Action for Equality, Support, Antiracism calls attention again on the case that was published two weeks ago and concerns the inhuman treatment and illegal detention of a mother and a 13 months old baby from Afghanistan. The father is held in the Detention Center in Mennogeia since December 2012, while the mother and her three children were accommodated until two weeks ago in the Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers in Kofinou. After the mother’s arrest on November 18, the two older children were taken to the Children’s Shelter in Larnaca. The baby, who is still at the stage of lactation, initially was given to a foster family, but on November 23 was transferred to the Detention Center of Oroklini Police Station, where the mother is held until now. According to the competent authorities, “the baby was transferred to the detention center because it was crying continuously”, after the violent separation from its mother.-
Earlier today I posted about the baby taken away from her mother who, it is claimed, suffers from bipolar disorder. The baby’s father is an undocumented immigrant from Senegal so, the British court ruled the parents were unfit to care for the child.
Now comes this story, also involving the European Union’s treatment of immigrant families. In Cyprus, a lactating baby was given away in foster care while both parents were held in detention due to their status as undocumented migrants. The foster family has now “returned” the baby who has also been placed in detention for “crying too much”.
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
Ah, gotta love Jezebel’s consistency here. Less than a week ago, they published “The Many Misguided Reasons Famous Ladies Say I’m Not a Feminist”. They went on beating that dead pony right up to the point of splashing putrid flesh with the usual finger pointing at Beyonce, among others. Not a single mention of the many reasons women (particularly Women of Color who have been long victims of feminism’s failures in acknowledging racial inequalities) might have to eschew the label.
Yesterday, their mood was different when they lauded white, cis, dude extraordinaire Joss Whedon for saying people should stop identifying as feminist and, instead, go for “genderist” (non shocker, Jezebel’s Editor in Chief Jessica Coen explained a similar view in the comments of the first piece). So, you heard it at Jezebel first, ladies: a white cis dude has given you the OK not to identify as a feminist. Just like previously, an equally brave brother in arms gave you permission to redeem men by taking their jizz on your face or letting them rub you off for their own good.
Nothing says women’s liberation, self actualization and freedom like a white dude giving us permission to do stuff. Especially when said man has such a stellar track record with issues of racial diversity in his own shows. I mean, just watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D where every villain up to episode 4 (when I had to stop watching due to racism induced rage) was a person of color (or a corrupt government like Malta, known for its mainly Afro descendant demographics). So, you know, do as a (white, cis) man says and stop those pesky feminist politics of yours. Nobody better equipped to lead change than one of the men who creates the problem.
An extension to Arab anti-black racism is an aspiration to all that our former - and current - colonisers possess. Individuals aspire to what is powerful and rich, and the images of that power and wealth have light skin, straight hair, small noses, ruddy cheeks and tall, skinny bodies. That image rejects melanin-rich skin, coiled hair, broad or pointy noses, short stature, broad hips and big legs. So we, too, reject these features, despising them in others and in ourselves as symbols of inferiority, laziness, and poverty. That’s why the anglicising industries of skin bleaching and hair straightening are so profitable.-
Oh look, an in depth piece about Arab anti Black racism and its colonial history. With plenty of links to follow for even more in depth coverage.
But I am “stupid” for trying to understand the history that directly influences the reality I live in.
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.
I really, truly need to understand this phenomenon: what exactly drives a cis, white man to a feminist space so that he can mansplain sexism to the ladies? (And yeah, I had to say something because WTF is up with that comment even being allowed to stand, let alone left unchallenged?!). It seems that no matter what happens, nothing is learned from the participation of these types of men in feminist political discussions. Because when I need to understand how white, heteronormative patriarchy operates, nobody better than a cis, white dude to explain it to me, amirite?
* On this topic, Trudy has been writing extensively at Gradient Lair as well, I suggest you check her posts for more coverage.