“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.

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Bitter

“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)

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Haunting Message in a Bottle

Much of what Black and non-Black communities of colour face in the Netherlands is the result of the haunting afterlife of slavery. “Haunting is,” as Avery Gordon puts forward, “the sociality of living with ghosts, a sociality both tangible and tactile as well as ephemeral and imaginary.” The Netherlands is embattled by the intimate ruins of imperialism, and the emotional debris that the debates on multiculturalism have left behind. Folks continue to engage, silently and reluctantly, with the deadness of a multiculturalism not-yet-dead—manifesting as spectral cosmopolitan projects.

Recent discussions on racism exposed the debris field of unacknowledged racial animus as these talks, at once, rendered invisible the groundbreaking work done by Philomena Essed, Troetje Loewenthal, Gloria Wekker. Other voices of resistance too distant to materialize, Stanley Brown, Freddy Antersijn, Astrid Roemer. It is important that we trace the emergence, and journey of race critical thought in Dutch history in order to bring into view these disappeared bodies (of work). White Dutch media, aided and abetted to a large extent by White Dutch academia, have created a “rhetorical space” (a concept by Lorraine Code) in the Netherlands in which racism is articulated disjointedly. White Dutch academia regularly invites a quizzical inquiry into the status of racism: whatever happened to racism in the Netherlands?

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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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This is Not America: Dutch Rhetoric and its Denial of Racism

“The word Black
has geographic power,
pulls everybody in:
Blacks here—
Blacks there—
Blacks wherever they may be.”

Gwendolyn Brooks, A Primer For Blacks

Gwendolyn Brooks, image taken from: http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/gwendolyn-brooks-271.php

[This is, like all of my writings, a work in progress.]

Modern technology has made it very easy for reports and images of US anti-black racism, as a framework for understanding anti-black violence, to travel. These images of US anti-black violence that circulate across the world shape how anti-black violence is read and perceived in specific geographical and cultural contexts.

Back in 2011 when the Dutch fashion magazine, Jackie called Rihanna an anti-black misogynistic term Rutger Bregman, a historian who taught a university level course on the history of racism, argued in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant that “Only American neurotics think we’re racists.” Bregman argued that racism is an American thing. I want to focus on how in Dutch public discourse US anti-black racism is used as a yardstick against which the self-image of Dutch non-racist tolerance can be measured.

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The Language of Racial Innocence

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

James Baldwin

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.”

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