Detroping White Privilege: “Diversity” Politics Beyond the Token Paradigm

by Praveen Sewgobind, paper presented at the Humboldt University, Berlin conference Race, Power, and Privilege in Academia on July 27th, 2017 (View the powerpoint presentation here & the full event program available here)

 

“Racism becomes something bad that we can’t even speak of, as if to describe x as racist is to damage or even hurt x. The organization becomes the subject of feeling, as the one who must be protected, as the one who is easily bruised or hurt. When racism becomes an institutional injury, it is imagined as an injury to whiteness. The claim ‘we would never’ use the language of racism is a way of protecting whiteness from being hurt or damaged. Diversity can be a method of protecting whiteness. I would also point out that personalizing institutional racism creates a space for whiteness to be reasserted. The speech act ‘we would not accuse you of racism’ can be translated into ‘I am not racist’ insofar as the ‘I’ that would not accuse the ‘you’ has already identified with that you. To speak about racism would hurt not just the organization, reimagined as a subject with feelings, but also those subjects who identify with the organization. They would be hurt by what is heard as a charge, such that the charge becomes about their hurt. There is an implicit injunction not to speak about racism to protect whiteness from being hurt. Speaking about racism is thus heard as an injury not to those who speak but to those who are spoken about.

– Sara Ahmed. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press. 2012. 147.

***

 

“Why do you always go on about race ?” somebody once asked me. The question, uttered in a passive-aggressive tone, seething with frustration, was phrased by a white person who apparently did not want to acknowledge her own whiteness. To acknowledge one’s own whiteness, and to understand the workings of white privilege, I realised, are demanding processes, because they oblige people to unlearn a widespread belief that we somehow live in a colour-blind society. (SLIDE 2) It is a belief that is carefully constructed in the media, in advertising, and in educational institutions alike. But why then, do people of colour perceive many spaces (SLIDE 3) as seas of whiteness ? What lies behind the anxiety that I and so many other people of colour feel when we uneasily stand out among white people? How do we address issues of race, power, and privilege when race is passionately being denied?

In my presentation, I wish to clarify the conditions that need to be met, for the academic seas of whiteness to transform into an oceanic globality, and replace (SLIDE 4) the happy trope of non-performative diversity into a practice of continuous resistance.

The vexed question that I wish to address today, is the dangerous illusion of postraciality. I argue that accepting an alleged postraciality actually enforces racism, because in its operation, the primacy of a trope of whiteness effectively surfaces and structurally injures people of colour. Many academic institutions, especially those who pride themselves of being liberal and progressive, employ a politics of colour-blindness. In countries like Germany and the Netherlands, where I spent most of my life, the negation of race of course has a strong historical background. However, it is about time, I would argue, that we move beyond the dogma and the fear of using the word race, and for that matter the word white. Just to state the obvious: this university is a white space. Realising its whiteness might be uncomfortable to acknowledge, yet it is a necessary step to come to terms with, and move beyond the trope of whiteness that engulfs us all, and to understand the correlation between white privilege and racism.

The trope of whiteness, that could be described as a normalising (SLIDE 5) flow of white bodies, akin to a current in a body of water, has become particularly apparent to me when I was a PhD researcher at Leiden University. Although I knew about the racial pyramid structure they were trying to camouflage, I decided to become part of one of the most prestigious Dutch academic institutions. (SLIDE 6) Just to clarify, its racial pyramid structure refers to the process by which the number of PoC decreases the further up the social hierarchy you go: there may be a significant number of students of colour in the Bachelor’s programs, but the higher echelons are predominantly, and even entirely white.

In a policy paper on Leiden University’s novel diversity strategy, (SLIDE 7)  typically called Excellence through Diversity,  it  becomes clear that the starting point for a diversity policy, was a reference to major Dutch multinational companies and other elite universities: because enterprises like Shell and Unilever, and institutions such as Harvard and Oxford did diversity, Leiden University now had to follow. I figured that the perception of not doing that would damage their credibility in international settings. And so, it was decided to refurbish the appearance of the university’s websites. My former research school created a new p.r offensive, and asked a number of PhDs of colour to be part of a photo shoot. The quasi-randomness of the choice of participants became obvious, when I was asked to sit at a table with a Chinese and a Turkish colleague of mine. Several pictures were taken, but then, I was asked to go to another room and await further instructions. It was only later that I realised what had happened, as you can see in the picture here(SLIDE 8) A white male colleague had been mobilised to replace me, to assume the exact same position I was in, sitting at the table behind my tablet, with my two colleagues. When I saw the new configuration, I protested and asked: why was I taken out of the picture? The answer by one of the institute’s white managers was, in her words: “Well, the three of you were all wearing black, and so we asked the other person.” I have to add that we were specifically told not to wear light colours, and so we did. I was furious. I felt pushed aside, and trampled upon. Why, I thought, would they even ask me, and then decide we were apparently (SLIDE 9) “too black, too strong, or too ethnic, too strong,” as I analysed it later. Initially, I was left inside of the picture frame, but on the side, as I was waiting in the room behind the glass. But when I decided to leave Leiden University, some weeks later, I demanded they would cut me out completely, and so they did, albeit reluctantly. The reasons why I left the institution were partly caused by a deeply felt uneasiness that began to take shape, feelings of being structurally otherised while being used as a token, to figure at will in the happy Benetton-style diversity politics. It occurred to me, especially after reading Sara Ahmed’s text On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, how diversity politics often becomes instrumentalised as a marketing tool, and PoC were employed as advertisement props. Critiquing happy diversity and pointing to racism can be dangerous, though. When I uttered the very word racism to one of the institute’s managers, she exploded. How I dared to even use the notion! In an unprecedented emotional outburst, she told me that during the Second World War, her father-in-law was forcefully taken to Nazi-Germany to work in a factory. And so, she could never ever be involved in any racist policy, or have anything to do with racism whatsoever. Having heard this argumentation before, I insisted that I was referring to the current race relations at the institute. But the discussion was over. Expressing the words race and racism felt like having crossed a red line. I was now the one who had been unjust, I was the one who had violated norms. My whole world was turned upside-down. From a victim of racism, I was now a perpetrator of an alleged violence. As Sara Ahmed argues: (SLIDE 10) “When racism becomes an institutional injury, it is imagined as an injury to whiteness. The claim ‘we would never’ use the language of racism is a way of protecting whiteness from being hurt or damaged. Diversity can be a method of protecting whiteness. “ This exact point became crystal clear. To me, unequal race relations were shockingly apparent, but this could not be discussed within the happy-diversity framework. The atmosphere in the institute, frankly, had become unbearable for me, and when I left the constructed realm of postraciality and colour-blindness, I thrived with an invigorated passion to keep on addressing the racial tensions that arise in such seas of whiteness, vowing to counter the (SLIDE 11) “implicit injunction not to speak about racism to protect whiteness from being hurt. Speaking about racism is thus heard as an injury not to those who speak but to those who are spoken about.”

This next section is called: Returning the Gaze, Unwinding the Coil(SLIDE 12)

As I tried to find ways to counter academic seas of whiteness, I visited a conference last year organised by the European Race and Imagery Foundation in Innsbruck, Austria, titled (SLIDE 13) Returning the Gaze II: Stories of Resistance. I realised how important it was to be in spaces where a large part of participants were PoC, and this realisation, then, generated more thought about exactly why I felt increasingly uncomfortable while entering white spaces. Such experiences of navigating white environments, cannot be separated from embodied memories of earlier harrowing events, accumulated throughout life. Racist gazes, verbal and physical attacks due to the colour of your skin. As Lauren Freeman states: (SLIDE 14) “Living as a member of a racially oppressed group in a normatively white world cuts to the ontological core of what it means to exist since the experiences that constitute what it is like to exist as racially oppressed are not one-off instances but rather are manifest, penetrating, enduring, (…), they become embodied, taken up into, and constitute who one is.” Hence, to be confronted with the enduring hypocrisy of colour-blindness, only strengthens the normativity of whiteness. The gazes that I feel on a daily basis, accumulate in what I would refer to as a racial coil spring, (SLIDE 15) which stores the energy of white gazes as well as other experiences of being stigmatised. This coil spring can only absorb a certain amount of energy, before unwinding, and although experiences can be partially embedded and worked through, it could be argued that accumulated traces of racism always remain. Ahmed explains: (SLIDE 16) “Bodies remember such histories, even when we forget them. Such histories, we might say, surface on the body, or even shape how bodies surface. Race then does become a social as well as bodily given, or what we receive from others as an inheritance of this history.”

These traces will at one point snap back to reality, if you will, analogous to Sara Ahmed’s recent analysis (SLIDE 17) of how this operates among those who are stigmatised due to race and/or gender constructs. Her analogy of a twig under pressure is productive, so do listen to her very powerful speech on the concept of snap on tryck.org !

In the process of coming to terms with the violence that is systemic racism, I started to disentangle the visible-invisible trope of whiteness, that figured as a formative principle in my daily encounters. For too long, I had been observing the world with an habitual, dominant white vision, causing double-consciousness conflicts in that typical Du Boisian fashion. The habitus of seeing the world with white eyes is very strong indeed, and worked to diminish my sense of self. The process of displacing that inculcated white vision for me, was a necessary step to counter the trope of whiteness. This trope is comfortably formative for those who have the privilege to safely reside in and sink into its fluidity, while riding the current of upward mobility in academic institutions. Increasingly, my own appearance felt like a hostile invasion, a deviating object in that current, causing turbulence and discord. The harder I try, it seems, to push myself into the current, the more resistance I endure. Again, to contextualise my experience, let’s think about the following quote: (SLIDE 18) “When we talk about a ‘sea of whiteness’ or ‘white space’ we are talking about the repetition of the passing by of some bodies and not others, for sure. But non-white bodies do inhabit white spaces; we know this. Such bodies are made invisible when we see spaces as being white, at the same time as they become hypervisible when they do not pass, which means they ‘stand out’ and ‘stand apart’. (SLIDE 19) You learn to fade into the background, but sometimes you can’t or you don’t. The moments when the body appears ‘out of place’ are moments of political and personal trouble.”

But what to do then, would be the key question….how do we transform the racialised rigidity of seas of whiteness into an all-encompassing fluidity, how to morph rejectability that emanates from its social structures into encapsulatedness ? How do we commence to dilute the Fanonian certain uncertainty that accompanies brown and black bodies as we enter realms of white taken-for-grantedness ? Let’s take a deep breath while I do the same as I recite the following poem: (SLIDE 20)

FLUID COMFORT

Engulfed in comfort               
Whiteness aligns itself
Becoming spatiality
Grasping temporality

Risk emerges 
As uncertainty enters
A brown body disrupts 
In a third person singular

Do I breathe tension? 
Do I radiate anxiety? 
Twitching of pens
Twirling of hair

What do you think you see?
Why does your non-gaze gaze? 
Uncanny negation ?
Racial subjugation ? 

Epidermal schemas 
Ontological impossibilities
Strangle my tormented mind
Choke my sense of sameness

From underneath my punctured skin 
I can merely offer
Unsettling experiences
Forging strength through pain 

***

My interventionist discourse and actions are not a renewed attempt to embody an empty egalitarianism. I think it’s pointless to believe in false hopes of liberal democracy and equal opportunity.

We need to fundamentally change racialised colonial power structures that are still reflected in societies, and in our institutions. Racism was not terminated in Auschwitz, or limited to the fascists of the NSU, to put it bluntly, but operates in the denigrating white gazes and annoying questions (SLIDE 21) that PoC are subjected to when we enter white spaces. The bitter pill that many white people still have to swallow, is the realisation that their privilege is preventing these racial power structures from collapsing. The violent reaction that was sparked at my former “colour-blind” institution, is indicative for the unwillingness to empathise and to see the violence that is caused by white privilege, in denying the correlation between white privilege and racism. Just to put it plainly, as I see it: the sum total of white privileges maintains a white power structure, which informs the conditions that forge racism. And so, to counter these interlocking dynamics, radical and audacious steps need to be taken to counter privilege, and this will be painstaking and painful. There is no other way, because again there is no racial equality: we live, and I want to stress this, in a world informed by colonial whiteness (SLIDE 22), or, as Linda Martin Alcoff puts it:”..in post-slavery culture, whiteness remains the measure of man, that is, of humanity.” Resisting this means to disrupt the power structures that work to subordinate, and to build serious pressure until we see and feel drastic changes and can be truly satisfied.

First of all, I would like to propose to get rid of the hollow term diversity itself. Like many buzzwords, it has been appropriated by a pacifying, liberal politics. The world, however, is still colonised by a mindset that stimulates white fluidity. Yet our world is not white, it is largely made up of people of colour. White people are a minority, which is, however, not reflected in the higher echelons of power.  Decolonisation did not end in the 60s, we still need to decolonise our institutions. (SLIDE 23) I sometimes ask people: how small is your world? Where do you live, in Germany, in the Netherlands, or on this planet ? How large is the sea in which you swim, in which you feel your current, your trope of taken-for-grantedness? If we want to work in institutions to stimulate a critical perspective and change the world for the better, we should open our minds and institutions to an inclusivity that is premised on a truly cosmopolitan, and I mean non-Eurocentric, worldview and praxis. We need to acknowledge academia’s whiteness and then, act accordingly.  Countering seas of whiteness means, concretely to take social responsibility:  a fair and significant number of white scholars – in particular middle-class white men, epitomes of motility –  should give up their position in academia, and make way for PoC. Similarly, a fair and significant amount of white researchers and aspiring researchers, should reconsider their academic trajectory to ensure that lesser privileged people can climb the social ladder. Of course, in an ideal situation, there would not be a social ladder, but unfortunately, we don’t live a classless society. Until then, we should put in place quota for positions in academia for PoC, and demand that selection committees actively find PoC for such positions, so yes, affirmative action until some balance has been reached.

Now, decolonising and de-whitening our institutions seems quite utopian, I realise that. But wasn’t there a time when slavery was normalised and ubiquitous? Societal structures are made and are maintained by people, and can only be undone by people. It will take a huge effort, and some serious introspection to unlearn illusions of postraciality. We may often find ourselves in compartmentalised, atomised, and ostracised positions. It is therefore vital, to work towards a collective continuity, even, and maybe especially if that means to go against the grain of a pacifying academic harmony.

Until people of colour cease to feel the puncturing white gazes wherever we go, anxieties and tensions will accumulate. Let’s return the gazes that work to otherise, and halt the tightening of the racial coil spring. Be aware how white bodies align and sink into space, and others do not. Realise how some bodies are deemed risk factors by investing to dismantle the exclusionary racialisation of distinguishing “certain uncertainty.” I thank you for listening and will hopefully see you soon to (SLIDE 24)  transform words into meaningful action!  (SLIDE 25)


Biography

Praveen Sewgobind explores the nexus of South Asian diaspora memory and migration, in relation to decolonial cosmopolitanism. He holds a BA in English Language and Culture from the University of Amsterdam, and an rMA in Cultural Analysis from the University of Amsterdam. Praveen has organised two academic conferences, a two-day international conference exploring tensions between theory and practice in the humanities at the University of Amsterdam (Is Thought Action? NICA/ASCA Conference Exploring Tensions Between Academic Theory and Praxis, read more here) and an international graduate conference at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS), read more here.

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Sinterklaas Brand & Product Study 2017

We are happy to announce the publication of our Sinterklaas Brand & Product Study 2017!

The second edition of this report continues to trace the evolutions of the debates around the character of Zwarte Piet as part of the Dutch festival Sinterklaas, by monitoring the protests taking place against the character, as well as its usage by brands and stores to promote certain products. Picking up from last year’s study, the 2017 report compares its findings with that of the previous report in order to demonstrate if and where adjustments have been made in the characterisation and promotion of the Zwarte Piet figure. The results are based on data  and observations collected by the ERIF team, between October and December of the 2016 Sinterklaas season in the Netherlands.

Download and read the full report here.

Performative intervention A Sint You Want by G. Holwerda and Thomas Kortvelyessy at the Returning the Gaze II: Stories of Resistance conference 2016. Photo credits go to Studio Othieno.

Strategies for Action: speaking out & taking space!

Blogging #RTGII
by Leah Cowan

One of the first Saturday sessions at Returning the Gaze II: Stories of Resistance was led by Mohamed Wa Baile (a playwright, scholar and activist with Allianz gegen Racial Profiling) and Gloria Holwerda (the artist behind the A Sint You Want intervention, and the founder of INARG: the InterNational Anti-Racism Group). The topic was ‘strategies and campaigns’, with a focus on resisting racial profiling in Switzerland, and racist imagery in the Netherlands.

The binding threads between Wa Baile and Holwerda’s work are important. The existence and perpetuation of racist imagery in ‘entertainment’, packaging, marketing and branding sets the stage for an environment in which – as Wa Baile asserted- “race or ethnicity is used by law enforcement as a basis for criminal suspicion”.

The Allianz gegen Racial Profiling (Alliance Against Racial Profiling) in Zurich via Facebook.

The Allianz gegen Racial Profiling (Alliance Against Racial Profiling) in Zurich via Facebook.

 

Wa Baile noted that police in Switzerland behave in a seemingly pleasant and friendly fashion whilst asking people to show their documents. To a passerby, these interactions may seem innocuous, but when it happens to someone over and over again, Wa Baile explained, they begin to question the ‘random’-ness of these so-called random stop and searches, and document checks.

The same applies to Gloria’s example of the presence of a blackface character in Sesamstraat, until pressure from INARG forced the show to ditch the character. The same also applies to the continuing presence of a blackface character in Donald Duck, and until 2015 the host of blackface Zwarte Piets in the Dutch children’s TV programme Slot Marsepeinstein. I found Gloria’s gallery of images presenting blackface, after blackface, after blackface deeply affecting- like a round of punches, with each stinging more sharply than the last.

A still from Slot Marsepeinstein via Youtube.

A still from Slot Marsepeinstein via Youtube.

 

I’ve had conversations with many self-identifying liberals who are quick to describe such occurrences- of both racial profiling by police, and the use of racist imagery to sell products and entertain audiences as, at worst, ‘well intentioned’.

This type of analysis is misguided- the question should be not what is the intent, but what is the effect. Well, the effect is in some senses simple to measure: a Dutch national news website counts a daily average of 35 reported instances of police violence in the Netherlands, including the murder by asphyxiation of Mitch Henriquez by a police officer in 2015. Earlier this month, on the 19th November, protestors called for justice for Hervé Mandundu- an unarmed man who was murdered by police in Bex, Switzerland. This is one of numerous examples of police brutality, and the impunity officers receive when attempts are made to hold them to account for their racist attacks.

The impetus and result of racist imagery is clear: as long as black bodies continue to be considered by some as fair game for mockery and mimicry in order to sell festive chocolates, communities of colour are disrespected and dehumanised. And, as rapper and poet Akala says- once you dehumanise a person, you create a mandate for their murder.

Calls to Action!

  1. Sign and share this INARG petition demanding that toy manufacturer Mattel Inc stop making and selling the racist toy “Junkyard Dog”. This petition will be available online until 31st December 2016.

Use the ERIF blog space to discuss issues of racism and imagery in your local community and to promote your campaigns and strategies to combat it.

Augustown by Kei Miller (2016) – Book Review

by Rae Parnell

augustown

Reading Augustown by Jamaican writer Kei Miller can at times be sensory decadence. This is not an action-packed novel, but is instead a profession of love and dedication to the history and legacy of a real town in Jamaica ‘coincidentally’ called “August Town.” Miller unfolds complex racial, generational, and cultural dynamics of his Augustown, and anchors his book with one simple question: why is young child Kaia running home from school crying, and who has cut off his dreadlocks?

This question brings forward the many characters that make up Augustown. Kaia’s immediate family is rooted by his great aunt Ma Taffy, who’s blindness has made her aware that something, although she does not understand what, is coming to the town. Although this is a tired stereotype, it is forgiven as Ma Taffy’s character is given a complexity and honestly that is rarely seen with older characters. Kaia also has his mother Gina, a brilliant young woman who is still coming to terms with her own past. Even though she is rarely seen in the beginning, her narrative arrives center stage as she grapples with issues of education, love, and community responsibility.

The rest of Augustown unfolds around this core family, each one offering central issues. The weasel-like schoolteacher Mr. Saint James brings forward questions of colorism, self hatred, and desire. The principal of Kaia’s school Mrs. G. moves issues of classism within Jamaica. And the larger character of “Babylon” (how the characters refer to the police that harass the citizens of Augustown), is a vessel for conversations around surveillance, racism, and resistance.

Miller also places these lives within the many generations that have lived in Augustown. When Ma Taffy wants to distract a mournful, dread-free Kaia, she tells the story of the grandfather of Rastafariani Alexander Bedward, who flew into the sky when she was just a little girl. And later, when Gina seeks justice for cultural violence inflicted on Kaia, the imagery of Bedward is called upon as she seems to carry the weight and pain of her community and history. In these moments, Miller seems to wonder if anyone can really move outside of their history.

The intricacies of Augustown are brought together with Kei Miller’s phenomenal writing style. Each chapter has poetic meditation on a situation or place. In the beginning of the book, the narrator describes Augustown: “notice the hills, how one of them carries on its face a scar – a section where bulldozers and tractors have sunk their rusty talons into its cheeks, scraped away the bush and the trees and left behind a white crater scar.” (p. 3). Miller consistently incorporates a descriptive style that masters the combining of poetry and narrative. And in a book that has so many different narratives, this becomes the glue that keeps it together.

While the writing style does help maintain the many stories in the book, the downside of Augustown is the many stories. If you decide to read Augustown (and you should!), I would suggest reading it over a few days. Because of the many narratives, it becomes difficult to keep up with the time period, who’s connected to who, and what has happened in the past. However, if read in a short period of time, the book becomes a living map, tracing a community that continues to resist and support each other.

There is a paragraph nestled in the middle of the book that captures the essence of Augustown. Miller says:

The great philosophical question goes: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound? But this is a troubling question, exalting one kind of being above all others. What then of the ears of the snakes, or wood frogs, or mice, or bugs? Do they not count? What then of the grass, of stone, of earth? Does their witness not matter? If a man flies in Jamaica, and only the poor will admit to seeing it, has he flown? (p. 144).

Who then will bares witness to the stories of Augustown? Who believes their pain is real, their community is strong, and their sense of justice is true? With questions like these, Miller’s work is an invitation for all of us to hear the history and lives of Augustown.

Racist normalcies when crossing borders in Europe

by Praveen Sewgobind, University of Potsdam

In October/November 2016, I, a PhD researcher at Potsdam University, was travelling to two conferences in Toronto and Innsbruck to present papers. Both conferences offered participants a possibility to outline critical perspectives on dominant discourses, hegemonic structures, and provide a platform to engage in discussion and forge alliances.

The urgent need to come to terms with a world in which the racist gaze and powerful racialized perceptions and power structures are thriving, came to the fore as I was on my to the conference in Toronto, and then, again, as I went home from the conference in Innsbruck.

Welcome to Iceland

On 26 October, I was travelling from Schiphol Amsterdam Airport to Kevlavik International Airport in Iceland, on my way to Toronto. I was planning to attend and present a paper at a conference titled Truth, Lies, and Manufacturing Memory. My paper – an analysis of the contemporary Black Pete polarisation in the Netherlands – addresses issues of racist imagery, white power structures, and coloniality.

During the stop-over in Iceland, I am somewhat surprised that we, the passengers on our way to Toronto, have to pass Icelandic security. We are hardly in Iceland proper, as we are merely going from one gate to another in the airport. I have no plans to visit Iceland, but have to present my passport in-between the two gates.

The Icelandic policeman looks at my passport, examines it thoroughly and at length, and asks whether I could show another ID document. “No, this is my passport”, I reply. The situation seems somewhat Kafkaesque: this is the purpose of an ID-check, right? One shows ID, which should be a proof of a true and existing identity, in theory at least. I am promptly asked to stand aside and am then asked to follow another police officer to a separate room in the airport’s main building, as the other passengers of the WOW-air flight (about 100, I estimate) wait in the queues. All of the passengers who were checked before me (all white) have passed without any problem. I am told to wait in a room, where toys for children are stacked in one corner, and a baby crib is placed in another corner. I assume people under suspicion are taken here, asked to leave their child in the room, and are then taken along to be questioned, and/or (strip)-searched.

Memories of Israeli interrogations at Ben Gurion airport start to pop up, humiliating experiences, which took several hours. But my flight would be departing in 20 minutes… What to do? How to behave? I asked myself. I started to feel very uncomfortable…and all kinds of scenarios now rushed through my mind…Shall I just tell them they are racist, or ask them politely? Risk that they will keep me even longer, and miss my flight to Toronto? A police officer enters the room, and just stands there…looking at me, trying to look tough. He does not say a word, and then leaves again. After a few more minutes, the other police officer returns, and starts to ask questions. Where am I going? I tell her that that is printed on my boarding pass, which she holds in her hands. To speed up things, I tell her that I will be in Toronto for six days. What will I do there? I tell her I am a PhD researcher and that I will attend an academic conference. She responds with some amazement in her voice. “Ah…you are a researcher….”. “Yes”, I answer. I am a researcher at Potsdam University in Germany. She hands me my passport and boarding pass, thanks me for my patience and orders me to walk back to the queue.

While we are doing that, I ask her why I was singled out. “I do not know, sir”, she replies. Then she asks where I was born. I tell her I was born in Suriname. No sign of recognition, apparently, but another question: “But you are Dutch now?” I think what a way to respond to this ridiculous question. They have just scanned my passport many times, checked my persona, looked into all kinds of databases, and apparently have not found anything on me, except for a confirmation that, indeed, I am recognised as a Dutch national. “Yes, I am a Dutch citizen”, I reply. It now occurs to me that they probably did not believe the passport was real, that there must be something wrong. This non-white person showing a Dutch passport – that is asking for trouble and is inherently suspicious, obviously.

I wonder how many people of colour have to go through the same humiliating ordeal. This is a route to Canada and the US, and they have seen persons of colour before, surely. But I have to rush to my plane, which I manage just in time, and wonder what to do…..I could and perhaps should write to Icelandic human rights and anti-racist activists, politicians even, to publish this story. Because I know I have not been the first person who had to undergo this special treatment, to be otherised, singled out, treated as a potential criminal just because of the colour of your skin, and because a name  – non-European or exotic? – does not correspond with their perception of a Dutchness/Europeanness! I am glad – very glad – that a few hours later, I show my passport to a Canadian border official. She is very friendly (as I wonder from which region of South Asia her ancestors are from, which gives me an odd and distant sense of belonging, although she wears a uniform…) and dutifully asks what the purpose of my stay will be. I tell her that I will give a presentation at an academic conference in Toronto. She smiles even more radiantly, hands me back my passport, and wishes me a good time in Canada.

Welcome to Germany

I am energised by the two conferences, by having had the privilege to have wonderful conversations with like-minded people. I am tired, but very satisfied. On several occasions during the conference at Innsbruck University, I talked to people about the rise of racist discourses in many parts of the world. Several presentations and workshops actually addressed narratives of, and resistance against the racist gaze, and ways to counter that. During the evening of the first day, we went to a local theatre to see a performance about racial profiling, Weisser Peter by Mohamed Wa Balie. In this wonderful piece, the public attending was effectively engaged in several acts, inspired by contemporary practices and debates about racial profiling. It was indeed, as announced, ‘a memorable evening of theatre about invisible racism and unearned white privilege.’

And so, the following event, experienced as I was returning home, goes beyond cynicism and smacked me right back into the real-life realities that we had just been discussing.

I am sitting in the train from Innsbruck to Munich, and despite a long history of being harassed by state officials in green uniforms – most notably near the border town of Bad Bentheim at the Dutch-German border – I am not thinking about these experiences. I want to go home, and think productively think about issues of coloniality, racism and whiteness. My thoughts cover practices, theory, resistance, and how to combine those, how to counter narratives, instigating critical thought and collective action.

As we cross the Austrian-German border, I see three German police officers slowly moving through the aisle in the train carriage. They look, they probe…they search for….abnormalities.

What do they think when they see me? Which associations are triggered when the police officers walk past me, see the colour of my skin, and then decidedly stop? Dark skin, brown, black….non-white…suspect, other, criminal, terrorist, illegal migrant….not part of the framework, to be checked, to be asked for ID. Yes, definitely to be asked for ID.

Deutsche Bahn, carriage number 22, of ICE 1506 from Innsbruck to Berlin. About twenty other people are sitting in the train compartment, all white. Obviously, I stand out, I deviate, I “light up” in the sea of whiteness. That realisation becomes inscribed, it seems, as such moments materialise, when the invisible hand that racialises me in that sea of whiteness chokes me, squeezes my throat, in that eerie event of exclusion, of being singled out.

I feel…the eyes of people trying not to look at me, knowing full well that they have seen that the police stop only where they see a non-white body…and they pretend to continue to do their business, continue to read their magazines, look outside of the window….while knowing that white German police officers are engaging in an act of public “racial profiling.” That phrase is a euphemism: the process it refers to starts with the act of implementing a so-called racial profile by a system of authority, but what it does, what it results in, is the forceful othering, an act of racial violence perpetrated against an individual, which does not stand on its own, but is merely one instance in the power structure of racism. The profiling triggers the event of the experience of a racial assault, which is infused by and is attached to all previous racist encounters that boil upwards from a life ridden with such events. This series of racial subjugation, alienation, oppression, attaches to the body of the person of colour, to my body, in a dynamic of racial strangling. The embodied serial burden of having been through, of having experienced the multiple and interconnected memories of racial subordination.

A tension is building in the train. They, three police officers stand in front of me, in a half-circle, asserting themselves, trying to make sure I somehow feel subordinated by their presence. I do not know what to think, I have a hard time to act….but I firmly ask them, before I hand over my passport, if they check every person on the train. “No, not every person”, the police officer replies. “No, apparently not”, I reply. “I get checked every time I pass a border, it seems”, I inform them. “And tell me”, I continue, “this has nothing to do with racism??” “No…indeed”, he answers.

One of the police officers is now trying to look very stern and attain a position of authority. He should contact his colleague in Iceland, they could go and be all tough and try to improve their composure. Idiot, I think. He does not impress me in any way. I look him in the eyes, unimpressed, with far greater vehemence and an ice-cold anger. Do not play this fucking game with me, I thought. You have no idea who I am, what I have done, in which situations I have had to maintain my stature against those who produce a racist gaze or utter racist remarks. You are just a German police puppet, you do not impress me in any way, I say to myself. I laugh at the way that you apparently need your gun, your baton, your canister with pepper spray to construct your position of power. My pride, my determination to fight racism and all forms of oppression supersede your constructed petty masculinity, your pathetic symbols, your fucking nothingness. You are just an insubstantial boy performing your wicked racist practices, dressed up as a figure of power. I am deconstructing your power with the knowledge that you cannot subdue me. My motivation to fight racism by any means necessary will vaporize your wicked illusions of superiority.

I think about how decades ago, Jews were taken to the death camps by German trains, how Gandhi was thrown off a train in South Africa, but also…how resistance against colonialism, racism and fascism was organised. That generates strength….and emboldens me, providing me with resilience, a notion that that is possible, sometimes against all odds, against the grain.

…..

Welcome back to Germany, I think, as they hand me back my passport. There is lot to be done!

 

When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe” 

― Frantz Fanon

Intern at Inclusive Works

Looking for a part-time intern role? Check out the vacancy for Inclusive Works, an organisation based in Amsterdam who conducts research into diversity and discrimination in the workplace as well as in education.

The position is for 2 days per week and the deadline to get in touch is the 20th March.

Click HERE for all details on the job requirements and more info on the organisation.

Good luck!

ERIF Sinterklaas Brand & Product Study: Locating Zwarte Piet

In October 2015, the ERIF team began fieldwork for a research project on the Sinterklaas festival in the Netherlands. We wanted to assess how prevalent the character of Zwarte Piet is in Dutch advertising leading up to the popular winter festival and by doing so, set benchmark for future comparison as the celebration undergoes continued critique and subsequent re-shaping.

Unsurprisingly, Zwarte Piet did remain at the forefront of Sinterklaas imagery in 2015, however we did observe some interesting changes and developments that we will look out for again when we repeat the study later this year.

You can download the full report here.

Zwarte Piet postcard ca. 1950.

Zwarte Piet postcard ca. 1950.

 

The forgotten soldiers of WWII.

wwii soliders

If you’re wearing a poppy this week and/or participating in commemorative events for the First and Second World Wars, please do not forgot to take a moment to reflect the men and women who travelled from colonised lands all over the world to fight for Europe, at times against their will.

These individuals will probably not receive wide-spread recognition or gratitude for their contributions to the war effort in the coming days, especially on this Sunday 8th November, which will mark another Remembrance Sunday in the UK.

90 000 men were taken from West Africa by the allied forces (who had imperial claims on the land during this time) to fight the Japanese in Burma (Myanmar) during the Second World War. They share their experiences and thoughts on the aftermath of the war in this clip.

Also, over 1 million men from India fought in the First World War in the trenches of Europe on behalf of the British Empire thereby helping to win the war. However this startling and sobering truth – as with the history of the West African soldiers – is absent from most history books and classrooms. Read here about the project taking place in the UK to improve awareness of their contribution to this turning point in European history.

Finally, the Black Presence website is a wonderful historical resource in general, however they also shared some time ago an article specifically about black Caribbean women who were involved in the war effort. While women are generally ignored around the 11th November, black women and the sacrifices they made during the First and Second World Wars is completely absent from the British psyche.

Therefore, if you do decide to wear a poppy this week and join in on any commemorative activities, don’t forget about the brave men and women above who survived and lost their lives fighting for an empire they didn’t choose.

Building Eritrea? Desperate for certainty and chasing choices.

“[All the guests] understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the ominous lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction … were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped … but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

– excerpt from Americanah by Adichie, 2013.

This quote was the first thing that ran through my head when I was talking to this well-dressed young man in Asmara. It was the second day of my stay and the first time, by the look in his eyes, that I could grasp the meaning of Obinze’s words (see above), the way he might have meant it. “Choicelessness” and “certainty”. Words – according to Adichie’s character – and feelings that are making you either leap to do great things or are confining you to a state of despair. It was something that I couldn’t understand as a person growing up in the West; with all its privileges.

He came to visit his family member, a woman living on the same turf as I was. He asked me what I was studying and after talking about me he shared that he has finished a biology major at the University of Asmara and was placed in a town outside of his place of origin and teaches biology six days a week on a salary of 700 Nakfa; which equals to about €42. From the biology major to his placement as a teacher, all is planned by the Eritrean government. His teaching position is part of a national service: every Eritrean has to go to Sawa (a military academy located near the Sudanese border) to perform a military service for eighteen months after high school. After this period you can be sent home (and called back at any moment), go the University of Asmara (and after graduating being sent where you are being deemed necessary) or enroll in the army. All of this evokes the feeling of choicelessness. Your life is being planned in every detail for a time period unknown.

The last time I visited Eritrea was over 10 years ago. What always remained in my head was the beauty of the city: the Italian architecture a reminder of its history but beautiful nonetheless, people sweeping the sidewalks as if it was their own backyard and the cloud of fumes leaving the busses. Asmara captured the people’s spirit: that of a proud people. So I could not wait to return and to be able to take in the spirit floating through the streets, only to return with a diminished spirit. The beauty is still there, only with a slight limp in her step. The buildings aren’t kept up, pieces of paper and what-not are residing on the pavements since there is nobody that is sweeping them away and next to fumes that are leaving the busses the sound and image of generators have entered the landscape, since electricity is not available during the (whole) day.

According to the UNHRC 5,000 Eritreans a month flee the country. While the Eritrean government disputes this number, anyone who roams the streets of Asmara cannot help but notice that how the amount of young men in their twenties has diminished. My sister and I were joking about the contrast, while the young men that entered Europe were (literally and figuratively) fighting for a girl, the ones in Eritrea had it a lot “easier.’’ The stories are found in abundance. For example, one young man in his twenties offered us to drive us, for a large fee, to another city. We declined his offer, only to find out, a week later, that he drove his car to the border, crossed it on foot and is currently in Sudan. Another time, I took a cab after attending the national remembrance event for the fallen soldiers during the independence struggle. After getting in and starting a conversation with the cabdriver about the amount of people attending it in Harinet street and my noticing the large crowd that had attended, he said ‘There weren’t that many people here.’ Following his answer I jokingly asked ‘Where are they then?’ He simply responded ‘In the sea or in Europe.’

Children lighting candles at the national remembrance celebration for fallen soldiers during the war for independence.

Children lighting candles at the national remembrance celebration for fallen soldiers during the war for independence.

Parents fear that their children will one day follow the same path that thousands have walked already. What I noticed and heard from younger family members is that young adolescents expect that an family member living abroad is going to pay for their journey. This all stems from a more common idea in Eritrea that all people living in the West are wealthy.  Since the payment to smugglers is on the arrival of an escapee, parents end up calling family from abroad (if they have any) and/or using their savings to pay the smugglers. A consequence of not paying can be death, so the family members living abroad will try to loan the necessary money (that they do not have), to prevent this.

Various family members of mine have (tried to) flee for different reasons. Some of them didn’t want to be in the army for any longer because they were seeing their relatives for 10 days out of the year, or were wrongfully accused by a commander of crime they did not commit and opted to flee. Having said this, teenage cousins who had a relatively good life and had no political ideas had also fled because their friends tried to cross the border. Choicelessness is the first word that came to mind while talking to them. Instead I noticed the blasé attitude towards their education. One cousin fails her class year after year. I asked her why she isn’t trying harder and her response was ‘What is the difference? If I do my best I will go to Sawa and also  if  I don’t.’

Still, the Eritrean government disputes the fact their citizens are fleeing in disproportional numbers compared to refugees and asylum seekers from other states. During an interview with Afshin Rattansi, host of RT’s Going Underground TV show, the special advisor of the president Yemane Gebreab did not respond to why people are fleeing in great numbers. Instead, he refuted the amount of Eritreans fleeing by saying that lean asylum procedures for Eritreans applying for political asylum lead to large numbers of asylum applicants claiming to be Eritrean, when in fact they are not. He stated that up to 50% of applicants are from citizens pretending to be from Eritrea. While he makes a point that a lot people pretend to be an Eritrean, because it increases the chance of a visa, every Eritrean in Europe can see the amount of new Eritrean arrivals growing exponentially and the people in Eritrea see friends and family members crossing the border, looking for a better life.

It would be ironic that the very policies by the Eritrean government, to build the country, are the same reasons there will be nobody left to build it.