Black Lives Matter and the Anti-Racism Wave

Hans Ramsoedh

The police killing of 46-year-old Afro-Amer­i­can George Floyd in Min­neapo­lis, USA on May 25, has sparked a wave of anti-racism protests around the world. In addi­tion to many Amer­i­can cities, demon­stra­tors took to the streets in oth­er cities out­side the US to protest against racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Social media plays an impor­tant role in these glob­al protests. Footage that went viral shows a white police­man press­ing his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight min­utes and 46 sec­onds, despite the hand­cuffed vic­tim shout­ing I can’t breathe and bystanders in vain curs­ing and swear­ing at the offi­cer. This mur­der of Floyd is not iso­lat­ed, but fits in with the pat­tern of struc­tural­ly racist police vio­lence in the US against Afro-Amer­i­cans. As I write this (Sun­day evening, June 14), the news reports of the shoot­ing death of an unarmed 27-year-old Afro-Amer­i­can by a white police offi­cer in Atlanta, yet anoth­er in a row. No, it doesn’t stop in the US!

George Floyd

Anti-racism protests and icon­o­clasm in the US
In addi­tion to mass protests in many Amer­i­can cities, this mur­der also sparked a pic­ture storm in this coun­try. Many stat­ues of lead­ers and gen­er­als dur­ing the Amer­i­can Civ­il War (1861–1865) of the South­ern States were tak­en down sym­bol­iz­ing slav­ery in the US. That anger at this icon­o­clas­tic storm in the US is under­stand­able since the idea of white suprema­cy in the south­ern states of the US has not gone away with the end of the civ­il war. Here, stat­ues of Con­fed­er­ate army lead­ers (such as Robert E. Lee) dom­i­nate, and many gov­ern­ment build­ings still fly the Con­fed­er­ate flag (con­fed­er­ate flag dur­ing the civ­il war). The bat­tle between white and black has nev­er stopped and white suprema­cy is still alive and well. Until the mid-1960s, many states in the US had laws -Jim Crow laws- that imposed racial seg­re­ga­tion. Despite the abo­li­tion of these laws, insti­tu­tion­al racism (racial dis­crim­i­na­tion by gov­ern­ments, busi­ness­es, edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions and oth­er large organ­i­sa­tions) has remained alive and well in the US, and in par­tic­u­lar in the actions of the police towards Afro-Amer­i­cans. Young African-Amer­i­cans are advised by their par­ents not to run in an envi­ron­ment where the police are present because they are like­ly to be hit by a police bul­let.
In response to racist police bru­tal­i­ty in the US, Afro-Amer­i­can activists found­ed Black Lives Mat­ter in 2013 to denounce police bru­tal­i­ty.

I can well imag­ine that after the mur­der of George Floyd, atten­tion now also turns to sym­bols of white suprema­cy and racism in Amer­i­can soci­ety. Atten­tion now turns also to The Wash­ing­ton State Capi­tol in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where both the Sen­ate and Con­gress are locat­ed. The State Capi­tol also has the Nation­al Stat­u­ary Hall, where all U.S. states have pro­vid­ed two stat­ues for the colon­nade. For the South­ern states, stat­ues of indi­vid­u­als who were advo­cates of enforc­ing slav­ery dom­i­nate in this colon­nade. A vis­it to this colon­nade is there­fore a con­fronta­tion with white suprema­cy in the US.

Anti-racism wave
Police action in the US also boost­ed the anti-racism move­ment in West­ern Europe. Here, too, demon­stra­tors took to the streets in many cities to protest against racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion. On Sec­ond Pen­te­cost Day (June 1) a large demon­stra­tion took place in Ams­ter­dam, fol­lowed by protests in oth­er cities in the Nether­lands. Lead­ers of these events are active with­in the Anti-Zwarte Piet [Anti-Black Pete]movement. They con­sid­er Zwarte Piet as an expres­sion of racism and have been call­ing for the elim­i­na­tion of this racist phe­nom­e­non for years. The debate about Zwarte Piet has led to a polar­iza­tion in Dutch soci­ety. With the trag­ic death of George Floyd, the Anti-Black Pete move­ment in the Nether­lands got the wind in its back, because where pre­vi­ous­ly it failed to get thou­sands on the streets to demon­strate against racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion, it suc­ceed­ed now. There was also wide­spread atten­tion in the media for racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion in Dutch soci­ety. Radio and TV and the news­pa­pers have now paid full atten­tion to this theme.
Prime Min­is­ter Rutte is also grad­u­al­ly com­ing to his sens­es. Where he ini­tial­ly said about Black Pete  that he is black and can­not do any­thing about it, he recent­ly stat­ed dur­ing a debate in par­lia­ment fol­low­ing the anti-racism demon­stra­tions in the Nether­lands that he now has much more under­stand­ing of peo­ple who feel dis­crim­i­nat­ed against by the ser­vant [Black Pete] of Saint Nicholas. Accord­ing to him, how­ev­er, Black Pete is not a state mat­ter. He is con­vinced that in a few years there will hard­ly be any Black Petes. Rutte’s unex­pect­ed out­burst is con­sid­ered his­toric. It was also when Rutte acknowl­edged that not only in the US there is racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion, but also in the Nether­lands peo­ple expe­ri­ence first-hand that they are not judged on their future but on their past, not  addressed as indi­vid­u­als but to the group from which they emerge, not on their behav­iour but on their faith. Rutte avoid­ed to talk about insti­tu­tion­al racism, but about sys­tem­at­i­cal prob­lems in Dutch soci­ety. What’s in a name I’d say, if only we mean the same thing.

Anti-racism demon­stra­tion at the Dam in Ams­ter­dam

Deal­ing with a shame­ful mem­o­ry
In addi­tion to the many protest demon­stra­tions, stat­ues of per­sons asso­ci­at­ed with the slave trade and racism were also tak­en down or daubed in West­ern Europe (Eng­land, France, Bel­gium). Stat­ues were also de hon­oured in the Nether­lands, includ­ing Jan Pieter­szoon Coen (1587–1629), Piet Hein (1577–1629) and Gen­er­al Van Heutz (1851–1924). These stat­ues have been con­tro­ver­sial for some time because they are con­sid­ered in left-wing activist cir­cles as sym­bols of an infect­ed colo­nial lega­cy.

Although I under­stand the storm of images in the south of the Unit­ed States, as these are sym­bols of white suprema­cy, oppres­sion and racial hatred, I am not in favour of a icon­o­clas­tic storm in the Nether­lands. The Nether­lands is not the Unit­ed States and has no grand tra­di­tion of mon­u­ments and stat­ues as sym­bols of white suprema­cy. Many stat­ues were erect­ed in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry with the aim of cre­at­ing a nation­al aware­ness and self-image.

Demon­stra­tion against racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion

With a icon­o­clas­tic storm, we don’t rewrite his­to­ry. More­over, in the eupho­ria, every dis­cus­sion and nuance is thrown over­board. In the Unit­ed States these stat­ues are a sym­bol of still exist­ing racial hatred, Dutch stat­ues such as j.P. Coen and Gen­er­al Van Heutz sym­bol­ise a shame­less Dutch colo­nial past. With the removal of their stat­ues, the dark page in Dutch his­to­ry does not dis­ap­pear. By remov­ing these stat­ues from pub­lic spaces, we are (uncon­scious­ly) try­ing to remove the less flour­ish­ing aspects of Dutch his­to­ry from the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, as if we were to be freed from the painful sides of Dutch colo­nial his­to­ry. Icon­o­clasm (removal or destruc­tion of stat­ues) evokes in me asso­ci­a­tions with blind anger, not for rea­son and fun­da­men­tal­ism, such as the destruc­tion of the Bud­dha stat­ues in Bamyan in Afghanistan by the Tal­iban in 2008 or the destruc­tion of archae­o­log­i­cal cul­tur­al her­itage by Islam­ic fun­da­men­tal­ists in Iraq and Syr­ia. Fun­da­men­tal­ism is by def­i­n­i­tion intol­er­ant, rejects dia­logue and ends with that. I pre­fer his­tor­i­cal dis­claimers for stat­ues that tell the whole sto­ry: adding a plaque with text at, for exam­ple, the stat­ue of Gen­er­al Van Heutz which men­tions his respon­si­bil­i­ty for his cold-blood­ed action in Aceh that killed thou­sands of peo­ple, or that J.P. Coen is apart from the founder of Batavia (present-day Jakar­ta) in the Ban­da Islands, has more than thou­sands of peo­ple killed.

Bekladding stat­ue Piet Hein in Rot­ter­dam

Dutch somat­ic norm image
As Glo­ria Wekker writes (White inno­cence 2017) the Nether­lands for a long time con­sid­ered itself in many ways as a guide coun­try for oth­er peo­ples and nations: an eth­i­cal nation, col­or­blind and free from racism. Racism occurred in South Africa dur­ing the white apartheid regime and in the US, not here. This is the dutch self-image or the  Dutch self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion. How­ev­er, the prac­tice is dif­fer­ent: immi­grant chil­dren receive a struc­tural­ly low­er flow advice com­pared to indige­nous chil­dren, immi­grant stu­dents can­not find an intern­ship, there is dis­crim­i­na­tion in job appli­ca­tions and in the labour mar­ket, the police and tax author­i­ties do eth­nic pro­fil­ing. This is insti­tu­tion­al or ver­ti­cal racism. Com­mon or hor­i­zon­tal racism is also a real­i­ty for many immi­grants. In this con­text, I would like to point out the Dutch somat­ic norm with regard to being Dutch (I derive this con­cept from the Utrecht soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Har­rie Hoetink who used it in his analy­sis of Curaçao soci­ety). Somat­ic stan­dard image refers to the image that is con­sid­ered by mem­bers of a group as stan­dard and ide­al. Being white is the mea­sure of beau­ty and the key to social appre­ci­a­tion. It also func­tions as a sort­ing machine in dai­ly live and acts as a cri­te­ri­on for in- and exclu­sion. The well-known native Dutch ques­tion to peo­ple with a colour ‘where do you come from’ often fol­lowed by ‘where do you real­ly come from’ is in my view relat­ed to the somat­ic norm image of native Dutch peo­ple: a Dutch­man is WHITE (and BLOND and has BLUE EYES). Any­one who does not fit this image is there­fore by def­i­n­i­tion not an estab­lished but an out­sider. The third and fourth gen­er­a­tion Dutch peo­ple who are not white will also con­stant­ly be con­front­ed with the ques­tion: ‘Where do you real­ly come from?’ It means that if we want to fight racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion it is impor­tant that we rec­og­nize that there are dutch peo­ple in all kinds of ‘smells and colours’.

Stat­ue J.P. Coen

Recog­ni­tion instead of denial
Encour­ag­ing in all protest demon­stra­tions is the joint protest of white and col­ored. These demon­stra­tions rep­re­sent a tip­ping point in rela­tion to the phe­nom­e­non of racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion in Dutch soci­ety. I do not rule out the fact that the joint and mas­sive protest by Prime Min­is­ter Rutte has led to his turn­around: final­ly recog­ni­tion by the Prime Min­is­ter that we are also deal­ing with every­day and sys­temic (insti­tu­tion­al) racism in the Nether­lands. I am there­fore cau­tious­ly opti­mistic about tack­ling racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion in the Nether­lands. As long as we see racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion as ‘bad apples and noth­ing else’ we can’t go any fur­ther. How­ev­er, a struc­tur­al approach starts with recog­ni­tion and recog­ni­tion of the prob­lem rather than denial as has been the case until recent­ly. With recog­ni­tion, the con­ver­sa­tion can also begin and solu­tions can be joint­ly sought. I there­fore regard the last mass protest demon­stra­tions as a clar­i­on call.

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