Dutch elections and colonial continuity: The history of race and racism in Dutch nation-building

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Today is the Dutch general election to determine which parties will control Dutch parliament. It is essentially a race between Geert Wilders and the PVV and Mark Rutte and the VVD – one a far-right party and the other a center-right one. This election, and the campaigning around it, should by now prove two things: the first that the political spectrum in the Netherlands has moved to the right to such an extent that the term leftist politics is all but meaningless; and the second is that the emergence of Islam and race as central topics of debate is not something “new” and is not even an emergence in any technical sense; if anything it represents a continuity with older colonial modes of self-identification.

In an Al Jazeera piece on the elections, this quote caught my eye:

“We will get the verdict this evening after an election campaign that has been very divisive and has seen expressions from different party leaders concerning Islam, immigration and the economy” (Dominic Kane).

Those three core issues that have defined the election are in no way separate from one another. Islam, immigration, the economy. These three issues – framed as “problems” each political party wants to “solve” – have a much longer historical presence than is admitted in much of the analysis on the so-called “emergence of Islamophobia” in the Netherlands. What happens when we label something an emergence? What happens when Holland is categorized as having “departed” from its liberal, tolerant, reasonable past? What happens when Holland is commonly understood as “decent” and that this decency is now lost after a shift to the right?

I want to posit instead that this election has not marked the emergence of Islamophobia as a form of racialized politics; this election has merely made transparent the fact that for the past few centuries the Netherlands has operated within this framework of racialized politics. Citizenship rules and regulations, categories of belonging, media, educational and everyday semantics – all of these structures that organize daily life are thoroughly racialized. The famous categories of allochtoon and autochtoon (indigenous and non-indigenous) rely on colonial understandings of who was part of the Dutch empire and who was not. Debates about who has integrated well (Indonesian colonial subjects) and who has failed to integrate (Surinamese, Antilleans, Moroccans) are also based on clear colonial legacies, where the violence Indonesians faced when they came to the Netherlands is erased, and the racism and lack of support Surinamese, Antilleans and Moroccans were met with when they arrived is pushed to the side.

When we begin tracing these historical legacies, it becomes clear that modern nation and state building in the Netherlands was a racial project from the very beginning. When migrants began to arrive from North Africa and Southern Europe, much of the discourse surrounding the white working class was extended to these new migrant groups, specifically the notion that they needed to be civilized into Dutch culture. Another example is the way in which Surinamese men were discursively portrayed as violent and aggressive in the 1980s. Yet in the 1990s this portrayal extended to and became focused on Moroccan men. One should note, however, that such shifts are never complete. In the Netherlands today it is clear that negative assumptions about the white working class prevail, and that Surinamese men are still often portrayed as violent and aggressive. This highlights the enduring nature of these discursive formations. They are resilient precisely because they are linked to class formation and nation building through bourgeois notions of “civilized”. In other words, the identity of the rational, white bourgeois Dutchman is constituted in a dialectical relationship with numerous “Others”—thus making the discursive formation necessary to Dutch identity. This draws our attention to the continuing need in Dutch society to create “Others” in order to both construct the identity of the civilized Dutchman, but also, by extension, legitimize certain social political and economic policies. These policies range from increasingly tough stances on immigration to the increased policing of post-migrant populations and populations of color.

It is crucial to note that the underlying argument in the cases of both internal and external “Others” was a racial one. The white working class was often portrayed as being genetically different from the rest of society. While it is true that in the Netherlands there was a strong discourse that blamed class differences on context rather than genetics, it remains the case that the working class was often seen as inherently inferior. The same logic was used when it came to the external Othered, who were seen as genetically inferior because of both racial and cultural attributes. When Southern European and North African immigrants arrived in the Netherlands in the 1960s, their constructed racial Otherness was understood through cultural differences. Culture became the vessel through which racial difference was understood and class the vessel for understanding the racial difference of the Dutch working classes leading up to the 1960s. In both instances, racial constructions were hidden under the label of either class or cultural difference.

And yet, despite this, there is a tendency in the Netherlands to locate racism in individuals, as isolated incidents. As Melissa Weiner points out: “Ask a White Dutch person about racism in their society and most will quickly respond that, except for maybe a few right-wing politicians and individual racist incidents each year, racism does not exist. Indeed, it cannot. Because, according to many, ‘race’ does not exist in The Netherlands.” At the center of this process of othering is the construction of the Dutch self-image as tolerant and thus of Dutch society as excluding racism, homophobia, sexism, and so on. Dutch society is constructed as tolerant and open, and indeed this has become a universal image of the Netherlands. Attempts to argue that this election shows how the Netherlands has “changed” and lost its tolerance/liberalism/decency are problematic and plainly incorrect precisely because building the nation was a racialized project from the very start. Islamophobia is only the most recent expression of this project, but it is not new, nor a departure.

Here the emergence of the welfare state is key, and its specific ties to colonial and working class history. In an excellent post, Egbert Alejandro Martina shows how the emergence of the Dutch welfare state represented an attempt to make the white working class “fit for (bourgeois) society” which was seen as preferable to improving conditions of the working class by raising the standard of living. This shift occurred through imagining the welfare state as a disciplinary force that would deflect attention away from structural inequalities (in this case economic inequality between classes) and instead shift the focus onto disciplining the working class and making it socially acceptable. Thus the welfare state acted as a disciplinary force that, through biopolitical means, absorbed and neutralized any “threat” coming from the white working class. This later transformed as a means of disciplining bodies seen as racially and/or culturally different. Attention was deflected from structural inequalities, this time regarding institutionalized racism, and instead focused on framing such bodies as in need of socialization through intervention.

What I want to argue is new is the broader material context in which all of this is taking place, namely the crisis of neoliberal capitalism and the dismantling of the welfare state. It is not a failure of integration that forces politicians to discuss Muslims; rather it has been an extremely successful tactic that has deflected attention away from the state’s role in dismantling the social services Dutch citizens have had since the 1950s. By privileging capital over labour, the state and various political parties have sold out the social democratic pact and this is having massive ramifications on the choices, opportunities and daily lives of Dutch people. However it is not as simple as immigrants or non-whites being scapegoated either. It is not that “during economic crisis people naturally become more racist” or want to blame anyone who is different. It is not a natural human response or justifiable. It is a concrete result of the particular ways in which the Dutch elite have constructed Dutch nationalism and the Dutch state. It did not have to be this way and it is not a natural human response. It is a result of historical processes of class and race intersecting to produce the political effects we see today.

The tendency to ignore the Dutch colonial past – social forgetting as Weiner calls it – is important here in understanding why there is so little resistance to the extreme racism rampant in the Netherlands today. This Dutch colonial history is not something to be navigated or worked through, and indeed can be presented positively or, at least, as a relic of a time that was not necessarily “wrong.” The denial surrounding both its status as a colonial empire (as well as the fact that the Netherlands controlled territories until 2010) and its neutral moral position on colonialism allows the Netherlands to construct a national imaginary based on tolerance. Similarly, Gloria Wekker’s excellent book White Innocence, focuses on:

…a central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia. Accessing a cultural archive built over 400 years of Dutch colonial rule, Wekker fundamentally challenges Dutch racial exceptionalism by undermining the dominant narrative of the Netherlands as a “gentle” and “ethical” nation. Wekker analyzes the Dutch media’s portrayal of black women and men, the failure to grasp race in the Dutch academy, contemporary conservative politics (including gay politicians espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric), and the controversy surrounding the folkloric character Black Pete, showing how the denial of racism and the expression of innocence safeguards white privilege. Wekker uncovers the postcolonial legacy of race and its role in shaping the white Dutch self, presenting the contested, persistent legacy of racism in the country.

It is this archive that is important to remember. White innocence, along with social forgetting, have functioned to hide the central role of race in Dutch nation building. The Dutch self is a racialized self. This is not new, but as old as the Netherlands itself. This is why I believe the newly established political party “Artikel 1” is an important intervention in contemporary Dutch politics. Because it is based on anti-racism and not just class politics, it breaks the silence surrounding this topic – a wilful silence I would add, not an innocent one – and provides what the Dutch left has long failed to provide: a politics that is about race and class and gender and sexuality – not just about class in a reductionist sense. There is still a long way to go, but speaking about race and racism is a necessary step.

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Parts of this post are from an article I co-wrote with Vanessa Eileen-Thomas: Old Racisms, New Masks: On the Continuing Discontinuities of Racism and the Erasure of Race in European Contexts.

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Hannah Arendt, the Nazis and the Banality of Evil

 


It’s been a while since I read a book that made me think as much as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. Her central premise is of course well known: that evil is almost boring in its  expression. She writes,

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied that this new type of criminal commits his crime under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel that he is doing wrong.

Evil is not located in a few psychopaths but rather can be found in most ordinary human beings given the right conditions. It is this focus on the conditions that create or bring out evil that makes this book fascinating.

My favourite part was when she goes through each European country to discuss the details of how they tackled the “Jewish problem.” Here what seemed to matter above all was the extent to which the general population itself was anti-Semitic; and following this, how deep this anti-Semitism was and whether it was directed at foreign Jews or native Jews. In countries such as Italy, Bulgaria and Denmark, almost no Jews were deported or killed because the general population rebelled against directives from Germany to deport their Jews as part of the Final Solution. Denmark above all is an extraordinary story, where the King himself said that he would be the first to wear a yellow star. When Denmark was basically forced to hand over their Jews, they managed to sneak half of them into Sweden where they would be safe, and the other half went into hiding in Denmark and survived. In Bulgaria there were massive strikes against the government when Germany began to demand the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.  And in Italy, although the government did not outright disobey Germany, they played a cat and mouse game which resulted in almost no Jews being deported.

Compare this to countries such as Germany, Poland, France and Romania where almost the entire Jewish population was murdered. Romania in particular, which Arendt designates as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, actually began killing its Jews before Germany did, and many of these killings were done by ordinary Romanians in unorganized pogroms that were especially violent. In fact when Germans found out about this, they were disturbed (!) stating that killing should not be done in such an uncivilized manner.

Arendt’s discussion of Holland was particularly interesting. A large number of Dutch Jews were killed and I had always assumed this was because of Dutch collaboration. She points out that because Holland’s government had fallen and the country was effectively under German command, the Nazis were able to infiltrate and identify and deport most Jews. She points out that Holland was the only country where students went on strike when Jewish professors were fired from universities. The Dutch also offered hiding places to almost half of all Jews in the country. The only reason so many were discovered is precisely because the Nazis had infiltrated the country so well.

What is perhaps most shocking about her report is her consistent demonstration of the central role played by Jewish leaders in orchestrating the destruction of European Jewry. In almost all countries, a Jewish council was formed which basically allowed Jewish leaders to decide who to save and how (usually based on financial leverage) and which almost always resulted in the majority of Jews being sent to concentration camps. Highlighting the role  Jewish leadership in the Holocaust got Arendt into a lot of trouble and yet seems central to understanding how the Holocaust happened the way it did.

To conclude, I want to return to this idea that the level of anti-Semitism in a country played a major role in determining the fate of its Jews. How does this reflect on Europe today where we not only see rising levels of anti-Semitism but also high levels of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism. What does this mean about constructions of European selfhood, identity and nationalism? Why did some countries resist the Nazis while others went even further in exterminating Jews? Returning to Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, how can we connect particular discourses of race, modernity, nationhood, belonging, rationality, science and development to events such as the Holocaust, and indeed to continuing tensions in Europe related to the creation of an us/them dichotomy?

And above all, how have many of these dynamics been reproduced in Israel itself? Indeed Arendt’s warning at the beginning of the book about how the Israeli state was setting itself up as extremely strong and repressive state is above all important in our current time. She notes that because Jews felt so weak after the Holocaust, Israel was the means through which strength was to be projected outwards. This has, of course, happened at the expense of Palestinians. One act of ethnic cleansing has led to another. And yet, when we think of the banality of evil, it makes sense in the context of Israel even more: it is the belief that the killing and torturing of Palestinians is not wrong; it must happen for a whole host of reason. This is precisely what evil is and how it materializes – in the everyday acts and acquiescence of whole populations who believe that a certain thing is necessary.

Race/Gender/Capitalism

Over the past few days I’ve had several discussions around the same topic: the role of race and gender within capitalism. Even phrasing the question that way reveals an assumption that race and gender are within capitalism and therefore not systems outside of or co-existing with capitalism, and so somehow subservient to the main system: capitalism. This represents a major debate within Marxism, but also outside of it. Many people seem to agree that racism and sexism existed before capitalism, but this is where the agreement ends. While some argue that capitalism merely instrumentalizes race and gender for its own ends and could exist without them, others point out that capitalism would not exist without racism and sexism – the three systems are closely dependent on one another. I tend to lean more towards this second point of view.

Marxist calls for the working class to organize as a class have always made me wonder about specific historical periods during which this was simply not feasible. In one recent discussion there was the example of the Black Panthers, with the statement that they should not have organized around a subjective identity – race – but should have organized around an objective one – class. But taking America in the 1960s and 1970s, how exactly were the Panthers supposed to organize around class when the racism of the white working class was so deeply entrenched? Were they supposed to devote their energy to addressing this racism in order to win the white working class over? Or wait until white workers realize that they had been duped into a false sense of superiority? It seems to me that Black Power was a response to the deeply racialized nature of American society that took class into account (many were Marxists) but that did not privilege class in a way that downplayed race. I don’t think that overthrowing capitalism at that moment would have ended racism. Indeed some have noted that in the US today, respectability politics gets you nowhere: you could be upper-class and Black and still get killed by police brutality – class doesn’t simply trump race, although it does have its effects.

At the same time, we can also see that organizing around race has its problems. How can a Black Power movement today organize around race when there are major class divisions that have led to the emergence of a Black elite who hold white ideals (see: Obama)? Or without acknowledging that American capitalism depends on a Black underclass? What I am getting at is that organizing around one or the other is almost impossible because of the ways in which race and capitalism are interconnected today. And yet there is a clear racial element to the emergence and consolidation of capitalism: slavery as a racialized mode of production almost single-handedly built the American and European economies.

A second example that comes to mind is the idea that the working class around the world should unite, despite imperialism placing workers in a specific hierarchy that privileges workers in Western countries. Marxist work has shown that part of the reason workers in Europe were able to achieve a social democratic bargain is because elites and multinational corporations found masses of exploitable labour in the “Third World.” In other words, Third World workers paid the price for the benefits European workers started receiving. Bearing this in mind, how are “workers of the world” supposed to unite? Should the struggle be a class struggle divorced from an imperialist struggle, as if capitalism is not imperial? And again, who bears the burden of raising the consciousness of European workers to the global division of labour from which they benefit at the expense of other workers?

A third example is that of gender. White feminist calls to organize around gendered oppression have been critiqued endlessly and rightly for assuming a universal woman. But don’t Marxist calls for organizing around class oppression assume a universal woman worker – and more, a universal worker? What about the ways in which women’s reproductive labour is a central means through which capitalism reproduces itself? This alone makes it difficult to speak of a class struggle that does not look at the ways in which class is gendered (and gender is class-based).

I understand the difference between objective and subjective identities. Belonging to a certain class is objective because it directly affects our ability to survive and reproduce ourselves. But aren’t ideologies such as race and gender also material? Don’t they have very material effects, just like class? Are the three even separable?

The idea that even if we had gender and racial equality, capitalism would still oppress us is a tempting theoretical idea, but I somehow doubt that it is that simple. We are at a point today where we cannot get rid of sexism or racism or capitalism individually because of their interconnectedness. Much gender inequality today is capitalist in nature, but capitalism also needs gender inequality to reproduce itself. Racism is often a result of global capitalism, but global capitalism needs racism to maintain itself.

It seems to me, drawing on an idea put forward by Sara Farris, that when we deal with this question theoretically, it seems easy to draw distinctions between race, gender and capitalism and to then assume that the first two are merely instrumental for capitalism. But when we instead look at historical instances, it becomes clear that racism and sexism have indeed been integral to capitalism from the beginning. Starting with slavery as a mode of production – a clearly racialized mode – and moving to the ways in which women’s unpaid reproductive labour is been used for capital accumulation, we see that throughout struggles over the past century, it has not been easy to simply organize around class.

These are difficult questions precisely because capitalism, racism and sexism have managed to create deep divisions among and between groups that are not easily dissolved through action or protest.

I realize there is no simple answer, but just wanted to write down these thoughts in light of the continuing idea within certain Marxist strands that racism and sexism are not integral to capitalism. They have not only been integral to capitalism – capitalism would not be what it is today without them – but they are also deeply intertwined with it and with one another.

Racialized in Europe

I am back in Europe for a month and this time around it struck me how the intersections of race, gender and class are becoming more and more clear in the European context(s) as the economic crisis deepens in some places and fades away in others. Being back in the Netherlands and seeing the major changes happening within my own institution as well as other Dutch universities vis-à-vis the continuing neoliberalization of education, where critical knowledge is being pushed out through early retirement schemes or more intense competition for funding, and where formerly critical departments are slowly being transformed into places where ‘responsible’ and ‘useful’ knowledge is produced. After spending one year in the US, it seems clear that the US model is something that not only spread to the UK but is now also becoming somewhat dominant in some European contexts, where the connection between knowledge and commodification is explicit. This is not to say that in these critical departments knowledge was ‘free’ or not tied to capital, but rather that in some European contexts knowledge production in these critical centers was tied to the social democratic project that is now being dismantled.

Going to Frankfurt for a few days made some of these changes even more clear. Frankfurt, the home of Critical Theory, is now also undergoing major changes in terms of critical academics being pushed out of the academy. Here, as in Holland, the gendered and racialized effects of this are clear. Whereas for a period gender and racial ‘minorities’ were permitted into these centers of knowledge production, it seems that they are now being pushed out. This is different, it seems to me, from the US context, where gender and racial ‘minorities’ are quickly co-opted, either by placing them in isolated departments such as Gender Studies or Area Studies (Middle East Studies is a clear example here) and then using the existence of these departments as proof of an academic institution being critical; or when gendered and racialized academics themselves become intellectually co-opted and therefore simply reproduce dominant narratives.

Another fascinating experience in Germany was hearing about the rise of Pegida and how once again these fascist and racist movements are designated as exceptional or a minority, even though the racist discourse they mobilize is extremely widespread in Europe. Similar moves are made in Holland when the PVV and Wilders are constructed by Dutch liberals or leftists as a tiny minority of “crazy people” who have nothing to do with “normal Dutch people.” Dutchness here of course refers to tolerance, liberalism and non-racism. And yet…the ways in which certain events are covered; the ways in which ‘migrant populations’ are referred to or spoken of; and the ways in which everyday racism functions demonstrates that in fact what distinguishes Pegida or the PVV from the mainstream public is perhaps its extremity and its fascism but certainly not its core belief that there is a subject—a European—that needs to be preserved. And there is no doubt that this subject is racialized. Indeed the ridiculous discussions and performances surrounding Charlie Hebdo should make this clear, and should also make clear the complex intersections between race, gender, class, nation and imperialism in European contexts today. It is the mechanisms by which a European self is produced and reproduced that are interesting and that rely on very old distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ even while those critiquing this racist view are accused of binary thinking. And yet…the “failure of multiculturalism” or the “limits of European tolerance” vis-à-vis the endlessly inassimilable migrant point to nothing except the desperate need on the part of many forces within Europe to maintain binaries even as they slowly slip away.

At a conference on ‘diversity’ and ‘intersectionality’ in Frankfurt the discussions revolved around these issues and around the ways in which diversity is being mobilized to completely depoliticize discrimination in Europe and to make it seem as though institutions are attempting to ‘be inclusive’ even while they become increasingly exclusive. Again this strikes me as something imported from the US context, where the narrative of a “melting pot” or this idea that diversity is good (read: profitable) is so strong, and where programs such as affirmative action are imagined to be radical interventions that are enough to fix the problem of representation. This is not to say that affirmative action is not needed, but that it is certainly not enough. And it will not be enough in the European context either.

Perhaps the only consolation here is that after spending on year in the US, it is clear that the gains made by European leftists that led to the institutionalization of social welfare policies can never be underestimated. America’s capitalism is explicit, brutal, suffocating. Europe’s capitalism—for now—is hidden behind walls of welfare and social democratic values and must navigate through leftist and labour movements that are still relatively strong. Although, that said, from the perspective of the Global South, this difference between US and European capitalism makes no difference; Europe’s social welfare policies benefit Europeans on the backs of non-Europeans, and even non-white Europeans must fight to be seen as deserving of welfare. In any case, the dismantling of the welfare state is well under way and we will probably not have one to speak of generations from now in places like the Netherlands.

This trip, and all my others to Europe, make me think about intersectionality from the perspective of a master category, because it seems to me that in the European context – especially among “migrants (a term used for anyone not white, even if they have been there for generations) – race is the underlying cause of multiple forms of exclusion. Not to say that class, gender and so on are not part of this or do not affect this, but in the Global North race continues to exert a tremendous influence on the ways in which the subaltern in these places are treated. Perhaps this also explains why so much of the intersectionality canon – created by activists and scholars mostly in Europe and America – focuses on race and on race in particular contexts, without looking at the globalized nature of racism or capitalism. As Spivak has mentioned, intersectionality is problematic because it often ignores the global division of labour. Again it shows that even when critical theories are developed, they can be Eurocentric and reproduce concerns found in specific locations while erasing others. Definitely more to think about here.

A special thanks to Vanessa Thompson for the inspiring conversations and the lovely Frankfurt trip mentioned in this post.

Some thoughts on bell hooks – on angry women and postcolonial feminism

I don’t usually find myself getting very emotional when I watch interviews or debates, especially between academics. But this talk with bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry somehow managed to make me feel a lot of things I hadn’t before. There is no doubt that bell hooks is one of the most formative feminists out there, whose work has made postcolonial feminism and intersectionality what it is today. But there’s something else about her, the ease with which she speaks about her own personal life and struggles, and weaves them together with her theoretical understandings of global gendered structures, that makes her truly unique. There isn’t a distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘real life’ because they are co-constitutive, and yet we see time and again the inability of academics to show clearly how they use everyday experiences in their own theoretical work, or how their theoretical work can be useful for non-academics. bell hooks doesn’t have this problem. Reading or listening to her, it becomes painfully clear how the experiences we go through are constituted through complex power relations. I guess the best way to put it is that she is so relatable. She speaks and people, especially women of colour, simply relate. So it made me want to write down a few of the things she said that really resonated with what I’ve been feeling these past few months.

At the beginning of the interview she spoke about how Melissa had recently taken down an economist on her show, and how immediately people condemned her for being too harsh, too ‘out of control.’ She was characterised as ‘the angry black woman’ even though, as bell said, she hadn’t been rude, or condescending. She had simply demolished the other person’s argument. Now the ‘angry black woman’ trope should be familiar to anyone who has been in a power relation like that before. The classic example is the woman-man situation, where no matter what the woman says or does, she is often labelled as overly-emotional, overly-sensitive or just angry. (“Are you pmsing?” – the question all women love to hear.) Not only do these types of questions create a dynamic of powerlessness and function as a way of silencing women (especially women of colour in relation to both men and white women), they also construct emotion and anger as negative and as not belonging in a ‘rational discussion.’ This has never made sense to me. Women are angry, women should be angry. Why are we still stuck on the myth of rational and objective exchanges? Why does anger, or the expression of anger, delegitimise? Clearly it’s linked to age-old notions of people of colour and women as inferior because of their irrationality, whereas men (especially white men) are constructed as rational, calm, objective and in control. I love the way Melissa put it: “I’m mad, but I’m mad about something. I’m not mad as an inherent part of being a black woman.”

bell hooks talks about how white feminists saw her first book as such as angry book and she had no idea what they meant because to her it didn’t feel that way. It seems to me that accusations of ‘you sound angry’ or ‘you’re not being rational’ often emerge in spaces where one group (in this case, white women) feel threatened and feel that there might be a possible shift in power dynamics, and therefore immediately go on the defensive and attack the Other (bell) as being too emotional, too angry, and too aggressive, thus not focusing on the content of the book itself. “People are constantly using anger and ‘being difficult’.” And that’s exactly what it is – a tool to silence. It reminds me Sara Ahmed referring to herself as a feminist killjoy. That’s exactly how it’s perceived – you’re ‘killing the mood’ or being a ‘buzzkill’ – in other words, you’re challenging power (the status quo) and making people feel uncomfortable. A good example is this piece by a good friend of mine, Usayd, where he talks about the everyday sexism of men. I wonder how many men call out their friends when they say sexist or homophobic things? Who wants to be a killjoy in the end? Being told you’re angry or difficult is exactly a way of maintaining the impenetrability of power structures.

When bell talked about how little power we have over how our representations are received, it made me think of a quote from Lila Abu Lughod’s recent book, ‘Do Muslim women need saving?’ She wrote, “It’s hard to hear through the noise of familiar stories.” And it seems like a lot of this talk is about that. About how difficult it is to create new representations and new ways of thinking about black women. And how does one do this without being reactionary? One example is when Muslim women are portrayed as liberated by Islam, a clearly reactionary narrative that is simply responding to Western assumptions about Islam, women and oppression. Such reactionary narratives often end up creating a new type of representation that is equally problematic and serves to further embed the power dynamics the representation was trying to undo.

The part where bell talks about white female complicity in the patriarchal-capitalist system was reminiscent of how influential she’s been in theorising that reality. There are many days (most) when I question the term ‘feminist’ itself because it seems impossible to move away from its foundations, from the reality that as a term and as a movement it was defined by white women, women who – undoubtedly – at the time were implicit in imperialism and capitalism. Women who saw non-white or non-affluent women as Others, as victims to be saved, as objects, as indicators of their own progressiveness. And this isn’t even a thing of the past. Until today, I have rarely met white women, even those who call themselves feminists, who are not implicitly imperial in their approach to non-white women. There is always something, whether it’s a comment, a justification, a defensiveness when you critique white feminism. And so today we have postcolonial feminism, which has managed to create alternative notions of what feminism is, but it also seems to be a bubble. When people hear ‘feminism’ they think ‘white feminism’ and this seems almost inescapable at this point. We have feminists like Nancy Fraser writing in the Guardian about how neoliberalism has co-opted feminism – yes, true, but why is this a revelation in 2013 when feminists of colour (including bell) have been talking about it for decades? And why are you surprised that it was so easy for neoliberalism to co-opt a feminism that was inherently liberal in and of itself? What are the major differences, anyway? And why did Fraser frame this ‘discovery’ as something that deserved praise, as an example of white feminists being self-reflexive and critical? All it was, to me, was proof that white feminists continue to ignore feminists of colour, as simple as that. Because engaging with feminists of colour would have meant that Fraser would have reached this ‘discovery’ some time ago.

Another thing that struck me was when bell talked about the cognitive dissonance black and brown people experience, where on the one hand they know that white capitalist supremacy is a real, actual thing (or at least most seem to know) but on the other hand, seem to believe that democracy, justice, equality, etc. are also real things. She speaks of this as the ‘innocence about whiteness’ and it struck me how many people I know who have this. Who think that yes, there is racism and bad things happen, but it’s just kind of there, not because white people or a white system enable it. They seem to have bought the ‘good intentions’ argument where if a white person says they didn’t mean something or aren’t perpetuating something, then it’s fine, all’s forgiven. I was at a conference 2 weeks ago, at a panel on the EU and migration, and Germany was being criticised for how it treats migrants. This German guy there puts up his hand and says “You mean the German state, right? Because I’m German and I have nothing to do with it.” And it was just shocking to me, that someone could so easily brush off his own involvement and – by extension – his own guilt. Because that’s just it: it is about him, too. We are all tied to oppressive structures and implicated in them. The way out of that is not to deny it and transplant the blame onto someone else. The way out – or through it – is to be be self-reflexive and self-critical. But I guess it’s easier to go on and on about how we’re ‘post-racial’ and ‘post-imperialism’ and how it’s all a conspiracy.

Melissa, during the q & a, answered a question from a lady who talked about how she gets criticised by other black women more than by white women. She had four children by three different men, and talked about how other black women constantly told her that it was her mistake and that she should have made different choices. Melissa made the excellent point that this individualizing of misery – where when something goes wrong it’s about the wrong choices you as an individual – made and not about structural violence or structural inequality – is the problem. And this is a direct legacy of the neoliberal world we live in, as well as of the Enlightenment era (the two of course being linked) where it is all about rational individuals and “choice.” If someone is poor, they chose to be poor, or they’re lazy, or they didn’t try hard enough. If a single mother is struggling to raise her children, it’s about the bad choices she made. It’s never about structures. I never quite realised how strong this narrative is until I lived in the Netherlands and saw how the liberal illusion of choice is simply untouchable. At a deep level, it is so dangerous – as Melissa points out – because it prevents people of colour from collective organising that would bring about structural change. bell also mentioned how traumatic shame is, and how useful it is to control groups of people. This reminded me of how prevalent shame is postcolonial contexts and how it continues to shape narratives and identities in relation to imperialism.

Finally, the most striking moment was when bell quotes Paulo Freire, who said: “We cannot enter the struggle as objects, to later become subjects.” And I think that one line sums up, for me, the problems with feminism and non-white women; the problems in general with trying to ‘reform from the inside’ structures that are seen as exclusionary to you. Because the reality is, you are probably not seen as a subject, as even deserving of being in the struggle. Worse, the struggle has already been defined. Ramón Grosfoguel, borrowing from Fanon, uses the concept of the zone of being and the zone of non-being. The  argument is that racism is a structure of power and domination along the line of the human being. People in the zone of non-being are not recognised as full humans. While there are people who are oppressed within the zone of being (women, queers, etc), it is important to realise that they have racial privilege that the people in the zone of non-being do not have. The way the system regulates conflicts in the different zones is important. In the zone of being, conflicts are regulated, and are peaceful with exceptional moments of violence. In the zone of non-being, the system manages conflicts through violence, appropriation and dispossession. Thus the norm is violence with exceptional moments of peace. People in this zone are oppressed along class, gender, sexuality, AND race. So then how can feminism be defined as including people that have historically been in the zone of non-being? Or more importantly, has feminism (I mean mainstream, hegemonic feminism) even recognised that these two zones exist?

Structural racism and privilege

This post is based on some ideas presented by Grosfoguel on racism. Would love to hear your thoughts!

Edit: the first part is a presentation of Grosfoguel’s argument, which I later problematize slightly. I don’t believe prejudice from marginalised -> privileged groups can be termed a racist system, but that doesn’t mean it is not problematic. I also don’t believe that racism can only be institutional; I believe it is both (and others) which is what makes it so complicated. Just wanted to clear this up 🙂

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Racism is not just about having a prejudice against someone. This doesn’t count as racism if it doesn’t have the power to affect the person you have this prejudice against. Rather, it is racism when it’s institutionalised & has real effects on people. This is why “anti-white racism” is bullshit. If I have prejudiced views against whites, it affects them minimally since there are no institutions or discourses that turn my prejudice into real discrimination against whites. (So please, no more talk about reverse racism. Yes, brown people might have prejudiced and discriminatory views against whites. Women might have prejudiced views against men. But they do not have institutional and discursive power backing these views up, so it is not a racist system.)

I find his ideas very useful in the sense that he highlights structural and institutional racism and violence, which is often left out of debates on racism. As he siad, we are often told that modern societies have “some racists on the fringes” – the KKK, the neo-Nazis, Wilders, fascists. This automatically constructs racism as a small issue that exists within a minority of  “crazy Europeans and Americans” and automatically constructs the rest of society as not racist.

This of course ignores the fact that institutions and structures produce and reproduce racism. This is important also because even privileged people who do not necessarily hold prejudiced views still benefit from prejudiced institutions. The recognition of this prejudice is crucial. To give a more personal example, because I am half-white and half-Arab, I am often seen as white in Egypt, which brings a lot of privilege with it. Just because I may not necessarily hold prejudiced views that often come along with being European does not mean that I do not benefit from being associated with European-ness.

So my main question is: how can we theorise the complex linkages between racism at the individual level and the institutional and structural level? How does racism produced at both these levels interact and mutually reproduce each other? Can we speak of prejudice against privileged groups as racist if it doesn’t have any structural or institutional power backing it up? How to address institutional racism in countries such as the Netherlands where it has been invisibilised?

Finally: how to address the concept of privilege? We all have some form of privilege, whether it be class, racial, gender, etc. Can we use this privilege, as Spivak suggests, when she writes: “We cannot unlearn or undo our privilege, we can only use it on behalf of others.” But how to this without imposing our own narratives and frameworks on those we are trying to “help”? For example, if I want to use my class privilege on behalf of others, how to do this without being condescending and without having experienced or understood the lives of those with different class situations? How to even speak about this without being elitist?  Should those with privilege simply acknowledge it, recognise how it affects our lives, and realize that others do not have the same privilege?

In other words, how to act in solidarity? If we see racism as a product of institutions and structures, do those with privilege have the obligation to challenge these institutions and structures? For example, when Dutch people ask about how they can “help the Middle East” wouldn’t the best (and possibly only) solution be to focus on changing things domestically – challenge the ways in which the Dutch and European governments are implicated in perpetuating global inequalities that negatively affect countries like Egypt? (Although I have to say that Dutch people usually aren’t happy with this response, ahem.)

Lots of questions again. Would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, and I hope I haven’t been too essentializing in using terms like white, race, class – these terms are of course complex and problematic, but also somewhat unavoidable.