On Facts, Proof, and the Reception of Black Critique in White Dutch Media

“Give us the facts, we will take care of the philosophy.” — John Collins

In a recent article, philosopher Mihai Martoiu Ticu issued a “challenge” to his critics: “prove it.” What needed to be proved here was whether Guus Valk’s review article gives “an unfair advantage to whites, or unfairly disadvantages blacks.” Martoiu Ticu admits that he has seen “no evidence” of either undue benefit or harm. In what could be said to be a self-disqualifying move, Martoiu Ticu claims that,

“It is not evident that the word ‘nigger’ is a priori racist. The same applies to illustrations of a black man in the familiar stereotype of blackface, including thick red lips.”

Mihai Martoiu Ticu’s claim is not, at all, remarkable. Rather, it is part of a contemporary White liberal discourse on racism, which reduces racism to ‘individual experience’, ‘individual acts of meanness’, or the result of ‘unfortunate misunderstandings’ (some misunderstandings are overdetermined). Racism is marked as ‘real’ only when the intentions behind the act or statement are racist. As such, it becomes either a matter of individual prejudice or miscommunication—both of which can be remedied by ‘raising awareness’ and through ‘dialogue’. In order to establish whether racism is the ‘true’ issue at hand, research must be conducted. It’s not racist, until it’s been proven. What constitutes racism is, thus, continuously up for debate and this strengthens a “framework of plausible deniability [that has already been] built up around racism”—a framework which enables Mihai Martoiu Ticu to disconnect the N-word and the darkie iconography used in Aron Vellekoop León’s illustrations from their historical, political contexts and cultural antecedents.

Martoiu Ticu’s statement of “no evidence” in the face of overwhelming evidence and his challenge to “prove it” are symptomatic of White supremacy, and both raise a number of concerns when read alongside the struggle against racism, and for justice. If what could be considered, as in the case of the N-word, incontrovertible evidence of racism is made subject to discussion and contested under the guise of ‘research’, then what counts as incontestable evidence? What kind of evidence “speaks for itself”? To be clear, I am not taking up Martoiu Ticu ‘challenge’ to find measurable, causal evidence for a negative impact of Valk’s article on Black people. Rather, I’m interested in how, through a desire for ‘evidence’ in the face of incontrovertible evidence, White Dutch innocence and the ‘integrity of Whiteness’ are secured. If the assumption of White Dutch innocence saturates interpretation, and structures what can and cannot be ‘seen’ or understood as evidence, then to what extent does it interpret ‘evidence’ a priori?

Mihai Matoiu Ticu’s ‘analysis’ turns on two concepts: ‘no evidence, no crime’ and ‘innocent until proven guilty’. He works from the understanding that if acts or statements do not ‘produce’ measurable forms of material disadvantage for Blacks, then it cannot be reasonably concluded that they are racist: racism, then, is contingent on visible, measurable, and detectable evidence, and should have immediately recognizable and unambiguous outcomes. Even though, “[r]acism is not about objective measurable physical and social characteristics,” in his perspective, it is primarily, if not only, understood in terms that can be tallied and calculated. Racism is, according to Matoiu Ticu’s definition, “to claim (or give rise to) undeserved benefits for a group, or unjustified disadvantage for another group, based on (alleged) biological differences.” He further elaborates that “the racist wants an unequal distribution of money, power, rights and privileges between different groups and uses as an argument a biological difference, such as skin colour.”

What is problematic about this understanding of racism is that racism does more than give rise to “undeserved benefits for a group.” Racism also structures subject positions themselves and the relationships between different subject positions. We live in “a world structured by a negative categorical imperative—‘above all, don’t be black’.” Within this context, the racial designation Black (or neger) is not a ‘neutral’ term, nor simply an identity, but “a position against which humanity establishes, maintains, and renews its coherence, its corporeal integrity.” James Baldwin’s words come to mind,

“I am proof of what the country does to you if you are black.”

To delineate racism as a problem of ‘the racist who wants’ is, in effect, to treat racism not as a structural feature of Dutch political economy, but as a measurable, quantifiable, and contingent variable that only sometimes and under specific conditions negatively impacts Black people. Racism is an irregularity that is introduced and intentionally committed by ‘the racist who wants’. The figure of ‘the racist who wants’ functions here as a foil to the White liberal ‘non-racist’ (or ‘anti-racist’) who conversely wants what ‘the racist’ does not want, i.e. equal distribution. Black feminist bell hooks tells us that “racism is oppressive not because white folks have prejudicial feelings about blacks […] but because it is a system that promotes domination and subjugation.” Charles Mills complements hooks’ assertion by stating that “Whites do not have to be racist to want to keep their privileges (though racism, as a rationalization, may make it morally easier); they just have to be human.”

Martoiu Ticu’s definition of racism lets White liberal ‘non-racists’ off the hook of having to think about “the scandal of White complicity.” The figure of ‘the racist’ enables him to neglect “how power circulates through all white bodies in ways that make them directly complicit in perpetuating a system they did not, as individuals, create.” The processes that privilege White life, and which create an unhealthful environment for Black people, are infused into everyday practice. White privilege is a form of, what Rob Nixon would call, ‘slow violence’, that is “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” How does one measure racism “[i]n a world structured by the twin axioms of white superiority and black inferiority”? Incidence rates are the most common means by which racism is measured. Rates of racism tell us how frequently racist ‘incidents’ are reported within a given timeframe. This method is the same one that is used to measure morbidity, and yet racism is hardly ever thought of in terms of a ‘state of being morbid’. The presumption is a kind of a priori innocence; that is, everything is all right until “the racist wants.”

Martoiu Ticu’s interpretation of the criticism directed at Guus Valk and NRC editor Michel Krielaars is framed by this presumption of (White) innocence, and the challenge to “prove it” results from an intimate investment in White innocence. His defence of Valk and Krielaars is an attempt to maintain the integrity of Whiteness. Mihai Matoiu Ticu starts off his article by listing a series of responses he received to the question as to why Valk’s article would be racist. The responses are along the lines of “You’re being wilfully ignorant,” and left him, as he says, none the wiser. Matoiu Ticu draws explicit attention to the supposed lack of critical analysis in the listed observations and interpretations by using the word ‘exegesis’ ironically. Through a series of rhetorical strategies, Matoiu Ticu positions his interpretation of Valk’s text and Aron Vellekoop León’s illustrations as a corrective to the criticisms.

He puts himself, explicitly or implicitly, in a primary position to judge whether the text and illustrations are racist or not, and whether the Black critiques—most notably by Simone Zeefuik and Karen Attiah who both wrote poignant interventions in which they called out Dutch media—are within the limits of reasonableness. In his response, Martoiu Ticu makes a point of stressing the importance of ‘research-oriented’, and ‘evidence-based’ discussions of racism. He writes “[w]ithout research it can’t be determined whether something is, or isn’t racist,” which seems, at first blush, fair and reasonable. Hortense Spillers warns us, however, that “‘race’ haunts the air where women and men in social organization are most reasonable.” Martoiu Ticu gives the impression that his article is supported by ‘research’. He explicitly writes that he “went researching,” which connotes a careful, systematic, and thorough investigation. While Martoiu Ticu invokes the spirit of research, it is the absence of research that haunts his article. His ‘research’ consists, as far as I can tell, of simply reading the text and illustrations. He writes,

“Is the title racist? No, not if you read the title in its entirety, including ‘How do you destroy the black identity?’ Not if you read the whole article, in which Valk condemns race relations. Not if you read his words of praise for three anti-racist books.”

Matoiu Ticu strongly implies that Zeefuik and Attiah did none of those things, and as a result their critiques are unmeasured responses—impulsive reactions lacking any reasonable basis—and qualitatively in line with the ‘exegeses’ with which he opens his piece. Interestingly, Matoiu Ticu does not offer any evidence to support his claim that ‘the title is not racist’. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: Valk’s article is self-evidently non-racist, because he “condemns race relations”—or, to put it differently, because Valk doesn’t want what ‘the racist’ wants.

Matoiu Ticu barely engages the points raised by Zeefuik and Attiah. He engages with Karen Attiah primarily, and with Simone Zeefuik only by proxy (he engages with a quotation of Zeefuik as cited by Attiah). In her article, Zeefuik looks critically at Valk’s text and asks,

“How serious can we take someone who wonders ‘How do you articulate racism’ but is still too much of a coward to rid his work of the comfort that the word ‘blank’ continues to provide?”

Zeefuik makes very clear in her critique that the problem with Valk’s text is that it centres the perspectives and understandings of White people. She argues that by writing that the “debate about race is dead serious, especially from the [white] perspective” Valk affirms that “he has absolutely no idea what he read or what he’s writing.” Zeefuik’s critique places both the headline, the illustrations, and Valk’s piece in a wider political context; it is, in fact, a call for “decolonizing Dutch media.” Aron Vellekoop León’s illustrations represent, as Zeefuik observes, “Blackness as Dutch, mainstream whiteness likes to see it: colonial, submissive, sad and with a dash of blackface.” Unsurprisingly, Michel Krielaars, editor at NRC, offers a different reading. In an email to Karen Attiah, he writes that, “[t]he drawings are a literal illustrations of ‘stereotype’ and ‘white’ aggression, the […] books are dealing with,” which prompted Matoiu Ticu to write that,

These are not images of blacks, but images of racism itself, of the discrimination, of the stereotypes. Aron Vellekoop Léon (born in Spain) imagines what you must endure as a black in America.

Given the fact that the illustrations deploy the same iconographical conventions used to depict Black people, it is, to say the very least, disingenuous to claim that “[t]hese are not images of blacks,” but “images of racism itself, of the discrimination, of the stereotypes.” The use of blackface iconography, which “not only parodies the African person, but actually erases him or her as a human possibility,” to illustrate US Black experiences is an act of violence. How can the viewer distinguish the Black stereotype, which “is always ‘in place’, already known, and […] must be anxiously repeated,” from the image of the stereotype? Can the viewer truly separate Krielaars’ (supposed) intended meaning from “the fact of Blackness”? Visual representations of Black caricatures are intelligible and readable, because they rely on conventional habits of seeing and thinking Blackness as non-Human, “abject, wretched, and inherently inferior.”

Krielaars further explains that “it was a conscious decision to depict the situation with the use of stereotypical blackface portraits,” and adds that “the illustrations are offensive, because the racial situation in the US […] is offensive.” In other words, the images are, according to Krielaars, offensive, because they represent, in the sense of ‘to present anew’, an offensive injustice—not because they are in themselves racist representations. The explanation that he is ‘merely representing’ enables Krielaars to consciously use racist imagery and allows him to deny wrongdoing under the guise of simply “representing what is.” Martoiu Ticu, in turn, elaborates on Krielaars’ explanation by arguing that Vellekoop Léon’s images are a representation of racism’s effects on Black people, and, as such, should be understood as a catalogue of racism.

Krielaars goes on to say that “it was meant to be cynical,” in its effort to a highlight “the irreconcilability of the two worlds.” Krielaars’ turn to cynicism is a result of the supposed pessimism of US race debates—of being exposed to the “ugly, unkind, and offensive” reality of US race relations, which open up only a tenuous possibility of ‘progress’. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book is not seen as expressing realistic criticism or scepticism, but a cynicism about the American life in a way that is anathema to the ‘Dreamers’. However, White supremacy, the overarching context that frames the Black experience, remains absent—both from Krielaars’ explanation and Valk’s review.

Analyses of anti-Blackness are, more often than not with, met scepticism. Visual representations of racism tend to simplify and distort lived experience—especially when blackface iconography is used—and may themselves result in a deep misunderstanding of “what you must endure as a black in America.” The illustrations do not shed new light on, nor offer a deeper understanding of “what you must endure as a black in America.” Rather, they display “familiar and oft-utilized scenarios that make us think what we are seeing is ‘real’.” The fact that both Krielaars and Martoiu Ticu argue that the images simply represent ‘what is’ testifies to the difficulty in distinguishing Black people from “images of racism itself”—as though racism only affects Black people. What we are looking at are, according to Krielaars and Martoiu Ticu, “images of racism” and a representation of “what you must endure as a black in America.” This sleight of hand suggests that the visual representation of Blacks and the “images of racism itself” are one and the same ‘reality’. As such, both racism and Blacks, being the objects of racism, are rendered visible and communicable through the same representational tropes. Even though, Martoiu Ticu assures us that “[t]hese are not images of blacks,” there are stereotypical representations of Blacks in the images. Both men offer a White Dutch visual lens through which we should not only see US race relations, but also unsee what is right before our eyes. Regardless of Krielaars’ and Matoiu Ticu’s interpretations, these illustrations say more than just something about a crisis in US racial relations.

On the basis of both his and Krielaars’ interpretation, Matoiu Ticu accuses Zeefuik and Attiah of not only misreading the illustrations, but also completely missing Valk’s and Vellekoop Léon’s point. Matoiu Ticu takes Krielaars’ point of view ‘as is’—it goes unquestioned. Sjoerd de Jong, the NRC Ombudsman, accepts Krielaars’ explanation “that the headline and illustration emphasize the essence of the article on racism in the United States, specifically in a cynical way.” De Jong seemingly subscribes to the sentiment that the NRC is “not an American newspaper,” but “a Dutch newspaper, in which English words do not carry the same weight.” De Jong thinks that,

“In general, it seems to me a reasonable defence that headline and article should be read together. And as long as the Netherlands is not completely incorporated as the 51st state, you can maintain that American standards and sensibilities need not be ours.

But in this case, the coarse headline (without the quotes) accompanied by the caricatured Sjimmie made me think that the way this article was presented was especially out of touch with reality—especially after the heated discussions about Zwarte Piet, it is just asking for misunderstandings. Playing with racist clichés ironically is always a delicate affair; and also Netherlands is not that different.”

It is through this evaluative process, in which White interpretations are treated as ‘facts’ or ‘givens’ and Black interpretations as ‘misreadings’, that White interpretations become ‘self-evident’ and therefore ‘reliable’ and ‘standard’. To De Jong, the headline and the illustrations are not racist, but simply “out of touch with reality,” and the critiques are a matter of “American standards and sensibilities [that] need not be ours.” However, Simone Zeefuik, who first wrote a critical blog post on the illustrations, headline and article, is based in the Netherlands, not the US—yet her critique is continuously evacuated from the scene, or only engaged indirectly. It isn’t just about what is—it’s about asserting who has the right to say what is. Sylvia Wynter observes that “‘blocking out’ of a Black counter-voice was, and is itself defining of the way in which being human, in the terms of our present ethnoclass mode of sociogeny, dictates that Self, Other, and World should be represented and known.” The process of rendering White interpretations ‘self-evident’ has “very much to do with the ways in which brutal acts of white supremacy actively mark blackness as they erase black lived experiences and interpretations.” The struggles of the Black lived experiences “must not only be confirmed by unquestionable authorities and [other] white observers but also must be made visible,” whether by “making the body speak—or through authenticated devices, or, better yet, by enabling readers and audience member to experience vicariously the ‘tragical scenes of cruelty’.” What does it mean ethically and how does it affect one psychologically to require ‘tragical scenes of cruelty’ and evidence of Black racial suffering amidst ongoing structural violence?

The central theme of the Vellekoop Léon’s illustrations is the tragic nature of “what you must endure as a black in America”—as seen through a White lens. There is a striking similarity in composition between Francesco Bartolozzi’s illustration, which adorns John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), and the one by Aron Vellekoop León.

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Vellekoop Léon’s illustrations employ, to a large extent, the same visual and sentimental cues as abolitionist imagery. He uses the visual power of the dejected Black body. Blacks are scripted as victims, at the mercy of White aggression, who passively await interventions: the illustrations allow for no Black agency. Why didn’t he centre the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests? Contrary to Philippe Remarque’s belief, the article and illustrations do not “respect the anti-racism movement.” White representational regimes of Blackness are still tethered to regimes of display, that reinforce, through repetition, “the image of the slave supplicant, kneeling, pleading for freedom, and looking to benevolent whites for salvation.” This “citational chain,” that inscribes habits of seeing and thinking Blackness, underscores the colonial continuities between abolitionism and contemporary representational regimes of Blackness.

Both in abolitionist imagery as well as in contemporary visual rhetorics of Blackness, Black humanity becomes legible through suffering. Whites gain knowledge of “what you must endure as a black” in an anti-Black world through the sentimental consumption of Black pain. Black ‘humanity’ is primarily identified and acknowledged through, and is thus contingent on, regimes of racial consumption. Abolitionist illustrations of the enslaved not only trafficked in Black suffering, but also exploited, much like Vellekoop Léon’s imagery, “the wounded captive body through a sexualized identification that reinscribes black subjugation.” It can hardly escape the viewer that, while the white figure is clothed, the crying black figures in the illustrations are naked. Their nakedness and state of dejection position them “as erotic objects of sympathy.”

The weeping black figures not only confirm the Black’s ‘desire’ to receive sympathy, but also function as an invitation for Liberal Whites to extend necessary care—to reach out and touch. The passive Black body, “the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality,” is, thus, reduced to the physical representation of suffering—a sensuous abstraction—and comes to embody “sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general ‘powerlessness’, resonating through various centers of human and social meaning.” Both Bartolozzi’s and Vellekoop Léon’s illustrations pornotrope the Black body. Pornotroping is a representational mechanics that simultaneously renders the Black body a sentimental subject and a dehumanized object. By positioning Black people as simultaneously the objects of (anti-Black) injustice and (White) sympathy, these images invariably narrate Black people as a passive, powerless objects that are acted upon, instead of actors.

These illustrations, which are part of “the practice of displaying Blackness for enjoyment and edification of the white viewers,” produce White liberal subjectivities that are not driven by the will to dominate (that is, ‘the racist who wants’), but the voyeuristic desire to consume Black pain. The manner through which Black people enter the field of visibility is regulated through an anti-Black visual economy—which is especially troubling in the context of ‘anti-racism’ because our ‘private injury’ invents us as subjects, while the ‘willingness’ of Whites to ‘see’, ‘listen’, ‘feel for’, or entertain the notion that “racism is an evil that needs to be fought” proves that they possess the psychic and emotional space to ‘look beyond their own self-interest’. Feeling for those of us who experience racism not only suggests that the problem of anti-Black racism is a problem of—or felt by—Black people, but also that an effective anti-racist praxis simply requires the sympathetic feelings of Whites. The willingness of Whites to ‘look beyond their own self-interest’ re-centres White agency while it simultaneously confirms their self-perception as ‘caring’, ‘empathetic’, ‘good people’, who are not like ‘the racist who wants’. “Rather than ‘solving racism’ by being better white people,” Damien Riggs tells us, Whites need “to recognize that belief in the ‘goodness’ of white people, values and ways of knowing is precisely the foundation of practices of oppression.”

Black suffering is a form of instructive entertainment for White subjectivities. In Stealing the Pain of Others, Sherene Razack observes that “Black bodies provide whites with a form of ‘race pleasure’ […] confirming white superiority through images of Black suffering.” The psychological and bodily integrity of Whiteness is secured through race-pleasure, which is “a form of pleasure” in the White body that is obtained through the “humiliation of the Other and, then, as the last step, through a denial of the entire process.” In other words, race-pleasure is a surplus pleasure derived from vicariously experiencing the degradation and subjection of Black people. Race-pleasure animates statements such as “Thank God, it’s not me,” or “human beings from other countries who lost the lottery of life”—as though the world is the way it is through the “Luck of the Draw.” The vicarious experience of Black suffering, in order to understand ‘what it’s like’, reveals that “the [Black] body may ‘have’ the pain, but the white mind claims and comprehends it, thereby truly experiencing it.” White subjectivity is constituted through its reliance on the sentimentalized, and eroticized Black body, the embodiment of unreason, loss, suffering, the bottom, sexual excess. W.E.B. du Bois argued that White people gain psychological advantages from anti-Blackness and derive satisfaction from ‘not being Black’. He called these advantages “the public and psychological wages of whiteness.”

The hegemony of Whiteness in the Netherlands is contingent upon a “self-image that stresses being a tolerant, small and just ethical nation and that foregrounds being a victim rather than a perpetrator of international violence.” White innocence is an organizing principle that informs where and who we should focus on, creates value, and governs the distribution of authority and credibility. White Dutch innocence is a way of feeling pleasure in and about not being US American Whites. White Dutch folk can lay claim to innocence by exposing and denouncing anti-Black racism in the US. Anti-Black violence in the US emerges as spectacular through a contrast with an established normality, in this case the Netherlands, which also provides the moral framework that gives meaning to what’s going on in the US. The admission that “the Netherlands is not that different” only serves to highlight how ‘well’ the Netherlands is dealing with its race problem: the underlying message is “it may not be that different, but we are handling it much better. There aren’t any race riots here.” White Dutch innocence makes it possible for White Dutch people to dissociate themselves, with a clear conscience, from anti-Black violence in the Americas without having to think how they might be complicit in it: the evils of racism are wholly displaced onto US American Whites, who represent the extravagant perpetrators of anti-Black violence. Racism is seen as a paradigmatic American evil. Racism in the Netherlands shrinks, by comparison, in significance to “not so bad.” White Dutch can always retort, and comfort themselves with the ‘fact’ that racism is much worse in the US.

The illusion of White Dutch innocence can only be maintained through the perpetual disavowal of emotional and psychic violation of Blacks in the Netherlands—that is, through gaslighting. Gaslighting is “a form of emotional manipulation in which the gaslighter tries (consciously or not) to induce in someone the sense that her reactions, perceptions, memories and/or beliefs are not just mistaken, but utterly without grounds—paradigmatically, so unfounded as to qualify as crazy.” Gaslighting evacuates meaning and significance; it is an act of aggression and epistemic injustice whose aim is not only to secure a White perspective, but moreover to destabilize a Black subjectivity.

The presumption of White innocence operates as the primary narrative, announcing the inadequacy and unreliability of Black critiques. “Whites are innocent until they prove themselves to be racist.” That is, until they want what “the racist wants.” Black interpretations are rendered a priori suspect, and, as such, are not afforded the same weight, legitimacy, and credibility. The quality of Black interpretations or the amount of evidence is irrelevant: evidence presented by Black people is oftentimes discredited, disregarded, rejected out of hand, or even ignored if it challenges vested interests, and the logic of an ‘agreed upon’ (if not settled) reality. Demanding proof only to dismiss it as fanciful becomes another means of disavowing Black people’s experience. White innocence itself constitutes a form of race-pleasure.

The present social and political conditions under which evidence is weighed and presented determine what counts as evidence and who counts as a ‘reliable’ and ‘reasonable’ source. Black people can pose an indictment to Whiteness only if we add, ‘for nuance’s sake’, a “not all White people”—despite the fact that all “whites benefit from white supremacy.” Reasonableness emerges, under the guise of the presumption of White innocence, as a disciplinary method that helps secure the integrity of Whiteness “by naturalizing the supposed cerebral rationality, work ethic, and paternalistic morality” of not only Matoiu Ticu, but also Valk. In this context, Guus Valk, Aron Vellekoop León, and Mihai Matoiu Ticu are the ones who are backed by the authority of Whiteness to say what is. The question is: Can the interpretation of ‘evidence’ , and what is considered  ‘evidence’ itself be separated from racial beliefs?

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