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A year in personal failures: how I didn’t single-handedly stop racism within feminism or in The Netherlands

I. “My feminism will be intersectional” redux

I set myself up for failure. I know. I like big, unachievable goals that I will, all on my own, conquer. Because I am a sucker for failed end of the year balances. Because when this time of the year rolls by, I sit and ponder on what I have not yet achieved. To that purpose, I start every year with some big, unattainable resolution. For 2011, I had set two such objectives (probably to ensure failure at least on one account), and it seems I managed to fall through on both: I did not succeed in making anti racism a mainstream component of Western feminism and I failed at defeating racism as an institutionalized practice in The Netherlands. And it hasn’t been through lack of trying, that much I can tell.

Now, leaving snark aside, I would say that, as both a writer and an activist, those are my main two goals. Not half joking hyperbolic new year resolutions but the kind of issues I center every day when I decide what I am going to write about. These are also the issues I try to bring forth in every political meeting I attend. Selfishly so, perhaps. As a Non Western foreign woman living in The Netherlands, I find both issues to be very personal and very political. I am a feminist, even though I struggle with some of the most damning aspects of mainstream feminism. Even though I sometimes angrily express my disappointment, I still claim the label. Perhaps because I grew up in an environment where such label was subjected to disgust, derision or contempt. Because I was socialized to believe that feminism was alienating and only the realm of “sluts” and “man hating” women. So, one day, I decided that’s what I was. Probably because it was one of the most offensive labels I could inflict on my reactionary surroundings. To me, the label preceded the politics. It took me years to learn the more theoretical aspects of feminism (which I don’t even know as well as people who learned them in a more structured manner). I read Sartre way before I even knew who de Beauvoir was. Back home, when I was a student, we didn’t have “women’s studies”, at least not in the institutions I frequented. If such a thing existed (and I am sure it did), it was certainly not mainstream. Post dictatorship Argentina was not exactly a progressive place prone to discussions of equality or gender matters. It took a couple of decades for these topics to take a center stage. But I digress.

I named myself a feminist even before I understood the contentious aspects of gender theory. My theoretical ignorance did have an upside though: had I been introduced to feminism through the works of some of the most controversial figures in the Second Wave (like Dworkin, to name only one such example), I would have never called myself one. I naively believed feminism was just a simple idea: women (not just cis, White women, because in my world, those were not the only women, even though I had no word to define cis) deserved equality and a life free from fear to pursue their dreams. Shoot me, I was young and somewhat naive, as to me, that was all feminism was about.

And then I moved to Europe.

 

II. “Only neurotic Americans think that we are racist”

I woke up today to read exactly this headline in one of the top three Dutch newspapers (top three in reach, circulation, influence and political presence). In an ironic twist, the newspaper in question is named De Volkskrant, which translated means “The People’s Newspaper”. In this piece, the writer, Rutger Bregman, a blond, blue eyed Dutch man who has never in his life experienced the daily effects of racism, devotes in excess of seven hundred words to explain to his readership that “only neurotic Americans believe that The Netherlands is a racist country”. I gasped when I read, not only the ableist title, but the content of this self serving nonsense.

I did not write about the episode involving Rihanna in a Dutch glossy magazine because almost every other blog was already reporting on it. What could I possibly have to add to the topic? I figured people already knew what had happened, they were discussing the facts in question and I had nothing new or original to say. I was ashamed of the publishing house retracting the apology, claiming they had nothing to be embarrassed for. I was very upset. I took it personally, as it is always bound to happen in these instances. To me, these are deeply personal and political subjects. This is the most current example I can find to illustrate why I demand my feminism to be intersectional, why it also needs to be actively anti racist. For the most part, Dutch media downplayed the issue. They did the usual “foreign influence! cultural imperialism! nothing offensive in our language!” white washing that they always do when minorities demand a stop to these offenses. And today, I read the coup de grace: one of the main newspapers in the country sees fit to publish a piece calling any anti racist efforts “misguided” and unnecessary as this is absolutely not a racist country. The writer insists on the fact that neither Black Pete nor the offensive language addressed at Rihanna are symptoms of racism, but that they are part of a culture where “skin color no longer matters”.

I wrote in excess of half a million words this year (spread across all platforms I publish). At least half of those words have been devoted to the toxic effect of racism across Europe. At least a quarter of those were devoted specifically to The Netherlands. To be more precise, to the effects that such racism has on the lives of non White people living in this country. I will go even further, since it seems I need to prove if not my commitment to the topic, at least the existence of institutionalized racism: I believe I was the first person who wrote in English about the arrests of activists during the Black Pete protests. It was only after I published a detailed account of the incidents that English speaking mainstream media picked it up (it helped that some very high profile people like Baratunde tweeted a link to my piece). And yet, a national newspaper obturates any possible society wide discussion by allowing a member of the dominant culture to inform us that “Only neurotic Americans think that The Netherlands is a racist country”. And this guy in question has the nerve to tell me, on Twitter, that my disagreement is nothing but “bullshit” and I should “learn how to read”.  My relentless documenting of institutionalized racism sweeping the country, my hundreds of thousands of words devoted to the subject are “bullshit”. Because a native, blond, blue eyed Dutch man said so. I might be neurotic (not that I have a diagnosis, but I can suspect that much) however, I am not American (well, technically, I AM American, but from the Southern Cone) and unlike his claims, I do live in this country. So, how am I supposed to take his blanket statement? Should I pack my anti racist toolkit and call it a day?

The rape and death threats from Dutch White supremacists on this very blog (which I documented on Tumblr out of frustration) are surely the result of a “non racist country”. The commands to “go back to the shithole I came from” written by Dutch people surely are not racist. The hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of offensive racial slurs left here that we persistently deleted are most certainly the “delusions” of “neurotic Americans”, right? And this is just a small tip of the iceberg. An iceberg made of the unaddressed colonial past, the welfare state built on the back of the slave trade, the State division of people in enforceable categories of foreignness. All of these and the daily, eroding insults that minorities put up with, some of them State endorsed are, according to one of the biggest Dutch newspapers, the results of the machinations of “neurotic Americans”.

And then I wonder why I fail at my unattainable New Year’s goals?

 

III. “Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?”

Springsteen sang “Hey bus driver, keep the change/ Bless your children, give them names”. And indeed, blessed be the children of the Dutch bus drivers at Connexxion, the Amsterdam based line that called the police to report on “dozens of suspicious African women who took the bus every day to go to work at a fancy town”. Blessed be those children for their fathers are racist and they are likely to pass those “values” on.

Every day, “African women” (Sic from the article in Dutch) took the bus and they got off at Bloemendaal and Heemstede, two towns outside of Amsterdam populated by expensive and fancy houses. The women, singled out because of their appearance and the color of their skin, raised the suspicion of the bus drivers who started to document their daily comings and goings. The drivers stated that they found it “unbelievable” that obvious migrant women would travel every day to such fancy locations. The drivers insisted that they had to be undocumented workers. They called the police. However, because as our major Dutch newspaper has informed us, “there is no racism in The Netherlands”, they weren’t just happy to call the police and snitch on immigrant women, they also helped mount an intelligence operation to have these women followed across their daily route for weeks. Once it was established that these obviously “poor looking non White women” had no other reason to be in the area than to work illegally, they were detained by the police. I insist, with the aid, willing cooperation AND initiative of these Dutch bus drivers. Of the thirty detained women from countries like Ghana, Uganda, Brazil and the Philippines, twelve have already been deported and the rest are in detention centers pending the resolution of the Council of State who is investigating if the bus drivers and police incurred in unfair “racial profiling” when they notified the authorities.

But “only neurotic Americans believe that The Netherlands is a racist country”.

 

IV. And I set myself up for failure in 2012

I write about The Netherlands and about Europe because this is where I live. I see, on a daily basis, the urgent need for change. I see an alarming raise on incidents of hatred and associated crimes. This month a report by British think tank “Institute for Government” released their annual Global Ranking of Soft Power. In international politics, soft power is the ability of one state to achieve preferred outcomes by changing the preferences or behaviour of another state through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuasion and positive attraction. To put it in more layman terms, this index measures how Nation States can achieve their goals without resorting to war and, instead, using Businesses and Innovation, Culture, Government, Diplomacy and Education to influence other nations. In this index, The Netherlands ranks in the top ten of all countries in the world. The US is at the top and five other European countries, aside from The Netherlands, share the top spots (UK, France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland). This is why, the social issues afflicting The Netherlands, also matter on a global scale. Not to mention the collective political, institutional, economic and social power of the European Union. This degree of power is the reason we should not give in to destructive notions peddled by mainstream media about certain issues being “irrelevant”.

And yet, in spite of all my rage, snark and incidental arguments, this is a labor of love. I believe we can do better. Not just as feminists, but as people with ideas of equality (regardless of our political labels), as people who believe in Social Justice, we can and SHOULD do better. In what might as well become my personal slogan, earlier this year I wrote that my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. I point at anti racism as one of the many facets of such intersectionality but certainly not the only one and certainly not in detriment of all others. Because I write from personal experience and from personal conviction, this is the one I can share. However, I truly hope that 2012 is not a year where I have to see yet again, racial mishaps such as this one. I hope 2012 is the year I do not have to convince people that certain social struggles are not the result of my “neurotic delusions” but urgencies that we need to fix because not doing so results in loss of lives. I hope 2012 is the year we can claim as ours, if not to parade the big changes we all hope for, at least to celebrate a new awareness and some steps on the road to transformation.

And I wish you all will share at least some of these expectations with me. Because as 2011 has proved, I obviously won’t be ending these ills on my own.

 

NOTE: I have linked to some articles in Dutch, however, for non Dutch speaking readers, I have checked all the links on Google Translate and while the translations might not be grammatically perfect, they are definitely readable.

17 Comments

  1. Well, that story of the bus drivers stalking those women right out of the country is heartbreaking. As is how hard you work and to be treated so hurtfully and then told that your work is bullshit. It’s unbelievable, and yet it’s so predictable, both.

    I am always shocked when I come across blatant and heinous acts and words of racism or ableism, but then I am even *more* shocked when something I say or do actually makes any difference at all, when even one person hears me and decides to change. So, I get the drive to keep trying to make the world a better place while at the same time knowing it’s an impossible task.

    This is a quote that keeps me going, by M. Gandhi. I don’t know if it will be meaningful to you, but I wanted to share it, fwiw: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

    Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink
  2. Thank you for the work you do of bearing witness. This is how, eventually, people see and recognize what needs to be changed. It is frustrating that it takes so damned long, but your voice here is like the drip-drip-drip of water that will carve a channel in the rock.

    Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Permalink
  3. Eli wrote:

    Hang the fuck in there. I’ll hang the fuck in there too. Thank you, once again, for a year of great writing.

    Thursday, December 29, 2011 at 3:41 am | Permalink
  4. Joanna wrote:

    Your work matters. I am not the only person who has learned a great deal from what you have written this year. And the reactionary article brings out in public for all to see what was formerly tacit; the blatant, naked racism. One measure of your impact is how threatened they feel, because your work DOES threaten their very sense of identity. It’s hard to be on the receiving end of the fear and hatred, but I hope you can also see that it shows that your work matters. I have to imagine that there are others in the Netherlands who find comfort or validation in your words because they also are rejecting the colonial legacy. I hope that some of them also contact you from time to time.
    un abrazo muy fuerte de Minneapolis, Minnesota.

    Thursday, December 29, 2011 at 4:36 am | Permalink
  5. Dave wrote:

    I’m (sadly) relieved to have found your post via twitter today, as it’s all too easy to find yourself questioning whether you’ve gone completely off your nut when hearing the Dutch commentaries around events like Rhianna-gate.

    Don’t ever forget that you’re combating institutionalized racism, anti-semitism, sexism, and many other prejudices in the context of a country that considers itself tolerant, liberal, and progressive. The reality that it was also the first to import African slaves into North America, deported 87% of its Jews to the camps (only bested by Poland), and perpetrated centuries of global oppression through the VOC (a mentality which Balkenende so joyfully wished to returned to) seems to be conveniently lost on the Dutch.

    More than that, the Dutch public discourse, which has always been tinged with a holier-than-thou world image, seems to have degenerated into an exercise in lowest-common-denominator-as-the-norm. No matter how course, offensive, hateful or discriminatory, under the thin veneer of ‘freedom of speech’, any expression is fair game in The Netherlands. As a result, the Dutch are evidencing their hypocrisy more and more… They consider themselves free to discriminate against anyone at any time, yet evidence a radical intolerance of the discriminated and oppressed expressing their disapproval.

    Anyway – keep on fighting the good fight, but make sure you maintain your non-Dutch citizenship. It’s good to have an escape hatch from this powder keg!

    Thursday, December 29, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  6. alanna wrote:

    Flavia, thank you so much for the words you’ve written here all year. While you may not have accomplished your goals, I can tell you that you’ve certainly affected me profoundly. Your posts always make me stop, think, re-read, and take a long look at my own privilege. I’m looking forward to reading (and learning) more from you in 2012.

    Thursday, December 29, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  7. Biscia wrote:

    Another person chiming in to thank you for your writing. For me, one of the best blogosphere discoveries of 2011.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink
  8. GirlJanitor wrote:

    You’ve been a great contributor to my renewed determination to bring intersectionality to the white-academic-wealthy-feminist set up here in Central New York. Thank you.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  9. Angie unduplicated wrote:

    Every time your activism makes the racists defend themselves by lying, you are a success. Big Brother is not the only one watching you: little sister is,too,she tells her friends, and you impact multitudes. Being known as a woman with guts is no small thing in a gutless world.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  10. Lois van Baarle wrote:

    For what it’s worth, the volkskrant published an article today, which refutes the statements made in that awful headline you mention above:

    http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/3184/opinie/article/detail/3099361/2011/12/30/Dus-als-ik-bitch-zeg-kan-ik-ook-een-man-bedoelen.dhtml

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink
  11. @Lois, I saw it earlier and tweeted the link. It’s a good piece and I am happy it was written. Still I am appalled the editors published the first one to begin with.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  12. Dikke Stef wrote:

    The “nothing offensive in our language!” defense is not unique to the Netherlands or even Europe. It was recently used by the Uraguayan footballer Luis Suarez who tried to justify his referring to an opposing player as ‘negro’ 7 times by saying it was a friendly affectionate greeting in his country. Thankfully he was suspended, part of the evidence being the rejection of the ‘not offensive in my country’ mitigation.

    Saturday, December 31, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  13. Michael Bricker wrote:

    Flavia your writing is always insightful, often challenging, and frequently makes me uncomfortable. (Which is all for the best!) I cannot thank you enough for your efforts over the last year and I look forward to continuing to read your words in the next!

    Tuesday, January 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  14. Hi Flavia,
    I share your concerns! It takes a while to see what happens in your own culture. Many Dutch still believe we are a tolerant and open society, without sexism or racism. Well, we’re not. Anyway, maybe you saw this opinion peace, it’s better and more understanding then the others
    http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/3184/opinie/article/detail/3103574/2012/01/03/Iemand-neger-pinda-of-bitch-noemen-kan-wel-degelijk-pijn-doen.dhtml
    Greetings from De Zesde Clan, a feminist weblog…

    Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  15. @De Zesde Clan :)

    Yes, I read that piece and also tweeted it and exchanged a few nice words with the author. I was happy that it was written. I do have to wonder about the kind of editorial standards that allowed the original one to be published though. As I have said in the past, I can understand that there are individuals who uphold ridiculous ideas. I suppose it’s human nature. What I cannot comprehend is an editorial body that publishes them, which is a tacit form of endorsement in corporate owned media such as De Volkskrant.

    Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink
  16. Dikke Stef wrote:

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one point, Flavia. I think it was important to print the editorial in the first place as it forces the confrontation of these issues- and just perhaps may have changed a few people’s minds.

    Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  17. Jilska wrote:

    Flavia,
    Thank you for putting a succinct voice to my experiences. I relocated to Amsterdam 18 months ago and have now experienced 2 Sinterklaases. At this year’s parade we were accompanied by my 6 year old step-daughter’s best friend and family (a Dutch-Canadian-Nicaraguan amalgam). The grandmother turned to me at one point and asked did I, as an American, see Zwatre Piet as offensive? I said, without skipping a beat, “Well, yes, because it IS offensive. And racist. That has nothing to do with me being American, however.” The silence that followed was rather deafening. I later read about the arrest of a t-shirt wearing Zwarte Piet protester and thought “Now, how are they going to spin this as the fault of us over-sensitive American ex-pats?”

    Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink