The Built Environment and Carcerality

Mi mama no tin plaka                            My mother doesn’t have any money
Hinka mi den un doshi                          Put me in a box
Manda mi na Hulanda                           (And) sent me to the Netherlands
Ora mi a yega Hulanda                          When I arrived in the Netherlands

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An old Curaçaoan children’s song

Michael Dingake writes in his autobiography My Fight Against Apartheid that “Blacks are always in one prison or another. They cannot escape imprisonment for one moment.” For black people, to paraphrase Assata Shakur, the built environment is not that much different from the prison. Although Dingake and Shakur describe how prison mechanisms structure black life in South Africa and the U.S. respectively, what they put forward is nevertheless deeply reflective of black living conditions in Rotterdam and the Netherlands as a whole. This resonance across geographical locations is not surprising: anti-black violence is built into the structures and institutions that make up the modern world. The socio-political reality of anti-blackness is that black people “are policed all the time, and everywhere.”

The police and military are, as Fanon points out, instrumental in the forcible institution and maintenance of carceral geographies. Police stations and barracks sustained the dividing line—the colour line—that structured the distribution and mobility of people and capital in the colonial city. Even though Fanon writes specifically about how the police serves as monitor and patrol of the frontiers in colonial society, we should not consider this function of the police as confined to the “distant past,” or “remote” colonial urban spaces. Within the Netherlands, the police and municipally-appointed stadsmariniers for “Antilleans” (city marines, individuals with “a wide remit in order to ‘make policies happen’ on the ground”) are key agents in maintaining the colonized status of black people. In the next series of blog posts, I want to shed light on the many ways in which the built environment, neoliberal urban restructuring programmes, and urban surveillance practices work together to create prison-like living conditions for black people in the Netherlands.

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Liveability and the Black Squat Movement

“it’s all about belonging: even now, who belongs where is often based on who belonged to whom. i sometimes wonder how i get away with living while black.” — Evie Shockley, improper(ty) behavior in the new black

The preceding epigraph frames this piece on the squatting actions of the Dutch Caribbean community in the Bijlmer—a neighbourhood of the borough of Amsterdam South-East—that took place between 1970-1980, as well as issues of liveability and habitability the squatting actions raised. I will focus specifically on a large-scale squatting action in 1974, which was labelled the first organized act of resistance of Dutch Caribbeans in the Netherlands. The involvement of Dutch Caribbeans in the squat movement is often not included in mainstream narratives on squatting actions.

As a black urban space, the Bijlmer represents in the popular imagination a space of pathology, rather than spaces of community. In a 2012 article titled How a Black Neighbourhood Became Blacker, which appeared in De Groene Amsterdammer, the Bijlmer is said to be “the drain of the city.” I analyse the Bijlmer in the first instance not as a static geographical location, but rather as a complex set of political, economic, spatial, racial, gender, and sexual relations that converge on a site that is subsequently marked as black and uninhabitable. Thus, the Bijlmer is in my analysis not only “a concrete place, whose racial and economic formation is material” but also “an imagined place.” By taking this approach, I hope to highlight the various ways in which black dispossession forms the ground for the production of belonging and space.

Throughout the piece I will use Dutch Caribbean and black people interchangeably, rather than the terms “the Surinamese” and “the Antillean” which pepper the newspaper articles, to refer to Dutch Caribbeans of African descent. I use white (Dutch) people to refer to so-called “Autochtonen.” Within Dutch politics, both blackness and whiteness appear as spatially grounded praxes. Even though the Black–White binary is not the only binary which characterizes white supremacy, it is the binary that frames most Dutch political thinking, and is, thus, integral to understanding spatial production. Deprived, underprivileged, anti-social geographies, or ‘hot spots’—in other words, sites that are inhabited by dispossessed communities—are systematically described as “black neighbourhoods.” Moreover, the residential outcomes of black people areoften outlined in terms of ghetto or ghettoization, however, the same descriptors are never used in regard to the ‘concentrated’, yet unproblematized, outcomes of white Dutch people living in suburbs. The national spatial imaginary is racially marked: racialized bodies are territorialized through terms like “Allochtoon” and “Autochtoon,” and it is through this territorialization of racialized bodies that spaces are coded as white, or black. As such, blacks and whites are consigned to different physical and metaphorical spaces. Continue reading “Liveability and the Black Squat Movement”

Finding a Way Out of the Polder

“It was after the end of
the world… To lie on
our backs looking
into the dark was all
there was worth
doing”

—       Nathaniel Mackey, “Eye on the Scarecrow” from Splay Anthem.

These past few months I have been busy doing everything except blogging. One could say I have been purposefully shying away from it, in the main, because I felt—and still feel—like writing fuck everything ad infinitum. An urge that I have, somehow, managed to curb when writing for ‘official’ publications and panels. My engagement with the intellectual work of theorists grouped under the label ‘Afro-Pessimism’ made me realize that the only possible response is fuck everything, starting with the nation-state. The nation-state is so deeply fucked that we might not be able to rehabilitate it, at all. If recuperation (making things better) is our political goal, then we might be setting ourselves up for an impossible task.

Over the past months, I’ve been told, several times, in purportedly leftist spaces, that my work is “too radical,” or even more bewildering: “too political.” What does it mean to be too political? What constitutes the ‘too’? The ‘too’, which is almost accusatory, is as curious as it is significant, and says much about what is considered ‘constructive politics’, and what is not. The diagnosis ‘too political’ implies that a certain kind of politics, or criticality, is expected—perhaps, even desired—however, I am overdoing it by desiring, in the words of Aimé Césaire, “The only thing in the world worth beginning // The End of the World, of course.” My demand is, by its very nature, in a relation of excess vis-à-vis the political, and, therefore, unreasonable both in terms of meaningfulness and practicality. To fundamentally question the legitimacy of established ways is seen as not only an assault on ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, but also a subversive act against the nation itself.

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Mapping the Limits of Social Movement Organizing: Comité 21 Maart

Recently, I attended Samen Tegen Racisme & Discriminatie (United Against Racism and Discrimination). The meeting was organized by Committee March 21, an alliance of various social organizations. This coalition is planning a city-wide (Amsterdam)—possibly even a nationwide—demonstration against racism and the goal of the meeting was to outline a strategy. The invited speakers were Mustafa Ayrancı, Mohamed Rabbae, and Sandew Hira; they respectively represented Turkish, Moroccan and Black organizations. Mercedes Zandwijken moderated the meeting.

The meeting left me drained, exasperated, depressed. I’ve been to more meetings than I can count in which straight, cisgender, middle-aged men were positioned as “leaders.” What I witnessed on Monday wasn’t new. Before the project got its legs, it was already heading down an all too familiar path. Their forthright admission that the proposed concept suffered from “blind spots” seemed, in light of what was missing, procedural.

Continue reading “Mapping the Limits of Social Movement Organizing: Comité 21 Maart”

Top 10 Must-read Caribbean Feminist Blog Posts

Feminist Conversations on Caribbean Life

In no particular order here are 10 boss posts from Caribbean feminist bloggers writing out loud.  Read, share and tell me what other articles should be on this list. Enjoy this gift from the Caribbean femisphere!

a. I swear if I hear “independent ladies” one more time…  by  Mar the Mongoose (Barbados)

Why?Quick wit. Pulse firmly on Caribbean popular culture! You will never scream on cue again!

stop singling out women as “independent ladies” based on some bullshit basket of goods that you determine of value to women: weave and clothes and underwear. All the women in that particular show or fête are independent by virtue of the fact that they are adults with rights. And they don’t need to scream at your command to make that so.

b. No Women Died, This is Not a Women’s Issue by Sherlina Nageer (Guyana)

Why? Because when innocent men are…

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Digital Natives versus Digital Immigrants

In the essay Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Marc Prensky uses the term Digital Native to refer to (young) people who are ““native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.” Prensky confesses that Digital Native is “the most useful designation” for the “new” students of today. He sets Digital Natives against Digital Immigrants—that is those “who were not born into the digital world,” but who have become “fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology.” He further embellishes this analogy by arguing that Digital Immigrants “always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past.” Prensky presents his argument in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

“Digital Immigrants can, and should,” according to Prensky, “laugh at [ourselves] and [our] “accent.”” In proper dramatic fashion he asserts that “the single biggest problem facing education today is that [our] Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” [Prensky’s bold italics]

Though Prensky’s analogy is attractive, albeit superficially, and works to highlight in a hyperbolic, comedic form intergenerational clashes, I found his analogy inherently problematic. Conceptually, Prensky’s analogy fuses the political with the digital in a way that invites us to think about highly politicized issues like, belonging, and ownership of space, border crossing, and the temporalization of difference (modern versus backward) in a way that diminishes their political weight.

Moreover, through a “temporalization of digital space” Prensky regards the difference in the ways Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants engage with technology as a temporal gap. Digital Immigrants are essentially framed as anachronisms—as people who belonged to an earlier time. He even implies that the difference between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants is much more structural. He contemplates that “it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up.” Be that as it may, I find the biologization of difference troubling—especially since his analogy has an undeniable racial undercurrent.

What’s more, his description of Digital Immigrants as “a population of heavily accented, unintelligible foreigners,” along with his call to “laugh at [ourselves] and [our] accent,” is offensive for all of us who have faced difficulties in life due to our “accents.” Those of us whose “foreign accents” have been mocked will find it difficult to crack a smile.

This analogy invites us to conceptualize the digital divide in diasporic terms, and the rigid juxtaposition of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants forecloses “digital hybrid identities,” meaning users who grew up using both “old technology” and “new technology.” Prensky obscures the dynamic and fluid and highly contextual nature of accents. We all have accents, and there’s no standard way of “speaking new technology.”

Also, Prensky’s description of “accented modes of behaviour,” for example “bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL),” creates, whether intended or not, geographies of technology—“digital space,” where natives feel at home, and IRL, where immigrants feel more comfortable. Specific bodily performances invariably betray one’s “Digital Immigrant status.” Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants are, thus, not only distinguished in terms of specialization, but also spatialization.

Needless to say, I found this text iffy, if not objectionable. I must admit that I am disappointed with the quality of the texts. Up till now, I’ve generally used the listed texts as “spark plugs,” that is as means to get me think about e-learning and digital cultures in a broad sense. I’ve not mined them for “things to learn.” That is not to say I haven’t learned anything from them, it’s just that I have learned more from the “off-syllabus” reading I’ve done.

Word cloud of Marc Prensky's essay "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants"
Word cloud of Marc Prensky’s essay “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”

Cruising for History – In Search of Discreet Memories

Yesterday I gave an abridged version of this talk. Unfortunately, I couldn’t deliver the entire speech. At any rate, here’s the full version.

I’d like to thank United for Intercultural Action for giving me this opportunity to speak to you this evening. I’m going to talk about the politics of public space, the politics of history, and the productive potentialities of cruising the past.

What do I mean by “cruising the past”? Cruising is gay slang for the act of walking or driving about a locality, or using technology, in search of anonymous, casual sexual encounters. Some spaces, like the Vondelpark, are known as historical cruising areas, where men would cruise for intimate encounters.

I’m using cruising as a metaphor because the act centres on encounter and connection in public space rather than alienation. When we cruise we cast glances, often backward, to people who have caught our eye, who have made us feel something. It is a solicitation for intimacy. Not unlike people on guided tours to historical/memorial sites cruising bodies are actively seeking out an experience. The act of cruising for discreet memories among the many historical/memorial sites suggests that we are not only looking backward, but we are also feeling backward, to use a concept by Heather Love, for a specific kind of memory.

These historical/memorial sites, with which we have a personal connection, are where the conceptual, the factual and affective meet to create certain spaces where it is OK, or legitimate, to cruise for, say, the memory of slavery. The interplay between the conceptual, the factual and affective can also create spaces where it would be strange, almost illicit, to do so, for instance, in or in front of the Royal Palace of Amsterdam.

The dynamics of history and memory, commemoration and amnesia, have become under the influence of post-colonial forces very important in contemporary cities in Europe.

Continue reading “Cruising for History – In Search of Discreet Memories”