black protest and serves to hide Dutch racial politics. The writers ‘fail’ to see the equally historically contingent forms of protest in the Netherlands: Black protest in the Dutch context has always been anti-colonial.


 This failure to ‘recognize’ Black protest in the Netherlands resonates with ‘structured forgetting’ and a ‘patterned ignorance’ that become visible when examining the citational practices/politics of citation. Anja Kanngieser tells us that “how we speak and listen is political.” And what is seen is often what is looked for. You do not need to be a historian to imagine that Black folk in the Netherlands have protested against what Keguro Macharia calls the “unhumaning of those the state deems disposable.” Black folk have protested and continue to do so in many ways—ways that are often misunderstood. There are many ways in/through which to protest; protests in the public sphere are but one way. Perhaps, White Dutch folk aren’t always made privy to forms of Black protest that don’t involve expressive marches through the ‘public’ streets. Black folk have protested in Papiamentu, through bodily signification, in fugitive spaces. The above-cited broad assertion, then, begs several questions: how is national memory narrated and how is Black protest commonly understood?

“The confrontational outcry of a growing group of young and vocal Afro-Caribbean Dutch, especially elicits aggressive and fearful responses. Concrete steps to respond to their discontent are hardly taken. This is a slap in the face of coloured Dutch who rightly demand that any form of racism is firmly and immediately uprooted from society.”

Racialized neglect has always been a feature of Dutch governmentality. A radical view would be to stress the essential nature of the neglect of racial suffering to political stability and ideas of Dutch ‘superiority’ and ‘benevolence’. The significance of routine administrative violence (for example, the administrative distinction between Autochtoon/Allochtoon) and terror (for example, racial profiling) in the manufacture of political stability is seldom talked about in the Netherlands . What level of racial violence, in the form of racialized neglect, are deemed necessary to produce political stability, or ‘freedom’? If efforts to maintain political stability are presumed necessary and beneficial, how could they ever be considered violent?

In the final paragraphs, the authors make explicit what has been their real concern all along: White fears and anxieties. They write,

“If we want to prevent riots in the Netherlands, then we must begin to take seriously the frustrations of minorities concerning racism and inequality. Recognizing the political significance of public disorders, like those in the Schilderswijk, could be a point of departure. In addition, community activism should not be seen as subversive and threatening, but rather as a motivated attempt at claiming a place in our society as a fully-fledged member. Where there is space for such activism undirected violence could perhaps be prevented. In neighbourhoods such Schilderswijk where tensions run high, community activism could channel existing frustrations.

We are aware of these conditions, even more so, when a spark suddenly ignites a volatile situation elsewhere, like in Ferguson. Now we must learn to examine closely the inequalities in our own country. Only then can we hope to bring about a democratic society in which everyone can feel at home and is heard.”

The article is a clear example of how a ‘willingness to listen’ may function as a pre-emptive measure, in the same vein as PredPol, to contain and regulate Black rage. And if the regulation of Black rage is the main concern of the authors, then “the dead black body,” as Lindon Barrett argues, “may be an ultimate figure of regulation, unruly desire and its risks fully mastered.” Barrett further notes that,

“Capitalism looks to young black bodies as sites of open, unregulated flows of desire but, paradoxically, only in order productively and profitably to inscribe and channel these unregulated flows.”

The gist of the article boils down to, ‘Please, let’s listen to our Black folks before the shit hits the fan like in the US’. It is, in essence, a rallying call to White Autochtoon Dutch folk to regulate and channel Black rage into ‘safe avenues’ that will serve Dutch society and make it ‘less racist’. However, the current organization of civil society is both on an affective and material level anti-black. “In a society in which there is domination,” as Steve Martinot writes in The Machinery of Whiteness, “there can be democracy only for the dominant.” This call to ‘action’ (let’s take the concerns of ‘ethnic minorities’ seriously), however ‘well-intended’ and ‘reasonable’, merely reproduces the ‘authority’ of White Autochtoon Dutch folk.

In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman asks us to consider what it means “that the violence of slavery or the pained existence of the enslaved, if discernible, is only so in the most heinous and grotesque examples and not in the quotidian routines of slavery.” Such a line of inquiry brings in the possibility to consider anti-black violence outside of the scope of the performative (a bunch of recognizable acts of racism that amount to a number of ‘incidents’ that never coalesce into a pattern), and invites us to reckon with the structural features of anti-black violence that might not be spectacular or contained within national boundaries, but rather ‘ordinary’ and transnational. The central question here is not whether Black folk have it ‘better’ in the Netherlands than in the US, which is in itself an anti-black value judgment. Rather, the question should be how is the power to take life and instrumentalize Black life forms (to use in Rinaldo Walcott’s term) by way of both heinous and grotesque acts and quotidian means shape “what kind of social subject is allowed to take public form in collective recognition”?

4 thoughts on “The Netherlands and Its Discontents, or: How White Dutch Folks Started Worrying and Urged ‘Us’ to Take Rioters Seriously

  1. greetings. thank you. what you write confirms again that there needs to be a european clearing-house initiative against anti-black violence. how to begin?

  2. Thank you for your comment, Sabine. How to begin, indeed! There is a disturbing process unfolding in the Netherlands (as well as in other European nations, it seems) that is slowly stifling dissent. The state is steadily criminalizing “left-wing” activism and frames it in terms of “terrorism,” or as “a threat to the democratic legal order.” As such, protests against Dutch asylum policies—or even saying that the Dutch government practices state racism—are considered “acts of extremism.” It is downright perverse that the Dutch government implements unjust laws, and then criminalizes protests against those very same laws, arguing that protests against these unjust laws pose a “threat to the democratic legal order.”

    We are (softly) coerced to use the avenues afforded to us to fight against anti-black violence, i.e. state-endorsed anti-racism, which is geared toward depoliticizing and individualizing. Avenues outside those endorsed by the state (such as direct action, civil disobedience) are criminalized as they fall “outside of the law.” “Democracy” itself, as well as “the rule of law,” are now used to criminalize those who do not share the worldview of the government.

    I think a starting point would be to make people aware of how “democracy” and “safety” are used to criminalize dissent, and frame dissent as a threat to political stability.

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  4. Great writings again.. Thinking through these topics i begin to feel that the Netherlands is actually much farther removed from any road towards equality than for example the US. The denial is so strong and recognition of racism and inequality so absent that u don’t know where to start. In the US racism is maybe more overtly present but anti-racist movements are also much more visible and at least part of the population has much deeper understanding of what racism and dehumanization means. In the Netherlands there is hardly any insight into what this means and how Dutch history has first created then sustained and then completely hidden and silenced mechanisms of violent exclusion. The imagination of the innocent and purer character of this country and the white Dutch who ‘mean it so well’ is so strong that u can hardly break through it. I find it very disturbing that we are so far from common sense. The idea of innocence creates a shield that makes things untalkable. Talking about these things is perceived as creating the problem. The anti zwarte piet movement is for example seen as the Cause for the now visible racism instead of its result. This kind of reversal is a very strong protection against ever getting to understand what is going on here. Whoever opens his/her mouth is seen as the one who creates the problem. Obviously Dutch colonial past has been quite successful in establishing such a strong mechanism of denial and self righteousness that can be held up and recreated every time again.

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