A thing I have been struggling with lately is a term that has been around for years now and that I thought I understood. It’s something I have written essays about during my studies and even blogged about in a roundabout way. Looking back at all that now, I’m not sure I ever really truly checked myself properly or if I understood the full scope of it. I’m talking about white privilege.
It’s been following me around all week.
I feel like such a fool to admit this but it hit me only recently that I’m not just someone on the outside looking in on a situation of inequality and racism in a distant country. I’m right there with everyone else and I can no longer say my hands are completely clean.
This does not mean I actively did wrong. I can even say that there is nothing I could or should have done differently. The only thing that was missing all this time was intent and true consciousness. So what changed? Well, a few things happened:
One of my co-workers is adopted. Despite the fact that she is Dutch to the core, she mentioned she ALWAYS get stared at. Everywhere she goes, she gets looks. Not negatively per se, just sort of subconscious stares from people, lost in their own thoughts about her different skin color and appearance. I was surprised by this and told her I couldn’t imagine why people would do that and was sorry she felt uncomfortable at times because of this. And then it hit me and I felt like an idiot…. because I am most likely one of those staring people too…
The other day I saw Law and Disorder in Philadelphia, an episode in the documentary series by Louis Theroux. One moment that especially moved me was the part where they apprehended a nineteen year old kid, running from the police. He was slammed to the floor by the police and mocked for saying he ran because he was afraid; and no, the fact that they yelled they were police didn’t make it less scary. They hardly gave him the opportunity to explain himself and had no sympathy whatsoever for his ordeal. He was black and walking down the street in a notorious neighborhood, therefore he was a drug dealer, a liar and a thug.
Watching white people assume only the worst about people of color makes me feel awful. Yes, I know about the statistics and how crime numbers seem to prove their higher tendency to choose the wrong path, but I can’t help but wonder about the chicken and the egg and all that… Philadelphia is a long way from home though, and it’s quite easy to turn a blind eye to the situation there or at least convince myself that it has nothing to do with me.
My eyes are open now… Especially since, last Thursday, when I read an article by Arjen van Veelen, announcing the release of the translated version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the world. His book, written as a letter to his 14 year old son, is:
[…] a tribute to James Baldwin, who wrote The Fire Next Time about the same topic to his teenage nephew. At the same time it is a refinement in book form of “the talk”, being the conversation that black [parents] have with their children about how to behave while being stopped by the police. Coates expands the talk with the question: how do you live in a body that inspires fear in others but also experiences fear itself?
Despite our own police brutality incident in The Hague a while ago, people at the bottom of Dutch society are faced with a less imminent threat to their lives than in, say, Ferguson. Arjen van Veelen reminds us that this does not make Coates’ book any less relevant for us Dutchies to read, as we have so much more to lose.
Van Veelen describes how our prime minister became terribly upset over the riots in the Hague and showed his support for the small businessmen who’s shops had been looted. He displayed more grief for those broken windows and lost revenues than for the man who had died in police custody days earlier.
It’s precisely this deafness for the pain of the people at the bottom of the food chain that causes these festering wounds. According to Van Veelen there have been many explicit warnings from Cassandras in all shapes and sizes about the situation in The Hague, even specifically warning for a Ferguson-like situation with tired police officers with short fuses and dangerous biases.
The deafness is systemic. The people that, like Coates, were critical of the system and spoke of institutional racism have long been seen as too radical.
There is a certain eagerness to speak about racism as long as it is about the past or about America. […] Oh yes, sometimes another opinion is given a small space in the paper, but it is hardly generous – it’s the Dutch stinginess; one cookie and then close the cookie jar, you’ve had your turn. This mono-culture had physical consequences, like what we have seen the Hague. Broken windows are the opinion piece you get when the mayor and the newspaper are incapable of listening.
As an advice to Coates, who may be visiting our country in the following months, van Veelen says:
Less people die in the Netherlands, so there is no need to fear for your life. Here, only your mind is smothered.
Come on over, mr Coates and give us some spiritual CPR!
This blog actually started out as part of my previous blog, but it kind of got out of hand so I decided to split it in two and give my white privilege a blog of its own. I do realize it is quite a heavy topic and scrolling through my blogs of late, I see it is becoming harder to digest as a whole.
I hereby promise the next 5 blogs I write will be shorter, easier to read and lighter on the morality scale. 🙂