Post-this, post-that, post-the-other; yet in the end
Not past a thing. Not understanding or telling
But often past oneself,
Pounded like a shore by the roller griefs
In language that can still knock language sideways.
Seamus Heaney, On His Work in the English Tongue
When I started writing this blog post back in early December I had intended to write about the constructions of Black masculinity in the Netherlands. What prompted me to think critically about the White Autochtoon Dutch investment in certain representations of Black male subjectivity was a column which appeared in the newspaper NRC Handelsblad about the Braboneger, a Black man who comments on current events in a thick Brabantian accent. I had already gathered a tissue of images that I wanted to analyze and I was looking for some texts to prop up my argumentation. Well, during one of my online searches I stumbled upon an article entitled “No Gender, No Power written by Janneke Veger for the online Dutch feminist magazine Lover.
In the article Veger discusses the gendered aspects of the Sinterklaas tradition, specifically Zwarte Piet’s tragic [sic.] lack of masculinity vis-à-vis the masculine appearance of Sinterklaas, and attempts to unmask how masculinity operates in the Sinterklaas tradition. Ordinarily, there is scant attention being paid outside academia to the ways in which race, class, sexuality and gender play out and organize social life in the Netherlands. So, you can imagine my utter surprise when I came across this article. I thought Janneke Veger raised some good and interesting points in No Gender, No Power. She correctly asserts in her essay that the discussion about Zwarte Piet is not simply about racism. Masculinity is another important facet of the discussion that is often, if not always, overlooked.
I had hoped for an enlightening read. However, what had started out promising petered out rapidly towards the end. To my dismay, the scope of Veger’s essay remained decidedly parochial and limited, because her analysis was not intersectional. Indeed, it was as cosmetic as the layer of black grease paint on Zwarte Piet’s face and it left me with several major points of criticism. To begin with, I did not understand why a lack of masculinity should be considered tragic – unless, of course, masculinity gets inappropriately equated with agency. According to Janneke Veger the “dark-skinned man” lacks agency because he is “100% gender neutral” [sic.]. She bases her assessment, i.e. Zwarte Piet’s gender neutrality, on the fact that Zwarte Piet can be embodied by both men and women. The imagined body of Zwarte Piet is not, and cannot be, “100% gender neutral.” In fact, Zwarte Piet is definitely a he – albeit, an ambiguous, if not obscured, he who inhabits an imagined and therefore a specifically constructed masculinity. By using ambiguous, or obscured, I’m not trying to be witty. The imagined body of Zwarte Piet is circumgendered male, by which I mean Zwarte Piet’s gendered body was specifically constructed to orbit around the cisgender White heterosexual older male paradigm. And like our moon the circumgendered imagined body of Zwarte Piet is either cast in shadow, or reflects the Whiteness and “wisdom” of the cisgender White heterosexual older male.
Unsurprisingly, Veger disregards entirely the intersections of gender and age. She analyzes gender oppression by dint of a binary line of reasoning, which is reminiscent of the style of binary gender opposition of yore, which conflated “sex” and “gender.” Veger translates oppression in terms of “gender” (female vs. male) only, or in terms of “race” (Black vs. White) only. On top of that, she incorrectly asserts that the construction of masculinity centres on just two models: the phallocentric and the patriarchal. The formation of gendered identities of “men” or “males” is a much more complex process; men’s masculinities aren’t either phallocentric, or patriarchal. She notes, at least, the relevance of colonialist ideology in the formation of gendered identities. However, she only talks about the relations between men and women. Curiously, the relations between the White master and the enslaved African male remain unaddressed, despite the fact that Allan G. Johnson indicated in The Gender Knot: What Drives Patriarchy? that patriarchy “is more about what goes on among men.” [Johnson’s emphasis] He further states that “The oppression of women is certainly an important part of patriarchy, but, paradoxically, it may not be the point of patriarchy.” Needless to say that the colonial relations between White and Black women remains equally unexamined in Veger’s essay.
In the Sinterklaas tradition it is the privileged position of the dominant group, that is White cisgender heterosexual able-bodied male, that is being safeguarded. This “hegemonic masculinity,” the dominant ideal masculinity, is constructed in relation to what R. W. Connell has termed “subordinated” and “marginalized” forms of masculinity – as well as in relation to women. Racial and sexual masculine “countertypes” are examples of these so-called “subordinated” and “marginalized” masculinities. Connell pointed out that “complicit masculinity,” which refers to men who benefit from hegemonic masculinity but do not enact it, is the most common type in the masculinity matrix. Because of their subordinated and marginalized status the ways in which men of colour, Queer men (of colour), transgender men (of colour), intersexed persons who self-identify as men negotiate masculinity breach, as a rule, the scripts of those well-defined, rigid models that Janneke Veger speaks of. These men have limited access to either phallocentric, or patriarchal power, or both. Besides, masculinity constructs of men and women of colour are rarely, if ever, unreflexive enactments of traditional concepts of masculinity. Margaret Wetherell and Nigel Edley noted in Negotiating Hegemonic Masculinity: Imaginary Positions and Psycho-Discursive Practices that discursive practices play a central role in the constitution of male subjectivity. It is safe, then, to assume that all men assert themselves through discursive strategies that enable them to enact different types of masculinity that are neither completely centred on the phallocentric, nor the patriarchal model.
Lastly, Veger disregards the importance of the body and how the Black male body, specifically, is constructed through discursive regimes. She also fails to stress the fact that masculinity is not a modality that is exclusively attached to the male body; both men and women can embody and perform masculinity. The problem with the inelastic binary line of reasoning she upholds is that it often, if not always, leads to reductionist and essentialist conclusions. The “anatomical” body, by which I mean the purely physical description of the body, is complex and does not lend itself to simplistic dichotomies. “Intersexuality” as a concept was created to accommodate the complexities of the “anatomical” body. This term was introduced by medical doctors, who acceded to the binary model that has shaped Western understanding of “natural” or “normal” sex, gender and bodies, to categorize people who did not fit neatly into the categories “male” or “female.” This has meant that people who are deemed “intersexed” are discursively constructed as an anomaly in medical discourse and as a result this “pathology of the body” has to be normalized surgically.
The body is the key site where discourses, such as class, race, religion, sexuality, gender, culture, geography, play out and through which discourses are enacted; these two forces together constitute the experience of the “lived body.” The litany of discursive regimes suggests, perhaps, parity between each category, but that is, in fact, not at all the case. They intersect with one another. Thus the lived body can be “read” as an important node of analysis – a point in a network of discourses at which several discourses intersect and branch. These discursive regimes interact with and constrain one another. Each discursive regime prevails within the other permanently like a parasite. They exist essentially in a symbiosis. Even though, it is the interplay of discursive regimes that constructs the body, be it real or imagined, each discourse is “read” and inflects the body in a distinctive way. Some, like race, gender and sexuality, are more important than others. However, all these discursive regimes matter, of course, because they inform concurrently the way we think and talk about the body.
The complex collection (or conflation) of these discursive regimes determines how bodies are perceived. In his theory of the body the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty refers to the body as the phenomenological or lived body. He envisioned the body as an embodied spirit, a thought and observation process that emanates from the body, and constitutes the source of our language and our entry point into the world. In my opinion, a critique of the racialized circumgendered body in the Sinterklaas tradition has to centre, firstly, on how the male body is constructed. Moreover, it needs to focus on how masculinity, as performed by the “anatomically male body,” intersects with various other categories apart from race, e.g. class, sexuality, able-bodiedness, age, body type and so on. An analysis of the constructions of masculinity in the Sinterklaas tradition is not a discussion about men vis-à-vis women, as such, but about how nationalism and colonialism constructed, gendered and racialized the male body; it is about how the ideology of colonialism inflected the multiple masculinities that men of various “races” and “sexualities” could perform; it boils down to which masculinities White men adopt and which masculinities are assigned to racialized bodies.
Age, in particular, lest we forget, is a salient social construction when discussing masculinity and the male body in a tradition wherein “youth” is juxtaposed with “old age.” At any rate, whether intentionally, or not, Janneke Veger aligns herself with the normalizing White gaze that cherishes heteronormativity, gendernormativity, able-bodied White men and White male power; basically, the stuff that Whiteness is made of. In the main because she does not expose the underlying assumption that hegemonic masculinity in the Netherlands is considered to be cisgender heterosexual able-bodied White middle-class masculinity. I’m interested in how racialized bodies are manuf(r)actured, i.e. at once made and unmade, in socially meaningful ways, and how racialized bodies signify and are “read.”
Anyhow, I was well on my way to finishing my piece when the Jackie vs. Rihanna affair swept across various media and caught my attention. Jackie, a Dutch fashion glossy, featured a fashion editorial in which an editor described Rihanna as the “ultimate niggabitch” and subsequently termed her fashion style “niggabitch.” To add insult to injury the editor got Rihanna’s place of birth wrong. I was shocked the editor had used a blatantly racist and sexist portmanteau to describe a bonafide celebrity, but not surprised. As a recovering fashion addict I know that fashion magazines have a problematic relationship with race. These magazines rarely, if ever, reflect the wide spectrum of phenotypes, age groups and body types. In fashion, as in anywhere else, youth, Whiteness, able-bodiedness and a size-zero body type are considered the desirable norm. Any anti-racist person, who is interested in fashion-with-a-capital-F, knows that the fashion industry is unequivocally racist.
However, just when I thought that racism in the fashion industry couldn’t get any more racismer, to paraphrase Foxxy Love, the editorial staff at Jackie proved that there are still uncharted dimensions in fashion’s racist repertoire. The editors at Jackie were hardly the first, and are most certainly not the last, to peddle this mystical “ghetto fabulous” lifestyle. To my knowledge, they are, however, the first to borrow and apply a specific racialized sexist term to this memeborne glamourized lifestyle that is inflected by racism, sexism, and classism. At any rate, Eva Hoeke, the editor-in-chief who was responsible for allowing this racist gaffe to get published, resigned after the shit hit the fan. Since then a lot has been said about Eva Hoeke, Jackie, the Netherlands and the term “niggabitch.” Rihanna herself stepped up to read Eva Hoeke to filth.
Even though it can be fun to discuss the minutiae of an old-fashioned reading, my interest is somewhat more consequential than that. I am not so much interested in wading through the panoply of accusations and assessments in order to establish the validity of an already clear-cut fact, nor am I particularly interested in sifting through the pool of Eva Hoeke’s reactions in order to determine whether her apology was genuine, or not: “niggabitch” is indeed racist and, yes, apparently she is sorry and should have known better. Despite the many, many blog posts, scathing commentaries, international denunciations of Jackie and their racist repertoire there are still Autochtoon, blond, blue-eyed Dutch people, like Rutger Bregman, and probably a few people of colour, who consider the racist nature of the term “niggabitch” a moot point… Go figure.
In contemporary discussions on racism it is en vogue to argue that whether someone is being racist, or not, is down to a person’s intention. At any rate, Amy Odell of NY Magazine rightly remarks that the statement of an allegedly deeply apologetic Eva Hoeke, “places disproportionate emphasis on Hoeke’s careless use of Facebook and Twitter and the origin of “niggabitch” (who cares if she thinks she didn’t invent the word if she printed it?), which was never the real problem in the first place.” Emphasis was put indeed on everything but the everyday racism that gave rise to the careless use of that term. On that account, I am much more interested in the real problem. While reflecting on the “real problem” it dawned on me that No Gender, No Power and the Jackie vs. Rihanna affair have more than a few things in common. At the heart of both narratives are situated imagined bodies that are inflected by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, generation, geography, class, religion, culture and colonial history.
In addition, both Zwarte Piet and the fashion editorial in Jackie centre on the conceptual mechanisms of projection, mirroring (mimesis), and identification. These conceptual mechanisms help to explain the transracial operations that are at work in blackface and Jackie’s fashion editorial. In both instances a White subjectivity appropriates and consumes aspects of a(n) (imagined) Black subjectivity. Well, the similarities led me to rewrite my piece (which has undergone some more changes after I attended a debate on the Jackie vs. Rihanna affair at the beginning of January).
In this revised blog post I will attempt an analysis of the construction of Black female and Black male bodies in the Dutch national imagination and the submerged “race talk” in both the Sinterklaas tradition and the Jackie affair. I will use the Sinterklaas tradition and the fashion editorial to detail how racial hierarchies are reconstituted through the appropriation and consumption of imagined Black male and female bodies. An investigation of submerged “race talk” and the construction of racialized bodies will uncover the processes by which the White Autochtoon Dutch imagination complicates the way people of colour are perceived and evaluated in society. Hopefully, this investigation will tentatively answer the questions why – in a supposedly non-racist country – there’s such a high rate of unemployment among people of colour, why “looking African” is considered suspicious and a valid reason to track people’s comings-and-goings to rich areas and report them to the police, why an editor used a racialized sexist epithet without batting an eyelid and why no one during the whole editorial process remarked on it. In order to answer these questions I’ll look at the power and “lives” of certain stereotypes.
These products of history are continuously being reproduced in differing yet similar guises. A broader critique that considers racial, gender, class, and sexual oppression in the Sinterklaas tradition and Jackie’s fashion editorial, by way of reductive stereotypical representations, is necessary, because as Ann Stoler remarked “it was in the conflation of racial category, sexual morality, cultural competence and national identity that the case [distinctions of difference] was contested and politically charged.”
What has struck me during these past few weeks is that most people in the Netherlands discuss racism in such a manner that shifts the focus away from racism and puts it on politically-correctness-gone-apeshit instead. Apparently, this debate is about our being able to say whatever whenever we goddamn want. Debates on race in the Netherlands are invariably framed in the context of “free speech.” However, free speech had very little to do with the fact that a few bus drivers of the public transport service company Connexion squealed on “African-looking” women who travelled regularly to Bloemendaal and Heemstede to clean rich people’s homes. These bus drivers spent weeks, if not months, monitoring “African-looking” women, documenting their comings and goings and when they had gathered enough intel, they told the police, who, in turn, informed the Dutch immigration service. These women were singled out on the basis of their skin colour specifically. As it turned out, some of these women were undocumented workers and have been deported since. Apparently, having a particular phenotype screams undocumented worker. It is important to note that the people who had employed these women have not been charged.
The racial profiling of “African-looking women” came to light in the wake of a recent study that revealed that 75% of job agencies discriminate on the basis of race/ethnicity when asked by companies and the violent arrests in Dordrecht and Amsterdam of people who had the gall to speak out against Zwarte Piet during the yearly Sinterklaasintocht. It is hard not to see the racist underpinnings in these events. However, instead of engaging head-on the racist notions that undergird these events the Dutch intelligentsia, and I use this term loosely, have been chatting mainly to tell one another how great and non-racist they and the Netherlands are. Some of these Dutch intellectuals assume, in the manner of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, that if they can’t see race, then, through some magical towel-like property, race ceases to exist.
Then there are others who hold on to the idea that ethnic minorities are the sole cause and architects of racist attitudes towards them. Those of us who make it our business to address racism have been deemed intellectually deficient, in oblique and not so oblique phrasing, in newspaper articles, TV programmes and – these are my favourites – the comment sections on the Internet. It has been constantly suggested that we just don’t get it – whatever “it” may be. Well, these recent events pre-empted the answer to a question that has, probably since the advent of the PVV, been haunting the crepuscular recesses of the minds of those Dutch intellectuals who timidly suspected institutional racism in the Netherlands. A quick note for those of you who are still in dubio, the answer to the question “Is the Netherlands truly a racist country, or not?” is a resounding Yes.
Anyhow, it’s not like I’m telling tales. Historian Nanda van der Zee already made the Dutch self-image gag when she wrote, quite succinctly, “[T]he vain national self-image of the most tolerant people on earth, which had assisted its Jewish fellow-citizens so ‘charitably,’ was corroded in the 1960s when another generation born after the war started to ask questions.”  If you still need some convincing after reading that you can always watch the documentary “Goodbye Holland,” which also debunks the myth that the majority of the Dutch risked life and limb to protect the Dutch Jews.
Despite these reality checks, “race” and “racism” are still not part of the public discourse. There is a desire, a drive even, in the Netherlands to talk about anything at length – anything goes as long as it’s not race or a critique of Dutch culture – the latter is especially off-limits for persons of colour. It is hardly surprising that a critique of Dutch culture that centres on race is bound to rub people the wrong way. Case in point: recent attempts to address the racist aspects of the Sinterklaas tradition, and connect them to institutional racism in the Netherlands, triggered violent outbursts and outrage; a vehement denial of racism in the Sinterklaas tradition ensued in the popular media.
It’s worth remarking that there are plenty of people of colour in the Netherlands who think there is absolutely nothing racist in the Sinterklaas tradition. It seems, there is not even a space for a tentative consideration of the possibility of racist elements in the Sinterklaas tradition – let alone Dutch society. Recently Markha Valenta pointed out in Saint Nicholas: the hard politics of soft myths, “the deep importance of race to the tradition – which is to say, the deep importance of race to the Dutch national imagination”, even though, as Valenta concludes, race “remains essentially untouchable.”
This taboo on race and racism has given rise to New Racism. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva stated that “contemporary racial inequality is reproduced through ‘‘New Racism’’ practices that are subtle, institutional, and apparently nonracial.” New racism “reflects the juxtaposition of old and new, in some cases a continuation of long-standing practices of racial rule and, in other cases, the development of something original.”  This reconfigured racism “relies more heavily on the manipulation of ideas within mass media. These new techniques present hegemonic ideologies that claim that racism is over.” Colourblindness is one such hegemonic ideology. The prevalence of colourblind discourses, through which race is repudiated, make it that much harder to discuss race issues and the subtle forms of racism.
Colourblind discourses “obscure the racism that does exist, and they undercut antiracist protest.”  Most White Autochtoon Dutch folks, i.e. Dutch folks who operate within the construct of White Autochtoonness, deny the relevance of race in Dutch society and search desperately for explanations for racial inequality that mask their prejudices and privileges. The effects of racism and state-sanctioned slavery, for example, are systematically downplayed. Despite the fact that even a cursory glance at our history will reveal that racism and colonialism have been par for the course from the beginning of modernity and have helped shape existing geo-political relations. Take a longer look and what you will discover behind the surface of everyday phenomena is that racism and colonialism have informed many of our current conceptions of not only the social order, national identity, belonging, but also our bodies–which are legitimate, that is “good,” and which aren’t– the standards of beauty and even our attitudes.
It is, perhaps, due to this “codification of racial inequality” that racially charged topics are consistently framed in the context of culture. Contemporary debates on the Other in the Netherlands have been couched in terms of the numbers of immigrants “flooding the Netherlands” and protecting “Dutch culture.” The discourse on the “non-Western Allochtoon” is, in essence, an elaboration and variation on older racist discourses. This discourse centres on the tried-and-tired notions of the conservation of “the Metropole’s purity” and as a result it simply reinforces racial inequalities down long-established lines. In the interim, Sinterklaas has been appropriated as the patron saint of non-racist colourblind race-thinking sectarians, i.e. White Autochtoon Dutch folks who lament the supposed harm being caused to “Dutch culture and traditions” by subjects from the former colonies and other “non-Western Allochtonen.” According to these folks “Dutch culture and traditions,” and by extension the White Autochtoon Dutch identity, are the real victims of bigotry.
Meanwhile, the category “non-Western Allochtoon,” which does not stand for a specific unified ethnic group, has come to signify the raced and racialized body. In the pre-packaged interpretative repertoire of the social imaginary the raced and racialized Other, which is juxtaposed with the White Autochtoon Dutch body, is for ever seen as an outsider incapable of assimilation. At any rate, the Procrustean methods of generalization (“Allochtoon,” “asylum seekers”) employed by politicians, pundits and the public alike show that in political as much as popular thought people of colour in the Netherlands are not considered separately. We are just one big blob of Otherness.
The non-specificity of “non-Western Allochtoon,” which conflates different races, ethnicities, geographies and cultures, has conveniently provided the White Autochtoon Dutch national imagination with a “semantic alibi.” One can talk about race tacitly and indirectly without risking being labelled a racist. And if one ever suffers the misfortune of being caught with one’s racist foot in one’s equally racist mouth one can explain it away, in an attempt at rational persuasion, by saying it was a joke, intended ironically as one continually underlines that one’s intentions were good and pure. Irony and good intentions, it seems, are the panacea for the self-confessed non-racist who comes down with a serious case of the racisms. In the colourblind discourse of “New Racism,” at least in the Netherlands, irony has become a go-to rhetorical move. “Safe” lexcial choices like “non-Western Allochtoon” or “the irony defence” act as “rhetorical shields to save face because whites can always go back to the safety of the disclaimers (‘‘I didn’t mean that because, as I told you, I am not a racist’’).” Lately, there’s been talk of the government wanting to get rid of the term “Allochtoon” for people who were born in the Netherlands. Honestly, I am doubtful that will ever happen.
Race talk makes a lot of people squirm in their seats and fan themselves – even some people of colour. So, it doesn’t come at all as a surprise that even in the face of mounting evidence there are still folks in the Netherlands who are reluctant to acknowledge and accept that this country is racist. These folks still claim in all seriousness that racism simply does not exist in the Netherlands – as they eagerly guzzle the Kool-Aid. To quote James Baldwin,
“The formula created by necessity to find a lie more palatable than the truth has been handed down and memorized and persists yet with a terrible power.” – James Baldwin, Everybody’s Protest Novel
And so most Dutch folks hop, skip and jump in a Panglossian daze, as regards race and race issues, because in the collective imagination the Netherlands is racism-free, or rather racism-lite. It is of no consequence if sensibilities happen to get bruised during an intense hop, skip and jump session. C’est la vie mes amours!
“New racism” and colourblind discourses have occasioned a public space wherein White, blond, blue-eyed people get to determine what is racist and what is not, wherein it’s perfectly acceptable for White people to don blackface and play a character called “Nikker Simon,” or don yellowface and exploit stereotypes of East Asian women. Zwarte Piet, Jackie’s calling Rihanna’s style “niggabitch,” the careless use of racist terminology (neger and nikker) say a lot about the way Blackness, and by proxy Black diasporic culture, is perceived, constructed and evaluated in the White Autochtoon Dutch national imagination.
“Whatever you describe to another person is also a revelation of who you are and who you think you are. You cannot describe anything without betraying your point of view, your aspirations, your fears, your hopes. Everything.” – James Baldwin, Conversations With James Baldwin 
The way people of colour and their bodies are perceived and constructed in the visual culture discloses, as James Baldwin asserted, a great deal about the inner racialized desires and racial anxieties of the people who create these images and the consumers for whom these images are intended. In the book The Conquest of America Tzvetan Todorov endeavoured to unveil the reasoning, mental processes, the beliefs, and the behaviour of the people who played a principle role in laying bare the Americas. His main concern was the morality that guided European behaviour towards those who were, and still are, considered different and the implications of this morality. He noted that the morality that guided European behaviour back then has shaped views at all subsequent times and places. In fact, we have fundamentally remained up to the present time in the same position as Columbus et al. Our attitude towards the Other is still characterized by ambiguity. Todorov wrote about Columbus,
“Either he conceives the Indians (though without using these words) as human beings altogether, having the same rights as himself; but then he sees them not only as equals but also identical, and his behaviour leads to assimilationism, the projection of his own values on the others. Or else he starts from the difference, but the latter is immediately translated into terms of superiority and inferiority (in his case, obviously, it is the Indians who are inferior). What is denied is the existence of a human substance truly other, something capable of being not merely an imperfect state of oneself.”
White supremacy positioned the White body as “the universal empty point” from which all other bodies were theorized. The ideology of white supremacy constructs and positions only non-Whites as having a “racial” identity. The Othered body was framed as either noble, virtuous, generous, wise, and savage or, alternatively, as a base, degenerate, and worse than bestial one, i.e. subhuman. This supposedly universally beneficial racial order, which was secured and maintained through White male-identified control, became a core principle around which modern European (patriarchal) nation-states were organized. Furthermore, the racialized institution of slavery forced African women and men into a system of brutally exploitative economic production. The master/slave relationship anchored in the White imagination the ideal of the White body as controller and the Othered body as the controlled. The first commodity-fetish of capitalism were enslaved Africans who were bought and sold. They were reduced to abstracted objects made them seem larger than life and less-than human at the same time.
This reality makes more visible the always existing conditions of exploitation within the avowedly paternalistic conceptual framework of White supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Bell hooks argues in “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” – an essay in her book Black Looks: Race and Representation that in order to maintain the hegemonic status quo White supremacist capitalist patriarchy makes a commodity of “Otherness.” The objectification and commodification of the Othered body thus gave White men a license to consume the Othered body and to deny people of colour social autonomy. The Black body became something to be possessed and something to be erased. Because of slavery personhood, and by extension manhood and womanhood, became racialized concepts. Masculinity and femininity were racialized, ethnicized and nationalized and as such they are historical and political constructions. The White male imagination projected destructive assumptions onto the bodies of the colonized peoples and inserted toxic notions into their minds. Both Black and White people were exposed to genderspecific images that framed and portrayed Black bodies as less desirable if not downright ugly. In an attempt to further underline its pathology the Black body was often depicted in juxtaposition with the “pure,” “healthy” and “normal” White body.
The cultural construction of the gendered and racialized body was a major concern in colonialism. Gender, race and class were intricately interwoven in the discourses of colonialism through the regulation of sexual access and interactions between genders, and reproduction. The racist White male imagination portrayed, gendered, and thereby constructed, the colonial subject as the exotic “Other”; it created the very physical, mental, and structural conditions by which it came to define the colonized peoples. At the basis of this structural conditions lay White racial anxieties and/or racialized desires. These racial anxieties and racialized desires, which often interlocked with gender anxieties/desires, were, and are still, projected onto the bodies of Black women as well as Black men.The Black body became thus defined through the White male imagination and (the possibility of) civilizing it. In essence, colonialist and racist discourses created a text of the Othered body – a text in which ethnicity, race, geography and class are linked to gender and sexuality – which could be easily read. These structural conditions, or texts, impact the lives of people of colour to this day.
The “central trope” of the entire colonialist “economy” of representation, as the soap and Benetton ad illustrate, is what Abdul R. JanMohamed has termed the “manichean allegory,” which is based on the transmutation of racial difference “into moral and even metaphysical difference.” The manichean allegory attributes meaning to the conventional distinction between Self and Other and many other binary oppositions such as mind/body, man/woman and culture/nature. It is no surprise that in this conceptual framework these oppositions often involve gender and sexuality: virile and impotent men; disciplined and unruly women; male strength and weakness; female seductive power and vulnerability; masculine sexual desire and feminine sexual desirability. The Self is endowed with positive and active qualities whilst the Other is assigned negative and passive traits. The civilized, hard-working, clean, pure, rational, intelligent, reliable, moral, modest and virtuous Self is positioned against the savage, lazy, dirty, defiled, emotional, stupid, untrustworthy, immoral, vulgar and promiscuous Other. The “heterosexuality,” potency and agency of the male ethnic “Other” is often undermined. Female “Others” are often framed as being “loose”, “impure,” “aggressive,” and “emasculating.” This institutionalized interpretative repertoire of the manichean allegory has been framed as objective and we are encouraged, through overstimulation, to use this pre-packaged interpretative repertoire to navigate our way through society. In this context, questions over the political status of images become extremely important. The opposing terms of the allegory are always predicated upon the assumption that Whiteness is superior to the inferior “Otherness.” The Allochtoon/Autochtoon paradigm draws distinct parallels to the manichean allegory.
In the 19th century concepts like nationhood and citizenship, i.e. belonging, “[as] a form of patriarchal relationship with the state” became at once important concepts for theorizing nationality and strategies of discursive containment of Otherness. Colonialist notions on gender, race, sexuality and class were significant determinants in the formation of the territorial, administrative Dutch nation-state and it is no secret that as a result “duties, rights, and liberties have routinely been assigned on a racially differentiated basis.”  While citizenship and nationality have since been conferred on non-White bodies the “exclusionary principle of identity and membership,” as Bryan S. Turner writes in Cosmopolitan Virtue, Globalization and Patriotism, on which citizenship and nationality rest, continues to play a key role in the socio-political discourses – to which the discourses on the “non-Western Allochtoon” and Autochtoon attest. In contemporary socio-political discourse non-White Autochtoon bodies are placed and kept in inferior positions vis-à-vis White Autochtoon bodies through a variety of cultural—ideological and symbolic—processes. The term White Autochtoon Dutch signifies a socio-political invention structured on race-thinking in a specific geographical area. White Autochtoonness is a differentiated Whiteness which intersects with geography, culture, ethnicity, and race. Diasporic Othered bodies from the former Dutch colonies, with their historical legacies of slavery, economic, gender, and racial oppression, are excluded from the Netherlands ideal.
In a previous blog post I argued that “the colonial representation of Otherness is analogous to the psychoanalytic fetish. Both are charged with a unidirectionality that speaks of an asymmetrical relationship of a violent nature, since one subject cannot engage the other subject on an equal footing.” Reena Mistry writes that “what underlies the concept of black inferiority is [western] resistance to decolonization and immigration.” And behind this resistance to decolonization and immigration lies a recognition of the fragility of the narrowly defined “White Autochtoon Dutch identity.” Both decolonization and immigration threaten to collapse the tenuous distinctions between the “White Autochtoon” and the “Allochtoon,” be she/he Western or non-Western, and redefine what it means to be Dutch. It is the fear of miscegenation. Decolonization and immigration entail the transgression and dissolution of geographic, cultural and racial boundaries, which invariably invoke questions of identity, difference, belonging and purity. These concepts themselves are merely the results of uneasy and flexible relations between humans and between imagined communities. One way to protect the “purity” of imagined communities, to give the appearance of order, of firm boundaries, is to establish rigid social distinctions and racial demarcations.
Dirk DeVries put it beautifully when he wrote, “anyone you mistrust or dismiss or find foreign, strange or threatening, you are them and they are you, in a very real, absolute, spiritual sense. Whatever distinctions you’ve invented to comfortably distance yourself from them (dismiss them without a hearing, legislate against them, justify killing them, etc.) are false distinctions.” Non-Europeans, especially Black bodies, are often conceptualized in ways that construe us as exotic, primitive, violent, alien, inferior. Black bodies often occupy in the creative and symbolic dimension of the social world a “dark discursive space.” In the social imaginary Black bodies are already imagined, constructed as exotic, violent, alien, primitive, inferior and thus treated as out of the ordinary by hegemonic discourses and groups. The image below plays on the tried-and-tired trope of Black male sexuality as inherently heterosexual, dangerous and misogynistic.
Our dark hot bodies and doings are veritable sources of exotic and dangerous excitement. Black men, too, face gendered discrimination
The “Braboneger” only acts to confirm the Otherness of the Black body. Even though it is a Black body that speaks what he says revolves around notions of Whiteness, a White subjectivity. In the popular imagination people or colour are still for ever in service of Whiteness.
The scope of Black masculinity in the Netherlands remains invariably limited in popular culture. The dominant discourse still frames Black men, quite often, as violent, hypersexualized men, or as non-threatening Sambo-like men, who smile and joke their way through life in a self-deprecating manner. As it stands Black bodies are mainly portrayed as mere fodder and filler, as entertainment, as exotic curiosa, and most of these depictions are perfectly in line with the typical aesthetics of darkie iconography. Our exaggerated body parts, our lips, noses, dicks and buttocks, are voraciously consumed. The bodies of people of colour, Black diasporic culture as well for that matter, have been colonized and are harvested by a Eurocentric, white-supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative patriarchal culture.
The Othering and dehumanization/objectification of Black men and women are acts of concurrent alienation. The male privilege that all men benefit from gets in this process minimized, if not cancelled out, for Black men by the oppression based on race. The histories of slavery and the political economies that Black masculinities were afforded force us to investigate the implications of the Mona ad and Janneke Veger’s analysis. Contrary to popular opinion in the Netherlands, these reductive stereotypical representations of people of colour are, indeed, harmful. In the main because these reductive stereotypical representations of the racial Other modulate and feed into, and on, existing preoccupations of White Autochtoon Dutch people with real Black people. These reductive stereotypical representations indicate and define the quality of alienation that still exists in Black/White relations, since they are quite specifically designed in order to represent some or other attributive and/or predicative quality. Reductive stereotypes invariably contribute to our commonsense ideas about race.
The simplistic notions that a character like “Nikker Simon” is intended ironically “just for laughs” or that Zwarte Piet is “kid’s entertainment,” along with the colourblind discourses, put a brake on serious inquiry into the racial content and context of these performances. Even though stereotypes are ontologically empty – that is, they are not real – they exert an inexorable cultural force. “Imagined” constructs, like stereotypes, carry messages (in terms of the ideologies and attitudes on which they are contingent), which work on us in ways which we are not necessarily, nor easily, aware of. Psychological research into the social construction of stereotypes and prejudice has uncovered that much of these thoughts originate on an unconscious and subsequently unexamined level of thinking. “Imagined” constructs serve as a compass for both daily and institutional relations.
Stereotypes like “Nikker Simon” and Zwarte Piet do not merely reflect the ignorance of their creators, nor the flattening of characters through the use of stock racial ideas and hidden dominant notions of race, they also re-embed these notions of race in popular culture. During this process racial stereotypes of the Other are unveiled (through the act of appropriation) and re-embedded (through the act of consumption) at once. Through the use of blackface the performers alert us to the racialized aspect of the act. As viewers we are constantly reminded that what we’re watching is a performance. It is real and yet not real. Blackface distances the performer from the real Black body whilst it imitates and reinvents the Black body. There is at play what Ludmilla Jordanova has noted in Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine Between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries, “the other is treated as an object, something to be managed and possessed, and as dangerous and threatening. At the same time the other becomes an entity whose very separateness inspires curiosity, invites enquiring knowledge. The other is to be veiled and unveiled.”
Although positive representations challenge the realness of stereotypes, i.e. the ability of stereotypes to pass as “real,” positive representations do not completely substitute the “imagined” constructs for one that is grounded in the lived experiences of people of colour. The stereotype is particularly effective as a technology of oppression, because it is a hybrid of pastiche and caricature. I write “imagined,” because these constructs always steal something from the real, the original. They imitate. They exaggerate noticeable characteristics in order to create a comic or grotesque effect. The “imagined” construct is thus a product of observations, ideologies and value judgments.
As Stuart Hall noted in The Narrative Construction of Reality, ‘‘we all constantly make use of a whole set of frameworks of interpretation and understanding, often in a very practical unconscious way, and those things alone enable us to make sense of what is going on around us, what our position is, and what we are likely to do.’’ Rajeswari Sunder Rajan contends in Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism that “our understanding of the problems of “real” women cannot lie outside the “imagined” constructs in and through which “women” emerge as subjects. Negotiating with these mediations and simulacra we seek to arrive at an understanding of the issues at stake.”
To the White Autochtoon Dutch imagination positive representations and “imagined” constructs are both rationally possible and tremendously unlikely. For a case in point of how this plays out in the real world, let’s look at the Jackie vs. Rihanna affair and at Connexion’s racial profiling of “African-looking” women; central in both cases is the racialized female body. What has been underlined in the Jackie vs. Rihanna affair is that even Rihanna’s success, glamour, wealth (which are all “positive” attributes) could not insulate her from a racist and sexist attack on her body. With one stroke of the pen an editor at Jackie reduced Rihanna to a “niggabitch” (an imagined construct; a stereotype) and did away with all her success, glamour and wealth.
Despite her accomplishments she is still perceived in the White Autochtoon Dutch imagination as a “niggabitch,” a racialized sexist term that carries only negative associations and which invokes the spectre of slavery. In the case of the “African-looking” women the underlying message is that in certain areas, spaces, places Black bodies are still considered suspect. In both of these cases the White Autochtoon Dutch imagination thinks it rationally possible that Rihanna’s not a “niggabitch” and that those “African-looking” women actually lived in the posh towns of Heemstede and Bloemendaal but that assertion is at once deemed – considering the Blackness of their bodies – to be tremendously unlikely. It explains why Dr. Henry Louis Gates jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass.
Due to racist conditioning it is possible that White Autochtoon Dutch people, who operate in the White Autochtoon Dutch construction, will continue to harbour prejudices even after interacting with people of colour. After centuries upon centuries of normalizing and codifying difference that’s hardly shocking. We have accepted, and sometimes even embraced, certain codified images of racialized bodies and Blackness as, lest we forget, constructed by the White racist imagination. The interplay between “imagined” constructs and unconscious prejudices complicates the question whether the problem is racist imageries or terminologies themselves, or the buried unconscious racist conceptions of cultural producers. Regardless of what most people think racist conceptions have very little to do with intention, however, all the more, with intentionality.