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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The Problem with “Innocent” Ignorance: Racism, Whiteness & the Working Class

One of the more interesting debates that has come out of Trump winning the US presidency has been about the role of the white working class in perpetuating racism. Although the white working class did not constitute the majority of white votes Trump received, they have been scapegoated by some as being the reason for why Trump won. This scapegoating, I believe, is wrong, particularly since in this particular case most of Trump’s support came from the white middle class. A class that has increasingly been confronted with the neoliberal reality of the “American Dream” and who have lost more and more as they have become deeply embroiled in a system of debt, credit, and precariousness. However, this class can’t only be analysed in pure class terms, since it is precisely the white middle class that voted for Trump in large numbers. Part of the story is also a backlash to Obama – the first Black president – as well as to the increasing focus on racism in public debates following the excruciatingly high rates at which Black men and women are being killed and imprisoned. As Christina Sharpe has argued in her new book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being” the Atlantic slave trade is a living, breathing part of the United States; it is not the past nor a historical legacy; it is what has formed the US today; Black people are not left out of the system; Black exclusion is the system.

Despite all of this, I have seen a lot of people engage in the discourse of humanising the white working class American who voted for Trump (even if they are not in the majority). We have heard of many stories from white working class America, especially the Rust Belt: men and women who have been forgotten by their politicians, who suffer great economic difficulty, and who the system has failed. They voted for Trump because they wanted change; it is that simple. They did not vote for Trump because they are racist, or sexist, or want a white America. It was a protest vote, as simple as that.

Now obviously this is a very problematic reality. As some have pointed out, it shows the power the white working class still as due to its whiteness: the power to not care about issues of race; to still vote someone who will institute racist policies simply because he aligned with their views on other issues. In other words, Trump’s racism was not a deal-breaker for these voters because his racist policies – a matter of life and death for millions of Americans – did not affect them directly.

Obviously there is sympathy to be had with the white working class. The US is a settler colony founded on capitalism. It has always been brutal to anyone outside of a small elite who amass massive profits off of the exploitation of the rest. For many different reasons, the US ruling class has been able to create an ideology strong enough to maintain its hegemony for centuries: this ideology includes ideas about the American Dream, about working hard till you make it, about material wealth being the result of pure hard work, and so on. We all know it since it’s been exported everywhere. Coming to terms with the reality that this ideology is precisely that – an ideology – has been shattering for working classes across the West, who found this out a long time ago. In fact it’s been the middle classes that have been extremely slow to catch on. And so that is where sympathy lies: with the exploitation of workers by capital.

Now when you ask these people who engage in the discourse of understanding white workers as angry at the system, as opposed to racist, how the connection between the system and racism hasn’t yet been made, they often turn to the age-old response: white ignorance, or, more aptly I would say, white innocence. These voters voted for Trump for economic reasons, and so they cannot be called racist, even if Trump himself is racist and has a racist platform. They voted in their economic interests. But those interests hurt other people. Well, maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they are ignorant. I’ve heard this from people speaking about white working and middle class support for the far right in Europe as well: people are seeing their lives changing, everything is being taken away from them, and so they vote for parties who talk about change. They may be ignorant and so they blame immigrants, but what they *really* mean is that they want economic security.

However, where I think this discourse needs to go is to ask what role this ignorance, or white innocence, plays in perpetuating US imperialism inside and outside of the US, and what role this ignorance, or innocence, has played in allowing Europe to expand its empires everywhere. If, until now, the white working and middle classes have not realized the connections between capitalism and racism, then it is not a matter of innocent ignorance – it is a matter of willful ignorance. European and US capital remains unscathed; the blame has so easily fallen on people of colour and immigrants that they have not even had to justify themselves. When I found out that members of my Dutch family voted for right-wing extremist Geert Wilders, I found myself shocked. Even though they knew us? Even though we had grown up together? Why? Because they could see economic cuts being made around them; they could see that they would not live the life their parents had lived. Things were being taken away from them. Yes, I agree. But by who? Who is cutting the European welfare state? Not the people you think. But how can we excuse this type of innocent ignorance? How can we make excuses for it when we know the very real consequences it has?

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panther Party developed an entire program that showed how US capitalism is racialized – the two cannot be separated. Before them, Black scholars and activists had made this same connection. The slave trade is emblematic of this coming together of capital and race; it could not have happened without the development of both of these systems. The spread of capital needed racism; the spread of racism needed capitalism. And so the Black Panthers realized something that still rings true: liberation meant that both had to go. The Black Panthers have been criticized for not reaching out to the white working class at the time, and for instead organizing along racial lines. Not only is this historically inaccurate, but it puts the blame on the Panthers for another instance of white innocence/ignorance. Now obviously the US state and ruling class played a big role in brutally crushing the US working class, the unions, the Left, as well as any collaborations between the white working class and the non-white working class. They knew that once that alliance was made, there would be a real threat to US capitalism, and no one has shown this better than Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States.”

The point of this post is not to say that white people should be more aware, or to suggest that it is all about race and not about capitalism. In fact the Black Panthers clearly articulated the dangers of the rising Black middle class and how they had been co-opted by the US ruling class. This is something we see across the postcolonial world as well, and something Fanon talked about: the native class that imitates the Western elites. This class gets its power precisely from its class position: it is the class that opens up markets for transnational capital after colonial rule could no longer play that role. The point instead is to point at where the fissures between race and capital lie, and to show that we cannot understand the decision by the white working and middle classes today to vote based on their own economic interests as separate from a long history of them ignoring how their interests depend on the exploitation of others.

It is this white silence, and the history of this white silence, that is important not to excuse. Yes, the white working class and the white middle class are suffering, in both the US and Europe. Yes, neoliberalism has affected them greatly, and yes, they will not live the lives they thought they would. But that does not detract from the fact that in the hierarchy of these countries, they are still  – by virtue of their race – above many others. What Fanon has called the zone of being. Their innocent misunderstanding of how this zone is dependent on the zone of non-being has historically caused immense suffering and destruction. Their ignorance of how their position is dependent on the exploitation of others has allowed European and US imperialism to spread without much resistance. They are concerned with their lives, as we are all taught to be, like good individualistic subjects. They work to make a living, and they vote based on their economic interests. The point is that, not everyone has that privilege.

Historically there have been instances of massive solidarity with non-white struggles on the part of the white working class. Unions have often looked at racism and sexism and how they interact with class. There are enough historical precedents for us not to accept the excuse of white innocence today, and for us not to engage in the discourse of understanding the white working class as acting on economic motivations alone because they still do not see – or do not want to see – the ways in which these are tied to racism and imperialism. My Dutch family member who voted for Wilders is someone I can empathise with from an economic point of view; but her actions have broader consequences. She is able to ignore the effects of her actions and her views, just as I’m sure Dutch people – working class or not – decades ago were able to do when the Netherlands brutally colonised other countries. But the question is: who has the privilege of being ignorant? And who pays the price?

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* The idea of white innocence comes from Gloria Wekker’s book on the Netherlands, in which she explores a central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia.

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.

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 🙂

_______________________________________________________

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.

The Female Circumcision Cake

I’ve been traveling so I haven’t managed to sit down and write this post until now. On the way to Istanbul I saw a picture on my FB timeline of what looked like a black woman cake. I opened it and found this image:

At first I thought it was some kind of big joke. I mean how can a scene like this happen in 2012? Then I read the caption: Swedish minister at anti-female circumcision event, feeding cake of black woman who was just metaphorically circumcised to the head of the artist.

What?

The more I read & thought about it, the more crazy it seemed that this sh*t still happens today. The Swedish MINISTER OF CULTURE!

But then, how surprising is it, really? Living in the Netherlands has proven to me how racist discourses are still VERY strong, latent as they may be. Discourses such as the “white man’s burden” or “black culture oppressing Africans” or “we need to save them from themselves” are so prevalent that it isn’t actually *that* surprising to see an event like this happening in a country like Sweden.

And then defenders of the event & “art installation” bring up the fact that the artist is black, as though that makes everything okay.

The only good thing to come out of this disaster is the amount of brilliant, inspiring critiques from both Africans & Europeans (some at least). Just as with the Kony 2012 disaster, the outcry has been big. Since so many amazing critiques have already been written, I will just quote a few here, with whom I completely & utterly agree:

The event was launched with Swedish minister Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth cutting the first piece of cake from a dark, ruby red velvet filling with black icing, which we understand was created by the Afro-Swedish artist Makode Aj Linde, whose head forms that of the black woman,  and is seen with a blackened face screaming with pain each time a guest cuts a slice from the cake.

Rather disturbingly for many African women, the minister is pictured laughing as she cuts off the genital area (clitoris)from the metaphorical cake, as the  artist Makode screams distastefully.  The gaze of the predominantly white Swedish crowd is on Lijeroth who  is positioned  at the crotch end,  as they look on at their visibly ebullient culture minister with seemingly  nervous laughter as she becomes a part of the performance – a re-enactment of FGM  on a cake made in the image of a disembodied African woman.

The work is definitely not empowering or transformative for women who are victims of FGM  in any shape or form, and the racial overtones of this project re-inscribe the exploitation and dehumanisation of black African women, which clearly cannot be denied.

One does not need to be subjected to the epistemic violence  underpinning the grotesque reconstruction of FGM,  in the form of a black woman having her clitoris cut off to the sound of  a laughing crowd with a fixed gaze,  drinks in hand, to raise awareness of this very serious issue.

 Not one Black woman, not one Black person in the room, except the artist and his cake.

As such We/African Women/African-Americans and many women of the African Diaspora the world over view this as an assault on our foremothers, sisters and our selves who have worked tirelesslly in different historical and cultural contexts to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular  and stereotypes of black women as  sluts, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our own sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent.

We view it as a racialised slur and an attempt at erasure of all that we have struggled for historically in order to genuinely empower African women the world over.

No one, including the artist seems to have consulted Black African women at the forefront of the movement to end the practice of female genital cutting, often with little resources and in direct and dangerous conflict with their own communities.

What makes the cake episode so deeply offensive is the appropriation, by both artist and his audience, of African women’s bodies and experiences, while completely excluding real African women from the discourse. It is a pornography of violence.

You can read the rest of this stunning critique here.

On a lighter note:

DAKAR. Africans say they have little hope that Europe will ever become civilized, after a week in which Spain’s King Carlos went on an elephant-killing spree and the Swedish Culture Minister was entertained by a racially offensive cake. “You can take the European out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the European,” sighed one resident of Kinshasa.

Read the rest here.

Needless to say, this is yet another shameful event in Europe that shows how integral & definitive their colonial “past” continues to be in defining their present.

West & Multiculturalism

I just wanted to share one of the best articles I’ve read recently, called “On the West’s Moral Panic Over Multiculturalism” by Gary Younge.

For certain groups the price for belonging and conditions for banishment have shifted dramatically in Western nations, particularly but by no means exclusively in Europe, in recent years. Citizenship is no longer enough. The clothes you wear, the language you speak, the way you worship, have all become grounds for dismissal or inclusion. These terms are not applied equally to all—they are not intended to be. The intention of this series of edicts (popular, political and judicial) is not to erase all differences but to act as a filter for certain people who are considered dangerously different.

To achieve this, certain groups and behaviors must first be pathologized so that they might then be more easily particularized.

Still cannot believe the racist speech in which Chirac said this:

Jacques Chirac, 1991: “How do you want a French worker who works with his wife, who earn together about 15,000 francs and who sees next to his council house a piled-up family with a father, three or four spouses and twenty children earning 50,000 francs via benefits naturally without working…If you add to that the noise and the smell, well, the French worker, he goes crazy.”

Even as the Catholic Church is embroiled in a global crisis over child sexual abuse and the Church of England is splintered in a row over gay priests, Islam and Muslims face particularly vehement demands to denounce homophobia.

The combined effect of these flawed distinctions and sweeping demonization is to unleash a series of moral panics.

And what I think his most important point was:

At a time of diminishing national sovereignty, particularly in Europe, such campaigns help the national imagination cohere around a fixed identity even as the ability of the nation-state to actually govern itself wanes. It is a curious and paradoxical fact that as national boundaries in Europe have started to fade, the electoral appeal of nationalism has increased; fascism, and its fellow travelers, is once again a mainstream ideology in Europe, regularly polling between 5 and 15 per cent in most countries.

I have yet to meet a Dutch liberal who has not done this:

Many who consider themselves on the left have given liberal cover to these assaults on religious and racial minorities, ostensibly acting in defense of democracy, Enlightenment values and equal rights—particularly relating to sexual orientation and gender.

And this:

The first is an elision between Western values and liberal values that ignores the fact that liberal values are not fully entrenched in the West and that other regions of the world also have liberal traditions.

And this:

The second is a desire to understand Western “values” in abstraction from Western practice.

And now, to multiculturalism:

Unable to come up with a single, coherent new term that both encapsulates the atmosphere of fear, threat, panic, disorientation, confusion, contradiction and paradoxes and unites both far right and liberals, the opponents of this diverse, hybrid reality resurrected an old foe—“multiculturalism.

The beauty of multiculturalism, for its opponents, is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean so long as you don’t like it.

Finally,

The nation-state is in crisis; neoliberal is in crisis; multiculturalism is simply in situ.

I would add that Europe is also in crisis.

Brown skin, white masks

I just began reading Hamid Dabashi’s book Brown Skin, White Masks, which is a fascinating analysis of the role of native informers in the imperial project of the US and Europe.

The best way to extend Fanon’s revolutionary legacy into the contingencies of our own time is to remain awake to the way the ideological machinery of beleaguered capital keeps reinventing itself.

Today, in the age of multi-culturalism, capital needs newer forms of domination, facilitated by homeless, soulless native informers who have taken over the work that the racist Orientalists once performed.

What we are witnessing today is simply a more advanced stage of colonialism, reflecting a more advanced condition of capitalism in its globalized stage, with newer forms of domination in need of a renewed ideological language. It is thus absolutely imperative that we do not counter-fetishize any particular colour-coded mode of ideological domination – black or brown, Jew or Muslim – as a target of moral assassination.

Capital, in the end, is colour-blind and gender-neutral. It wants to produce cheaply and sell massively to the widest possible market, and it could not care less who buys, who sells, who profits, and who suffers the consequences of this treacherous cycle. The service that the native informers provide to the imperialist project is just another disposable commodity in that cycle, like a roll of toilet paper – use it, discard it, and leave.

Brilliant!

The F-word…again

Jehanzeb at Muslim Reverie has just written another brilliant blog post. (I seriously want to marry this guy; if you’re reading this, yes it’s an official proposal :D)

I see all of these reactions as dismissing a disturbing reality about racial hierarchy, white “privilege” and power, interlocking oppression, power relations between the West and Muslim-majority countries.  Rather than challenging white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, the society in which we live, the focus of every conversation shifted towards personal attacks against me.  The goal in each case, whether deliberate or not, was to silence anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist politics.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again; whenever someone who is not a racial/religious elite gets criticized, they fail to respond (since they know the attack is valid) and therefore have no choice but to simply insult the person who criticized them or the system they are a part of. I also find it interesting that anyone from the “third world” is usually brainwashed/impassioned/anti-west when they criticize the west, whereas someone from the west is always neutral/objective/unbiased. Right.

Jehanzeb also makes a great point about racism: it does not need to be in your face to be considered racist. You don’t have to be a member of the KKK to be racist towards black people. You don’t have to have voted for Geert Wilders to be Islamophobic. My time in Holland has shown me that many Dutch people are racist/Islamophobic in a more subtle, less-obvious way. This makes it even more difficult to deal with them, or to deal with racism/Islamophobia in general.

 I’ve heard so many discouraging stories in the past few weeks about movements that oppressed, excluded, marginalized, or even discriminated against other groups of people.

This is a serious problem within many movements. I saw this in Greece last week, where more than one feminist organization was very discriminatory towards migrants, and made quite racist comments. I was also talking to another friend a few days ago who pointed out that Turkish gay men in Germany were not accepted in the mainstream gay movement for a long time. I always expect feminists to be open to all kinds of differences, and homosexuals to be open to diversity, but this is clearly not the case. In fact, the main LGBT organization in Holland approved of and supported Geert Wilders!

When we say “men and women,” which men and women are we talking about?  White men and women?  Black men and women?  Brown men and women?  Homosexual men and women?  Disabled men and women?  And if homosexual or disabled men and women, are they white or of color?  Using general language about feminism and gender only ignores the other significant factors like race, class, sexual orientation, religion, etc. that determine our experiences.

I think a major problem with “feminism” is that it rarely takes intersectionality into account. There is NO WAY we can talk about women as though they are a homogenous group. What about class, race, religion, sexuality, political views, legal status, etc? For too long, feminists acted as though there was one problem and therefore one solution for all women. An excellent critique of this has come from Chandra Mohanty (her work is amazing, a must-read!)

Islamic feminists, for example, must constantly fight a battle on two fronts: against patriarchy within their communities, and against racism/Islamophobia from feminists outside their community (as well as others outside their community).

Generalizing about Muslim/Arab men is a serious issue in the blogosphere today, and unfortunately when these generalizations are made by Muslim/Arab women or women of colour, they hold even more value and are often used by the Orientalist/imperialistic project. They absolutely love it when a Muslim or ex-Muslim criticizes Islam/Arab/Asian culture. What more could they want? This is not to say that we shouldn’t be self-critical; but generalizations are never the way to go. It is not true that ALL Muslim men are patriarchal, violent, misogynistic, or selfish.

I will quote from an article Jehanzeb also posted on his blog, which I found touching and unfortunately, still true today:

Your racism is showing when we are invisible to you; an afterthought solicited to integrate your white organizations.

Your racism is showing when in frustrated anger, you don’t understand why we won’t do your racism work for you. Do it yourself. Educate yourself. Don’t ask another Black woman to explain it all to you. Read a book

Your racism is showing when you pay too much attention to us. We resent your staring scrutiny that reveals how much we are oddities to you.

Your racism is showing in your cowardly fear of us; when you send someone else to talk to us on your behalf, perhaps another sister; when conflict resolution with us means you call the police. When you ignore what the police do to Black people and call them anyway, your racism is showing.

Your racism is showing when you eagerly embrace the lone Black woman in your collective, while fearing, resenting, suspecting and attacking a vocal, assertive group of Black women. One Black woman you can handle, but organized Black women are a real problem. You just can’t handle us having any real power.

Your racism is showing when you comment on our gorgeous “ethnic clothing or ask us why we wear dreads when we are perfect strangers to you. Would you do the same to a white stranger wearing Ralph Lauren and a page boy? These are also ethnic styles.

Your racism is showing when you demand to know our ethnicity, if we don’t look like your idea of a Black person. We are not accountable to you for how our bodies look. And we don’t have to be “nice” to you and tolerate your prying.

Your racism is showing when you insist upon defining our reality. You do not live inside our skin, so do not tell us how we should perceive this world. We exist and so does our reality.

Your racism is showing when our anger makes you panic. Even when we are not angry at you or your racism, but some simple, ordinary thing. When our expressed anger translates to you as a threat of violence, this is your unacknowledged fear of retribution or exposure and it is revealing your guilt.

Your racism is showing when YOU, by your interference, will not allow us to have our own space. We realize you never expected to be denied access to anything and any place, but sometimes you should stay away from Black women’s spaces. You do not have to be there just in case something exotic is going on or just in case we are plotting against you. In these instances, you are not just uninvited guests, you are infiltrators. This is a hostile act.

Your racism is showing when you cry, “Reverse discrimination!” There is no such thing. Only privileged people who have never lived with discrimination, think there can be a “reverse.” This means thatyou think it shouldn’t happen to you, only to the other people it normally happens to — like US.

Your racism is showing when you exclaim that we are paranoid and expecting racism around every corner. Racism inhabits this society at a core level. Ifwe weren’t constantly on our guard, we, as a people, would be dead by now.

Your racism is showing when you daim you have none. This economy and culture would not have existed without slave labour to build it. The invasion and exploitation of the Americas depended upon the conviction that people of colour were less than human. Otherwise, we could not have been so cruelly used. You grew up in a racist society. How could you not be racist? You cannot simply decide that racism is “bad” and therefore you are no longer racist. This is not unlearning racism. Black people could not afford to be this naive.

Your racism is showing when you think that all racists are violent, ignorant, card-carrying Nazis. You are fooling yourself, but not us, if you think that racism refers to the unconnected, isolated, “just-plain-meann actions and attitudes of bad people. Most racists are nice folks, especially in this country. Racism is systemic and cannot be separated out from this culture.

We do not want to witness or dry your tears. Yes, racism hurts. It hurts you, but please do not entertain the notion that it hurts much as us. Racism kills us, not you. Your tears will not garner our sympathy. We are no longer your property, therefore we will no longer take care of you. We don’t want to see your foolishness, so take your racism work to your own place and do it there.

TO WHITE FEMINISTS, BE YOU LIBERAL, RADICAL, SEPARATIST, RICH, OR NOT-YOUR RACISM IS SHOWING. YOU CAN EXPECT TO HEAR FROM VOCAL, ORGANIZED BLACK WOMEN WHO WILL BE IN YOUR FACE ABOUT IT.

– Carol Camper, “To White Feminists” Canadian Woman Studies, 1994

Athens

I just got back from a study trip to Athens, Greece, and it was definitely an interesting experience. Although my specialization is gender, the trip ended up being more about migration and race-relations in Greece.

Before we went there, we had no idea that Greece is having a huge immigration problem. Some things we found out from NGOs while we were there:

  • Mosques are not allowed to be built in Athens, which means that there are only informal mosques in basements (need to double check this).
  • Over the past few years, right-wing Greek people have trapped Muslims inside these informal mosques and then thrown petrol bombs inside, killing many.
  • The second day we were there, a Greek man was robbed and then killed by 3 “dark-looking people” who were assumed to be immigrants. Later that night, neo-Nazi TV channels (yes) and blogs called for Greek people to go out and attack and beat immigrants.
  • The next day over 17 immigrants ended up in the hospital after being stabbed.
  • There was also a clash between the left-wing and the police, who are overwhelmingly right-wing (surprise, surprise).
  • There is a huge back-log in terms of applications for legal status as a migrant, and some have to wait up to 20 years. Thus they can be arrested at any time, and they are kept in 2-by-2 cells with no toilets, little food, and no dignity.
  • There are reportedly 2 million undocumented migrants in Athens, who are now at risk of being attacked.
While Athens is certainly extreme, these discourses can be found all over Europe now, including the Netherlands. Anti-Islam rhetoric has become so widespread and acceptable, it is no surprise that in some countries, like Greece, it has led to violence.
Some feminists criticize porn because they say it leads to violence against women, since it objectifies and dehumanizes them. The same can be said about discourses on Islam in Europe today. By dehumanizing, stigmatizing, and insulting Muslims, violence is only a few steps away.
Uffff.
On a positive note, Greek men are very good-looking!