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.
“The logic behind white domination is to prepare the black man for the subservient role in this country. Not so long ago this used to be freely said in parliament, even about the educational system of the black people. It is still said even today, although in a much more sophisticated language. To a large extent the evil-doers have succeeded in producing at the output end of their machine a kind of black man who is man only in form. This is the extent to which the process of dehumanization has advanced.”
If racism is institutional in the Netherlands, then why do ‘anti-racists’, keep looking for racism in the familiar places? Cataloguing highly locatable racist comments may point out the ubiquity of racist expressions, however, it does nothing to illuminate the work that racialization performs. Black folks and non-Black people of colour hardly need reminding of the scale of overt racism in the Netherlands. The question is, then, who is the intended audience of such cataloguing? Besides, targeting individual (online) commenters and writing them off using ableist and/or classist terms not only strengthens the idea that racism is an individual, psychological, and interpersonal ‘issue’, rather than a constitutive, systemic, and cultural feature of the social body of the Netherlands, but it also suggests that it is OK to challenge racism with ableism and classism. If racism is woven into the very fabric of the social body and its institutions, then why are certain institutions exempt from scrutiny? Continue reading “The Machinery of Dehumanization”→
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.
“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.
“O my brethren! I have told/ Most bitter truth, but without bitterness.” — Samuel Coleridge
In Affective Economies Sara Ahmed tells us that “emotions play a crucial role in the ‘surfacing’ of individual and collective bodies through the way in which emotions circulate between bodies and signs.” We are conditioned to relate to one another in specific ways, and it is through emotions and the specific ways in which we are conditioned to feel about others that societal norms and the very boundaries and surfaces of bodies take shape. We are taught to fear the stranger, and it is through our fear of the stranger, who has, as Ahmed notes in Strange Encounters, “already come too close” that the stranger emerges. Strangers, then, aren’t those whom we haven’t met, “but those who are, in their very proximity, already recognised as not belonging, as being out of place.” The circulation of emotions and our affective encounters speak of the intimate life of power. It is no wonder that sentiment and affective attachments were and are at the centre of governing projects. Dutch colonial governing projects gained their political coherence through “the management of [such] affective states, in assessing appropriate sentiments and in fashioning techniques of affective control.” (Ann Stoler, Affective States)
“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.
“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 andAmerican 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.”
What recent events have yielded is that a lot of White Autochtoon Dutch folks, when facing the charge of racism, feel that it is their self-image—as good, non-racist (and thus “innocent”) citizens of a tolerant country—and their moral character, in particular, that are being threatened.
The outward appearance of benevolence, tolerance, and innocence has been central both to the Dutch national self-image and to the political manufacture of the White Autochtoon Dutch identity. The Dutch have become so invested in the image of their being tolerant, “good” people that to many the unrelenting stream of reactionary and racist comments directed at anti-blackface campaigners came as a “complete surprise.”
The Sinterklaas parade is the biggest annual festivity for children in Dutch cities, by mid November, when the wise old white man Sinterklaas arrives on land joined by his blackface servants, the Zwarte Pieten. A crowd of adults and children wait anxiously on the passing of Sinterklaas and his jolly black servants, carrying burlap bags filled with sweets and presents. In 2012 the Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam included more than 700 Zwarte Pieten.
In 2013 Quinsy Gario filed a complaint against the permit the municipality had given to the Sinterklaas parade in the city of Amsterdam, due to the racist character of Zwarte Piet, and urged others to do the same. I was one of the 20 other persons that responded to this appeal. On October 17, we were requested to attend a public hearing in the City Hall of Amsterdam, whereby each of us was invited to elucidate our individual complaints to an official Committee of Legal Affairs that would decide on the case.
At the hearing I read aloud the text that follows. Egbert Alejandro Martina kindly revised the English version of the text. Jan Michiel Aeilkema kindly revised the original text in Dutch, further down.
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.