Den haag. The hub of our Dutch governmental system and its politics. A beautiful city to walk through. A place that would mesmerize your eyes in terms of its architecture. Until you dig into its history, that is.
Shaima and I participated in a city tour on slave history guided through the heart of Den Haag – organized by Initiatives of Change and facilitated by colonial and heritage history researcher and tour guider, Valika Smeulders. During the tour, Valika would share historical facts and background on the most important buildings in the city of Den Haag. For instance that the Mauritshuis, next to our house of parliament, is called the sugarpalace, as it has been built from the profit derived from the sugar plantations under the authority of Johan Maurits van Nassau Siegen. The palace has also been used to imprison people – one of which was a Frenchman who has been accused to have conspired with a female slave from Curaçao. I used to walk passed Mauritshuis, with pretty much always a thought running through my mind that it is such a beautiful and impressive building. The reality however is much less beautiful.
Valuing all stories in history
Valika would give us insights in stories of individuals who were made to be slaves. Stories that were dehumanizing, that would make you become resistant to the extent that you want to break down those buildings. The goal was to focus on our blind spots in history. Next to the buildings we walked passed, there were also paintings that served as relevant sources. These paintings would exhibit black people, who were made to be slaves, in a dark corner and very hard to spot, similar to the heading photo. The blacks have literally been portrayed as a blind spot. I would therefore like to challenge you to spot the black kid on this picture. The purpose of the slave walk was to give these slaves their human identity and dignity back.
Talking about this part in history is not common in the Netherlands. Connecting this era to racism appears to be a taboo. Our ‘orange’ dream is that in our society, we are not racist. This is backed up by the argument that we have a meritocratic culture where everyone has opportunities to make the most out of life. Racism is something for the US. Or South Africa. But not the Netherlands.
Yeah right…Who gets to decide that actually?
Awareness and knowledge about history from all angles is fundamental. And for that we must honour more revolutionary activists who have fought for their rights and freedom for themselves and their people. Honouring them by gaining knowledge about the struggle. For example, Anton de Kom (his book: “We Slaves of Suriname”).
On the photo below, Shaima and I were pretty shocked. Valika shared a story about the fate of female slaves. The women were required to be dressed topless; and rumour has it that this was due to their ‘lord’s’ desires. To draw a bit of context: the white women at the time were Christian and were required to dress modestly. Subsequently, the story goes that in both the Caribbean, African and Asian colonies, wives of the lord would envy the female slaves’ curves.
Even to such an extent that one of them decided to amputate her slave’s breasts and serve them for dinner to her husband. So yes, Shaima and I were pretty shocked.
From what I remember, my history books in school only highlighted the economic and capital aspects of the Dutch colonies in one paragraph of ”Dutch history”. That’s it. It is evident that 400 years of colonization cannot be simply put ‘into the passed’. Its heritage is alive, on a daily basis.
Connecting the dots
So why do I share this? Because all that has happened does affect us today and we need to start educating ourselves. And with ‘us’, I mean our society, our system and all people being part of it. I have reached a point of becoming sick of the debates with claims that there is no such thing as institutional racism (a system which devalues people of color). Race is a social construct, just like gender and class is. Let me draw two examples: one on individual level and one institutional. According to Bonilla-Silva (1997: 475) there is an essential difference when highlighting the social construct of race. After someone’s brain stereotyped someone (which is a normal psychological phenomenon) a cognitive categorization takes place. When this stratification happens on the basis of race, research shows there is no way back to reshape it into an equal and vertically hierarchical level (Bonilla-Silva, 1977: 474-475).
Meaning what, exactly? That there are always groups and individuals in societies who are and feel subordinated based on race. And this is not something that just ‘occurs’; it is deeply rooted in our Dutch system, derived from the oppressor and the oppressed (Vrij Nederland, 2016). A research conducted by Hira (2012: 53), highlights that universities, as major players in society and institutions, have a system consisting of exploitation and oppression. This, according to Hira (2012: 53), is a so-called scientific colonialism phenomenon.
Therefore, the claim that racism doesn’t exist, is not only ignorant, but extremely dangerous as well. You don’t have to be smart to realize that; reading and questioning the status quo is a start. The million dollar question is: how can we change this if the majority of us don’t know about this, backed up by both facts and sentimental feelings? As reformist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon (1967: 77) once stated:
‘The habit of considering racism as a mental quirk, as a psychological flaw, must be abandoned.‘ Frantz Fanon
A consequence of the discussion on race is often that people become apologetic or simply state that the ethnics should move on. After the slave walk, Initiatives of Change hosted a gathering wherein several key people got the chance to contribute in the discussion of slavery and its cultural heritage. One of them was a white Dutch woman who recently found out that her ancestors were slave holders. Her journey of finding out about this, started out of pure interest in understanding a personal statement that one of her black friends made.
Everyone surrounding her shushed her ‘because you could get into trouble with all the hate on the internet’. Yet, this white woman showed bravery by deciding to dig deep into something of which she already knew that it could only get uglier. She scrutinized her family, with respect and compassion, to find out about the truth. Although the actions of her ancestors don’t say anything about hers, I believe that she is a rolemodel for many among us. She walked the thought and talk. One participant in the audience asked whether she felt guilty. Her answer was blatantly honest: ‘I don’t know yet what to make out of all this.‘ And that is okay.
The fact is that there is nothing she can change about the situation. But that is not the point, really. The point is that she started a journey of seeking knowledge and awareness, beginning with herself. And this is something I admire, aspire and respect deeply. Especially in this colonial context.
This awareness does not invite any apology – she shouldn’t feel guilty as this does not reflect her actions. Yet, it is an issue of race, affecting our system as it is today. Shutting our eyes to it – now, that is problematic. It should be about acknowledging and understanding where people are coming from, because apologizing is not gonna change a single thing. We must start a dialogue and consider race in it – its consequences based on facts and feelings. Let’s start taking this seriously. All of us, regardless of color basically. It’s not a ‘black’ and/ or ‘white’ problem. But pretending to be colorblind is disrespecting history and disgraceful to people’s struggle today. So it’s rather an ignorance and systematic supremacy problem. I hope to attend more of these events and read more stories and biographies concerning our Dutch colonial history. All tips are more than welcome. Thanks to Valika and IofC for making this insightful slave walk happen.
Update May 17th 2017: June 17th there will be another slave walk in Den Haag, hosted by Valika and Initiatives of Change. More info here.
📷 L. Reijnders
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (1997). Rethinking racism: Toward a structural interpretation. American sociological review, 465-480.
- Fanon, Frantz. (1967). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove.
- Hira, S. (2012). Decolonizing the mind: the case of the Netherlands. Human Architecture, 10(1), 53.
- Vrij Nederland, (2016). Emeritus hoogleraar Gloria Wekker: ‘Witte onschuld bestaat niet’. [Online]. Available: https://www.vn.nl/gloria-wekker-witte-onschuld-bestaat-niet/. [2016, June 29th].