A welcome wakeup slap

The colour of my skin has never had so much meaning to me, but over the years I’ve come to realize that it has granted me several privileges without me having to work for these privileges.

White lies
Not 1863 but 1873, not 1863 but 1873
We lied and cheated throughout history

And I’ll make sure that you are blinded by the whiteness of my lies

Have you believe that equality is real until you realize
That I will always be a little more equal
And when I speak, that people will listen to me
So listen to me

Hear me when I say that I don’t have to think twice
Don’t have to weigh my words
Never the criminal in your eyes

My white privilege has blinded the truth away and at this point I can say that my fake tolerance is not enough
I call my bluff
My fake tolerance is not enough
I call my bluff

So stand with me as I won’t stand for it anymore
I am faulted and that’s alright
Please remind me when I’m mistaken
When my bluntness provokes someone
Or when my privilege withholds me from seeing the truth

Please remind me

Because if only people like me get to speak, there will be nothing to be heard
In silence lies the truth of the oppressed.

– Chamaeleo / Sjoerd Antoon Mulder (2016)

Getting to know this part of me has made me grow as a person. I don’t think I’ve become a better person, but my perspective has changed and it’s because of this growth that I can no longer identify with certain aspects of Dutch culture (whatever this may be). In some way I’ve become a stranger to my own country. I believe that the hardly spoken of darker historical chapters of the Netherlands can explain why we tend to avoid conflict by denying it’s even there. I can’t remember having had a single lesson about how the Netherlands took part in worldwide slavery, but I can vividly remember stories being told of the Dutch resistance during the second world war. I guess stories about an underdog overcoming hardship are more appealing when we ourselves were the underdog.

Growing up in Amstelveen in a fairly white neighbourhood, I didn’t come in contact with a lot of different cultures and I always believed that the Netherlands was a progressive nation that strived for equality. The word ‘tolerance’ was key in this and when I look back now I think that the word ignorance seems more fitting. So when someone finally opened my eyes and removed my ‘tolerance goggles’, it felt like a wakeup slap in the face. Amazed, ashamed and shocked by how much bigger my world suddenly was, my curiosity was sparked and I began exploring what this meant for me.

One of the first things that I learned about was the term ‘white privilege’. In 1989 Peggy McIntosh wrote an article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. It talks about her observation that her white privilege is common to her but that she was carefully taught growing up not to recognize it. She then goes on to trying to describe how her white privilege affects her daily life. I highly recommend everyone to read this to become aware of his or her own (white) privilege.

I guess my view on our ‘progressive’ culture has darkened quite a lot since then. By denying that there are problems we should deal with, we’ve made matters worse. I think that our problems will worsen further before thinks can improve again. I’m currently at a point that I’m doubtful about the right course of action. Is it necessary for opposites to actually fight each other in order to change the status quo? I don’t want to believe that fighting is the answer, but I must admit that I do get why people would consider it. When I talk about topics such as the Black Pete discussion or refugees, people often absolve from taking a standpoint at all, or bluntly say they’re against more refugees or the anti-Black Pete movement. I rarely meet people who are truly open for discussion. Even though I’m hopeful that in some discussions I do get through to someone, I’ve noticed that I’m becoming more hesitant about discussing my opinion with people who I believe to think differently than me. Based on previous discussions I’ve had, I predict how they will respond and I decide it’s not worth the trouble. I also think that I would lose a lot of friends if I’m on the offense all of the time. It saddens me when I think about it. I’m not proud that I make these assumptions and sometimes choose not to act. I realize that I can choose not to act, when I don’t open my mouth I belong to the in-group again as a white male and no one would question me on these topics. I can only imagine what it would feel like to walk into a room knowing that there will always be people who’ve already made up their mind based on my skin tone, ethnicity and, not to forget, gender. I think white people are so used to categorizing people other than themselves as different, as the so called ‘other’, that we’ve come to believe that we are the norm. It’s not surprising that terms such as white privilege aren’t welcomed as part of life, or as truth in Dutch culture. People argue that concepts like white privilege are phenomena’s from the US and that racism doesn’t really exist in the Netherlands (anymore). Again, our tolerant self-image saves the day and we don’t have to feel bad as white people. If we keep viewing the Netherlands as the progressive nation in which everyone has the same chances and opportunities if you only work hard, we’d be blinding ourselves from the truth.

Gloria Wekker recently published her book ‘White innocence’, in which she aims to describe an ethnography of the dominant white Dutch self-representation. Wekker states (2016): “Whiteness is generally seen as so ordinary, so lacking in characteristics, so normal, so devoid of meaning, that a project like this runs a real risk of being considered emptiness incarnate.” It’s my understanding that she says that her thesis in which she explores Dutch self-representation is at risk of being considered invalid because of the unacknowledged historical processes and systems which have formed the Netherlands over the years and have helped form the white Dutch self-representation.

The problem with Dutch culture is that it is so interconnected with the white Dutch self-representation, that we can’t see which is which anymore. Wekker (White Innocence, 2016) describes the Dutch culture as a culture in which we long for nostalgia. So called ‘normal times’ or ‘past times’ are kindled and we seem to long for a simpler past, back when demographically speaking the country was prominently white and gender relations were clear (men provided for their wife and children at home). We currently see ourselves as a liberal open minded nation but the financial crisis, the arrival of refugees and an overall feeling of unrest in the world, just to name a few examples, are a threat to that self-image.

I think we should acknowledge that ‘the norm’ doesn’t exist and start asking questions again and mainly question ourselves. Why do I think that? Why do I like that, or why not? We can’t be afraid to criticise ourselves if we are truly willing to learn. The truth might hurt and some things will have to change, but pain will fade and people will get used to changes. Culture is not static, it must change in order to stay alive, develop and grow richer. This also applies to Dutch culture.

As Peggy McIntosh (White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, 1989) describes when acknowledging her white privilege: “Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it? […] What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.”

So the next time you feel a painful wakeup slap full of knowledge hit your cheek, say “thank you” and embrace the change you can make.

McIntosh, P. (1989). White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Consulted on 2 October 2016, http://nationalseedproject.org/images/documents/Knapsack_plus_Notes-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf

Wekker, G. (2016). White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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