The Development of Race
Usually, as a good anthropologist should, I would put such contentious terms as race and development in inverted commas. But for today’s purpose, I chose to forego a doublespeak intended to show that I am in ‘the know’. Intended to show that I am not one of those backward people, who does not know the complex reality behind concepts in everyday use, and the porous boundaries that lie between them.
In this post (which might be split up in to several pieces) I want to deal with Race. In the first part I will discuss my own history with this issue, to show how my perception of it has evolved, and to illustrate in the process some aspects of our society. In the intermediate parts I hope to clarify the terms and obstacles that are part of the conversation somewhat. In the last part I will turn to a public online discussion held in the UCU University College Utrecht community. At various points I will try to succinctly answer the following questions:
- What is race?
- What hinders discussion about racism?
- What is racism?
- Why still talk about racism today?
My hope is to add to the debate, which in my opinion is a crucial debate which is related to many other issues and has a large part in deciding what our future looks like. Sadly I expect that the discussion will become uglier before it yields positive results. I hope I am wrong about this but I wish we will at least listen to one another. It is not my intent to speak for anyone but myself. Although it is my intent to speak to people who have had a similar lived experience as me (at least in the sense of being White and privileged) as I feel there are certain psychological blockades in paying full attention to this topic with one’s full sensibilities, especially when people of colour talk about their experience.
My focus on race here is not meant to exclude other types of oppression based on sexuality, gender or ability. In fact all types of oppression are tightly linked and need to be opposed together. So please see this piece as part of a larger discussion that should be had. This is a complicated and controversial topic. So my usual disclaimer in saying that this piece is as full of inaccuracies and imperfections as I am holds, I welcome comments…
Growing up White (but not quite)
Generally (when I am not moved into thinking I am a somewhat useless narcissistic being) I find my own life very interesting. This is not the main reason for talking about my own history. I do this to explain the evolution of my thinking, to give an indication of how race operates in our society. In doing so I wish to move beyond simplistic condemnations of right and wrong and instead open up discussion to understanding. I believe this issue is not one of guilt or even sympathy (although it is one of compassion) but one of responsibility. What is it that we can do to have the world we want to have? For each of us the answer might be different.
As a 6 year old my mom took me shopping in Utrecht, the closest (fairly) big city next to the village of Cothen where I grew up. Cothen had and has about 3000 inhabitants of which one family was non-white. In Utrecht Overvecht I asked my mom, “Why are there so many dark people here?”
My young mind had discerned a very obvious visual fact, which adults seemingly accepted without much question or deep thought. Of course I had no idea about the social realities underlying this obvious visual fact.
I was an outsider in Cothen and outsiders (or the kind I was) were not treated well; I was teased, bullied and excluded. Those who associated with me suffered the same fate. Unlike a racial designation, this bullying was something I could escape. When I was not in the village, I did not experience it. Later when I returned and adults treated me kindly in my function as mailman. I realized that this cruelty was limited to the world of children to a large extent or at least that the office of mailman somehow extended a sheen of normalcy to my being. When a former bully approached me to apologize at age 23 I was apprehensive at first but felt great relief afterwards. One of the spectres of my past from whom I thought I needed no recognition, apologizing to me, meant quite a lot.
Not being kind to outsiders easily translates into not being kind to foreigners. This was confirmed when I was preparing to permanently leave said village at age 26 to study development: “Development? So you’re gonna cuddle ISIS!?!”. Hate begins with exclusion and exclusion begins at the doorsteps of our homes, even in our own hearts. The things we do not know we label as strange and dangerous.
When I was nine years old, my sister gifted me the 2pac cd the “Greatest Hits”. A skater boyfriend of hers gave me a unmarked burned CD with Hip Hop which I loved (it later turned out to be Mos Def’s Black on Both sides). My sister decided she’d rather have a Hip Hop loving brother, than a Happy Hardcore gabber loving one. I think the world should be grateful to her for that.
Through 2pac I was infused with political messages and journalism from the streets:
“My stomach hurts, so I am looking for a purse to snatch”
some of which seem more accurate today than ever:
“Cops give a damn about a negro? Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero.”
More money has been raised for cops shooting black people than for the families of the victims.
Although I wasn’t able to understand all the implications of his message, let alone’ 2pac’s long term plan to appeal to gangs in order to politicize them, I did feel drawn to the energy of his music. The sense of fighting for the underdog that pervades his music.
Mos Def I understood even less. I loved the beats, but had no idea of the intricate exposees of America’s political system in songs such as “Mathematics”, again as relevant today as it was in 1999.
At 11 I left elementary school in my village and went to a more diverse school, my best friend there was Indonesian. We would play basketball, video games, speak English and listen to Hip Hop. I mention this not to play the ‘I am not racist I have brown friends’ card, but simply to add some confusion into what it meant for me to be (W,w)hite… I here distinguish between white (without capital W) to indicate skin colour and White to indicate membership in a system of racial oppression.
At 12 I still naively wondered why the US did not simply liberate Tibet. I still believed that the values of Freedom espoused by the West were truly supported in practice. I thought the UN was an amazing organization. I did not know there was a difference between what you said you believed and what you did. Although by then, I had learned to hide my intentions, to hide my inner world. I was expelled from one mostly white high school for not working enough and went to another.
The male chauvinist, substance abuse aspect of Hip Hop started to appeal to me more as puberty progressed. I rolled through high school disinterestedly, past mentions of slavery (which left out how European industrialization was premised on suffering, genocide and exploitation of the colonies) but we did manage to spent a lot of time on WW II and Hitler’s singular evil (without explaining prevalent European racist doctrines out of which Nazism sprung) after briefly describing a war of attrition in Indonesia as internal “policing” (luckily our history teacher hinted at shades of grey between good and evil, and horrors committed by the Dutch in Indonesia). I wrote my High School dissertation on Max Havelaar’s ‘Multatuli’ without understanding the irony of his legacy being used to promote a plantation like “Fair trade” system.
I eventually arrived at the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gates of UCU in 2007 to the declamations of our Prime Minister Balkenende espousing societal values and the ethos of those good ol’ VOC colonial days.
I fell deeper into substance abuse, was expelled again, and returned to successfully complete my degree. At UCU I had some questions; Why are there so few non-white Dutch people here? Why are we studying philosophy divorced from the lived realities of people? Why are we not studying philosophers lives? I never believed in objectivity, but I believed the closest we can get to it is by acknowledging our own subjectivity and by incorporating multiple perspectives. Obviously these questions were not constantly on my mind, at least not as much as girls and partying, they did however contribute to a certain hollow feeling throughout the whole experience. A hollowness I tried suppressing and filling, but which resurfaces at almost any level and activity of society, except those actively engaged in trying do good. A hollowness fed by abuse of such words as Freedom and Democracy.
Finally I arrived at that great bastion of activism SOAS, where the service staff is again mostly white, black students get marked down, and many non-white students belong to (relatively) rich elites. Where we learn to become the next global ‘helper’ elite. Nicely obscuring and transforming existing power relations even as we are trained to be aware of them.
I apologize to the reader for this tangential autobiography, please bear with me.
I want to point out a few more things, which make my life not typically White, while at the same time pointing out some of the privileges of being white.
I was partly raised as a universal Sufi. To me this means acknowledging each person as on the spiritual path of becoming a fulfilled being. I remember meditation sessions in which we were asked to imagine a bubble of compassion expanding slowly from around us to encompass the whole world.
I fought, a lot, as a kid I was bullied and my mom always taught me to fight back. But after every fight she would also sit me down and make me understand both perspectives.
When I was 13 there was a schoolyard fight in which a non-white person threatened my friend and I protected him.
When I was 16 two non-white guys attacked me on the street.
At several points white people attacked or threatened me on the street.
Any of these events could have me made actively angry with non-white people or white people for that matter, had I been raised differently. Nonetheless racism infuses my thinking and perception and feeling, as it does for nearly everyone alive. Racism is the expression of oppression in our being.
Racism is more than ideas about a group of people. It is a reality of differential treatment of different groups of people. Individuals might like to distance themselves from this reality, but can’t do this alone.
Here is a number of things that would have gone differently for me had I not been white:
– Less likely to obtain university level degree education (and be marked down if I did). My general attitude of defiance and disinterest towards learning and rules in schools would not have gone down well for a non-white person. Furthermore the knowledge offered in schools writes non-white people out of history or misrepresents their role (logically the same goes for whites). Had I been a person of colour I would probably have been told to do ‘something with my hands’. Intellectual prowess is generally not ascribed to non-whites, that is why non-white footballers are called athletic and white ones technical or strategic.
– When I was 16 I was drinking and smoking in the city centre of Utrecht. A police officer told me to throw away the drink, I defiantly downed it before chucking it. I got away with it.
-When I was 19 I went joyriding in my parent’s car with 4 white friends, no one had a license (sorry mom and dad, if you are reading this for the first time). We were getting high, when the police stopped and asked us for ID. We got away with it.
-2 years later, I was speeding on my moped going 60 km/h on a bicycle lane, when I was stopped by police. I was given a reduction on my ticket. Because according to the cop I looked ‘responsible’ and was not their ‘target audience’.
-2 years later I was skating on the road in Amsterdam and got stopped (maybe because of my mohawk). They ran a background check, which if my privilege previously had not gotten me of the hook, might have gotten me in trouble.
This is not a very interesting story, because it is mainly a story of things not happening to me because of my skin colour. However I think it is indicative of two things:
-Firstly it hints at the type of abuse, which non-white people are subjected to non-stop. And from which they cannot escape.
-Secondly it gives a kind of indication of why white people think racism does not exist any longer, simply because it does not happen to them.
-Thirdly it shows that racism does not only work against black people, it works for white people.
This story could list many more privileges experienced by me, however it was simply meant to give an indication of what privilege meant to me, what racism might mean to others. Race is not a Black and White story of neatly fitting identities and exact same stories, but its structures enclose all of us in ways which we often do not control consciously.