The sound of racism
“So in comes this Eritrean guy who clearly has no intention of understanding how our website works. He doesn’t speak the language and aside from his laziness he, of course, has huge problems taking advice or directions from a woman so he’s always very disrespectful to me. ” She elaborates on what she assumes to be her client’s gender analyses when I interrupt her to ask: “What’s the relevance of mentioning he’s from Eritrea?” After I cut her generalities short by kindly asking her to give us some information about the research and experiences that shaped her understanding of what she labeled as East African culture, her white cheeks made way for a deep red blush and her uncomfortable half smile called for air. “Come on, you know me… you know I’m not like that.” And therein lies the rub.
Even though not many white Dutch people would beat themselves on the chest while proudly exclaiming they’re ‘like that’, information about someone’s racial, ethnic and/or cultural background continues to be gratefully accepted as context for someone’s manners and ideas. It speaks to the imagination, it adds some bass to the “Aaaah aha!” It doesn’t only seem to explain the behavior of the person that’s being described, it also adds weight to the problems the white Dutch describer is facing. Even this lady who has no idea about Eritrea’s cultures, demographics, social structures and traditions knows at least one thing: for a predominantly white Dutch audience it’s too important to not be mentioned. How else would they fully understand the levels of his patriarchy, digital literacy and unwillingness? How could they begin to imagine what “not speaking the language” really means if they don’t know that someone is non-white? Forget the fact that not many Dutch people could locate Eritrea on a blank world map (or know ‘what’ it is, for that matter)… even to a lady who isn’t “like that”, her client’s background mattered more than she cared to admit.
“…because you know I’m not a racist, right?” She seemed more bothered by this word than by the problematic analyses she just made. While she stumbles her way through a history of all the times race “didn’t matter”, I wondered… could it be that the cruxes that continue to cripple Dutch conversations about race are the poor, underdeveloped ideas of what qualifies racism? Perhaps this is the result of Holland’s addiction to euphemisms and strategic avoidance of specifics. Is this why the Dutch choose to throw us all on a pile called ‘Allochtoon’… because being as non-descriptive as possible about their Othering allows them to dodge claims of their isms about racial, ethnic and/or cultural backgrounds?
In their commemorative piece about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream”-speech, Dutch news paper NRC chose the term racial discrimination over racism. In this tradition national news broadcaster NOS frames the way Oprah Winfrey was treated in Switzerland as discrimination and Eva Hoeke’s Niggabitch-scandal was called an unfortunate choice of words. And in the few occasions the term racism is actually used, the Dutch media always makes sure to water things down by adding linguistic question marks like ‘alleged’ and ‘supposed’. It must always remain a matter of taste, context, interpretation… of the thickness of skin, even. ‘Are we now allowing the Other to put restrictions on our freedom of speech? Is that what this country has turned into… a nation that’s obsessed with political correctness?’
The frantic defensiveness with which too many white Dutch folks try to dismiss claims of racism, implies that their definition of being a racist is so monstrously grotesque that being labeled as such for them feels the same, if not worse, as being called a baby lynching slave master. Is this what the verbal attacking of those addressing Dutch displays of anti-Black racism really is… a venomous reaction to the idea of being called a ‘bad person’? A rejection of the concept that a non-white person has the intellectual authority to challenge the Dutch politics of language and other race related matters that are usually policed and validated by whiteness? There is something about racism that makes the Dutch renounce the claims much, much more and so much quicker than the actual ideology. Which, at least for now, leaves me with one central question…
When a white Dutch person is being told that the remark they just made is racist, what do they hear… how does it translate in their head? Does it sound like we’re asking them if they have a neatly ironed a Ku Klux Klan hoodie in their closet? Does it mean we believe that they feel that Nelson Mandela should have never been released from Robbeneiland or that they would be happy to lose their last breath debating the glory and necessity of apartheid? Does pointing out their racism mean that we firmly believe that every time they hear an Amsterdam tram conductor announce that the next stop is Plantage Middenlaan, they get all warm and fuzzy while longing for those good ol’ plantation days when their family owned ours?
But what we are trying to make clear is that the traditional Dutch ideas about the connection between non-whiteness and social/cultural/religious/genetic/etc. behavior are often, if not always, highly problematic and in dire need of work. It means that too many of the analyses of our communities are insufficient and that we accept neither the carefully monitored quota of Black friends nor white people’s privileged imagination as a compensation for a chronic lack of education. It also means, and perhaps for white Dutch people this is the scariest of all, that whiteness isn’t neutral, it’s not objective… not the norm.
Not wanting to be “like that” is not enough and should no longer be accepted as a reason to sabotage the conversations we, Black and non-Black alike, so desperately need to have. Holland owes this to both its current, self acclaimed intelligence and its beloved myths of being a nation that birthed great thinkers. And we must keep demanding this! From our acquaintances, our colleagues, our families but also from Holland’s media figures and politicians… and not just during election campaigns. And let us no longer allow conversations about Dutch, anti-Black racism to be derailed because we’re dignifying questions about sensitivity and thin skin with anything other than addressing the selfish, childishly irresponsible hearts of those not wanting to be “like that”.