Mobilities and the Border of Whiteness

This is a talk that I prepared for an event about the asylum policy in the Netherlands and how it affects refugees:

In this talk I want to highlight the role that anti-blackness has played—and still plays—in shaping official migration policies. More often than not, the role that anti-blackness plays in state policies remains unmentioned.

Counter to popular political actions, I want to unsettle the relatively “safe” position of those of us who are documented. My main project is to question and undermine the system of documentation itself—to think beyond citizenship. To that end, I would like us to think about why it is so that the state determines which movements are legitimate, and which aren’t. Why is no movement ‘free’—unless it is in service of corporate capital? The basic question I want us to wrestle with is, why do we need to be documented in order to be able to “live legitimately” in this society?

I want us to consider these questions concerning ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ movements as a way to broaden our views on political activism against EU asylum policies. In order to help us better answer these questions, it is necessary that we set as our point of departure the endemic and structural anti-black violence that has given rise to EU migration policies and the system of policing and criminalization. I will briefly sketch how the logic that constrained the movements of enslaved Africans through social norms and laws still underwrites migration policies and policing strategies.


Historically, Black visibility and Black mobility have been constituted as inherently suspicious, if not criminal. Unsupervised (irregular) movements of Black folk, fugitivity (flight), waywardness, and autonomy were considered a threat to White folk, and the plantation economy. ‘Irregular movement’, such as wandering, was—and still is—considered dangerous and even criminal when associated with Black people. “Black movement is,” to quote Sarah Jane Cervenak, “more often than not, read as disruptive physicality.”

During slavery and its afterlife, the policing of Black folk emerged as a form of protection offered to White plantation owners and their property. In 1872 the Dutch sanctioned an ordinance on Curaçao which “empowered white authorities to use physical force against any Afro Curaçaoan perceived [of] endangering the public order, tranquillity, and safety.” According to Nanette de Jong, “this ordinance basically empowered vigilante whites to judge and punish blacks as they saw fit without fear of personal legal consequence.”

[Bus drivers of Connexxion had tipped the police that “African-looking women” took the bus from Amsterdam Bijlmer to posh neighbourhoods around Haarlem to clean houses.

The immigration police requested a Ghanaian gardener in Aerdenhout to show his residence papers purely based on his skin color; they man was taken in for questioning.]

Freedom papers, and slave passes—precursors to modern identity documents—were important tools with which to manage the mobility of enslaved Africans. Not many people may know this, but the modern passport system has its roots in the slave economies of the Americas—passports are not “insignificant pieces of paper.”

Between 1710 and 1766 a series of laws regulating the maritime movement of enslaved people of African descent were issued in Curaçao. The 1742 law “established a standardised passport system for all people of African descent.” The 1742 law also “set forth detailed procedures for how [all blacks and mulattoes] were to prove this freedom [of movement].” It stated that:

“No blacks or mulattoes would be allowed to board a vessel or leave the island if they did not present a passport.” [Linda M. Rupert, Marronage, Manumission and Maritime Trade in the Early Modern Caribbean]

An amendment to the law in 1755 “stipulated that slaves could only go to sea if they had both a passport and permission from their masters.”

Slavery depended to a large extent on the tight restriction and monitoring of both ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ movement—so as to prevent enslaved Africans from escaping. Simone Browne points out in her essay Black Luminosity and the Visual Culture of Surveillance that much of the “technologies instituted through slavery to track blackness as property anticipate the contemporary surveillance of the racial body.”

Anti-blackness provided the condition of possibility for ‘free’, and ‘legitimate’ travel. As such, anti-black violence is always-already implicated in ‘free’, and ‘legitimate’ movement. The system of documentation regulated—and continues to do so—who could go where, when, for how long, and do what, and it acts as a way to manage the racial, and economic make-up of a place.

In Globalized Anti-Blackness: Transnationalizing Western Immigration Law, Policy, and Practice Vilna Bashi notes that comparative historical evidence shows clear strategies to keep Black persons out of Western countries—except as temporary labour. So, constrained mobility should be seen as a form of racial and economic violence. These policies were “based on the certainty that black persons were inassimilable.” The Netherlands itself, as Dienke Hondius’ research shows, remained White through “a highly selective process of enabling and restricting access.” By restricting access of Black folk, the Netherlands could also regulate Black social and economic mobility.

The system of documentation, then, guarantees not only ‘a smooth operation’ of Dutch civil society, but it is also a tool of White supremacy to keep Black people, as Vilna Bashi points out, out of European countries. The EU emerges—this is in their own words—as an “area of Freedom, Security and Justice” (and Prosperity) through the organized efforts of White people “to keep Europe white, pure, and ‘secular’ in ways that do not interrogate the violence that underwrites that very project,” and through, for instance, the continuous dispossession of Africa’s wealth. Beyond EU borders, it seems, are those who live in the NotUnfreedom, Insecurity, and Injustice.

The promise of ‘safety’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and ‘prosperity’ hides the ordinariness of everyday violence that accompanies the protection of political stability—the detention and incapacitation of Black folk both at home and abroad—and the tremendous violence that constitutes European citizenship. ‘Democracy’ and ‘safety’ and ‘freedom’, or to put it plainly, “the violent spectacles of racialization that [the state] calls the ‘maintenance of order’,” constitute a state of emergency for Black and Blackened folk. Everyday racial violence is that which makes ‘democracy’ and ‘safety’, as markers of political stability, cohere—make sense.

Following Frank Wilderson, I posit that Blackness itself has no place in civil society. Civil society as “a space of uncoerced human association” is not a space intended for the Black subject. It is coded as waged and wages are White. One of the central concerns of both the state and civil society has been how to contain “the Black.”

To illustrate my point, I turn to the conditions under which citizenship was granted to the ‘freed’ enslaved. After Emancipation, the formerly enslaved were subjected to laws and regulations that were the result of debates in which they had not participated. These laws were unilaterally drafted by their (former) masters. There were articles against vagrancy and that forced them to labour. The formerly enslaved were not allowed to do nothing. Doing nothing was punishable by law.

‘Black citizenship’ is the result of coercion—and violence. The point that I want to make is that ‘Black citizenship’ or the denial of Black citizenship trade—on a deeper level—on the very same logic: both are geared towards Black containment and captivity.

Essentially, Black people went from being owned by plantation masters to being owned by the State. Through citizenship, Black people were rendered the internal property of the Netherlands. What’s more, anti-blackness places both ‘Black citizens’ and ‘Black non-citizens’ within contained geographies that exist outside the borders of Whiteness—outside of Europe.

For “the Black,” who is always-already recognized as ‘non human’, or anti-human, “there [is] no inside to civil society and no outside to policing,” which is not to say that “the Black” cannot ‘exist’ in civil society, but rather that civil society gains coherence, that is makes sense, by structurally excluding Blackness. Black people ‘exist’ in civil society, but are not a part of civil society. Civil society is more than just a set of discriminatory practices—civil society, and by extension Europe, is a murderous concept.

In other words, the grammar of anti-black violence sets the conditions for civil society—White, industrious, documented—and makes all ‘life’ subordinate to neoliberal ideas of freedom, security, justice, and prosperity. However, anti-blackness, as Tommy J. Curry notes, “denies racialized people the ability to claim a right to life.” To be Black is to have a “life unworthy of life.” As such, anti-black racism isn’t a problem of misunderstanding; it is the structural necessity of deeming Black/ened life as “unworthy of life.”

What citizenship offers Black people is a temporary respite from spectacular violence. Citizenship, or documentation, does not protect us from racial violence. The brunt of racial violence is displaced onto undocumented “disposable bodies,” the Black and Brown people, who are risking their lives to get into Europe.

The deadly logic of ‘democratic inclusion’, which “[defines] freedom through captivity,” has created, through an ever-growing set of lethal configurations, a class of Black folk (as Allochtonen, ‘matter out of place’) that is able to observe the dying Black and non-Black people of colour at the EU border. Democracy has created populations ‘on the outside’ whose deaths “as by an invisible hand [restore] the market to what it must be to support life”—life that is always-already coded as White.

The world of peace and order promised by the EU is a ruse for capitalism’s continuous production of death, and dispossession. Violence is a condition of the EU’s coherence. And the rationale of letting die, or exposing to death, as a necessary condition for the maximization of life and prosperity is what animates ‘democracy’. And it is through the deaths at the EU border, that is “democracy’s boundaries,” that the fantasy of Black citizenship gains its coherence.

When anti-black violence is always-already implicated in ‘legitimate’ movement, and if there is “no outside to policing” for Black people, then to exist outside policing (by being undocumented, and untraceable) is tantamount to (administrative) death. Being readable—being documented, a ‘proper citizen’, having ‘freedom papers’—has always been a vital matter of racial, social, economic, and political importance. Violence-as-law and Law-as-violence work in tandem to preserve the sanctified category of citizen—the lives ‘worth preserving’. If our goal is to end the violence of the security, detention and asylum industrial complex, then our activism needs to go beyond the ruse of citizenship, and legal solutions.

9 thoughts on “Mobilities and the Border of Whiteness

  1. thank you for saying it, again, loud and clear. In the light of this piece of information: 86 cases of attacks against refugees’ socalled “asylum homes” in the first 10 months this years, and a dramatic increase of rightwing demonstrations against refugees to the amount of 200 of them in 2014 until october’s end— and in the light of mounting self-staging campaigns by political parties like AfD in germany, and others in other countries, and in light of the fact that this – in the white press – hardly gets connected to the other fact that for the second time in a few weeks in 2014 fascist groups could mobilize 10.000 of mostly angry young white men to congregate in german cities, and the police musters 5000 officers to avoid a clash with anti-fascist protest last saturday in hannover (booking the containment of the “dumb extremists” as big success! with the white state apparatus lacking any will to concede to the long term planning capabilities, political strategizing and patience of fascist europe wide organizing for whom even the fact that 5000 people come to a militantly fascist, so-called “anti-islamist” demonstration, and that it does get all this press!) —- i am convinced that we have seen nothing but the tips of icebergs. as i said elsewhere one does freeze at the thought of how many killing lists against afro-european shops, homes, discos and against muslim and roma/sinti (public) spaces are being written, and will be executed. we need more radical mobilization, yes, but – as academics – we also need to think more intensely about how to get away from add-on postcolonial studies to concerted european headlong confrontation with white and anti-black reality of academic work, and institutions.
    sabine broeck

  2. one more comment. today’s decision of the grand jury in the darren wilson case in the US needs to be seen as an international encouragement of, if not invitation to anti-black violence, which on one level, polices borders, but at the same time is ubiquitous itself across borders. and it will be seen as exactly that by the organized fascist groups all over europe. they watch the news, too, and learn their empowerment lessons fast. and to use stages for propaganda by words and deeds has always been their forte.

    1. My apologies for the belated response.

      You’re absolutely right. And to add to your comment, I am also very much troubled by how “benevolent” White folk in Europe are extracting “anti-racist” value from Mike Brown’s extrajudicial killing, and the decision of the grand jury. Today, I saw a White woman, with whom I used to socialize and who told me that my writings on race and Whiteness made her feel “uncomfortable,” express her sentiments on social media by wishing “all love & sympathy to Michael Brown’s family.” I found her comment quite odd, to say the least.

      I’ve also seen a graph by The Economist being shared by Europeans, accompanied by expressions such as “This wouldn’t have happened here,” which erases the violence enacted on those who are trying to enter Fortress Europe, and the violent policing of Black and non-Black people of colour in the EU.

      Two years ago, an unarmed young man of colour was shot dead by a Dutch police officer; the police officer was at fault. However, the police officer was acquitted of all charges. The Dutch media followed the same script as the media in the US: vilification, and demonization of Rishi Chandrikasing. These things happen here, too. But they get buried through vilifying the victims of police brutality. And moreover, we can’t rely on police internal investigations to yield anything since police internal investigations are biased.

  3. also interesting on tambu . writer is wrong on passports i think the seals on the staffs could be called passports already, and money. nevertheless: equal would be: no passport or everybody a passport. the un is moving towards the last, by states, not international, regional, local and/or multi.. and not no-passport.. what could i say, a lot of things could be easier

    1. sorry i forgot: why don’t the more black orientated politically interested people start a policital party? in the netherlands as a small country it’s possible (with patience of course, but that’s not bad), as is an islamic party f.i. a party for people with a rollator, a youthparty.. everyone can try to find support in a democratic manner for his or her purposes.. i know where to vote and where to go if i want some more influence, as all documented at least in the netherlands (pp on tv etc). of course writing on the subject is fine, maybe a reader finds or other meaningful actions. tnx bye now

    2. Thank you for your comments, Marco. The short history of the passport you provided was an interesting read… It’s interesting that there’s no mention whatsoever of, for example, “freedom papers,” and the role they played. What’s more, this bit “passports were not generally required for international travel until the first world war” glosses over, or better still: obscures, the fact that for enslaved Africans having a passport/travel papers was a standard requirement for travel whether internationally, or domestically. Moreover, they needed express permission to travel. When it comes to Black people passports/“freedom papers” back then were pretty much used in the same way that passports are used now: they served as documents that established the lawful status of Black people, either “free,” or enslaved, and Black people could not travel without one.

  4. Thank you very much for writing this. It is terrifying and thought provoking; I have never seen the concept of passports in this light before. I did know some of the details but had not put them together. I’ll need to do a lot of thinking to digest this — old conditioning dies hard and so, unfortunately, does white privilege.

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