I will start by doing something that I usually steer clear from which is to “explain” the European Union in a couple of sentences. This is, I am aware, reductionist and possibly erroneous in the sense that one cannot quite describe a system of government in simplistic terms. Yet, I believe it is necessary to do so in order to frame my ideas around certain resolutions.
The European Union is a governing body that is based in Brussels. The closest comparison I can draw from existing political systems is akin to the Federal Government in the US. The different European countries, in this set up, can be loosely compared to the different States in the US. Again, this is a facile comparison and there are many differences but the centralized nature of EU administration (especially in relation to the European Parliament or European Court can somewhat be compared to “Washington” as the central administration of US politics).
So, the website of the European Parliament has published a resolution they passed on January 6th with a list of recommendations regarding undocumented women migrants in the EU. Here are the key points of these recommendations: (emphasis mine on some key points)
The Committee on Employment and Social Affairs calls on the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, as the committee responsible, to incorporate the following suggestions in its motion for a resolution:
1. Notes that the irregular status of undocumented women throughout Europe makes it virtually impossible for their fundamental human rights, including the rights to education and health, to be respected, thus making these women particularly vulnerable to all forms of exploitation, low wages, unstable working conditions and social exclusion; considers that the best way of permanently improving their situation is to bring them within the legally established systems, since their irregular situation deprives them of social security and other employment benefits; notes that they may be further disadvantaged by furthermore, illiteracy and by language and adaptability barriers;
2. Calls on the Member States to take the following action: to put an end to discriminatory practices; to fight undeclared work and labour exploitation, inter alia by means of labour inspections; to recognise undocumented women as victims and allow them to access basic health services, employment and education; to enable them to have access to the legal system and to confidential advice in emergencies without fear of this resulting in measures to terminate their residence; to ensure that such action also involves the European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion, as well as networks of existing aid organisations, churches and civil society organisations; and, where necessary, to establish specific forms of data protection for the women concerned;
Note: victims of what? Because surely in order for a victim to exist there must be a victimizer. I consider the State to be the victimizer in the case of undocumented women migrants in the sense that the situation is part of a long history of inequalities related to Europe’s colonial past, corporate interventions in the so called Global South and neoliberal globalization that deprive migrants of a livelihood in their countries of origin.
3. Calls on the Member States and the Commission to recognise undocumented women migrants explicitly as a vulnerable social group, exposed to trafficking, discrimination and exploitation on the labour market;
Note: I would urge anyone interested in the mechanisms that the State uses to further violate the rights of undocumented women under the guise of “fighting trafficking” to read this article by Molly Smith in The Guardian. Alternatively, follow her on Twitter. Another woman that has many important things to say about this topic is Laura Agustin. Her blog (with plenty of material) can be found here and she’s also very active on Twitter here.
4. Calls on the Member States and the Commission to focus on the working conditions of undocumented women migrants, as a crucial step towards defining and recognising the difficulties to which they are exposed on the labour market and in order to ensure that their fundamental rights are respected;
Note: Oh really? Focus on the working conditions like that time undocumented women domestic workers who were neither trafficked nor working against their will were reported by the bus drivers who cooperated with the police and immigration authorities to have them deported because the women (all of them visibly of color) “looked illegal”?
5. Encourages the Member States to work actively to extend the possibilities for undocumented persons to become legal, in order to facilitate their access to the labour market and improve their inclusion in society;
6. Stresses that undocumented women in particular are often the victims of precarious, isolated, unhealthy or working conditions, are very often employed below their education level, in some cases experience abuse and violence, and are prevented by extreme dependency on their employers from asserting their fundamental and labour rights; calls on the Member States and the social partners to help undocumented women be brought within the legally established systems, thereby enabling them to better exercise their rights - including through the application of Directive 2009/52/EC providing for minimum standards on sanctions and measures against employers of illegally staying third-country nationals - respecting labour law and collective agreements;
7. Calls for the implementation of ILO Convention No 29 on forced labour; calls for consideration to be given to the special situation of women involved in forced labour – including not just forced prostitution but all involuntary work, the domestic sphere included – and for protection to be given to the undocumented migrant women concerned;
8. Stresses the need for the Commission and the Member States to strengthen labour inspections in order to combat the exploitation of undocumented women migrant workers and the violation of their fundamental human rights;
9. Calls for the creation of special forms of data protection for undocumented women, including victims of human trafficking, who turn in such situations to hospitals, doctors, the authorities and NGOs seeking for help or guidelines, to women’s shelters, counselling services or religious counsellors and for the protection of workers in such establishments who acquire information about irregular residence; believes help and support should be given in accordance with Directive 2011/36/EU on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims, and calls for this directive to be implemented in all Member States; stresses the need for women with irregular or unclear residence status to be able to access medical care without risk of expulsion;
10. Condemns all forms of violence, human trafficking, abuse and discrimination against undocumented women; stresses the need to ensure access to the help on offer in such situations without fear of this resulting directly in measures to terminate residence;
Note: again, notice how much emphasis there is on human trafficking which completely erases the agency of the undocumented women migrants. As if the only reason a woman would migrate is through trafficking and not because of structural conditions in their home countries.
11. Calls on the Commission and the Member States to provide sufficient female contact staff, care professionals, officials, assessors and other staff; calls for such measures out of respect for other religions and cultures and the need to protect against discrimination;
12. Stresses that undocumented women are vulnerable to abuse, and that barriers for them to engage in legal procedures are often to be found in the fear that their safety is not guaranteed, arising from a lack of shelters and procedural obstacles; calls on the Member States to ensure that such women are able to report any abuse suffered and are protected from any form of reprisal; believes that measures should also be introduced to assist such vulnerable women, including provision of shelters; calls on the Member States, accordingly, to take the necessary measures to identify such abuse and to guarantee access to justice;
13. Draws attention in particular to the situation of undocumented women who are pregnant or have children; stresses that they need special protection and a legal entitlement to healthcare and have the right to a birth certificate for their children in accordance with Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; emphasises that they must have access to appropriate medical care and to registry offices without having to fear that this will result in measures to terminate their residence; calls for special forms of data protection for women who in such situations turn to doctors, clinics and registry offices;
Note: my face, I wish you could see it right now.
14. Calls on the Commission and the Member States, through more extensive and integrated research, to close the gaps in reliable data and existing knowledge on the number and situation of undocumented persons in Europe, to draw the attention of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) to the situation of undocumented women, and to take greater account of women in this category when implementing the inclusion targets of the Europe 2020 strategy;
15. Encourages the Member States to grant the children of women with irregular or unclear residence status access to the education system without the threat of this leading to prosecution and/or deportation;
16. Calls on the Commission and the Member States to reduce inequalities in employment between migrant workers and EU workers by offering secondary education and vocational training so that women, especially migrant women, can acquire new skills and are thus not restricted to low-paid jobs;
17. Calls, in the context of efforts to prevent migration by providing development aid to the migrants’ countries of origin, for the focus to be placed on women’s education and rights;
Note: neocolonial interventions under the guise of “aid” for “women’s empowerment” while the European Union continues promoting and pushing for European corporations to drain resources and exploit the very same workforces that eventually seek migration as a solution to their structural problems back home. Not a word about how H&M (a Swedish corporation) or Zara (Spanish), to use two examples though there are dozen similar ones, contribute to the exploitation of textile factory workers in Bangladesh. In the same breath, the Austrian Minister of Home Affairs calls Bangladeshi undocumented migrants “farm animals” and accuses Greece of “letting the barn door open” to allow them to come into the EU.
18. Asks for the opinion of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs for the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality on gender aspects of the EU Framework for National Roma Inclusion Strategies to be taken into account in this context.
I have spoken before about the fact that I do not support gendered recommendations or legislation that are solely based on benefiting undocumented women. To begin with, and going back to my simple explanation of the European Union as a governing body in the first paragraph, the reason I do not support this kind of legislation, even though it might seem contrary to my feminist politics is that the EU member States have very rigid and exclusionary definitions of “woman”. In most of the EU, woman = cis. That alone excludes the very specific ways in which trans women, gender queer and/ or other gender variant people are not part of these recommendations. Yesterday, I shared on Twitter this link about the appalling track record of Denmark in regards to the treatment of trans people (Content warning at the link for terrible language and cissupremacist explanations). Member States such as Denmark (to use this example, though Denmark is not the only EU country where trans people are subjected to State violence) do not need to expand their “legal definitions” of woman in order to comply with the recommendations above. They can continue promoting a cissuspremacist view of gender and the EU Parliament (just like the Federal Government in the US) cannot force such changes. I won’t quote from the article because the language used is quite dehumanizing and possibly triggering but to sum it up: Denmark only recognizes trans people in so far as they have undergone surgeries that render them sterile/ infertile and only after they have gone though extensive medical treatments including therapies, medications, assessments, etc. And this is just one example of how State definitions of gender operate solely within a cis binary (there are cis women and cis men, anyone who does not fit these narrow categories is effectively not considered worthy of gender based protections).
Another reason I do not support these gender based recommendations is because there are myriad ways in which men are affected by State violence that are very closely tied to stereotypical ideas around manhood and masculinity. To use again, another relatively recent example, the rights of an undocumented African father were violated by the State when his child was given for adoption in the UK. The mother’s rights were violated due to her alleged mental health issues (she is an Italian citizen) but the rights of the father were equally destroyed because as an undocumented man he was unable to travel across the continent to attend the Court’s hearings of the case. Children, regardless of their gender, have a right to a family life that contemplates the rights of both parents equally. The rights of an undocumented African man to be a father to his child are equally important to the rights of any woman to be a mother. More importantly, children have a right to both without State violence getting in the way of their well being.
Last but not least, rape culture manifests in very specific ways when the bodies of People of Color are on the line. Men of color have been historically subjugated through rape and sexual abuse. Their centuries old dehumanization has hinged on simultaneous ideas of hypersexualized behaviors and rape as “corrective” tools to further dominate them. I have written before about the sexual violence experienced by undocumented migrant men and how this seems to be an invisible topic within migrant rights discourses.
While undocumented women face unspeakable violence that is very gender specific, I cannot get behind more “white savior” narratives that single us out as “deserving” of protection while the definitions of gender, womanhood, parenthood and family rights are left in the hands of a State that continues to use colonial ideas on our bodies. Moreover, I cannot support definitions and codifications that erase violence that perpetuate these very same colonial histories and violences to this day. The same State that coded us as “less than” is not the best qualified to create the legal frameworks that supposedly contain the “solution” to these historical wrongs.
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.
Lately I have noticed something I hadn’t seen before: on social media people using the expression “show solidarity” with a cause/group/individual, etc. Much has been written about allyship and allies and I don’t think I have anything to add to that, at least right now. This post about Tim Wise by Trudy at Gradient Lair illustrates many of the issues with allies and I highly recommend reading it. However, I am interested in this expression of “showing solidarity” and what it means symbolically.
“Showing solidarity” is a purely performative action taking place for an audience. “Put up a show”, “show business”, “the show must go on”, etc etc. None of the common colloquial uses of “show” implicate the one “showing” directly. This showing is presented merely as a performance for others to witness, there is no examination or consideration of one’s involvement in the situation one is showing solidarity for; no personal active unpacking of the political situation, just a “show” without any of the necessary work to fix the situation (a work that always, always should include an analysis and re-thinking of one’s position in the political situation in question). A purely performative moment, “show solidarity” and go on with our lives.
Personally, I very much prefer to either “express solidarity” or “stand in solidarity” (the latter, of course, in many cases metaphorically speaking, especially when used in writing). Both would imply a willingness to, as we say in Spanish, poner el cuerpo (literally, “to use one’s body”). There is no English language equivalent to this expression but this translation here comes close: “poner el cuerpo” means not just to talk, think, or desire, but to be really present and involved; to put the whole being in action, to be committed to a social cause, and to assume the bodily risks and demands of such commitment.” Both “expressing solidarity” and “standing in solidarity” imply an active thinking and voicing of one’s involvement. They evoke work, rather than performance. They are, to me, much more powerful ways to express myself politically: I stand here; I express this; these are the ideas I voice.
From 9am on Wednesday to 9am on Thursday, we’re taking a stand outside the Dáil [Irish Parliament] for the undocumented. JOIN US at 6pm for the candlelit solidarity gathering, when we’ll have stories and music with supporters, allies, undocumented migrants, and politicians. Family and friends welcome!-
Today undocumented migrants in Ireland are holding a 24 hour vigil in the hopes of achieving justice for them and their families. If you are in the vicinity and have the opportunity, I personally plead your support for this action. Living without “papers” (as it is informally called) is not only stressing but it exposes the undocumented migrant to incredible risks of harm and violence. Undocumented status means you are disenfranchised; you live in fear for you and your family; if you are a victim of crime, you will most likely not report it; if you are a woman, it means you are vulnerable to sexual assault and you will have little legal recourse for obtaining justice; undocumented trans* women are doubly vulnerable because of transphobia and the fact that they have almost no legal protections when they are attacked; undocumented children face limitations in the services they can access and quality of education due to the fact that not every school will make exceptions for those that do not have the “correct papers”. The list of injustices faced by undocumented people is endless and breathtakingly unfair.
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%.
"Over half of the estimated 120,000 undocumented migrant children in the UK were born here. Many have lived here for their entire childhood," Kamena Dorling, policy and programmes manager at the centre said.-
Undocumented European immigration in numbers.
I’ve written about the language of European immigration before and how there is an institutional push to classify undocumented immigrants as either refugees or asylum seekers, erasing the multiplicity of experiences that lead to migration and displacement. Another erasure that is quite common across the EU has to do with figures. There is no data collection as to the number of undocumented migrants currently living within the European Union. I suspect that this lack of data, paired with the above mentioned language misuse is a purely political decision. In order to perpetuate the myth of “European human rights champion”, the EU needs to obscure the realities of those that are disenfranchised within its own borders.
Here’s a roundup of the latest links around the topic I’ve been covering all week:
- UN requests The Netherlands to stop harassing and intimidating Human Rights experts researching the topic of Black Pete/ Zwarte Piet
While there may be vigorous debate on issues raised by independent experts, these individuals should not be subject to hate speech or attacks on their personal integrity or any form of harassment or intimidation in their defence of human rights, as has happened in this case.
- Here, Rita Izsák, UN Independent Expert on minority issues, explains the harassment and intimidation that the members of the working group are being subjected to.
- Those who can read Dutch (or who have infinite patience to type text into Google translate), should check the “Nederland Spreekt” Tumblr (The Netherlands is speaking), which collects reactions around the internet from people who vehemently defend the character of Zwarte Piet. Massive trigger warning, though, as the reactions range from calls to lynching anyone who opposes the character to demands of deportation for all People of Color in The Netherlands. I must say I have seen plenty of racist language in my life (more than anyone should have to, really), but the painstaking archival repository that has been created by this blog exceeds anything I have seen before (both in accumulation of hate speech and rhetoric).
- Martijn de Koning has written a great piece about the commodification of dissent in The Netherlands. He expands on the research I posted yesterday about the marketing agency behind the Zwarte Piet petition and adds new data regarding the commercial value, plus, he has some in depth analysis on the meaning of this appropriation from a political standpoint.
- And, in case you missed it, this week I wrote about “ungrievable lives” and “ungrievable racism” and the emotions centered around the Zwarte Piet uproar.
As I read the statement by Rita Izsák, the UN advisor on Minority Issues and her eloquent remarks about the violent nature of Zwarte Piet’s supporters, I kept thinking of gaslighting and how it’s become such a widespread tool of terror to enforce racism in The Netherlands. I have briefly written about gaslighting as part of the “dominant culture’s toolkit”, however, never before has this mechanism been clearer than with the current debates around Zwarte Piet.
a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.
Under the guise of this bizarre claim that The Netherlands is “the most tolerant country in the world”, even when we present undeniable proof of historical and cultural evidence to the contrary, we are told that “we are seeing things” where there are none to be seen. “It’s all in our heads” or, alternatively, “we are making it all up”. This, paired with the rhetoric violence that Dutch white racists unleash on anyone who opposes them is at the very foundation of the Dutch national culture. On the one hand, gaslight those who speak up against racism. On the other, if that doesn’t work, threaten them with violence.
Yesterday, on Twitter, I pointed out that contrary to media claims, the petition to leave Zwarte Piet unchanged was not a grassroots effort. The campaign was initiated by a marketing agency seeking to make a “test case” for their customers on the effective use of social media to gather public support. They are now advertising the campaign on their website as a “success” that proves their expertise on artificially influencing public opinion. Screen capture of this agency’s marketing (link here, but I am screencapping in case they change or remove it): in Dutch, a “portfolio” of this marketing agency’s customers where, at the bottom, there is a message in Dutch stating “The proof that social media works: from 0 to 720,000 “likes” in 20 hours”, followed by a link to the racist petition. (The number of “likes” at the time of this writing is at 2.1 million).
To sum it up, a business is making money out of enforcing anti Black racism and exploiting the legacy of slavery. And yet, two million people will willfully adhere to this campaign claiming it “represents them”, obviously ignoring that each time they support it, they are merely a number for a corporate enterprise to make $$ out of the whole ordeal. Then, a rather significant number of those two million people will viciously attack anyone who opposes them either using the gaslighting described above or, when that doesn’t render the desired results (i.e. silencing opposition), sending open threats of violence (beatings, rape, “I will find you and teach you a lesson” etc etc).
The myth of tolerance in The Netherlands is nothing more than an empty word to hide abuse and terror for anyone who dares resist. The “tolerant” ones, either making money out of enforcing racism or hiding behind gaslighting and rhetoric violence, willing to say anything to maintain the status quo. This is what a culture of abuse looks like.
For the record, once again: I do not have the power and never had the intent to advocate for the abolishment of Sinterklaas. In many cultures (including in my own by the way), Santa Claus is an important and beloved figure and its tradition should be respected. And in most countries, he does indeed have assistants and many times they are dark figures. The roots and history of this is complex and varies according to countries and there are experts who have been doing thorough research on this and know much better than I do. But let us be honest. The argument that Zwarte Piet is actually a white man who went through a chimney and became smokey, and therefore has nothing to do with African and Black people cannot really stand once we look at his afro wig, thick red lips and costume that resembles slavery times. We must realize that people of African descent can easily have a(n otherwise legitimate) reason to feel connected and related to Black Pete and must be given the opportunity to react and share their thoughts and feelings on that. Of course, reactions will be mixed and it is alright. I got messages from non-Black Dutch people who feel ashamed because of Black Pete and would like to see it abolished but also letters by Black people who have seen nothing wrong with it and felt that Black Pete makes Black people lovable. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that everyone can say what they feel and then there must be a way to find a compromise if needed to bring harmony and peace back to communities (removing the afro wig and red lipstick and change his clothes for example so that he really looks like a white man who went through a chimney…?).
But I must say that I am concerned and saddened about the nature of the debate at least according to what I see on my own Facebook page. Those who feel offended and hurt because of Black Pete rather write me private messages in confidence which gives me the impression that they have a fear to speak up publicly. On the contrary, many of those who feel that there is nothing wrong with Black Pete, often communicate it through rather aggressive messages for the whole public and ridicule those who were brave enough to raise their voice against Black Pete openly. I also got cynical and rude comments on my other posts dealing with completely different subjects. My worry is that such an atmosphere will not enable an honest and open discussion. Black people and those non-Black Dutch who feel that something is wrong must be encouraged to speak up without fear and must be heard on an equal basis. It is the responsibility of the government and all its citizens to make it happen. From my side, I will keep on providing a space for discussion here on Facebook and I do wish for us that we will all come to a solution that will bring people and communities closer instead of dividing them. We must recognize, that what we need is unity in diversity and how we deal with such things will determine not only our common future but most importantly the way our children will grow up, think about and handle such complex social realities.-
Rita Izsák, one of the UN experts involved in the panel that sent a the letter to the Dutch government addressing the racist nature of the character of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) had this to say on her Facebook page.
[Photo caption: a yellow sign with two silhouettes, next to a road, reads, in Dutch: denk aan onze kinderen] Sign reads, in Dutch, “Think of our children”. Photo via.
Sometimes you drive around these small Dutch villages, little bucolic enclaves in the middle of mist covered landscapes, beautifully dotted with farmlands and well kept yards. These villages are also, invariably, overwhelmingly white. Sometimes, when you drive around in the narrow streets you see signs that read “Think of our children” with some graphic pointing to speed limits. These signs, which are, at the root, an emotional plea to drivers, attempt to elicit care while circulating around areas where children usually play. The idea, of course, and one nobody would dispute, is that children’s lives are worth preserving and being careful about. Given my own personal history and my on going archive of “ungrievable lives”, I’ve always felt a quiet and sorrowful discomfort around those signs. This discomfort does not stem from the fact that I believe those specific children are not worth protecting but because I have seen first hand, and because I carry the scars on my body, of the lives that are not considered worth protecting. These lives, I am told, deserve care; these other lives, are not even worth mourning.
This week, Verene Shepherd, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights said in an interview that she would object to the character of Zwarte Piet if she lived in the Netherlands. From the linked article:
Verene Shepherd, who is Jamaican, said in the interview that the UN working group cannot understand why ‘people in the Netherlands do not see this is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop.’
Last week it emerged the committee is looking into the Sinterklaas celebrations and the role of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) following complaints that it is racist.
I have written extensively about the character of Zwarte Piet. I have been interviewed, quoted, dissected and even threatened for writing about this topic. In fact, it was my writing about Zwarte Piet that originated my friendship (and many working collaborations) with Quinsy Gario, the young man that was arrested, a couple of years ago, for wearing a t-shirt stating that “Zwarte Piet is racism”. It was Quinsy who originally presented the Zwarte Piet related documentation to the UN Commissioner last year. It was also Quinsy who, a bit over two weeks ago, had a hearing at Amsterdam’s City Council to request that the city wide festivities do not include this racist character. So, when we had lunch earlier this week, I was not shocked to hear the latest development: he is getting death threats and threats of unspeakable violence from a great number of white Dutch people who are incensed because he dared speak up about the racist history of this character. Dutch tabloid media is mocking him, tv and radio commentators refer to his work in the condescending tone reserved for those that are not to be acknowledged as intellectual equals, those that are to be treated like a nuisance. The very same racist tropes that created the character of Zwarte Piet are now being unleashed over the Black man protesting them.
Yesterday, in response to the UN Commissioner’s statements, two white, Dutch publicists, Kevin van Boeckholtz and Bas Vreugde started a Facebook petition to “Save Zwarte Piet” (link to news in Dutch). In the Facebook page they state they want public support to keep the character in its current incarnation: a Blackface, racist, colonial depiction of Sinterklaas’ enslaved helper. At the time of this writing, more than 1.9 million Dutch people have “Liked” this page and signed the petition. In a country of a bit over 16 million people, more than 10% of the population has publicly stated that they refuse to consider any changes to their tradition. The message is loud and clear: a significant number of Dutch people would rather cling to their racism than consider any other perspective for change.
A bit over two weeks ago, The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), an organization of 15 Caribbean nations and dependencies, announced that they intend to sue The Netherlands, UK and France seeking slavery reparations. Both Britain and The Netherlands compensated slave owners and traders at the time of emancipation (with sums that amount to billions in today’s currency) but they never equally recognized the effects of the Transatlantic trade on its victims. This legal action brought forward by CARICOM at the beginning of October hardly made Dutch news. The legacy of slavery in The Netherlands, once again, silenced and swept under the rug. Which is to say, business as usual, considering the topic was not taught at all in Dutch schools until well into the 90s and even now, it is taught devoid of historical context, removed from the consequences for present day descendants. Even when the undeniable link between racist caricatures of Black people and the Dutch responsibility in the creation of these racial hierarchies are brought up, we get a petition signed by more than 10% of the population.
In its lawsuit, Caricom claims slavery condemned the region to a poverty that still afflicts it today.
And they are comparing their demand to Germany recompensing Jewish people for the Holocaust and New Zealand compensating Maoris.
'The awful legacy of these crimes against humanity ought to be repaired for the developmental benefit of our Caribbean societies and all our peoples,' said Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of the tiny Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
He called it a ‘historic wrong that has to be righted’.
Verene Shepherd, who is coordinating Jamaica’s demands for reparations, said their slave ancestors ‘got nothing’ when they were freed. ‘They got their freedom and they were told ‘Go develop yourselves’,’ she said.
The arguments we hear the most from white, Dutch people who wish to preserve the character of Zwarte Piet in its current incarnation center around emotions. This, we are told, is a character from our childhoods. We love Sinterklaas. We have such fond memories of these festivities. This character was never intended to be racist, it was simply a bit of a jester, a comic relief. Again and again, we are told, we need to preserve these feelings, the “tradition” itself merely an excuse for the preservation of white Dutch children’s emotions. “Think of our children” all over again. And all over again, the reminder that the feelings worth preserving, the lives worth cherishing are those of white Dutch children. Even if those emotions come at the expense of Black children whose cultural representation amounts to tired, old, racist stereotypes. Even if those emotions come at the expense of death threats for the people who oppose them. Just like there are “ungrievable lives”, present day Dutch society wants us to know that there is “ungrievable racism”. And they will not do a thing to change that.
"There is no individual solution to systemic problems" why do we keep forgetting that & are continuously sold neoliberal individualism?— Flavia Dzodan (@redlightvoices) October 21, 2013
Last night, after I posted my piece on neoliberal feminism and white critiques of identity politics, the conversation(s) continued on Twitter. Jennifer Reft compiled my tweets on a Storify.
Last April I wrote about neoliberal feminism and, as it is bound to happen from time to time, I was dutifully mocked by white British feminists*. This was not the first time I had written on the topic but I believe it was the first time I had connected this neoliberal feminism to several of the “trends” of the past year, namely, Lean In, “having it all” and the UK feminist backlash against intersectionality. Back then, I wrote (and I am not quoting myself so much as refreshing the working definition that I hope illuminates this aspect of neoliberal feminism):
In The Handbook of Social Geography, edited by Susan Smith and others, Clive Barnett spells out some principles of neoliberalism that I believe are useful to situate my statements further, specifically, he states that “Neoliberalism brings off various changes in subjectivity by normalizing individualistic self-interest, entrepreneurial values, and consumerism”. This neoliberalism is then normalized and presented as “a benevolent mask full of wonderful-sounding words like freedom, liberty, choice, and rights, to hide the grim realities of the restoration or reconstitution of naked class power”.
Last Monday, The Guardian published a piece by Professor Nancy Fraser, How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden - and how to reclaim it. Professor Fraser writes:
Feminism has also made a second contribution to the neoliberal ethos. In the era of state-organised capitalism, we rightly criticised a constricted political vision that was so intently focused on class inequality that it could not see such “non-economic” injustices as domestic violence, sexual assault and reproductive oppression. Rejecting “economism” and politicising “the personal”, feminists broadened the political agenda to challenge status hierarchies premised on cultural constructions of gender difference. The result should have been to expand the struggle for justice to encompass both culture and economics. But the actual result was a one-sided focus on “gender identity” at the expense of bread and butter issues. Worse still, the feminist turn to identity politics dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social equality.
One of the topics I systematically bring up is that the internet has facilitated an ahistorical, decontextualized version of feminism. Words become slogans become memes become cliches become empty vessels removed from the original intent or circumstance in which they were created. These words then are repeated and they enter our collective without so much as a memory of who said them and what they mean. I, too, have repeated “the personal is political” often. I, too, believe in the power of those words. But then, a few weeks ago, when I was approached about signing the letter of support for a trans-inclusive feminism, I realized something I hadn’t “seen” before. Or better said, something I had seen on numerous occasions but I had never put together. The letter of support for a trans-inclusive feminism was written in response to a vile open statement against trans* inclusivity initiated by no other than Carol Hanisch, the woman who coined the phrase “The personal is political”. What was once sold to us as political liberation is now clearly nothing but the work of a bigot who devotes herself to exclusion. And it is in the mindless repetition of this phrase that we have lost all context and neoliberal feminism has used this collective memory loss as an excuse to take each individual story, each “personal” into a fragmented, shattered mosaic where there is no longer room for the analysis and resistance to the systemic. If all is reduced to “the personal”, what room is there to stand in resistance to a white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist patriarchy? In this fragmented collection of “the personal”, all we are offered is individual solutions. The myth of choice where we are supposed to believe the individual can ever pick from an infinite set of possibilities. The myth of choice where we are to believe we all have the same choices to pick from.
When Professor Fraser writes “Worse still, the feminist turn to identity politics dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social equality.”, I have to ask “which identity politics”? Are we talking about the identity politics that reduce me to the category of “woman” while it forces me to erase my condition of migrant, woman of color, Latina, etc etc? Prof. Fraser’s critique of neoliberal feminism falls into the trap of most critiques that originate within mainstream white feminism: they conveniently forget the “matrix of domination” that many of us are forced to inhabit. While neoliberal feminism reduces us to individual islands, each with our own categories, discouraged from seeking answers in the collective, Prof. Frasier’s critique reduces us to an erasing, universal “woman”. It is not surprising that most criticism of “identity politics” originate within white culture. Identity politics, they claim, are a disservice to “the fight”; we should, instead, focus on a single issue at a time. When you are a person of color, your deviation from the white norm is a hindrance, your multiple issues a distraction, an impediment for advancement. Identity politics, it is suggested, are “divisive”.
In closing her piece, Prof. Fraser writes:
First, we might break the spurious link between our critique of the family wage and flexible capitalism by militating for a form of life that de-centres waged work and valorises unwaged activities, including – but not only – carework.
Again, I have to bring up the pesky “identity politics”: how can we start to decenter waged work when the wage gap between Women of Color and White women** is not only alive but shows no sign of change? On the one hand, neoliberal feminism breaks us down into single units so that we are left with no systemic solutions. On the other hand, this critique of neoliberal feminism fails to address the complexities of being a Woman of Color within a white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist patriarchy. No matter the angle, it seems that all we are offered is whiteness in lieu of liberation. Or, if I want to draw from a Black feminist that was better than I’ll ever be: all we are offered are Master’s tools. And we know liberation can never come from those.
* Link goes to one of the tweets where, as customary, a link to my piece is included without naming me, a modus operandi followed by many on Twitter to avoid giving credit or engaging those that should be discussed but not promoted. Twitter won’t allow me to get the entire conversation where several white feminists discussed my (lack of) intellectual capabilities to tackle the issue I was writing about. Lest anyone thinks I am bitter about this, yes, I am, especially considering how many times the topics I am mocked for attempting to write about, shortly after, as is the case here, materialize in mainstream media where they are lauded by the same white feminists that mocked me before.
** Using a US fact sheet because it was one of the first links available, however, a PDF of a British report can be found here. I will not research every country in the European Union, but I have written before about unemployment of PoC in the EU with figures, google would provide more data for those interested.