“Rethink, replan, refine – react and redefine
Rewind this ridiculous rhythm and recline
Realize, as I reword, restructure
the rap game, you can’t resist or recover brother
I’m like no other, I smother
from the sub-level thoughts, Deeper than the movie Cover
But I’m not like Larry Fishburne, the mic burns
I rap with no delay, I turn more styles than the subway”
Aside: I’ve been pressed numerous times by White Autochtoon Dutch folks to use a bit of “humour” when discussing race matters since most discussions on racism are so serious. Well, I’ve decided to take their advice. So, here’s my – somewhat lenghty – side-eye critique of an op-ed that appeared in the NRC; I hope the ample use of .gifs make up for its length.
Oh, and if you don’t want to read this post because of reasons, just look at the pictures. They capture the essence of my post.
Frans Verhagen, my new BFF, has written an impassioned piece, published in the NRC Handelsblad weekend edition (31 March/1 April), in which he argues that we should do away with the debate on integration, and the terminology it has sprouted.
He argues that the current “problems” faced by the youth and the working-class transcend race/ethnicity. Verhagen bulldozes down, with a colourblind gusto, the rhetorical walls of separation by claiming that the “problem” with certain Allochtoon groups is a Dutch problem (“…het is een Nederlands probleem”) – that is, Dutch in the holistic sense of the term. Well, that’s good to know.
He states, for instance, that research has shown that a substantial part of White Autochtoon Dutch folks have a poor command of the (Dutch) language and have consequently developed a language deficit (“Onderzoek laat zien dat ook behoorlijk wat autochtone Nederlanders problemen hebben met hun taalbeheersing en bijpassende achterstanden oplopen.”). Apparently, it’s not just Allochtoon folks who speak Dutch badly.
He drives the argument, that Allochtoon folks and White Autochtoon Dutch folks are thus alike, home by stating that Allochtoon and White Autochtoon Dutch folks with a similar socio-economic background have more in common with each other than with members of their “group.” (Allochtone en autochtone burgers in een bepaalde inkomensklasse hebben meer met elkaar gemeen dan met hun ‘groep’.)
Now, be that as it may when White Autochtoon Dutch folk start pointing out commonalities between “White Autochtoon Dutch” and “Allochtoon” folk because “we share problems” things are liable to get offensive. I’ve seen too many of these bushwa bridge-building types who peddle an assimilationist ideology gift-wrapped in universalist poppycock to be mesmerized by their “equality as sameness” blather – that shit wasn’t cute in the 80s, and it sure ain’t cute now.
Frans Verhagen’s essay is, simply put, offensive, naively idealistic and unmindful. He begs us to recognize that a lot of the challenges (working-class ) Allochtoon folks face in society are basically just like (working-class) White Autochtoon Dutch problems – without acknowledging the violence that has been and is still being done to “Allochtoon” folk through everyday racism and the politics of exclusion. Now, despite his “we share problems” invocation he justly asserts that there are some group-specific problems.
He cites the weight of “Turkish-Dutch children” (he says they are “obese”) as one of the group-specific problems. He tangentially mentions teenagers who smoke pot, coke snorting fishermen, and concludes that the government must create group-specific policies, not a nonspecific integration policy (“Natuurlijk zijn er groepsgerelateerde problemen, zoals te dikke Turks-Nederlandse kinderen, blowende scholieren of coke snuivende vissers, maar voer gericht beleid, geen integratiebeleid.”).
Even though he puts forward a “problem” that is framed as being ethnicity-specific, he dismisses the relevancy of ethnicity in the same breath (etnische afkomst is irrelevant,…); he argues that these “problems” are the result of socio-economic factors: it’s a class thing.
In his self-righteous and muddled rationalization Frans Verhagen fails to acknowledge that race/ethnicity always intersects with social class. Then again, to paraphrase Flavia Dzodan, most White Autochtoon Dutch folks think that intersectionality is a road junction at Leidseplein.
As Patricia Hill Collins notes in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment race/ethnicity, class and gender are “interlocking” systems of oppression. She further asserts that “[A]dditive models of oppression are firmly rooted in the either/or dichotomous thinking of Eurocentric, masculinist thought.” Charles Mills, in addition, argues that white supremacy should be seen as a multidimensional system of domination, which does not merely encompass the “formally” political that is limited to the juridico-political realm of official governing bodies, but also extends to white domination in economic, cultural, cognitive-evaluative, somatic, and in a sense even “metaphysical” spheres. He further states, that there is a “pervasive racialization of the social world that means that one’s race, in effect, puts one into a certain relationship with social reality, tendentially determining one’s being and consciousness.” These interlocking discursive regimes thus continually derail the struggle of people of colour in the EU for self-definition, self-articulation, and self-actualization in a space that’s not very conducive to our sense of Self.
Taken at face value, Verhagen’s assertion that “we share problems” has an appealing quality, if not a certain merit of truth. Allochtoon and White Autochtoon Dutch folks do indeed “share problems”. However, because of “pervasive racialization” people of colour – especially those from the former Netherlands Antilles and Suriname – face added challenges that cannot be set aside in the name of “we share problems” and “equality as sameness.” You cannot separate our political consciousness from our experiences as colonized peoples.
Case in point: I have a problematic relationship with the Dutch language. Dutch, to me, is the language of oppression. The language that was used to marginalize and suppress my mother tongue, Papiamentu. The Dutch language has served and continues to serve as a tool for political manipulation. This is one of the reasons why I am reluctant to write in Dutch. I use it in my day-to-day life out of pure necessity; if I can avoid speaking it I will gladly do so.
It is downright obtuse of Frans Verhagen to dismiss race/ethnicity cavalierly just because White Autochtoon Dutch and Allochtoon folks happen to share some problems.
What Verhagen fails to understand is that the cumulative effects of colonialism, neo-colonialism and systemic racism have impacted communities of colour from the Dutch Caribbean in distinctive ways that are best addressed by acknowledging the specific systems of oppression that have brought about the “group-specific problems” of our community. Failing to understand the distinctive ways in which people of different racial-ethnic backgrounds are affected economically, politically, and socially by governmental policies and systemic racism can be – to put it mildly – detrimental to an anti-racist praxis. One needs to preface every analysis by asking who and what marginalized this specific group of people of colour in the Netherlands in the first place.
However, in his essay Verhagen does not give any thought to the position of White Autochtoon Dutchness as the dominant referent, nor does he reflect on the social privilege his White Autochtoon Dutchness affords him – let alone his gender and class.
Even though he acknowledges that the category “third-generation Allochtoon” is discriminatory and precludes “Allochtonen” from ever achieving the highly regarded status of “Autochtoon,” he does not consider, however, White Autochtoon Dutchness an sich as a fraught and problematic mark of, or metaphor for, belonging to place.
“…the fact that Whites literally cannot handle it (while other races put up with it day-in/day-out) and feel personally attacked when excluded from Non-White safe-spots tells you 1. how rarely White people experience someone excluding them based on skin color and 2. how completely White culture has failed to provide tools for sharing space, instead teaching Whites that all space is White space (“because all space is space for everyone”, a perception Whites share with no one).” (quote taken from this site)
It is through these elisions and silences that White Autochtoon Dutch privilege produces and reproduces its own power and security. White Autochtoon Dutchness privilege is, thus, naturalized while the construct (White Autochtoon Dutchness) itself serves as the unspoken norm. The power and security that flow from White Autochtoon Dutch privilege are hardly value neutral, nevertheless they are framed as such.
The numerical advantage, power and status of White Autochtoon Dutchness make it easier and, moreover, acceptable for White Autochtoon Dutch folks to exercise the power required to exclude, marginalize, or exploit those bodies deemed out of place. Charles Mills correctly observed that “the state and legal system are not neutral entities standing above interracial relations but for the most part themselves agencies of racial oppression.” Verhagen, however, does not recognize the implications of this group advantage, nor the coterminous concept that “certain bodies are naturally entitled to certain spaces, while others are not.” Instead, he misinterprets this racial-ethnic hierarchy. This misinterpretation allows Verhagen to make the ridiculous claim that ethnicity is irrelevant. Institutionalized racism is the refusal to believe, or the “not-knowing,” that disparities between groups exist because of White Autochtoon Dutch privilege. In addition, institutionalized racism shifts blame for inequities from society and state-sanctioned policies to individuals and communities.
But wait, Verhagen’s brilliantly parochial solution to social problems doesn’t only involve doing away with the integration debate in favour of group-specific policies while taking ethnicity out of the equation, he also wants to erase the terms “Autochtoon” and “Allochtoon” (Niet alleen integratie kan bij het oud vuil, ook de woorden autochtoon en allochtoon mogen mee.) – without first acknowledging, or addressing, the salience and meaning of White Autochtoon Dutchness.
The assumption that we can achieve “equality” through the erasure of “Autochtoon” and “Allochtoon” from political speech, and thus create a colour-blind polity of “sameness,” is just improvident and a perfect example of White Logic.
The oppressive power of White Autochtoon Dutchness cannot be rendered ineffectual, inoffensive, or non-existent simply by erasing “Autochtoon” and “Allochtoon” from contemporary political speech. Frans Verhagen, yet again, fails to reckon with the underlying forms of power and privilege that determine and affect the political actions of those in the dominant group.
Autochtoon is a historical, cultural, and political construction which is tightly entwined with Whiteness and a certain sense of entitlement to space. Whether folks use it actively in day-to-day life, or not, is beside the point; Autochtoon remains a functional term – if only because it signifies the unspoken norm and is a category that is denied to people of colour who are Dutch citizens by birth, and who have not had any other nationality. This active denial, which Edwin Lemert called “the dynamics of exclusion,” has negative, material ramifications for “non-White Autochtoon Dutch” folks.
Meanwhile, folks like Geert Wilders are questioning the loyalty of those with a duo-nationality – as he and his ilk continue to marginalize and show blatant disloyalty to their fellow Dutch citizens from the former Netherlands Antilles. Now, where’s the love?
Besides, the deletion of “Autochtoon” and “Allochtoon” from our vocabularies will not magically subdue the obvious cultural anxieties in public, political, and media debates. As Verhagen put it reductively, Geert Wilders has set sections of the population against another (“Geert Wilders zette bevolkingsgroepen tegen elkaar op.”). The xenophobia promoted by PVV and endorsed by VVD and CDA – the other parties in the unholy trifecta – has already affected public discourse in such a way that it has created a great Left v. Right divide.
Aside: Don’t you just love it when supposedly “progressive” White Autochtoon college-educated able-bodied middle-class heterosexual cisgender Dutch men offer racially neutral analyses in the face of systemic racism, and act like they’re brand new when you point out their White racial frame?
I’m not one to deny that working-class “White Autochtoon Dutch” and “Allochtoon” folks can benefit from similar kinds of programmes because of certain commonalities, but the “White skin” of “White Autochtoon Dutch” folks – regardless of their socio-economic situation – guards them from certain negative treatment. Now, Frans Verhagen can – by all means – “strip off” the protective layer that a “White” skin tone provides by arguing that a working-class White Autochtoon Dutch person is less privileged than an individual upper-middle-class person of colour – which is absolutely true; however, this does not mean that one can thus explain away or negate systemic racism against people of colour.
Moreover, I’m also quick to admit that having “White skin” privilege does not mean having a pass to “success”; it does not necessarily mean that White Autochtoon Dutch folks are by definition well off financially, or that they are guaranteed a certain level of education and so on. As Patricia Hill Collins noted gender and class (as ability, sexuality, age and so on) are also determining factors in the matrix of domination. However, as folks have found out recently, “White skin” privilege does get you a lesser prison sentence, it does mean a numerical advantage, and it most definitely guards you against racial profiling or discrimination on the job market (of course, the latter is not the case if you’re a differently abled White woman, for instance).
Aside: The “We’re all the same; I’m your friend; I’m not like those racist idiots” defense is worn and narcissistic. What these mitigations point out is that you either don’t really care about the challenges that people of colour have to deal with, or that you simply don’t want to grapple intellectually with understanding how technologies of power operate – or both (read this list). The bottomline is that you seem to care only about saving face, or the privileges that your White identity affords you. Fighting institutionalized racism? Not so much. You just want us folks of colour to assuage your pricking conscience and say “well, you’re one of the good ones”. In the end, you just want to feel validated so you don’t have to feel guilty about your White Autochtoon Dutchness. And that’s all fine and dandy – just don’t use people of colour as props in your soliloquy of White Autochtoon Dutchness.
Maybe instead of doing away with the integration debate we need to recast the debate and expand the discussion in order to address how patriarchy, neoliberalism and capitalism affect the intersections of race/ethnicity with class, gender, sexuality, ability, age and problematize the notion of “equality as power” – because “power and equality are not the same thing.”
What we need is a greater understanding of the power relations that mould the political actions of those in dominant positions – not a let’s-bygones-be-bygones approach.
Frans Verhagen’s facile, self-serving cri de coeur to get rid of the integration debate tacitly re-embeds conventional perceptions of “difference,” belonging, and “normativity” – despite his vocal wanting to do away with difference.
He positions himself as a champion of “multiculturalism” and embraces the mayor of Amsterdam’s concept of “superdiversity,” which has made Amsterdam, according to mayor Van der Laan, so appealing to newcomers (“Burgemeester Van der Laan spreekt met terechte trots over ‘superdiversiteit’ en over wat Amsterdam altijd een wereldstad heeft gemaakt: haar openheid en aantrekkelijkheid voor nieuwkomers.”).
Aisha Fukushima and Derya Kaplan snatch Van der Laan’s wig in their article Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Racial Profiling at Schiphol Airport. They have this to say about Amsterdam’s alleged diversity, “[A]lthough Amsterdam is known for its diversity, and for being a tourist-friendly city (touting the slogan “I Amsterdam”) it is increasingly apparent that the people of Amsterdam celebrate diversity without contending with—much less facilitating dialogue about—racism in present day society.”
Philomena Essed and Teun van Dijk, who were the first to discuss everyday racism in the Netherlands, were treated like pariahs – by both the Left and the Right – when they argued that the Netherlands is a racist country. Last year, several folks were arrested for wearing a T-shirt whose text challenged the alleged innocence of the Zwarte Piet tradition by calling it what it is: racist. Apparently, racism in the Sinterklaas tradition is not a Dutch problem – that is, Dutch in the holistic sense of the term – but a group-specific, i.e. Black, “problem”.
In the Netherlands, respectable people are independent of the welfare state, speak Dutch perfectly, “contribute to society,” maintain a nuclear family structure, embody and reinforce societal definitions of success, respect the authority of police and the state and most importantly do not talk about racism. The Netherlands has not only embraced an ideology of mediocrity “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg,” it also holds tenaciously to the myth that there isn’t an ethnic-racial hierarchy; in this country we have an almost pathological penchant for normality. The Netherlands is obsessed with normalization and consensus. It is, therefore, not at all shocking that Frans Verhagen ends his essay with a plea to embrace “the new consensus”.
Verhagen serves Ahmed Aboutaleb, like Femke Halsema before him, as the poster child of “the new consensus”; he uses Aboutaleb to illustrate why the integration debate is past its expiration date. He remarks, in a roundabout manner, that Ahmed Aboutaleb is the perfect embodiment of the “successfully integrated Allochtoon” – an ideal against which other Allochtoon folks, irrespective of race/ethnicity, might be fittingly judged. Verhagen states that the fact that he’s of Moroccan descent has gradually become irrelevant; he’s simply the mayor of Rotterdam (“Het is zo langzamerhand irrelevant dat hij een Marokkaanse Nederlander is. Hij is gewoon burgemeester van Rotterdam.”).
Verhagen’s and Halsema’s archetypal “successful” Allochtoon comes tethered to various notions of “productivity” and “respectability.” At the heart of Verhagen’s analysis lies the ideological belief that people regardless of race/ethnicity need to have a certain kind of “productivity” to be considered “valuable” members of society. This, of course, suggests that those who don’t, or can’t, embody particular levels of “success” are somehow contributing less to the world. In our neoliberal capitalistic patriarchal society “success” and “failure” are, as I’ve argued previously, politicized and framed in highly gendered, classed and racialized terms.
The way we conceptualize “success” and “valuable” members of society often results in the exploitation and isolation of a lot of people. In the case of people of colour “success,” or “respectability,” (which means “being,” or in the case of asylum seekers “potentially being,” a “productive” member of society) becomes a mechanism for differentiating between the “wanted” and “unwanted” – be they Allochtonen, asylum seekers, undocumented persons. This politics of respectability insinuates that our belonging is conditional and humanity is allotted on the basis of a sliding scale. In spite of his being hailed as the model Allochtoon Aboutaleb’s place in Dutch society remains, because of his race/ethnicity and gender, complicated and his status as “role model” is tenuous.
In her seminal book Righteous Discontent: The Black Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham remarks that “respectability demanded that every individual in the black community assume responsibility for behavioral, self-regulation and self-improvement along moral, educational, and economic lines. The goal was to distance oneself as far as possible from images perpetuated by racist stereotypes.”
The narrow interpretations of what makes an Allochtoon “respectable” and “successful” reflect the treacherous politics of representations (which revolve around issues of power and control over one’s own self and its representations and reproduction by others) that Allochtoon folks need to navigate. This process is compounded by a conception of respectability in service of a political agenda: respectability as resistance to racist stereotypes. As Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham writes this type of respectability emphasizes “the reform of individual behavior and attitudes both as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform of the entire structural system of American race relations.”
This means that Allochtoon folks need to embody an “acceptable Allochtoonness” – a stripping of the Self – in order to be more palatable to White Autochtoon Dutch taste. If we manage to embody this “acceptable Allochtoonnes” successfully, like Ahmed Aboutaleb, the likes of Frans Verhagen and Femke Halsema will readily use our narratives, which act as a source of fantasy gratification, to buttress their promotion of “Allochtoon respectability and success.” Our conditional, tenuous status as “one of the team” – that is, one of the Dutch in a holistic sense of the term – becomes apparent especially in those moments where we fail to live up to the expectations of the White Autochtoon Dutch gaze. Our “acceptance” and “success” in a society that marks itself as meritocratic is not only contingent on standardized acceptable behavioural habits and psychologies but also on a certain sartorial politics (wearing a burqa, or even a hijab, equals “not integrated.”). The most powerfully oppressive systems are those organized to promote “equality through sameness.” The primary tool of oppression in such systems is policing.
What I believe is absolutely crucial, if we want to achieve true synergism, is for White Autochtoon Dutch folks to not disregard our material differences, how we are constructed socially and engage each other relationally, in the rush to acknowledge our commonalities.
And more importantly, and I cannot stress enough how important this is, you cannot project yourself onto us and demand that we reshape ourselves in your image. You may not like how we dress or go about tackling the issues that affect our communities; you may have all the opinions you like on the matter. However, if your opinion is oppressive in any way, shape, or form, I’m not here to grant you a “let’s agree to disagree” absolution for your upholding racist patriarchal sexist islamophobic homophobic transphobic ableist neocolonialist (to name just a few that apply to the Netherlands) power structures and facilitating the marginalization/exploitation of peoples.
If this has hurt your feelings…
And finally, it is not our duty, as people of colour, to educate White Autochtoon Dutch folk.
 “I’ve always felt wary about the community sector use of the word ‘marginalized population’, but I didn’t always understand why I felt it was so dubious. Now I do: ‘exploitation’ has always been a better term than ‘marginalization’, because where marginalization just means that people are pushed into, or exist already in, the margins of society, it doesn’t explain how, or why. The process of marginallzation isn’t intrinsic to the meaning of the word, and ‘margins’ seem to pre-exist, as a natural location for people to inhabit in a society. It seems like something that just accidentally happens, and needs to be fixed by pulling people into some kind of imaginary ‘centre’, which I imagine is meant to be the middle class, or something to that effect. It is a watered down description of the extreme hardships and daily violence experienced by those living in extreme poverty and facing the harshest realities of racism in our society, and it also disguises the reasons for why it takes place.” – Robyn Maynard. 2011. “Fuck the Glass Ceiling!”, in: Jessica Yee (Ed.). Feminism for Real. Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism, p. 119.