In recent years I have walked and chanted in several marches; the largest ones being the Women’s March in 2017 and more recently, the March for the climate.
Both times I couldn’t believe that the topics at hand were even things we could disagree on in the society I live in.
Facts and common sense issues have become opinions and (how I despise the term and the one that made it fashionable;) fake news.
Until recently, I would say my political views and voting behavior would be considered pretty middle of the road, maybe slightly left of center.
These days though, some would call my views extreme and “far left”.
Am I an activist?
I’m not sure.
I do want us to be better. I do want us to stop being so afraid of each other. I do want us to make decisions more (earth)consciously. I am willing to start with the person in the mirror and work from there.
Since my first post about the “Black Pete debate” in 2013, things have not gotten any better. This week protesters from both sides of the debate were arrested for instigating violence and it looks like this was only the beginning.
Actually, the real beginning of when Black Pete entered the political arena was years ago.
Black Pete & the UN
I remember that I was kind of confused when I heard the United Nations was asking questions about every Dutch persons favorite holiday. This was in 2013 and I don’t remember ever having questioned anything related to Sinterklaas until then. Maybe I did, but if so then it must have been in a dismissive fashion, laughing it off with a “yeah, I guess it is a bit weird” kind of remark. But as I said, I don’t remember ever feeling guilty about celebrating Sinterklaas or seeing my friends paint their faces black to scare their nephews and nieces at the family celebration.
When the world started pointing fingers at us, making it official when the UN report was thrown in our faces in 2015, I was one of the first to say that it was a ridiculous waste of time and resources. Why would the United Nations have an opinion about something so harmless and so exclusively Dutch (and let’s face it, we are a puny country). And how could they possibly be against it??
It wasn’t the UN report itself that changed my mind (which I don’t think I ever actually read). It was my fellow countrymen. Hearing and reading their reactions to being called “racist” convinced me at once that that was precisely what we had been all along, and I was SHOCKED by the extent of it.
All though I haven’t lived anywhere but the Netherlands since my teenage years I suddenly felt like an outsider again.
Since that moment I have made a vow to myself to never hold back my words about this topic, as I noticed that friends with similar opinions as mine were doing precisely that. This meant that it was only the knowingly racist and the harmfully ignorant that were doing all the talking, which I find unacceptable.
If you want to know how to make the temperature in a room drop from “pleasant” to “icy” in a heartbeat, try bringing up eliminating Black Pete from the Sinterklaas celebration in a room full of Dutch adults. If it wasn’t so pathetic, it would be kind of funny…
Black Pete & Dutch politics
All though the United Nations’ accusing finger did stir up a debate in Dutch society I don’t really recall any of our politicians ever daring to take a stance in any of this.
Instead of expressing disapproval for the harmful atmosphere being created, they just smile and wave like idiots. I imagine they sit in their cars and point at their constituency as they drive by, saying: “Isn’t this nice? The people are really getting involved”.
All comments made in public have been luke warm and evasive, with the exception of one horrible occasion 2 years ago, which I wish never happened, but does explain why other politicians hadn’t ventured into the topic until (and since) then…
Our prime minister made a complete and utter fool of himself when he was asked about Black Pete at an international summit, by saying something along the lines of “Black Pete is Black, there is nothing I can do about that, since his name is, after all, Black Pete and not Green Pete or Brown Pete”.
If you are into cringe-worthy English and oblivious white men saying blatantly racist things, go ahead and press play below (skip to 1:10 and stick around until the very end if you are not afraid to bleed from your eyes, ears and/or heart).
Yepp, he actually said that (and on behalf of the good half of the country, my apologies).
As you can imagine, his leadership (or lack there of) has done us very little good. Events in recent days have demonstrated how wounds will fester if they are not tended to properly.
Once again, peaceful protests were blocked by nimwits and hooligans, ending in senseless violence and 60 arrests throughout the country. Our prime minister said something along the lines of “there werefine people on both sides” and then washed his hands in innocence.
He also stated that the problem is one society needs to fix on its own and that politics can play no role in it.
So, as you can see, the wounds in Dutch society are not only pungent and painful, it seems we are now heading towards a zombie apocalypse. We need to start cutting off some limbs if we want to survive.
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. 🙂
How do you react to terror? A great part of me wants to give them as little attention as possible. They do not deserve my tears. I will not admit I am afraid. I will not let hate bleed into my heart, even though its poison is all around me. On the other hand I do not want to become indifferent. I want to feel and see and know it all, even though it is so very tempting to close my eyes and (try to) forget.
The thing that keeps poking Mr Cynic awake in my mind every few minutes is the “pray for Paris”-campagne so many are supporting online. I appreciate its intention, but all the while I think: What good will THAT do??
Why pray? Religion is partly what got us into this mess! What do you think god is going to do about it anyway? He stood by while it happened and now you ask him to… to what? To heal the wounds? To give us the strength to carry on? You don’t need someone to GIVE you strength, you already have it. What you need is a kick up the ass! Or a hug… yes, maybe a hug is better…
So don’t fold your hands and trust some almighty cloud dweller to fix this mess. It’s up to you and me. Don’t let your thoughts be led by fear or hate. Do you feel any negativity towards your hijab wearing neighbor? Check yourself: what is this feeling based on; have you every actually spoken with her? Give it a try! Or just throw a smile in there. It won’t fix the world, but it might steer us away from this self fulfilling prophecy. It’s a small and easy gesture and I assure you it will do more good than your bedside prayer.
Also, let’s stop calling that group of hateful cutthroats “Islamic State”. They do not deserve to be acknowledged by this name. They are neither worthy muslims nor do they have or deserve an actual state. They are the Daesh. If there were a way to acknowledge them less, I would.
I don’t feel like predicting the future right now or finding any justification for last night. I clearly have no solutions for this either. So yes, this blog may have been a pretty futile undertaking all together and I apologize if you feel it was a waste of your time. I guess this is what they call catharsis.
The other night, at about 4 am there was a bit of a ruckus outside my bedroom window that woke me up.
I live in an alley with a popular bar on the corner and it was Friday night, so I didn’t think much of it at first. People often leave their bikes in my alley and sometimes have trouble finding it again after a couple of beers and I guess that’s fine. I also understand that you want to evaluate everything you saw with your friends and have a good giggle about it after a good night out.
This particular occasion was different though, as I started smelling a foul smell at some point and heard some more stumbling and crashing that had me sitting up in my bed for the second time that night. I knew it must be one of my neighborhood bums fighting his demons. It’s happened before and usually, when I step out, they apologize and promise they’ll keep it down.
This particular homeless person, let’s call him Oscar, was new to me and there was no apology when he saw my sleepy face peaking at him. I know most of them by appearance, as the shelter is quite close to my house and they often hang around a bit before they’re allowed in. I know enough about alcoholics to recognize in a split second when someone is beyond reasoning, and that was definitely the case with Oscar on this particular night.
Oscar had rolled someone’s garbage container into my alley and had tipped it over. He was emptying its contents onto the street while cursing to himself about the system and how he had been wronged by this person and that. I asked him what he was doing and he barely looked up. I saw that this was not the right time (or outfit) to be taking on Oscar, so I closed my door, lighted up some incense in my bedroom and plugged my ears with some soothing music and tried to go back to sleep.
Shortly after I crawled back to bed, I heard a car pull into my alley and I knew it was the police… I felt bad for Oscar, because I had decided not to call the police on this guy because I thought he had enough to deal with already. Apparently not all my neighbors could be so forgiving at these hours. I couldn’t resist, so I put my bath robe back on and went to my door. The police asked him the same thing I had asked, and this time he answered:
I’m putting up my tent here, can’t you see?! I wanted to go to the shelter, but they wouldn’t let me in! I don’t understand why not, don’t I have a right to stay somewhere? This is my country too! They treated me like an animal, so I took their bin and now I’m trying to clean it out so I can sleep.
He was so angry. So troubled. The police told him to put the trash back in the bin and he reacted with more anger. It’s all he had to give them at that point.
Why should I listen to you? So you can take me down to the station? Check my name, I have no debts, no criminal record, I just want a place to sleep!
I wanted to say something to him, but I didn’t know how or what. One of the policemen saw me at the door and ordered me to go back inside. Oscar glared at me and I know he thought I was the one that had called them.
I wanted to tell him it wasn’t me. I wanted him to know that I would have let him sleep in my alley, even beside my door if he had only kept it down… I wanted him to know that I didn’t judge him for his current state, nor for the fact he had no home to go to. I knew he was only here because the shelter didn’t have room for him, or because he wasn’t able to collect the couple of euros needed to pay to stay there. I wanted him to feel I saw him as a full fledged person, not an animal or any lesser being.
When the dust had settled (all though the smell lingered for a bit) and silence took over in my alley once again, it took me a while to fall back asleep. I wondered if the one that called the police was actually the only one that had done him a favor as he now probably had a place to spend the night…
The world is shifting. Not the world as a planet, but the world as a society. The status-quo may not have been ideal. We all enjoyed giving it a good kick every now and then, but at least you knew where you stood. There was left, there was right. There was socialism and there was capitalism. Tick a box and join your crew. Easy as pie.
Last week, while casually conversing with my co-workers, I accidentally cruised into the “Black Pete”-discussion again. I tried to change it’s course, tried to keep it short and friendly, but in the end I found myself exactly where I didn’t want to be. But as I had promised myself (and have declared openly on this blog) I will not be running from socially uncomfortable discussions without having planted my (more moderate) opinion for those around who may still be open for it.
After my little chat had died off into an uncomfortable “agree-to-disagree” truce, I took a sticky note and wrote down the following sentence to remind me to blog about this later on:
To maintain and protect our friendly, open-minded, “everyone-is-welcome” society we must incorporate an element of intolerance (as a guard dog?) to keep out the (truly) intolerant
I remember we used to say Holland was one of the most tolerant places on earth. We used to pride ourselves in this. I think we still do. Even last week I read this article naming the top 5 women-friendly cities of the world and Amsterdam was right there at the top, saying:
Amsterdam, It’s not only woman-friendly, it’s everyone-friendly – gay, straight, old, young, black, white, Asian…
That’s great! Or does it only show me how messed up the rest of the world really is….?
So now I’ve got my brain all in a knot and my thoughts fighting eachother in cartoon-style cat-and-dog hustle and bustle. Because let’s be honest… Isn’t tolerance kind of strange word to be proud of? It doesn’t imply acceptance or inclusion. I think we would have quite a hard time looking ourselves in the eye and declaring in truth that we are open and welcoming as a society. And then again, tolerance is a good start, I guess.
So then I ask myself:
How active do we have to be in including outsiders into our society?
How protective should we be of our culture (and thus, how open to intercultural exchange)?
And then, finally the question that has gotten me most confused:
What if our inclusiveness allows intolerant elements to blossom and in the end threaten our very foundations?
In the ideal world I would have hot chocolate and sandwiches being served at our borders and let new comers tell us their story so we would know how best to assist them in finding their feet in our little flat nation.
But what if the newcomers take our hot chocolate but make us out for fools behind our backs?
How well do we expect people to integrate into our society?
What elements of their culture do we allow and of which do we disapprove?
And even if we disapprove, what then?
Do we kick them out?
Do we put them through brain wash programs so they learn to think like us?
That’s bloody creepy! So many questions and I don’t have any acceptable answers yet. And even if I did, it’s not up to me… or is it?