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?

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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.”

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Politics of Spatial Imagination in the Dutch Colonial Myth

“The modern world hates to see black folks resting.” — Lewis Gordon, “African American Philosophy, Race, and the Geography of Reason.”

In the 19th century, the opponents of penal colonialism thought it inadvisable to deport prisoners to hard labour. In an official document to the then King, they write (my translations),

“The examination of the hereby dated report of the Minister of Justice and the associated lists of prisoners who are considered to be suitable for transportation to Brazil, or any of the other overseas possessions, has convinced me that the persons referred to cannot be made use of for the benefit of your Majesty’s colonies.

In the West, experience has shown us that, in a hot climate, only Negroes should be used for the cultivation of the land as well as other physical labour; under no circumstances should Europeans be put to work, and women, who mostly are absent from the slave forces in Suriname, must be sought from nowhere else but in Africa, so as to achieve the maintenance of the black population.

In the East, and in particular Java, our entire economy and the security of our possessions is founded on this principle, the natives should stand in absolute awe of Europeans, this feeling should spring forth from a sense of their moral and intellectual inferiority. It is from this point of view that Europeans, even those of the lower classes, dismissed soldiers or sailors, etc., are rarely if ever called to, or assigned, manual labour, and it is for this reason, too, that many experts think it would be inadvisable to embark in those regions on a colonization programme as that of, for example, the Swiss in Brazil.”

A. R. Falck, Minister of Public Education, National Industry and Colonies Continue reading “Politics of Spatial Imagination in the Dutch Colonial Myth”

My Thoughts on the Ruling

Last week an administrative court in Amsterdam ruled in favour of the plaintiffs who contested the licensing of the 2013 Sinterklaas Parade in Amsterdam. The plaintiffs argued that granting the organizers of the Sinterklaas parade a permit constituted an infringement of their right to respect for private and family life, since the figure of Zwarte Piet, which plays a huge role in the public Sinterklaas parade, is a negative stereotype of Black people.

The plaintiffs argued that Foundation Sinterklaas Parade Amsterdam, which organizes the parade, could not have otherwise organized the event without the permit the Mayor granted. Because Mayor Van der Laan had not fully considered the objections to Zwarte Piet in his decision to grant a permit, he was summoned by the court to reconsider the licensing of the 2013 Sinterklaas parade. The decision was heralded, as Chandra Frank notes, as “an important outcome of years of protesting and activism by those opposed to Zwarte Piet.” Even though, I could understand why Black folks were happy with the decision, the reasoning upon which the court ruling is based bolstered White supremacy.

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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.”

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“I Didn’t Mean To!” Tracing the Roots of ‘Dutch Innocence’

“In his Discourse on Colonialism (1951), Aimé Césaire wrote that Hitler slumbers within ‘the very distinguished, very humanistic and very Christian bourgeois of the Twentieth century,’ and yet the European bourgeois cannot forgive Hitler for ‘the fact that he applied to Europe the colonial practices that had previously been applied only to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the Negroes of Africa.’”
—          Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror

 “I’m always annoyed about why black people have to bear the brunt of everybody else’s contempt. If we are not totally understanding and smiling, suddenly we’re demons.”
—          Toni Morrison

In Dutch Colonial Nostalgia across Decolonisation Paul Bijl observes that colonial nostalgia in the Netherlands “imagines Dutch society as an essentially white nation, sadly victimised by black and brown immigrants who have taken over the role of violators of Dutch innocence from the Germans.” Recent White cries attest to the exactitude of Bijl’s observation: Black and Brown immigrants are supposedly taking advantage of Dutch hospitality—to be a host, it seems, is to be a victim. What’s more, the Netherlands has now completely lost its ‘innocence’ because people of colour are talking about racism, and apparently talking about racism, according to the Dutch intellectual elite, is what causes racism.

Praten over racisme Continue reading ““I Didn’t Mean To!” Tracing the Roots of ‘Dutch Innocence’”

On the Strange Case of “Work” without Workers

“It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.” — Samuel R. Delany, Dahlgren

Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger warns us in The ‘Air of Liberty’: Narratives of the South Atlantic Past that “[I]t’s not enough to condemn [this] slave trade as having been a crime; the details of its afterlife, the cultural heritage it left in its wake, have to be understood as a contemporary dilemma, an open wound.” And yet there is scant critical analysis in the Netherlands of slavery’s afterlife. In general, Dutch attitudes are very much in line with contemporary neo-liberal discourse that “treats the present,” as Issa Shivzi observes in The Struggle for Democracy, “as if the present has had no history.” This uncoupling of the present and the past is actively done and maintained as an aspect of power.

We need to make visible these obscured, deliberate modes of violence and place the present in relation with history. As I will argue, a critical engagement with the afterlife of slavery forces us to re-think concepts like freedom, progress, work, production, exploitation, freedom, as well as contemporary conceptualizations of race, gender, sexuality, ability and class. Prior to emancipation White Dutch politicians imposed their vision of “freedom” and their circumscribed definition of autonomy on Black folks in the Dutch Caribbean. The attempts of the Dutch state to control and prescribe the comings and goings, desires, and behaviour of “freed slaves” have left lasting marks on the ways we imagine freedom and what constitutes work.

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Administrative Violence and the Role of the Police

“The idea that Africans could be grateful for slavery marks them as excluded from the values of liberty and independence which were already established as part of, but nonetheless increasingly central to, the definition of Englishness.” — George Boulukos, The Grateful Slave: The Emergence of Race in Eighteenth-Century British and American Culture

I would like to thank Patricia Schor for helping me think through the inchoate ideas on this topic. I’m still in the process of developing them—despite what the length of this text might suggest.

In my last post I argued that both the move to locate anti-black racism outside of the Netherlands (specifically in the US) and the negation of the significance of Whiteness are intended to undermine the epistemological claims of those of us coded as Black. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of these rhetorical manoeuvres  is not new; its genealogy is long and its roots are deep. For instance, Helen Metzelaar puts a use of this manoeuvre on view in an article entitled A Hefty Confrontation. The Fisk Jubilee Singers Tour The Netherlands in 1877.  Referring to the Dutch hosts of the Fisk Jubilee Singers Metzelaar writes that they “preferred to concentrate on slavery in the United States. In noble introductory speeches they emphasized that now slavery in the United States had been abolished, closer ties between the two countries could be developed.”

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The Delicious Pleasures of Racism

The Sinterklaas tradition in its current configuration is an invocation of, and invitation to, racialized pleasure and I want to consider seriously the dynamic between racism and pleasure, or the concept “racism as pleasure,” embedded in the Sinterklaas tradition. Racism is reproduced over time through pleasure, through embodiment, and through, what Robin Bernstein would term, “dances with things.” People take pleasure in dressing up, and acting, as Zwarte Piet. As such, pleasure plays an important role in the psychological investment that gives Zwarte Piet its cultural currency. Moreover, one of the main arguments used in defence of Zwarte Piet is that Sinterklaas is a “fun” and joyous occasion for children and by getting rid of the figure we are denying children a source of pleasure.

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A Reasonable Alternative to Zwarte Piet

Guest post by Patricia Schor

There is something fundamental when one engages in social struggle that is daring to believe in real transformation.

A short while ago I watched a wonderful documentary about the US Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, where a historian defined it not as a struggle of good against bad or evil, but of good against normal. This poignant statement transported me back to the Netherlands year 2013, where and when public institutions sponsor and host the largest children’s party that centres on the figure of the holy white elder Sinterklaas accompanied by a retinue of jolly black servants: the Zwarte Pieten. This is normal or, at least, its presence is so insistent in the Dutch public sphere that the line between common (as frequent) and normal (as acceptable) is easily—and purposefully—blurred.

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