Seeing Colour, Reading Saul van Stapele

“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”

— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

One of the unintended consequences of ‘mainstreaming anti-racism’ is that anyone and everyone who believes themselves knowledgeable enough, regardless of the level of their understanding, is offered a stage to provide an analysis of racial oppression. Nowadays, anti-racism is, as Ramona Sno argues, fashionable. “It is striking,” Sno writes, “that the people who are now speaking out the loudest against racism and other forms of exclusion are white, and that their pieces are, to put it mildly, inspired by the pieces of POC (people of color) in the Netherlands.”

It is striking, indeed, that predominantly White folk are given space in which to not only articulate their ‘anti-racism’, but to also determine what’s racist. Given the dominance of normative Eurocentric epistemologies that have distorted Black epistemologies, or rendered them unintelligible or invisible, it’s important to remain vigilant of dynamics that relegate the intellectual work of Black(ened) folk to ‘footnotes and brackets’ or that reduce our work to ‘raw material’ that can be unlimitedly exploited—without having to engage its ethical implications.

What bothers me is that most, if not all, White folk who talk about racism in mainstream media do so without engaging ethically with the important interventions of Black folk. More often than not, White Dutch journalists describe a racism without agents, or as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has termed it: a “racism without racists.” For example, when writing about racism, they use the passive voice, ‘Allochtonen are being discriminated against’, or reduce racism to a matter of feelings ‘Such and such feels discriminated against’. When their analyses do involve agents, White Dutch journalists invoke often vague and ambiguous agents, such as an unspecified “we,” and/or “us,” that are called upon to, for instance, ‘see colour’—which brings me to Kleurziend (Seeing Colour), a widely shared and praised article by Saul van Stapele that is somewhat paradigmatic in its sweeping generalities and its assumptive logic.

I had read van Stapele’s article a while back, and I thought not much of it; it was the usual talk about race—always articulated in terms of ‘colour’—and racism that passes for (critical) analysis in the Netherlands. The use of euphemistic language such as kleur (colour), discriminatie (discrimination), or onderscheid maken (to differentiate, to distinguish, to draw a distinction) to talk about race and racism makes it possible for folks to make an easy connection between ‘race’ and ‘colour’ and drawing unfair distinctions. Van Stapele writes,

“The racism debate is not about gratuitously pointing to a politician or statistics that no one has ever really examined in very great depth. The racism debate is about us. It is about colour, and the slowly fading shame to admit that it is, most certainly, important almost at all levels in Dutch society where you—or your parent or your grandparent—come from.” (translation mine)

Saul van Stapele exhorts ‘us’ to ‘see colour’, but what different effects is a frank acknowledgment of ‘seeing colour’ calculated to produce? Aren’t Black folk already systematically reduced to and judged by the colour of our skin? What initially appears to be a critique of colourblindness exposes, upon closer inspection, deeply troubling and reductive ideas of ‘race’. To put it plainly, van Stapele uncritically accepts and lends force to an epistemology of skin colour, that scripts “race as epidermis” and attributes racialized inequality entirely to differences in skin colour. Ironically, his argument is structured on the assumptive logic of colourblindness, that “understands race as little more than skin color,” which he challenges. So, despite the fact that van Stapele rejects racism, he reinforces a biological notion of race that locates racial difference in the body.

Van Stapele’s injunction for ‘us’ to “see colour” necessarily asks the reader to invest in the conflation of skin colour and race. What’s more, what about populations whose skin colour renders them ambiguous? What kind of skin colour would van Stapele attribute to Moroccans, or Turks? Are these populations ‘Black’ or ‘White’? Who counts as White? Hortense Spillers asks us to contemplate “what it is that ‘sees’—in other words, do we look with eyes, or with the psyche?” Pondering these questions should make it plain that the racial category “White” (or Blanke) is, contrary to what van Stapele implies, anything but stable or self-evident. Moreover, such an articulation of racism as ‘a failure’ to ‘see skin colour’ does not account for the racialization of Eastern Europeans, whose skin colour is just as ‘white’ as van Stapele’s. Alastair Bonnett has noted in How the British Working Class Became White that “Whiteness, as the phenotype of civilisation, must simultaneously be made available to all Europeans within the colonial imagination, but denied to those deemed unfit or unwilling to carry its burden within Europe itself.”

Whiteness, then, is not only about race and racism, nor is it simply a matter of ‘having white skin’. Whiteness is, as Charles Mills explains, “not really a colour at all, but a set of power relations.” Virginia Lea and ‎Erma Jean Sims define Whiteness as “a complex, hegemonic, and dynamic set of mainstream socioeconomic processes, and ways of thinking, feeling, believing, and acting (cultural scripts) that function to obscure the power, privilege, and practices of the dominant social elite.” Consequently, racism involves institutionalized systems of power, and it is not simply about actions that hurt Black people’s feelings—as it is commonly understood in Dutch mainstream media. Specifically, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains, racism is “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”

Even though, van Stapele gestures toward the structural impact of racism by highlighting the unfair treatment of his “friends who went on to make careers outside the Netherlands, because they consistently felt on Dutch work floors that, no matter how well they did their job, they were above all ‘niggers’,” he not only “promotes the illusion that one can be Black and be recognized by and incorporated into the fold of relations, if one behaves”—but he also offers ‘seeing colour’ as an effective ‘antidote’ against institutional racism, which is downright offensive.

When I confronted Saul van Stapele on the fact that he writes about racism from behind a shield of Whiteness, that he has benefitted and continues to benefit from racism, his response was quite telling. He replied,

“It’s a shield I can’t shed I am affraid [sic].”

Saul van Stapele 2

Van Stapele’s attitude speaks of a certain decadent resignation that prevents him to imagine ways “to undo white power and privilege in [his daily life].” George Yancy notes that,

“antiracist agency does not magically undo the complex ways in which whites are both complicit with systemic forms of white supremacy and the ways in which they harbor white racism in their bodies, thoughts, and affects.”

Yancy admonishes White folks who “[dare] to be adventurous” by speaking out against racism, “and yet [remain] safe” behind a shield of Whiteness. What Yancy argues is that merely speaking out against racism does not place White folk outside the social structures and state institutions that produce and enable oppression and repression. Thus, a White ‘anti-racist identity’ is inherently parasitic on the suffering of racialized bodies. Even as van Stapele denounces racism, his friends who ‘felt’ as though “they were above all ‘niggers’” are captured within his White liberal gaze, and used in services of Whiteness—or, to put it plainly, as a vehicle for his own moral development. The only reason why Saul van Stapele can be ‘anti-racist’ is because of structural anti-black violence enacted by the state and its institutions, and other White folk.

In his article, van Stapele makes use of the generative capacity of Toni Morrison’s thought without a full commitment to Morrison’s radical and transformative interventions. Morrison’s sophisticated critique of White liberal humanism, most notably in Playing in the Dark, is appropriated, whitewashed, and used to prop up a White liberal argument that van Stapele probably would not have made had he engaged Morrison’s work, for instance Playing in the Dark, in a sustained manner. For in Playing in the Dark Morrison exposes the centrality of “the fetishizing of color” to “the narrative strategies that have made possible the invention of a coherent American, white identity.” As such, simply ‘seeing colour’ does not challenge White racialized identity, nor does it undermine the “complex system [that deprives] those it has racialized, that is, for those whom white society has decided to racialize.”

“The worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Human All Too Human

Van Stapele’s use of Toni Morrison’s voice to ultimately make a White liberal point is—despite his ‘anti-racist’ intentions—deeply unethical and anti-black; it confuses rather than represents the scope and depth of her work: “Black art is not a free for all.” His engagement with Morrison’s critique of White liberal humanism, without being attentive to the politics of knowledge production, barely reaches the level of superficial. Van Stapele whittles down Morrison’s intellectual work to pithy quotes and paraphrases that back up his own thinking—again, without engaging ethically with the transformative implications of Morrison’s analyses. Such an opportunistic use of Morrison’s intellectual work rests upon a reductive reading of her work that evacuates it of its depth, richness, and complexity. Recently, Tofik Dibi, a non-Black man of colour, engaged in a similar exercise. Anti-oppression work is, more than anything else, an ethical project.

Saul van Stapele

When I questioned van Stapele’s credentials, based on his article, he got really defensive. My questioning of his credentials to give a lecture on race and racism in the Netherlands was not out of some desire to be gratuitously vicious: I simply thought his article lacked ‘intellectual rigour’. Having said that, I don’t believe that Saul van Stapele should be an ‘expert’ in order to speak on race and racism. What’s more, I firmly believe we need to challenge processes that systematically produce a certain genre of ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’ (White/European/Male), who have “the capacity to produce consequential speech,” and whose ‘authority’ can ‘put a matter to rest’ with one quote that need not be “artfully phrased or even make sense in order to yield results.” In a world in which White supremacy has coded “value and non-value, binding the structures of production under the hegemony of its imaginary social significations,” the writings of White folk on race and racism are more visible and valued more than the analyses of Black and non-Black people of colour—as Ramona Sno has brilliantly argued.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Black and non-Black people of colour always offer a radically critical analysis of race and racism—purely because of our lived experience. As Wahneema Lubiano remarks, “the operation of racism is so thoroughgoing that even those individuals who are its objects are no exempt from thinking about the world through its prism.” As I have tried to explain, this is a critique of a publics that systematically anoints White folk as ‘knowledgeable’ and ‘reasonable’, while it effectively relegates Black and non-Black people of colour to the realm of ‘incoherence,’ ‘unreasonableness,’ and ‘radicality’. Even though, I don’t expect Saul van Stapele to be an ‘expert’, I do expect him to deepen his knowledge, and engage with the works of Black intellectuals, or with his critics, in an ethical manner.

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