Award 2017 Nominee
Microrevolutions in everyday racism
Read in original language
Sitting there was uncomfortable for me too.
“Saying everything and then acting as if you are not allowed to say anything. The crux of the dominant Dutch politically correct discourse about political correctness.”
We are on a train that is trundling through Europe, and I cannot get off. So, I am not going to make it easy for you. Discomfort can make you productive. And before I begin, let there be no misunderstanding about it: I had a good time on the train.
I am on board the Europe Endless Express with thinkers, poets, writers, musicians and theatre directors and authors. At least, that was the slogan my girlfriend used to convince me to tag along. The less grand interpretation of the trip: having a legitimate reason for spending three days getting uproariously drunk.
I hardly met any non-white people on the train. There were two Turkish Germans who cleaned the toilets. The two of them moaned and trudged through the aisles dragging bin liners. Occasionally they would comment about how disgusting and unhygienic the train folk were. The white, Dutch cultural elite.
I share my sleeping compartment only with white middle-aged Dutchmen: a retired professor, a former senior professional in addiction care, a consultant who lived in Kenya for years, a banker and somebody who used to work for a publishing firm. I was born in The Netherlands, being surrounded by white middle-aged Dutchmen is not something out of the ordinary. For one fellow passenger, my presence did seem to be noteworthy.
The first night, we play a Europe quiz with presenter Teun van de Keuken. A photo of Jean-Claude Juncker appears. Van de Keuken wants to know who Juncker is. Another question asks about the six founding states of the European Coal and Steel Community. I answer a few questions, look out of the window for a bit, take a sip, and shout another answer at my team members.
Then, the woman next to me, who shares my sleeping compartment, gives me a prod.
‘Hey, are you really familiar with this history?’
So, I’m back to being a foreigner, I think. But I just keep joining in cheerfully.
‘But where is it that you are from then? Were you actually born in The Netherlands?’
‘Yes, Madame,’ I reply politely, ‘I teach International Administration at university. That course mainly deals with the European Union.’
‘Well, how was I supposed to know that,’ she says, almost offended. ‘But where is it you are from then? Were you actually born in The Netherlands?’
‘Yes, I was born in The Netherlands,’ I reply obediently. The conversation flows a bit longer, interspersed with quiz questions about where I really hail from.
Two days later. We have not had a shower, have not slept enough, have not eaten well and drunk a lot. Stinking zombies are shuffling along the aisles of the train. Another three hours to go to Amsterdam.
Then, somebody says: ‘another compartment was talking about whether they have any acquaintances that are PVV supporters. Do you know any PVV supporters?’
I continue to look outside the window.
The middle-aged woman, that one, is sitting next to me. She is talking about the multicultural society. She muses that Zwarte Piet was just a quaint tradition. A few years ago, she moved from Amsterdam-Oost to the East of The Netherlands because loud, foreign music reverberated from windows. She did not feel at home in her neighbourhood anymore.
Then, the woman turns to me: ‘I think I was a bit clumsy the first night.’ ‘Clumsiness is a bit of an understatement, Madame.’
‘No, I just do not want you to pigeonhole me. You must not pigeonhole me,’ says the woman wagging her finger.
‘Me pigeonhole you? You pigeonholed me. You asked me if I knew European history, and after that you wanted to know if I had been born in The Netherlands.’
‘But you must not pigeonhole me. I believe that there should be a free space for such clumsiness. Otherwise, we will never learn.’
‘A free space? Our words have consequences, and you have to take responsibility for that. Statements can be homophobic, sexist, or racist. The things we say can wound. You want to be able to speak without consequences, without taking others into account. That free space is impossible.’
All of a sudden, the Husher-Upper enters the stage. He says that he is sure that the lady did not mean it that way. Another one – the Objective, White Referee – wonders why she had asked the question in the first place. We peel it away one layer at a time. Our compartment represents The Netherlands.
‘Good intentions. I wanted to make sure that the boy did not feel excluded. That he could just join in.’
I know the repertoire and it is, after three days on a train without any privacy and lack of sleep, intolerable. I say something about the tragedy of good intentions. I point to every single one in the compartment.
‘Why do you assume of all these people that they do know European history, and I do not?’ I ask irritated. ‘Surely, your knowledge of European history varies?’
The Rational Centre intervenes. He has been listening to us long enough now.
‘Well, yes, in all fairness that is an assumption I might have made as well. That we would all have learnt that history in primary school.’
‘Which “we” is taught that in school, sir? I too was born in The Netherlands. I went to primary school here. And even if I had not been born in The Netherlands, do you think they do not teach that history abroad?’
‘But what is it that I should have done in that case,’ asks the woman. ‘How was I supposed to make contact with you?’
‘I am not from another planet! How did you converse with the others on this train during the last three days?’
I laugh. It’s nerves, awkwardness, the surreal quality of this conversation, I do not know. Bruised, the woman says that I should stop laughing offensively at her. Again she wags her finger at me. I cannot stand the superiority any longer. Good intentions. The self- image of an ‘accomplished’ elite who can never be prejudiced or racist. I say that I want to have a free space to be able to laugh, unhindered by how she feels.
Silence. A longer one this time.
‘Beers all round?’ asks the One Who Keeps Things Together merrily. He claps his hands.
While the Consensus Seeker goes to get the beers, I summarise the woman’s comments about Zwarte Piet and the loud, foreign music. I say that I get the impression that Madame has never had many conversations with descendants of migrants. That I think that is incredible. I say smiling that her integration has failed. It makes her laugh. I get the impression that a short circuit has caused her head to explode.
‘Well, I just think that we should be able to say what we think in The Netherlands, and that we should not waste our time with political correctness, and that we should be able to say that certain things ought to just stay Dutch, without being called a racist,’ says the woman of good intentions.
Saying everything and then acting as if you are not allowed to say anything. The crux of the dominant Dutch politically correct discourse about political correctness.
It is elitist racism to call PVV supporters racist. It is elitist racism to act as if racism is something from the Soldiers of Odin. It is a particular case of elitist racism to subsequently describe the Soldiers of Odin in the national media in veiled terms as a ‘neighbourhood watch group.’ The moral condemnation of the low-skilled, white Dutch underclass justifies the ‘rational’, but no less problematic position taken in by the upper class. The Dutch cultural elite also reproduces racial inequalities in their day-to-day meetings and public appearances. Yes, it might be subconsciously, unintentionally, and less tangible – but those prejudices and images are remnants of existing, dominant cultural hierarchies. Those prejudices produce differences (were you actually born in The Netherlands?) and protect differences in status and prestige (do you even know European history?). Those prejudices uphold a system of dominance. People of non- white skin colour, can they even hold their own in a conversation about the history of Europe? Do they even belong in The Netherlands with their loud, foreign music and their criticism of Zwarte Piet?
‘Nobody is calling you a racist,’ I say.
I think of the Dutch text linguistics scholar Teun van Dijk, who wrote about elitist racism. He proposes that ‘the elite’ play a special role in reproducing racial and cultural inequalities, owing to its privileged access to and control over the public debate in mass media, education and the administration. The cultural elite – no, this block does not operate homogeneously – does not dominate financial capital, but it is a group with symbolic capital, which gives them serious clout over the dominant opinion and action in
The Netherlands, over the sense that things will always remain the same and the production of consensus. It is fair to state that I too have access to that symbolic capital of ‘the cultural elite’ with my pieces for De Correspondent and my tenure at university, but my role in questioning the status quo is extremely marginal.
There are too many of you, including in my compartment.
The train arrives in Amsterdam. I see the two Turkish Germans standing there and I greet them, in Turkish. ‘Such filthy people, there was shit everywhere, everywhere,’ one of them complains to me. The train is waved off, people are moved. One of the Turkish Germans briefs me about how the filth of the white, Dutch cultural elite needs to be scrubbed clean, but I have heard enough. I can see the older woman standing up ahead and I walk up to her.
This is a true story. We hugged each other. She kissed me on the cheek. She asked for my number. I said that she was really too old for me. She laughed.