An American journalist has received a death threat after commenting in an article that one of the attractions at the Dutch Efteling amusement park had racist overtones.-
From the article:
Gisela Williams’ review praises the Efteling as a European alternative to a Disney theme park with its fairytale attractions, special effects, lack of queues and affordable food.
However, towards the end of the article Williams refers to one ‘unpleasant part’: ‘the way dark-skinned people were depicted’.[…]
Commenters on the Elsevier website said Williams is ‘ripe for the psychiatrist’, should keep herself busy making such comments about the USA and should take up cooking instead.
The criticism has since reached Williams herself. ‘I received my first death threat today. Believe it or not it was regarding my recent WSJ article on a fairytale amusement park,’ Williams said on Saturday, using the microblogging service Twitter.
The throw-away reference to the fairground attraction is the latest international news article to mention racism in the Netherlands. At the end of last year, there was widespread attention for the racist overtones in the Zwarte Piet character during the Sinterklaas celebrations and for Dutch entertainer Gordon, who made fun of a Chinese talent show contest.
In The Netherlands, death threats for pointing out racism are a common tactic. Mainstream media like that owned by The Telegraaf Media Group regularly incite to violence towards people who resist racism. This is not merely a subgroup of fringe racists but a common rhetorical device to silence any kind of political intervention towards the ingrained racism within the dominant culture.
Of course I am horrified that yet again this is happening. However, this is just one instance making international news while the practice remains a daily reality for local media in the Dutch language. What makes it particularly interesting is that in the same breath these violent media will staunchly defend “freedom of speech”. Obviously, they refer to the freedom to continue being racist. The same standard need not apply for those who speak against it.
Two seemingly disparate news caught my attention today, namely:
The Netherlands: Most of the Dutch are happy with their lives in general
The first item, from Germany is about a very violent racist attack that took place in 1991. From the article:
In September 1991, a mob of right-wing radicals armed with Molotov cocktails, tracer ammunition and stones attacked hostels for contract workers and asylum-seekers in the city of Hoyerswerda in the state of Saxony and terrorized residents for five full days. The young men who attacked the home, filled with frightened people from Mozambique, Vietnam and Romania, were brimming with hatred.
The attacks made international headlines not only because it raised the specter of xenophobia in the states that once belonged to East Germany, but also because local residents simply looked on as the violence escalated. Some even applauded the thugs. Police in Hoyerswerda were unable to get the situation under control and ultimately officials at the hostel removed the foreigners and took them elsewhere.
Hoyerswerda marked the beginning of a wave of violent outbreaks against foreigners that continued during the early 1990s, with shameful attacks in Rostock, where an asylum-seekers’ home was attacked, but also in the western German cities of Solingen and Mölln, where a total of eight people of Turkish origin were killed when arsonists attacked their homes.
But this is the part that caught my eye (emphasis mine):
Twenty-three years have passed since the attacks that brought shame on the entire country. Now, the city of Hoyerswerda has announced its plans to open a new hostel in a special education school that closed last year and is currently being renovated to provide accommodations for asylum-seekers.
And later on this:
'We Need To Be Good About Communicating'[…]
Preacher Michel also feels strongly there’s no chance of the events of 1991 recurring in the city. “There was considerable turmoil after the Berlin Wall fell — many people were unsettled, and even the police didn’t know exactly what they had authority over.” He believes there was a feeling at the time that people couldn’t truly express themselves — a situation that no longer exists today.
Two things worth noting here. On the one hand, “racism as bringing shame to the country”. Racism is not exposed because of its inherently violence towards People of Color or because of the long lasting consequences on the lives of PoC. Racism brings “shame” to white people. The affect of racism (as in, who is affected by it) is not on the victims but on how “badly” it reflects on the white dominant culture. On the other hand, “racism as a matter of feelings” and “racism as a result of bad communication”. Rather than expose racism as part of a centuries old history behind white supremacy, racism becomes a problem of “self expression”, reduced to a few problematic individuals that cannot “express themselves” properly.
This exact same white approach towards racism is deployed in The Netherlands as well. Here’s this item from two weeks ago:
D66 campaign leader Ingrid van Engelshoven said she did not believe any more international organisations in the field of peace and justice would locate to The Hague if the PVV is in charge.
In addition, established institutions may leave the city, she warned. ‘I can well imagine the PVV’s standpoints would conflict with international organisations’ ideals and they would consider leaving if made a good offer by another city.’
Racism affects white reputation. Racism is an “embarrassment”, it makes us look “bad”, it could make us lose money. Addressing racism, then, does not become an issue of justice towards its victims but of preventing whites from being embarrassed and enduring potential material consequences.
Which brings me to the second news item of today about Dutch happiness. From the article:
The Dutch are happiest with their homes and least happy about their finances but most are nevertheless satisifed with life, according to new research by the national statistics office CBS.
Here’s the thing: I’ve written about the high rates of depression among PoC in The Netherlands. “Happiness” as a sociocultural project is very important to Northern Europeans. In The Netherlands, not a month goes by without one of these “studies” that decree the Dutch to be “one of the happiest people on Earth”. Foundational myths are based on recurring ideas of “conviviality” and “coziness”. In these instances, happiness and conviviality are not just individual goals but a Nation building project. In The Netherlands, this “conviviality” is expressed by the concept of “Gezelligheid”. In Germany, it’s through Gemütlichkeit. In Denmark, a similar state is invoked with the word hygge. In all these instances, conviviality is an important part of social interactions. I contend that this white conviviality is at the root of the discourses around racism that I mentioned above. “Racism is bad because it kills our convivial/ cozy vibes”. Whiteness is exposed for its unwelcoming nature. The racism exposes a culture that is anything but convivial for PoC. Because of that exposure, racism becomes “bad for white people”.
At the end of the day, none of these ideas around shame and material loss for white people address the real problem: justice for People of Color and the correction of a historical wrong that continues unabated.
The workshop focuses on the links between reading and memorizing and experiments with memorizing collectively, referencing the varied aural/oral histories effected in the 1851 speech “Ain’t I a woman?” by African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojouner Truth. Stemming from divergent transcriptions and testimonies of Truth’s oration, you, together, with Read-in, can explore techniques of (re/dis)locating and embodying text, (un)disciplinary pedagogies, and listening intonationally.-
I first got an announcement for this event through Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum’s newsletter. The newsletter said very little about the people behind this event (though the Museum itself is organizing it) so I headed to their website. I found this:
Workshop & Presentation organized by Read-in with choreographer Kristien Van den Brande and writer-performer Mari Matre Larsen and researcher Katrine Smiet
I googled those names. They are all white European. And I am genuinely interested in the thought process that led these organizers to the idea that a white woman could possibly “embody” and/or “dislocate” Sojourner Truth’s words which are a deep and visceral indictment of white womanhood. How could a white woman ever attempt to “embody” the experience of Black womanhood? This is nothing but a performative appropriation which erases all history, specifically, by showcasing three white women who do not have to answer this:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!
Instead, they will “embody” and “re/dis-locate” the text through some arty attempt at “memorizing” it. They speak of “listening intonationally” and I want to indict this idea right here. The very same white womanhood that defines the “proper tone” and what “civility” means, the very same womanhood that blasts over “angry Black women” and “scary women of color” now gets to “set the tone” for Sojourner Truth’s words?
To them, I say “MEMORIZE THIS”: the colonizer can never embody the colonized. The colonizer can never “dislocate” the displaced-colonized. The colonizer can never embody the womanhood that she attempts to destroy in order to define herself.
Hipster racism, a term coined around 2006 in an article by Carmen Van Kerckhove, is described as the use of irony and satire to mask racism. It is the use of blatantly racist comments in an attempt to be controversial and edgy. Its irony is established in a somewhat post-racial belief that blatant expressions of genuine racism are no longer taken seriously and are an outdated way of thinking, thereby making the use of such overt expressions satiric. Despite its ironic intent and context, hipster racism still appears to perpetuate prejudicial racial ideologies. The difference between more harsh forms of prejudice is that this style of speech seems appropriate and relevant ingrained in the belief that it does no real harm. Those who exhibit hipster racist tendencies seek to escape accusations of racist behaviour on the grounds that they were “only joking”.
I know I am quoting wikipedia. I would have preferred to link to the original articles at Racialicious but, alas, they’ve been hacked this past weekend so the whole site is down for now.
Above, a tweet from American-Dutch comedian Gregory Shapiro from yesterday. Usually, I would pass through this kind of hipster racism/ Islamophobia by and not give it a second thought. However, in an unexpected turn of events, this guy is now running for Amsterdam’s City Council under the banner of the “progressive and liberal” party D66. In his announcement of this “political stunt”, Shapiro writes:
YES. Today it’s official: I’m entering Dutch politics as a candidate for D66. With no hope of actually winning.
I’ve been asked by Amsterdam D66 to be a ‘Lijst Duwer’ for the 2014 local elections, Gemeenteraadsverkiezingen. Jan Paternotte is Number 1 on the Amsterdam candidate list (aka lijst trekker). He asked me to support the party by joining the list - as Number 49. In other words, I’m the ‘List Pusher.’
So, Jan Paternotte, the number one guy on the list specifically asked this comedian to be there to “push the rest of the candidates up” through his popularity. This is not some fringe guy that is running on a two person party but a local media personality specifically invited to be part of the Amsterdam political scene. To be honest, I’ve yet to find any Person of Color ever “invited” to be part of a list because their good name alone would be a boost in popularity for the party.
And how are they going to “capitalize” on his popularity? Well, at the expense of Muslim women, no less! What can be more “edgy” and “progressive” than “joking” about harassing Muslim women who wear a burqa? Woohoo, I’m sure everyone at the Party headquarters is in stitches at this “joke”.
What interests me the most in these incidents is not that a joke at the expense of a vulnerable group is made to gather “collective complicity” (HAR HAR HAR we are laughing together at this!) but that these are discourses that pass for “progressive” or “liberal”. I’ve learned to expect nothing better from the right wing (and their cronies) but constant racist and Islamophobic proposals, endless threats of deportations, stereotyping and alienation. It’s what our local right wingers do. However, this is how even those proclaiming to be “progressive” perpetuate these ideas in the public eye. This is how they contribute to “public opinion”: through jokes and “comedy” about harassing or mocking Muslim women.
Today, this is making the news in The Netherlands: One in 10 of the Dutch is depressed, 6% take medication
From the article:
Around one in 10 of the Dutch population suffers from gloomy feelings or depression lasting at least two weeks and almost 6% were taking anti-depressants in 2011, according to the national statistics office CBS. Men of Moroccan origin and women of Turkish origin were the most likely to have symptoms of depression, the research showed. In general, women are 1.5 times more likely to feel depressed than men.[…]
Some 21% of men of Moroccan origin report feelings of depression for longer periods, compared with 7% of white Dutch men. And 26% of Turkish women say they have been depressed, compared with 11% of the native population.
The CBS [Central Bureau of Statistics] said age, education and employment had an impact on the results and may explain the differences.
I am not a scientist, just a cultural critic like many out there but I am appalled that there is no mention of issues that People of Color have to live with on a daily basis. Namely, issues such as institutionalized racism, employment discrimination (Dutch employment agencies have openly admitted that they discriminate based on ethnicity and race!), dismissive attitudes from the white majority in regards to the discrimination, etc etc. I find it hard to believe that none of these would have no significant impact on people’s mental health. I mean, this has been discussed and studied in places other than The Netherlands. Here are two such examples (though certainly not the only ones available) “Racism hurts kids’ mental health” and “How racism is bad for our bodies”.
For the past couple of months, I’ve been writing practically daily about how deeply ingrained racism is in The Netherlands. This is the cover of the current issue for the mainstream magazine “Vrij Nederland” (Free Netherlands):
There is a daily bombardment on Dutch mainstream media of racist imagery and a very strongly rooted racist discourse around People of Color. The cases that make international news are not exceptions, they are part of a culture that prides itself in fostering this climate of alienation for minorities while constantly patting itself in the back for being “so tolerant”. The cognitive dissonance between what we see and experience and what is touted as “Dutch tolerance” can be unbearable. Am I to believe that this systemic white supremacy has no impact in the stark difference of instances of depression between People of Color and white Dutch mentioned above?
From mid October till well into December I blogged extensively about the character of Zwarte Piet/ Black Piet and his place within Dutch history and contemporary culture. Here’s a partial list of the pieces I wrote on the topic (I am only focusing on what I’ve written this year but it’s a topic I’ve been touching upon for much longer than this past couple of months).
The so called “debate” that ensued (something I also commented on in regards to how the word “debate” is misused to disguise what is basically violent rhetoric to silence opposition) involved numerous death threats and calls to violence for those that resisted the character of Black Pete. One regular claim that we got to hear again and again from the dominant culture was that “The Netherlands is ‘our’ country and if you don’t like it, you should leave”. Usually, the dominant culture insisted that we should focus on White Dutch culture and that any protestations were “reverse racism”. There was a strong focus on what makes “our Netherlands”, “our country” and “our history” at the expense of anyone that dared question these dominant narratives. Simultaneously, many White Dutch took offense at the focus on the rights and needs of People of Color. “We are the most tolerant country in the world!” we often heard.
I believe that history matters in order to understand our present day politics and culture. I am convinced that the key to understand where we are today resides within a historical continuum that started more than half a millennium ago. Because of these beliefs it is that, together with my regular blogging and usual topics, I will also devote the entire month of January to cover topics of White Dutch History. Since the dominant culture took issue with the fact that People of Color occupied a central role during the Zwarte Piet/ Black Pete media uproar, I am going to put my lens on White Dutch history. I will blog about some of its key moments and how the Empire has intervened in every continent and dozens of countries. I will try and bring to light how the politics and culture of the White Dutch Empire have shaped the history of so much of the world (from South Africa to Brazil to Indonesia to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and beyond). The dominant culture was clamoring for attention and acknowledgement. I am ready to provide that.
Research by the national statistics office CBS and the government’s socio-cultural think-tank SCP, shows 7.6% of the population is now living below the poverty line. Last year’s rise is the sharpest since the economic crisis began in 2008.-
From the article:
At least 1.2 million people were living in poverty in the Netherlands last year, a rise of over 150,000 people on 2011, according to a new report.[…]
In particular, people living on welfare benefits, single mothers and migrants are likely to live in poverty, the report said. A large part of the 348,000 working poor are self-employed, the report said. Over 11% of Dutch children are now growing up in poverty, using the SCP definition.
This is the result of almost ten years of fierce neoliberal measures at the expense of the working class and poor. The most vulnerable groups of Dutch society have been taking a hit, every year without fail, in the support system that had been built as part of the 60’s and onwards welfare State.
To understand the effect of these neoliberal policies, this item from earlier this year sheds more light:
The number of Dutch households with more than $1m (€760,000) in assets rose nearly 13% last year, according to research by the Boston Consultancy Group and quoted by news agency ANP.
In 2012 there were 191,000 Dutch households worth more than $1m, compared with 170,000 in 2011. Together they control €396bn in assets, the consultancy said. The increase is largely due to rises on the stock exchange, ANP said.
Let those figures sink: while 11% of all Dutch children are growing up in households with incomes below the poverty line, in the same time period, the number of Dutch millionaires rose by 13%.
Tomorrow is the “arrival of Sinterklaas” in The Netherlands and Belgium. The arrival marks the beginning of the festive season that ends with children receiving presents on December 5th. In time, December 5th officially opens the Christmas season in The Netherlands and Belgium. What this means, in practical terms is that we have reached peak racism on Dutch social media. The racists are loud and proud because “they won” (meaning, the character of Zwarte Piet has remained unchanged for another year).
However, I am more interested in the self proclaimed “non racists” than I am in the vocal trolls (really, how many times can I hear a slur before the impulse to analyze it dies off?). The self proclaimed “non racists” are the biggest hindrance to dismantling any white supremacist institution in this country; even more so than the loud vocal ones because for them, there is no problem to fix. “This is a non racist country”, they claim. The gaslighting is maddening (and I do not use this word lightly, I truly believe this gaslighting is at the root of many mental health issues experienced by People of Color).
In order to understand this sad state of affairs and the vehement refusal for change, I think it is important to go back in Dutch history. Namely, to point at two institutions that are at the root of present day problems: “pillarisation” and the polder model. Since mid 19th century, politics in The Netherlands were ruled by a rigid system of “pillars”. These “pillars” represented the different ideologies and their subsequent political representation. Basically, there were Protestants, Catholics, Socialists and “freethinkers”. Abdulkader Tayob writes:
The Modern history of The Netherlands is characterized by a pillarization (verzuiling) of society around confessional religious groups. This meant that the modern social institutions (schools, political parties, hospitals and even newspapers) were founded around a particular confessional group. Such institutions played a central role in the further development of the society and its individuals. They assisted the group and the individuals to achieve their rights and take their responsible positions in society. The pillarization of the society has broken down since the 1960s, but their remnants and symbols remain.
It should be noted that this is a very simplified definition of what pillarization meant and how it deeply shaped Dutch society. For a more in depth analysis, read the whole article. As Abdulkader Tayob notes, pillarization started to die off (at least at institutional level) around the late 1960s. In turn, it was replaced by another political framework known as “the polder model”. The polder model is (to define it in, yet again, simple terms) a consensus-based economic and social policy making system. Within the polder model, union representatives, political parties and the government agreed on the terms of social welfare policies and legislation. Within this model, everything was debatable and had to be discussed widely in order to reach consensus with the majority. This required negotiation skills and a class based representation that included vast sectors of Dutch society. The polder model is still somewhat alive, though it reached its peak in the late 90s and early 2000s during the Labor Party/ VVD coalition government of Wim Kok.
These two models (pillarization and the polder model) had one thing in common: they were white only institutions. Pillarization came to be right at the time when Black enslaved people were granted their freedom. At the time, “the former subjects of the Empire” were not even considered fully acknowledged human beings so, needless to say, there was no “pillar” for representation of their rights or interests (same applies to Indonesians who were still “subjects of the Empire” at the time). Later on, when the “polder model” came to be, the implicit agreement was that it was “for Dutch citizens and by Dutch citizens” which excluded not only the “subjects of the Empire” but also the so called “guest workers”. To quote myself:
Guest workers came from countries located in the eastern and southern regions of Europe as well as those from North Africa and Turkey. Originally, they were supposed to be temporary workers who would fill in positions deemed as “too low” for Dutch natives or to assist in reconstruction and renovation efforts after the World War II. Up to that point, nobody had seen a need for these workers to integrate as they were supposed to pack and go home as soon as the work was over. No provisions were made for them to learn the language in a proper setting, no integration into civic and/ or political life was expected from them. They were, after all, only meant to provide low cost labor. Until they weren’t anymore because they had families and children with dreams of upwards social mobility. Suddenly, they were a threat to Dutch national identity. Their cultures and habits too different. Their outfits not Western enough. Their idiosyncrasies too conservative for the mainstream idea of a Dutch liberal and tolerant society. Suddenly, politicians could appeal to a voter base increasingly fearful of this new “Other”.
For the past 150 years Dutch white people have been “debating” with one another on the best way to run the country. Everything, from social policies to media has been open for discussions where it’s been whites only deciding what constitutes and does not constitute inequality. The present day refusal of the white majority to even consider the racist nature of Zwarte Piet can be traced directly to these two models of engagement. Two models that, I must insist, never included any meaningful political representation of “the Other”. The stubborn refusal to consider racism within Dutch society, paired with the “myth of tolerance” (a myth created and perpetuated by a white only political system) is at the very root of the lack of change. Now we have to hear again and again how “there is no racism in The Netherlands” and, more to the point, the character of Zwarte Piet is “not racist”. White people still see themselves as the sole arbiters of racism and, if they feel particularly generous, they will grant us humanity by acknowledging a historical wrong. Until we have full political representation and a media that is not complicit in the perpetuation of these ideas, this is yet another reason why I do not debate.
My other writings on Zwarte Piet and racism in The Netherlands from this year:
1. On White Dutch people’s “feelings”, blackface, racism, lives worth cherishing
2. An intersectional feminist approximation to aesthetics around Zwarte Piet
3. Zwarte Piet, racism and gaslighting as a culture wide phenomenon in The Netherlands
4. And here’s the interview I did yesterday with The Morning Amp
If this is the first time you encounter mentions of the character of Zwarte Piet, I’d recommend a few readings on the topic (otherwise, most of this post will make no sense).
bell hooks talks about “white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, heteronormative patriarchy” to describe the interlocking systems of domination that define our reality and I genuinely cannot think of a more encompassing, wide reaching definition and lens to look at the world. When I started writing (and talking in general) about Zwarte Piet, it was through an initial visceral approximation. This, I wanted to scream, is what fucked up racism looks like. This wasn’t borne out of a deep analysis, it was purely a reactionary approach to a visually offensive image. I was (still am, as you can probably infer by the amount of words I devote to the topic regularly) appalled by the perpetuation of this racist caricature. Yet, the more I delve into the character’s contextual placement in Dutch history and contemporary culture, the more layers I try to “peel off”. I continue to write about this mostly as an exercise in reflexion. Individual, yes, primarily. But hopefully also as a way to add to pre-existing theories and ideas around it. In this, I do not write alone (though I do sit alone and reflect while writing) but I write in what I see as a hopeful choral history from the margins. It is in the margins that I live, after all. I do not belong to any academic institution; my writings on this topic have no place in media (local or international alike) and yet, I commit them to this space with a dual intention 1) that they might add “something” to the dominant, white supremacist discourses 2) that someone might find these sketches (for this is all these are) and feel less lonely, just as I felt less lonely when I found the writings of hundreds (if not thousands) of other radical Women of Color on the internet. So it is through bell hooks definition(s) that I started to look at Zwarte Piet and the myriad ways in which this character is a stand in for other subjects. Zwarte Piet as a metonymy for the “white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, heteronormative patriarchy”.
Few words define The Netherlands better than “imperialist”. In a time of white appropriations of post colonial theory, few pause to realize that no post colonial analysis is possible while we live in a country where the “post” lays within a distant future (i.e. The Netherlands still holds colonial territories in the Caribbean). Zwarte Piet can only be understood as emerging from the remnants of an Empire terrified of irrelevancy. The Netherlands doesn’t have “nostalgia for the Empire”. That would imply that the Empire is a thing of the past. Even though we can (and do) use post colonial theory to unpack the cultural mechanisms at play, there is no “post” State in The Netherlands that would allow us to attempt analysis as “subjects after the fact”. Moreover, the legal classification of people into “autochtoon” and “allochtoon” is, in and by itself, a colonial device to separate the racial categories we are forced to inhabit. The current colonial subjects (that is, people that live in Dutch colonial territories) are still referred to as “allochtonen”, that is, not belonging. That the colonial subjects that are directly affected by the legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade are coded as “Other” (in the letter of the law, no less) is key to understand the context around Zwarte Piet.
Media has framed the current white Dutch uproar around discussions of racism as the “Zwarte Piet debate”. However, there is no “debate” going on. What is going on is, simply put, a mechanism through which a white supremacist society seeks to establish and perpetuate dominance. This domination is currently challenged by the public interrogation and subsequent implication of a racist character that a great portion of Dutch society considers “indispensable” and “immanent” (both in the sense of “inherent” and “unchangeable”). The demonstration in The Hague this weekend, which gathered around five hundred white Dutch people showing “support” for this character, was a demonstration of power. That is, the power of the White majority to not consider racism. That is, I insist, the power and self appointed right of the White majority to perpetuate racism.
Here, a photo (courtesy of Dutch newspaper NRC) from the demonstration on Saturday:
Without having to state the obvious, I invite readers to look at the position of the character and the sign he is holding: “Do not delete Zwarte Piet”
The argument we hear the most in this so called “debate” is that the character is not racist but merely a cartoon like comic relief. “Black from soot” we hear often. Not Black from racist blackface. These “arguments”, however, shattered when on Saturday, during the demonstration, the crowd attacked a Woman of Color who was trying to bring attention to the human rights abuses currently taking place in West Papua by Indonesian military (Indonesia, it should be noted, is a former colony of the Dutch Empire). I use “generic” Woman of Color because I am uncomfortable second guessing her preferred identity definition. She is of Papuan heritage, that much is known. The crowd “confused” a dark skinned woman with an anti Zwarte Piet activist and unleashed violence (both verbal and physical, requiring police intervention after a photographer prevented the woman from being beaten up by white supremacists).
There are two photos, taken by photographer and documentarist Gerrit de Heus (the man who intervened when violence against the lone woman of Papuan heritage ensued) that have shaken me deeply. Usually, when we talk about aesthetics, we are referring to underlying beauty. As a matter of fact, aesthetics, as a philosophical field, are concerned purely with beauty and the appreciation of beauty. However, I am more interested in a representation of what I’d call “the aesthetics of white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, heteronormative patriarchy”. An aesthetics of the imposed monster, if you will. An aesthetic of breath taking horror.
(It bears repeating, both photos were taken by Gerrit de Heus, more photos of the demonstration at his site here)
Zwarte Piet “implicates” Dutch society in the sense that it visibilizes the violence that hides beneath assertions of “tolerance”. This, I contend, is what the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, heteronormative patriarchy looks like. White men and White women attacking “a former subject of the Empire”, the racist “confusion” of this woman’s heritage because in this mindset, “we are all the same”.
In Traveling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide, Mieke Bal writes:
This tradition is particularly troublesome because “sophisticated”, with racism being worked over by classism (Zwarte Piet are servants) and sexism (they are feminized). The clownish behavior even flirts with the traditional question raised in the sixteenth century, and again in the eighteenth, and then right up to the time of abolition, of whether blacks were quite human. No relativizations of the deeply racist ideology that underlies this tradition are possible.
This, is the exact formulation of why I look at all these cultural expressions through the lens articulated by bell hooks. The way this character embodies racism, classism, sexism and white supremacy in action. However, I contend that this embodiment does not remain only within the character. These qualities are then passed on those of us coded as “Other”, particularly, if we are perceived as a threat to the perpetuation of these hierarchies.
There is plenty written around feminist aesthetics. Or perhaps, a better formulation would be “there is plenty written around a feminist approximation to aesthetics”. I have read Julia Kristeva’s work about the abject and, while the ideas resonate with me on some level, they fall short of addressing the racist, rendering her work of little use “to understand the world around me” (which is, to this day, the best way to explain my use of theory and/ or philosophy). It is, in a sense, as if, together with having rendered “whiteness” as the neutral, we were offered white analysis of aesthetics, devoid of any other intersection, as the only way to understand the subject. Since that is the case, I have little tools to look at the photos above, except to see them as the visual representation of the monstrous, the horror we are forced to bear witness to and endure on our bodies, as women, as feminists, as womanists, as women of color, as any or all of the above. This, I contend, is a captured moment in the ongoing, vicious violence underlying “debates” around Zwarte Piet. This is what white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy will do to protect itself from change.