Smother my spirit in privilege

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.

yin-yang white-black.jpg
Perfectly in balance…

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 mfinger one.jpgy 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…

fingers two.jpgThe 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.

fingers three.jpgMy 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!

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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. 🙂

Bedtime stories and the mind of a child

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Bedtime Stories.”

Bedtime stories were a serious matter in our household, as I remember it. My parents are both lovers of books and good stories and hardly a birthday or Christmas went by without me getting a book. They were also very picky about the illustrations. I remember spending hours (or perhaps it only felt like hours) in bookstores with my mother and she was def having a lot more fun than I was.

It became a running gag, that whenever I received a present I would study the package and look at them mysteriously and say: “let me guess……. is it a book?” And we went on saying this even when the gift was oddly shaped and very obviously NOT a book.

When it comes to bedtime stories though, my memory is blurry. I didn’t even realize this until some years ago when I was telling friends how my father would always tell me stories before I went to sleep, to which my mother responded (with quite some disappointment in her voice): “That’s not true! I read to you every single night! Your dad was often not even home yet when I put you to bed. I think I can count the amount of times he read you stories on two hands!”

Now of course, that last part was obviously an exaggeration (I think), but her point was that she was the one putting me to bed and reading me stories every night and all I remembered was my dad’s stories. I guess the reason those times stuck with me is precisely because it happened only occasionally. The fact that they broke the daily pattern made them special events, in comparison to my mom’s stories, that were just part of the normal routine. (Sorry mom, I’m sure your stories were awesome too….)

I remember there being a couple of books that I enjoyed the most.

It’s actually interesting that the first two are christianity based readings, as I was not raised to be a Christian. I did have a fascination for these things though. Another thing that I find remarkable is that they were actually quite dramatic stories, not necessarily with a happy ending. What I remember of the children’s bible is that I enjoyed the first part, but not so much the second part, being the story of Jesus. No clue why, especially since a lot of the characters in the first part ended up dying or killing each other as well…

clown van godThe Clown of God is a story about a juggling clown named Giovanni, who used to be legendary for his skills. He would travel from village to village and juggle his colored balls to the amazement of the crowds. And the finale of his act involved adding the golden ball, which sent Ooh’s and Aah’s through the crowd. They would applaud him and pay him generously and some would even invite him to dinner. He was very much loved and lived a simple but happy life, until he grew older and people grew bored of him. He became clumsy and started dropping his balls and people drove him away from their homes….

And then one day he arrived in a village with a beautiful church. On a rainy evening, Giovanni entered the church to seek cover and was captivated by the statue of the virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. It struck him that the baby’s face looked so sad. So Giovanni painted his face, took out his colored balls and started to juggle… and he felt his old strength come back to him and he did his act so marvelously, like back in the days….

The next day when the villagers entered the church they found the clown on the floor… dead…. And when they looked at the baby in Mary’s arms they were astonished to see that he was smiling! And in his hands, he held the golden ball……

Isn’t that dramatically beautiful? I still have the book and never saw it anywhere else. This story made such an impact on me as a child that I actually had an imaginary friend called Giovanni. I guess he made me smile too!