Languages

On White Innocence

Lecture by Gloria Wekker Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen 9 May 2019

Let's start with a quote, an epigraph by Toni Morrison. Her words speak forcefully to me, because they offer direction for where we should be heading. She says, 'I have never lived, nor have any of us, in a world in which race did not matter. Such a world, free of racial hierarchy, is usually imagined or described as dreamscape—Edenesque, utopian, so remote are the possibilities of its achievement. (...) How to be both free and situated, how to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet non-racist home'. 1 To underline her words: what she's asking here is how can we enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling? how can we manage not to be supposedly colourblind, nor racist, but to be cognizant of race, while simultaneously being aware that race is a toxic fiction? I take from this quote that the presence of race is ubiquitous, it is a greatly unacknowledged part of the world we live in, the production of common sense as well as of academic knowledge production. I will excavate how race is practised in the Netherlands, on the basis of the research I did, analysing different bodies of cultural material — e.g. novels, TV — content and everyday encounters. In a word, I am interested in the house that race built in The Netherlands. To that end, I also investigate my own and others' daily experiences. I understand race to be a silent but powerful organiser of ourselves, of our institutions, of society as a whole. On returning to the Netherlands after living in the United States for a number of years, I was surprised at the absence of a discourse on race and how the most racist statements or events could pass without anybody voicing dissent or criticism. This thought crystallised to the point that I had to write about it: this is what eventually became White Innocence. Central to white innocence is the self-assured, self-flattering, self-representation of "we do not do race in the Netherlands". Racism occurs elsewhere, in the US, in South Africa, in the UK, but it has miraculously bypassed us: I just couldn't buy that stance. So I gave classes about white innocence, I wrote articles, but it wasn't until I took early retirement in 2012 that I could finally devote myself fully to writing the book. How have we got to this place where race is the pink elephant in the room? We tread carefully, we dance around it. We certainly avoid coming to terms with it. To name race as a fundamental grammar in society, just like gender, like sexuality, like class, means to see how it installs people into different positions and accords them differential value and treatment. Race determines, to a large extent, who we are seen in society, what our horizons are, that is where we can go. Coming back to Morrison, let me reiterate that she says that we should not pretend to be colour-blind, which is too often the case in the Netherlands: "We do not do race, we do not see colour. Woah! I didn't even see that you are black", which is meant as a compliment. Nor should we, inversely, be racist, but our task is that we have to find ways to become race conscious while ridding ourselves of the understandings, associations and feelings that come with race. These have resulted in a state of affairs where white people are structurally and personally privileged, while others, people of colour, are harmed, forced to take a back seat.

The Claim of Innocence For the longest time I have been intrigued by the way that race pops up in the most unexpected places and moments. In order to make sense to make sense of this, I decided to write an ethnography of dominant, white Dutch self-representation. I was driven by a deceptively simple question: How is it possible for a nation that has been a formidable imperial power for close to four hundred years to imagine that this history will not have left traces in culture, language, in its conception of the self and the other? How, indeed, could that be possible? Yet we have been telling ourselves that colonialism took place so far away and so long ago, that it did not leave any traces in the metropole. Our colonial history, which we have largely " forgotten", plays a vital but unacknowledged part in the dominant processes of meaning making in Dutch society, including the making of self. This idea is what I'm centrally exploring in the book.

First, I'm going to take a closer look at what 'white innocence' is, by pointing to a series of paradoxes which characterise Dutch society. I came upon these paradoxes by attending to the favourite narratives of self which circulate in Dutch society. What do we tell ourselves about who we are as a people? I then contrasted these cherished self-narratives with other, largely submerged, often unwelcome facts, which contradict these narratives. I would also like to urge you to investigate the same question, who are you as Danes? What characterises you? It is worthwhile to ask, is that really true, that narrative? Does it make sense? Are there facts which contradict your preferred self-flattering narratives?

I will then address my own position and the theoretical and methodological practices by which I came to my understandings of race. Finally, I will look at academic life, specifically the discipline of gender studies. Why do I want to look at gender studies? It is the discipline that I'm deeply embedded in. It is also a young discipline, it only came into being in the early 1970s. Yet, we will find that race is very much at the foundation of gender studies. So you tell me: if we have left race behind, how can that even be possible?

Racism is a much more powerful and omnipresent form of exclusion in Europe than is generally assumed or admitted to. On my return from the US, the first paradox that I happened upon is that we see that race elicits a lot of passion, forcefulness and even aggression, - always in its intersections with gender, sexuality and class -, while at the same time, denial and disavowal and allusiveness reign supreme. This is a toxic combination, where race is belittled, denied and disavowed and people dance around it and yet when race is put on the table they become emotional and angry. The proverbial example is that of the figure of Black Pete.2 What is so instructive about this festivity is the widespread claim of innocence, accompanying it. People say, "this is an innocent children's party. Why are you so down on Zwarte Piet?" A lot of people feel nostalgia for the celebration and want their children to take part in the pleasure they remember, in the presents, in the candy that is passed around. At the same time there is horrific anger – a foaming at the mouth — when it is pointed out that Black Pete is a racist phenomenon. It is a very difficult issue to even talk about.

Race and Ethnicity

I use the terms 'race' and 'ethnicity' like Stuart Hall does, as according to him they are two sides of the same coin (1997): thus race/ ethnicity. 3 I also make use of the understandings that Ruth Frankenberg proposes. She argues that race is a socially constructed rather than inherently meaningful category. It is linked to relations of power and processes of struggle. Its meaning also changes over time. Race, like gender, is real in the sense that it has real, changing effects in the world and a real, tangible and complex impact on an individual's sense of self and life chances. I want to stress that race is a harmful fiction and another way of saying this is: race doesn't exist, but racism does. Let me briefly make two additional remarks about race/ ethnicity. First, race as a concept was declared void of biological significance in a UN report in1947. Since World War II in the Netherlands, we do not apply the term race to people anymore, we only use it for agricultural produce and animals, like races of potatoes and beans and races of dogs and cows. This evacuation of the concept with regard to people also coincides with the feeling that we do not do race, that we do not need the concept. Instead of race we use 'ethnicity' and importantly 'culture' to talk about the categories that race used to cover. What is really striking about this is that the latter concepts are supposedly softer terms than race. Culture and ethnicity supposedly operate on cultural terrain, not on biological terrain, but in this process the cultural has become so hardened in its use that biology and culture have become almost interchangeable. In other words, the so-called softer terms of ethnicity and culture have been infused with the hard inflexibility of race, which is based on immutable biological characteristics.

Secondly, when we use the term 'ethnicity' as in 'ethnic cuisine', 'ethnic music', 'ethnic clothing', it functions an an asymmetrical construct: it applies only to "them", to the other, not to "us", the dominant white group. As we say in the Netherlands, to allochtone people, those who originally come from elsewhere — not all elsewheres qualify, however. Basically, it is a way to talk about race, because to be allochtoon means that one is of colour (allochtoon is opposed to autochtoon, meaning being from here, which glosses whiteness). We don't like to spell it out, but every insider knows who we are talking about. With ethnic music, ethnic cuisine, everybody knows that it pertains to people of colour, while white people are evacuated from race/ ethnicity.

When it comes to people who are constructed as white, it is difficult to talk about what it means to be white. This has been my recurring experience, ever since I held my inaugural address in 2001 as a professor and laid out the programme I wanted to do research on and teach about. I put whiteness as a concept forward and I was hoping that many students would want to write about it, but in the end I only ever had two students who wrote a master's thesis on whiteness. They also experienced how incredibly difficult it is for people to talk about whiteness. Notice what happens when you talk about whiteness, see the sleight of hand to talk instead about Muslims, about people of colour, about anything except whiteness. To study whiteness is seen as an oxymoron, it's superfluous: it is hard, how can you talk about, let's say, wallpaper that doesn't have any characteristics, "we are normal, gewoon" in Dutch. What I conclude from this intermezzo on race/ ethnicity is that I use both as one concept, because they are interwoven. They need each other, they construct each other. I take race as applicable to all of us and I do not place whiteness in brackets, on the contrary.

The Cultural Archive and White Innocence

Another highly useful concept that I have been working with is Edward Said's 'cultural archive' from Culture and Imperialism (1993). 4 Said talks about the ways in which this nineteenth-century European archive has influenced all kinds of historical cultural configurations and current self-representations. The cultural archive is a storehouse of "a particular knowledge and structures of attitude and reference, and, as per Raymond Williams's seminal phrase, 'structures of feeling'".5 How then do we think and what kind of associations are put in motion when we talk about blackness or being of colour or being Muslim? What chains of association deriving from the cultural archive come to the surface and what chains of association relate to whiteness?

What the cultural archive refers to is "the virtual unanimity that certain races should be ruled and others had earned the right to expand beyond their domain", and, underlying that, that there is such a thing as race. Said is talking about the nineteenth century, but this history goes back to much earlier times for particular European nations, such as the UK, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands, who were already involved in the imperial project in the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries. When I've talked about the cultural archive people have asked me, so where is it, is it in Amsterdam or Middelburg? Middelburg is the second most important city in the Netherlands, when it comes to the history of empire; it's in Zeeland, and was, like Amsterdam, the seat of both the East India Company and the West India Company. Many people have the idea that the cultural archive is a physical, material place that can be located, pinpointed. But, well, it's found between the ears, it's in our hearts, it's in our feelings. We are raised on these notions. I imagine learning about race in ways that are comparable to when Pierre Bourdieu is talking about habitus, how we learn about class, gradually but emphatically: we learn about it from a very young age.

In the Dutch documentary Wit is ook een Kleur/ White also is a Colour (2016) by Sunny Bergman, we watch a famous experiment being repeated with Dutch children who are only three and four years old. They are shown two dolls, a white doll and a black doll ... "who do you want to play with?" All the children want to play with the white doll. The white doll is beautiful, it is fun, it is the desirable doll. The black doll is thought to be less desirable, it is thought to show bad behaviour, and it is ugly. Even at three or four years old children already know this. Research has shown that little children already know that it is an advantage to be a boy, and this experiment shows that, at the same time, it is an advantage to be white. Both white and black children know that. The cultural archive produces what we know, what is fact to us and from a very, very young age. So what Said is pointing to here is the centrality of imperialism to Western culture. He calls imperialism the determining political horizon of modern Western culture, and secondly, he's saying that this racial grammar, this deep structure of inequality in thought and in affect is based on an idea of race instilled in European imperial populations, and it is from this deep reservoir that a sense of self has been formed. Let me note, since that is not common knowledge even for the Dutch ourselves, that the Dutch empire was huge. From the sixteenth century onwards the Dutch possessed Upstate New York City (today's New York City and Upstate New York), Dutch Brazil (the northern part of Brazil), Suriname and the islands formerly known as the Netherlands Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Martin. There were also various forts on the west coast of Africa. Portions of China, Japan, Formosa (today's Taiwan) and South Africa also belonged to the empire. But our jewel in the crown was 'the emerald belt', Indonesia, affectionately called "Our Indies" until 1945. This archipelago of thousands of islands brought world prestige, but also a lot of riches – which paid for the abolition of slavery in the western part of the Dutch empire. These possessions made the Netherlands into an important world player, and from the point of view of psychoanalysis it allowed the inhabitants of the metropole, the seat of that world empire, to believe in their superiority and power.

Slavery and the White Psyche

We are used to talking about what The slave trade and slavery did to black people, but what did it do to white people? It is again Toni Morrison who in an interview with Paul Gilroy speaks about what slavery in the US did to the white psyche:

'Slavery broke the world in half, it broke it in every way. It broke Europe. It made them into something else, it made them slave masters, it made them crazy. You can't do that for hundreds of years and it not take a toll. They had to dehumanize, not just the slaves but themselves. They had to reconstruct everything in order to make the system appear true'.6

With White Innocence I'm invoking particular ways of being in the world. One important way of thinking about ourselves, since the 1960s, is that we are a small and just ethical nation. We are proud of the fact that we are progressive on all kinds of issues, from drug policies, abortion, to euthanasia. We are also champions of women's and LGBT+ equality. What always strikes me as significant is how we peddle our notions in the domain of gender and sexuality to countries of the south through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NGOs, the circles of diplomacy. Our message is : "If you want to make progress in those domains, take a look at us: we are so progressive" . When it comes to race, however, we don't have a word to say. On the contrary, it is other international parties, like the UN and ECRI, the European body that monitors racism and discrimination, which have to point out to us how structurally racist The Netherlands is.

We also think that we are extraordinarily hospitable towards foreigners and that we are colour-blind — we are, by definition, anti-racist. Part of this intricate configuration is the idea that we were reluctant imperialists in the past, but this doesn't really fit the self-image that we had at the time nor current self-representations. Where in the past we were exceptional through the possession of a huge empire, we are now the capital of international justice with many different tribunals, e.g. Srebrenica and Rwanda, in the Hague. We have something meaningful to contribute by being the justice capitol of the world. Basically, this self-representation tells us that since we are by our own acclimation non-racist, nothing that we say or do can be racist.

Let's return to the set of paradoxes characterizing The Netherlands. We see, secondly, that there was, until the last decade of the twentieth century, a stark juxtaposition between the Dutch imperial presence in the world and its almost total absence in the Dutch educational curriculum. My students are always unpleasantly surprised when they learn about the formidable Dutch role in imperialism and the scope of the empire. It is only when one reaches the university that one may take courses on "Dutch imperial expansion". Characteristically, the history of the metropole and the histories of the colonies are kept meticulously apart, as if they did not impinge on each other at all.
Thirdly, the memory of the Holocaust as the epitome and model of racist transgression in Europe erases the crimes that were perpetrated against the colonized in the East, "Our Indies", and in the western parts of empire. Our primary self-description is as the victims of German oppression during World War II, and yet at roughly the same time, from 1945—49, we were the perpetrators of violence against the Indonesians who were fighting for their independence. It is only now, almost seventy-five years after 1945, that finally Dutch research is being done in Indonesia about what we call the "policional actions", actions by the police, which is a flagrant euphemism for excessive violence against the Indonesians. The memory of the Holocaust has remained, while the crimes which were perpetrated for centuries during Imperialism have been excised.

Finally, the fourth paradox. One in every six Dutch has migrant ancestry, but there's no identification with migrants in the present. In the Netherlands, unlike in the USA, one's migrant ancestry is not part of one's public persona – one wants to claim Dutchness as fast as possible. When one has ancestry coming from Poland, Germany or France, one can assimilate quite quickly. Somebody who looks like me, that is, somebody of colour, cannot claim Dutchness in a hundred years. To claim Dutchness is therefore intricately interwoven with phenotypical characteristics: those who look white can more easily claim Dutchness.

It is ironic is that the concept of race finds its origins in Europe; one of its most successful export products, one could say. Yet race is broadly seen here as alien thought, coming from the US or from elsewhere and it's not applicable to Europe itself. Many European academics reject race analysis as parroting the US and point to its irrelevance — we should be making class analyses or gender analyses, but not race. And so overall we see a foregrounding of being the victim rather than the perpetrator; a collective tendency to stress positive aspects of empire and not its violence, racism and injustices. We have forgotten or not worked through the racial mechanisms of the imperial past, so that they can continue to do their work, unnoticed.

Silent Work: Race in the Public Sphere

I trained as an anthropologist, but I worked for a long time in the humanities. So I do interdisciplinary work at the crossroads of the social sciences and the humanities, while I'm also deeply embedded to gender studies. I feel drawn to the way that Jack Halberstam discusses his scavenger methodology: you take whatever you can use from different paradigms, different disciplines and build something new.7 In a recent, highly illuminating book on African diasporic sexuality, entitled Ezili's Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders (2018), Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley talks about being a polyamorous theorist and methodologist, referring to the same phenomenon.8

I, too, have made use of knowledge and insights from different disciplines to investigate my crucial, central question of how it is possible for an empire to think of itself as separate to what was practised in its colonies. I have used several methods from participant observation, interviews, analysis of my own experiences and those of other people of colour to discursive analysis of novels, media content, traditions, festivities, organisational culture and homonationalism. I wanted to show how race has been implanted so deeply and so thoroughly in our cultural archive that it shows up in whatever domain one chooses to study — there are so many disparate manifestations, that they must have been firmly placed in our cultural imagination to leave such systemic and virulent psychic residues. The problem was not so much that there was a dearth of material but that the material was so abundant. In turning my attention now to academic knowledge production, I will show that here, too, race is a silent but powerful organising principle.

I hope that I do not have to explain here that positivism is still the dominant epistemology in the academy. Objectivity, neutrality, reproducibility, banning speaking from an 'I'- position, are all hallmarks of this dominant stance. It means talking from everywhere and nowhere, playing the 'god trick', in the words of Donna Haraway.9 Instead, I'm a proponent of what Sandra Harding calls 'strong objectivity', which posits a connection between the knower, the one who makes statements, and the kind of knowledge she or he produces – consider a building in which there is a cleaner and a CEO and how these two people know the building differently based on their gendered, classed and racial positions. An acknowledgement of one's position is to me a more fruitful starting point than pretending to be everybody and nobody at the same time.

I argue that the development of the modern sciences and the division of labour between disciplines has been based on imperialism, and secondly, that race is silently at the heart of the way many disciplines have been ordered. In general, with their possession of colonies, new questions in the service of empire had to be answered by many disciplines, whether it pertained to seafaring; to knowledge about astrology, the stars, the sun, the moon, the way the winds behave; how to build sturdy ships from watching the movements of the oceans in relation to the earth; the discovery of architecture; what dress people should wear; what food to take in and what could be found; languages and culture, medicine. People in different disciplines had to reinvent their knowledge on the basis of imperialism. This is not something we often hear about, nor is it a standard part of the introduction to your discipline, but it is an important part of how modern knowledge developed. The 'Racial' Economy of Science: Towards a Democratic Future by Harding (1993), provides an incisive introduction outlining the way imperialism has influenced the development of all disciplines. 10

I now turn to a discussion of the discipline of gender studies. As I've said, this is a young discipline which developed in the 1970s. And although the starkest features of the division of labour have vanished from the discipline, the principles which invoke race are still to be discerned. These principles are part of the cultural archive. They are unconscious ordering principles, they are self-evident and only make sense in a supposedly colour-blind universe. There are three different sites where women are studied in the Netherlands: the women and gender studies departments mainly study white women; the ethnic studies departments at four main universities study black, migrant and refugee women, that is women of colour; and two separate institutions, ISS, the Institute of Social Studies, in the Hague and Wageningen Research University, study women of the south. Thus, the category of 'women' is from the start of the discipline split into white women, women of colour, Third World women. Now the only rationale behind this is that race has determined this division of labour and the different institutions function in splendid isolation from each other. We could think that this is a fluke, that this just happens to be a way of organising in the academy, but the same principle is operative in the different ministries for women.

As a welfare state the Netherlands has supported women to emancipate themselves, since the start of the second feminist wave in the 70's, and here gain we find the same racialized principles operative. In the Ministry of Education it is only white women who are catered for. When I've gone to the ministry and asked them to support a project for women of colour, it's "no, we're not doing anything for women of colour here. You have to go to the Ministry of Social Affairs, there we support women of colour." And then, of course, Third World women belong to the Ministry of External Affairs. You might say, well, what does it matter? Well, it does matter! When talking about women, wouldn't there be a case to be made about studying the commonalities as well as the differences? What we are doing is that we are instilling race all the time and in places where it has no business being, where it should be part of the problematic to be solved, not part of the organizational apparatus.

We need to become aware of and then dismantle our cultural archives, especially the benevolent, superior images of white people and the toxic, inferior, images of people of colour which are cemented there. We need to interrupt all kinds of everyday occurrences of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., and become more aware of defence mechanisms, which in a Dutch context is often the use of humour. But to become aware of these mechanisms and how they are propagated, as I have shown, is firstly to acknowledge that there is racism in the Netherlands. A serious case has to be made of studying whiteness and its unearned privileges. One of the most basic privileges that many white people are not aware of is how important it is to have a role model who looks like you; I had to wait until I was thirty-seven and went to the US to be taught by a black female professor. It belongs to the privileges of whiteness not to be aware of who is teaching you, or what is in your curriculum, or what roles are being given to people of colour in your institution. I hope to have shown that knowledge production in the academy is not innocent.

1 — Morrison, Toni. "Home." In The House That Race Built: Original Essays by Toni Morrison, Angela Y. Davis, Cornel West, and Others on Black Americans and Politics in American Today. 1997. Ed., New York: Vintage, 1998. 3‐12.

2 — Zwarte Piet or Black Pete is folklore in the Low Countries (Netherlands and Belgium) based on the portrayal of the black helpers of Saint Nicholas. Jerry Afriyie, along with Quinsy Gario (one of the contributors to this issue), were the two founders of the campaign Zwarte Piet is Racisme in 2011.

3 — Hall, Stuart. 1997. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

4 — Said, Edward. 1993, Culture and Imperialism, Chatto & Windus, London.

5 — The idea of a 'structure of feeling' was first used by Raymond Williams in Preface to Film to discuss the relationship between dramatic conventions and written texts. Williams and Michael Orrom, Preface to Film, Film Drama, London, 1954—Ed.

6 — Toni Morrison in interview with Paul Gilroy. 1993. Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures, Serpent's Tail, London.

7 — 'A queer methodology, in a way, is a scavenger methodology that uses different methods to collect and produce information on subjects who have been deliberately or accidentally excluded from traditional studies of human behavior' writes Judith/ Jack Halberstam in the introduction to Female Masculinity, 1998, Duke University Press Books 

8 — Tinsley, Omise'eke Natasha. 2018. Ezili's Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

9 — Donna Haraway rejects the 'god trick' played by both relativism and objectivity, and proposed instead to look from many perspectives in order to see the whole. Situated knowledge consists of 'partial, locatable, critical knowledges' that sustain 'the possibility of webs of connections called solidarity in politics and shared conversations in epistemology'. Haraway. 1988, 'Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective', Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn), pp. 575—99.

10 — Harding, Sandra. 1993. The 'Racial' Economy of Science: Towards a Democratic Future, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

Posted 02 Oct 2019
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