Race Amnesia

Sweet forgetfulness of empire – from Canada to the Netherlands with love

I was invited for Loving Day 2016 Academic Forum to deliver a brief comment on Minelle Mahtani’s book Mixed Race Amnesia. Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality, in light of the Dutch context. The book deals with multiraciality in Canada.


This was my brief intervention:


As I was requested to reflect on  Mixed Race Amnesia from a Dutch perspective, I am afraid that I will not do justice to the book, which is an important publication in itself, theoretically solid but also highly accessible to the reader who is not familiar with Critical Race Studies terminology. At the same time, because of its qualities, this book supports reflection on our own Dutch racialised geography and temporality.


This reflection is timely because it is always time to problematise racial narratives and materialities in a society marked by racism. But this is also a particular time, as in the last 5 years the antiracism movement, lead by black activists, succeeded to put racism back into the public debate in the Netherlands.


In Loving Day much attention is dedicated to personal stories of mixed-race. In her book, Mahtani looks both at personal stories and at broader social dynamics. I will focus here mainly on the Dutch macro-context in which the narratives of mixed-race people is inscribed, and I will look broadly to the amorphous category of People of Colour, that is non-white people. What I want to highlight is the positionality of those racially marked as non-belonging to Dutchness, while problematising Dutchness as whiteness, an alleged non-mixed or pure race.


Mixed Race Amnesia allows establishing important parallels between Canada and the Netherlands, namely the national mythology of tolerance and the claim of ignorance about racism associated with historical amnesia about the empire, within a context of neoliberalism and neocolonialism. The self-congratulatory myth of tolerance still holds strong in the Netherlands – as in Canada – despite society’s diagnosis that multiculturalism failed (and the desire to bring us back to the time before it has been created by the Labour Party). Canada serves then as counterpoint, as example of successful multiculturalism; whereas we stand for its doom. While you have prime-minister Justin Trudeau wishing Canadian Muslim citizens Ramadan Mubarak, our prime-minister Mark Rutte declares to envy his friends in the Antilles for they don’t have to paint their faces black to play Zwarte Piet.


It is worthwhile to mention that both these constructions, of failed and successful multiculturalism, emerge as mirror reflex to social analysis of race in the United States of America. It is important though to look beyond what Ella Shohat and Robert Stam coined the master narratives of comparison, attending to other narratives of imperial and national exceptionality, in the South.


Mixed-race narratives play a fundamental role in shaping national identities throughout Latin America. In Brazil the mixed race women is celebrated in both official and popular narratives of colonial and national identity. Just this week the Brazilian Black feminist Djamila Ribeiro highlighted the links between contemporary Brazilian rape culture and colonialism; of white settlers raping Black enslaved women, who subsequently gave birth to our mestiça/mulatta children. At the same time, the mixed race person and in particular the hypersexualised women of colour gains social currency by distance to Indigeneity and blackness. For a glimpse in the dehumanising portray of black womanhood in the Netherlands, see Robert Vuistje’s acclaimed book Only Decent People (Alleen Maar Nette Mensen), which was later succesfully turned into film. Examples of abject representations of black woman are found in the wide geography of European empires.


The US race narrative imposes limitations to the Dutch. Egbert Alejandro Martina pointed out the undermining effect of the US as evidence of actual racism (against the Dutch alleged “mild racism”): “To me, White evaluations of the severity of anti-black violence in a world that is anti-black sound an awful lot like ‘on our plantation we treat the Blacks better than on that plantation yonder.’” Jessy de Abreu wrote on the ubiquity of commentary on Beyoncé, overshadowing the political voice of Black women in the Netherlands. At the same time De Abreu borrows from USAmerican black feminists, Martina borrows from Afro-pessimism (a.o. currents), which shows us that it is indeed fruitful to cross our own analytical tools and experiences of Black struggle and struggle of People of Colour with those in the Anglophone space, but not only…


We are not unique but have our own history, plenty of stories, and our own heroes. However these are not of common knowledge to the Dutch society, as they have been unauthorised and actively silenced. That’s why it is of such importance the work on the archive of anti-colonial and anti-racist Black, Migrant and Refugee women’s resistance (a.o.), such as done outside Academia by Egbert Alejandro Martina, by Chandra Frank outside of the Netherlands, in the Dutch arts by Patricia Kaersenhout, and also Loving Day has a role to play here too.


This means that a dialogue between racialised histories and stories requires translation. In the Netherlands, Mixed Race corresponds to the racial conundrum embodied in the term allochtoon or, more specifically niet-Westers allochtoon (non-Western allochtonous). Egbert Alejandro Martina and I pointed out that:


Allochtoon, a common term in Dutch social management, political discourse and colloquial language, is used to categorize a person born abroad, or a “person of whom at least one parent was born abroad.” However, in the Netherlands, origin is not only restricted to parentage or ancestry. The Central Bureau of Statistics defines origin as a “characteristic showing with which country someone actually is closely related given their own country of birth and that of their parents.” Origin is thus defined in terms of a distinguishing mark. The term Allochtoon, which is borrowed from geology, suggests an enlacement of race, territory, and allegiance. Bodies, which are always-already mediated through race, are, then, territorialized, and consigned to different physical and metaphorical spaces.

This fusion or confusion of race, colour and nationality is evident in discourse about multiracial/multiculturalism. See, for intance, how phenotype and geography are hidden in the virtuous dance with terminology in the September 2014 Volkskrant article of Martin Sommer titled: “The Netherlands racist? Half of love-relationships is ethnically mixed”. Flip van Dijk remarked that alongside the article’s gross statistical inaccuracy, when referring to “origin and colour” the journalist uses terms interchangeably: allochtoon, non-Western allochtoon, third generation allochtoon (according to the journalist: “allochtonen of whom both parents were born in the Netherlands”, which defies the very category of allochtoon in the first place). This confusing racialised category of otherness stands for the non-white Dutch, who apparently marry the white in large numbers, which demonstrates that the Netherlands is a model non-racist society. After all, according to the journalist, demography is the only scientific criteria to prove racism. And here applies Mahtani’s analysis of the “romance of miscegenation” as a postcolonial evidence of racial harmony or postraciality.


Mixed Race Amnesia also explores the nexus between race and space inherited from imperial rule. In the article Access to the Netherlands of Enslaved and Free Black Africans, Dienke Hondius demonstrates how the Dutch State-General strictly regulated the entrance of enslaved and free black Africans to the Dutch metropolis through the sixteen to the nineteenth centuries. Hereby, “The extent to which the political and legal processes of slavery – decision making, overseeing and financing – remained situated within European cities becomes generally unnoticed and remains under-researched until today.” This configures a racialised geography of absence and invisibility. The groundbreaking work of Jennifer Tosch on the Black Heritage Tours across the Dutch city channels is of utmost importance in making Dutch colonialism visible here.


But colonialism does not only manifest as traces of the past. In our recent article White Order: Racialization of Public Space in the Netherlands, Egbert Alejandro Martina and I posit that the ways in which Black people are addressed in public discourse and spatial policy contribute greatly to the construction of a nationalist, gendered, sexualized, socio-spatial framework of proper White Native Dutchness. We reveal the sustained targeting of Black bodies, from Dutch colonial times until today, and recast spatial design and regulation as normalized and disavowed violence. According to data published by Maurice de Hond only yesterday, the overwhelming majority of Dutch population finds racial profiling acceptable.


Another very important insight in Mixed Race Amnesia is the depoliticisation of race through the coupling of multiraciality with progress. Diversity language reproduces the economy of white supremacy through apolitical and neutral affiliations with the nation-state. According to Sara Ahmed, diversity policy is a neoliberal technique of management whereby political differences and historically contingent processes can be depoliticised. Mahtani accuratedly pointed out that multicultural policy is no substitute for antiracist legislation, which takes into account the economic and political roots of systemic racism. Ethnic/Racial and social justice require social change.


For us in the Netherlands, it is also critical to consider the limits of diversity, however, we still live in a society that systematically excludes People of Colour from the labour market, from positions of power. Our government is white, our media bosses are white, our professors are white, our boards of directors are white. As New Urban Collective tweeted this week: “40% of law students has a ‘non-Western’ background but the judiciary is 98% white.” So, attentive to the fact that including People of Colour will not address structural racism, we cannot leave the wall of institutional whiteness untouched. At the same time the very institute of citizenship and the nation-state must be challenged.


David Goldberg denoted that the Dutch national narrative was built upon historical denial and cemented an antiracial consensus, according to which the expression of racism is anti-Semitism. It enabled the pervasiveness of Islamophobia and anti-black racism, which is also a tool for reinforcing European identity as white and Christian. Gloria Wekker borrowed from Aimé Cesaire to deconstruct Europeanness: “The construction of the European self and its Others took place in the force fields of ‘conquest, colonization, empire formation, permanent settlement by Europeans of other parts of the globe, nationalist struggles by the colonized, and selective decolonization’.” She investigates the imagination of innocence – also analysed in Mixed Race Amnesia – within such force fields in her recent book White Innocence, described as “[an exploration of the] central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia. Accessing a cultural archive built over 400 years of Dutch colonial rule, Wekker fundamentally challenges Dutch racial exceptionalism by undermining the dominant narrative of the Netherlands as a ‘gentle’ and ‘ethical’ nation”.


Throughout the last 20 years Goldberg notes in the Netherlands the insidiousness of everyday racism and the repressive imposition of an insistent homogeneity against an otherwise undeniable and expansive demographic and cultural heterogeneity. Philomena Essed and Isabel Hoving contend that the dismissal of racism is asserted with a sense of cultural superiority and moral righteousness through ideological repression. Gloria Wekker posits that “[The Netherlands’] new claim to fame is no longer its proverbial tolerance and hospitality to foreigners and refugees, however contested that notion always already was in circles of Black, migrants, and refugees themselves”. I believe though that we still cling on to the myth of tolerance, only claim that “even Dutch tolerance has its limits”.


In the Netherlands, the bulk of the debate and analysis centres on the individual and symbolic aspects of racism, namely racial biases and feelings, and the talents, strength and willingness of the subject of colour to overcome racism. Fundamental in Mixed Race Amnesia is the confluence between the symbolic and material dimensions of racialisation, and the critical intersection of race, gender and class, defining whiteness as a place of structural advantage, privilege and power. It is crucial to gaze at the materiality of race and to the systemic character of racism. Here, racism is still perceived as excessive, that means an aberration to an otherwise postracial order, as an interruption, rather than a historical continuity and institutional practice.


And then, a final word about the Dutch institution of Higher Education, the academic landscape on race: Philomena Essed and Kwame Nimako have described the ejection of Critical Race from the Dutch academe in the 1990’s, and the embracing of policy oriented Migration Studies. Hereby Critical Race scholarship was murdered in its cradle. In the last 2 decades, a new generation of critics of colour has been in gestation outside Academia, and was raised through self-learning and community nurturing. However their condition is highly precarious. This privileging of some epistemologies and the relegation of others is accompanied by an economy of white privilege, whereby academic positions and research funding go to those either embodying whiteness or abiding by it. Both Eurocentric epistemes and a white academic elite reproduce coloniality. I must say though that there is hope for this institution as, due to the tireless efforts of the movement of students of colour (the University of Colour) a group has been formed to scrutinise the University of Amsterdam’s curriculum, space and practices. This group has a strong decolonial agenda, under the name and disguise of the Diversity Commission.