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.

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.

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.

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!

Islamophobia in Europe

"For more security" Used in an election campaign

There is little doubt that Islamopobia is rife in Europe, a continent that only 60 years ago was host to the worst genocide in human history, shocking in both scale and execution.  Today, one by one European countries are electing far-right parties into parliament and presidential office, and Muslims and other non-white Europeans are finding it harder to “fit into” European society.

I just read a brilliant article called “The success of Islamophobia in Europe” (here). There is no doubt that things in Europe are getting tense:

Immigrants are caricatured and scapegoated, whole ethnic groups are implied to have criminal personalities and to be anything but normal, moral and hard-working. Wilders, for example, speaks of Moroccan ‘street-terrorists’ while his party proposes replacing civil servants with street militias; the Sweden Democrats commissioned an advertisement showing a woman in a burqa harassing an elderly pensioner; the Danish president of the International Free Press Society, Lars Hedegaard, asserts that Muslim men routinely allow their daughters to be raped by family members, while the Scandinavian internet is awash in tales of ‘Islamic rape gangs’; and the head of Germany´s new Freedom Party, René Stadtkewitz argues that it is impossible to integrate (Turkish and Arab) Muslims into German society without doing fundamental damage to its Judeo-Christian culture.

Top: Zurich 2010; bottom: 20 years later

What is even more worrying is that so many Europeans seem to support anti-Islam rhetoric. In an election in the Netherlands in the summer of 2010, Wilders’ party received approx 2 million out of the 8 million votes that were cast. If that isn’t scary I don’t know what is.

The article brings up many good points.  One of these is the fact that Europe seems to be plagued by the Holocaust, yet not by its colonial past. Why so much guilt over the Holocaust but not the colonial empires so many European countries ruled over brutally?

While the Holocaust has increasingly been taken as the foundational trauma for the whole of western Europe – a shared inheritance enabling an overarching moral project – colonialism has been approached from the opposite perspective. Notwithstanding that at one point 85% of the world was under European control – affecting the economics, ideologies, politics, consumption, and cultures of all Europe and all non-Europe along the way – colonialism nonetheless has been seen as a matter of purely national significance, to be dealt with individually as each nation and state might occasionally see fit.

One major misleading effect is that non-western immigrants are now largely imagined to be encountering Europe for the first time and to be bringing with them a purely alien culture untouched by decades and centuries under European control and influence. It is as if Europe had never gone out into the world in any significant cultural fashion, but only economically and militarily, while its own cultures were somehow left magically untouched.

Another interesting point is that Islamophobia is not necessarily a resurgence of racism:

The critical innovation of these movements, particularly in northern Europe, is that they have managed – for their supporters – to delink Islamophobia from racism so that today it is quite possible to argue that one is both anti-Islam and anti-racist.

This could explain why the Dutch, for example, normally obsessed with political correctness, have no problem complaining about (at the least) or insulting (at the most) Islam. Stephen Gash, co-founder of Stop Islamisation of Europe, has taken as his tag-line:  “racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the highest form of common sense.” This reminds me of how being anti-Islam has become acceptable in many parts of the world. It’s okay to complain about Islam, to generalize about Muslims, and to support anti-Islamic proposals/laws/wars. Muslims are the ultimate ‘Other’ and so any negative action/rhetoric used against them is completely understandable and therefore acceptable.

Across Europe there is legislation against hate speech, against racism and anti-Semitism, against the defamation of whole groups, minorities, and (if inconsistently) religions.

When Muslims appeal to such legislation, said legislation is suddenly accused of inflicting an unacceptable limitation on one’s freedom of speech – a misuse of anti-hate legislation that silences all criticism.

The author suggests 2 solutions to the problem. One: the formation of Islamic political parties in Europe (yeah right! there will be some kind of mass conflict before that happens); and two: remove all anti-hate speech legislation (so all groups can be targeted? isn’t it better to ensure that anti-Islam speech is punished, the way all other hate-speech is?)

Personally, I think the problem at this point can only be solved through socialization. No legal, economic, or political solution will work anymore. The problem is racism, Islamophobia, and the fact that Europeans just do not seem to like people different from them. The colonial past and the Holocaust are two events that make it clear that Europe has an issue with difference. This is not to say, of course, that ALL Europeans are like this; but from my personal experience, many are. This is especially the case with Muslims, who are seen as completely different and simply backwards. They are not modern, rational, and do not support human rights (what exactly are human rights? are they universal or western? when did non-white people agree to these universal human rights?)

In conclusion:

How rare it is for a national politician to claim Muslims as one of his or her own. The fundamental paradox is that while the established and progressive elite of continental Europe are fiercely against rhetorical and institutionalized discrimination – to the point that many consider this a deep violation of their most vital personal and national values – many are at the same time highly unwilling to stop considering Islam and immigrants as backward in one fashion or another.

Elite and populist alike agree on the Muslims´ otherness; they just differ on the question of what to do about it. And as long as they agree on this – through their actions even more than their words – we have nowhere to go but down.

Psychological colonialism

One of the major ways in which colonialism has continued to exist in our world today is through the mind.  It is unbelievable the way the global system(s) have been moulded to produce peoples who think they are organized in a hierarchy.  The media, capitalism, international relations, consumerism, heteronormativity, racism – all of these have combined to create a world in which every person knows there place.

Yet at the same time, many people who are not at the top of the hierarchy (white, male, older, from certain parts of Europe and the US) do not simply accept their position but struggle against it. We know we’re not less human, even though we’re being told that everyday (implicitly or explicitly). Thus life is a constant struggle where you have to defend your race, gender, nationality, sexuality, preferences to not only those who are prejudiced towards you but to yourself. I’ve experienced so many moments where I’ve questioned myself and my beliefs – are women more emotional than men? is Islam a gender-biased religion? are Arabs culturally backwards? And then the tremendous guilt that comes with that because I shouldn’t be asking those questions. But I’m socialized to believe certain things about certain groups, and it is a constant battle to tell myself that these things are social constructions.

Who is an Aryan?

A friend recently told me about an experiment done in the 1940s in America.  Two psychiatrists used dolls to study children’s attitudes about race.

They found that black children often preferred to play with white dolls over black; that, asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, they frequently chose a lighter shade than was accurate; and that the children gave the color “white” attributes such as good and pretty, but “black” was qualified as bad and ugly (click here).

They argued that these results showed that the children had internalized racism caused by being discriminated against and stigmatized by segregation.

Is it really surprising that black children chose to play with white dolls? Or that they saw themselves as lighter than they actually were? Think of what these kids are taught since the moment they are born: what do they see around them, what do they see at school, what do they experience in the public sphere? There are millions of implicit messages being sent to us each day, especially through the media. These play an integral role in defining us and defining our self-image.

Islamophobia

Is it really surprising that so many people are self-deprecating or have an inferiority complex? Are we socialized to have those? Even today I am still shocked to hear Egyptians talk about the US as superior and Egypt as backwards – America, with a history of 500 years and Egypt with a history of 7000 years? Moreover, I find it surprising that people don’t try and understand why we have “more developed” and “less developed” countries today (I hate using those terms but just making the point that some countries are in a better economic and political situation).

How to move past this? How do we stop seeing our own cultures, genders, religions, sexualities as inferior? And even more difficult is to not do what has been done to us: inferiorize others in order to feel better about what is ours. Is the way to feel better about being a woman to put men down, as many radical feminists have done? Is the way to feel better about being a Muslim to emphasize that all non-Muslims are infidels? Surely that’s just reproducing the same racist colonial rhetoric we’ve always been complaining about.

I guess the only way to deal with all of this is to be conscious of how power is used by global systems to produce inequalities and hierarchies, and to constantly be conscious of these, especially when we reproduce them. It’s a constant battle, but it’s better to be aware than to blindly accept and reproduce.