Race Still Matters

Apologies to those who received a bunch of jibberish notes I accidentally published from my phone.  It’s actually a post I’ve been thinking about since I’ve been here.  Something about race and how strange it is to process the concept here.  But once I realized I had accidentally published about 4 incomplete thoughts, I quickly deleted it.  So now I’m not even sure where I had gotten with the process.  But perhaps this is what I’ve needed to force me to finish at least one thought.

As you know, I’m black.  I’m also a woman, an American, a vegetarian, and an animal lover with natural hair.  All of these things are a part of my identity.  But my blackness has always been at the forefront.  It’s partially (read: majorly) due to the position of race in the history of the U.S.  Through both the good and bad, the lives of my ancestors were determined by their race – opportunities, disadvantages, migrations, health, everything.  And the passing of many generations has done little to decrease the significance of race for me. I’m conscious of it everyday.  Not just because of any potential presence or awareness of racism or oppression.  Pride in the shared history and experience with other black people has meant much more.

I’m aware when I’m the only black person in a room – and perhaps even more aware when another black person finally enters.  Even if we never have an opportunity to speak, I imagine that other black person and I have a shared experience.  At conferences I have gotten into lengthy conversations with the serving staff – typically starting with something about whatever city I’m in, leading to something politically charged about lack of quality education available to young black people, or the deeply ingrained  racism of the American criminal justice system.  A conversation I wouldn’t have with just any stranger.  But a black stranger, yes.  It’s hard to explain, which makes me question if it’s been only in my mind all of this time.

So coming from this place of prioritizing my racial identity, when I moved to Amsterdam, I wanted to know where and how the black people live.  This isn’t to say I need to be around black people 100 percent of the time.  But if I want to be in a more comfortable and knowing environment, I would expect to find that wherever the black people might be.  The potential added benefit of finding an attractive black man in the mix may also have been a factor in my investigation – but that’s a post for another day.

Ah, but many in the Netherlands are under the impression that we live in a post-racial society.  Although race may or may not have held some significance many years ago, people like to think it no longer has meaning here.  No one has explicitly said to me that they “do not see color.”  But folks do seem to enjoy a good criticism of crazy Americans and our obsession with something as contrived as the concept of race.  An air of condescension usually comes with it – if you still care about the color of your or anyone’s skin, you have yet to evolve.

I’ll admit that this has made me question myself.  Why do I care so much about race?  And why do I think so many people, symbols, and actions are racist?  Has the U.S. messed me up even more than I realized?

But then I take a look around.  I’m the only black person in any of my classes.  I occasionally see black people who I suspect are undergrads.  But black people and higher education don’t seem to frequently mix.  I haven’t been to many office buildings.  In spite of that, I’ve made a general observation that black people are usually cleaning the buildings more often than they are meeting in them.  And when I ask, “where do all of the black people live?”  Everyone responds with de Bijlmer, which also happens to have a reputation of being filled to the brim with drugs and crime.  Moroccans and Turks are by far the most criminalized groups.  Then there’s that not so endearing yearly tradition of dressing up in blackface, modeled after a character who was (arguably) formerly enslaved by his holy, white counterpart.  And slavery?  Although the Dutch made unimaginable amounts of money from the trade and enslavement of black people, it happened elsewhere and a really long time ago, so it barely counts.

And then there’s the perspective of black people who have lived here for many years.  Every single older black person I’ve spoken to, many who have been here for 20+ years (coming from countries such as Suriname, Ghana and Nigeria), solemnly shakes his/her head while saying, “racist people.”  Younger black people typically agree that racism is prevalent in the country, though it’s not always one of the first assessments made.

So how can white Dutch people think race no longer matters in the Netherlands when it appears to still impact the lives of everyone else?  It seems that they’ve simply tucked race away in a neat box where it can be completely ignored.  And since most black folks seem to take the position of not wanting to stir the pot or endanger whatever status they may have gained, the goal of believing in a post-racial society is even easier to achieve.

As someone who is constantly thinking, talking, and defining in terms of race, I’m not sure if I prefer the outward and vocal racism of the U.S., like the tea party, or the Dutch approach where they make you study social sciences and open dark closets before you see evidence of racism.  Very different.  But both very bad.

I’d love to hear more thoughts on this.  As I’m still trying to understand and process it myself.

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10 thoughts on “Race Still Matters

  1. Wow Dana,

    I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, I totally agree that race still matters, but I’m also a black woman who was born and raised in the U.S. so I wonder if I would think differently if I were born elsewhere.

    I’m also constantly thinking about how my race, sex, and also hair are perceived by others. At work I wonder if certain scenarios would play out differently if I were white or the other person was black. I wonder if the black people would “get me” more than white people, and am often surprised at myself when I’m surprised that I find the opposite to be true.

    I always notice how there are almost no black people on TV, in print ads or as voice actors on the radio UNLESS said media is targeted to black people. White is always the “default” race everywhere you look (in America). Is it like that in Amsterdam? Is there diversity in the media?

    Thanks for posting this, I love talking about race. I’m not a connoisseur like Dave, but I do think it’s important to talk about, often and openly.

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    • I haven’t lived in all parts of the world. But I’ve had experience in both predominately black and predominately white countries. But I have yet to experience a place where race was not of major importance. This may be due to the fact that, although we’re not in a post-racial world, we are in a post-colonial world. The sickness seems to be spread everywhere.

      As for the media here, there are very few representations of black people on television. I only know of one show focused on Surinamese people. And there seems to be a few token black characters on dutch shows. Otherwise, American and British shows bring in a few other representations (what will happen without Oprah, I’m not sure). But I’m unclear on how much black folks here want more representation in the media. I might even go as far to say that some people even embrace the white “default,” as you mentioned. Unconscious racism can lead to internalized racism. I don’t know enough to say anything on that in the netherlands. But it’s worth questioning.

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  2. Dana,
    I always enjoy your blog, but was particularly intrigued by this post. As a Black woman living in the U.S., I too think about race every day. As I watch TV, I’m always happy (and surprised) when I see Black people shown in a positive light, even if it is a portrayal in a show or movie. When watching news, I always hold my breath hoping that the perpitrator of any given crime, isn’t Black. When I walk into a room, I immediately (if unconsciously) notice any Black people there, and the reaction of White people when a Black person enters. I’m keenly aware of the huge cultural divide, and how differently Black and White people, regardless their socio-economic status, usually perceive the same issue or event. The older I get, the more I seem to resent what I perceive as their lack of historical understanding and insensitivity. I recently watched Henry Louis Gates’ series “Black in Latin America.” I DVR’d all of the episodes in order to be able to watch them back-to-back. For some reason I had thought that there was less racism south of the border. Boy was I naive! We are, to be sure, not in a post racial era. I’m not sure we’ll ever be. Some people have just found ways to sit more comfortably with it. While poor and undereducated Black people are more frquently and more adversely affected by race, even President Obama is not immuned insensitivity and insults. Like it or not, it is part of our identity, and we will most likely perpetually struggle with it.

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    • Thank you for this, which validates me. I think people assumed that once a black man could be elected president of the U.S., we automatically enter a post-racial era. But like you said, Obama’s not even immune! It’s too deeply rooted to just go away without conscious changes made in the political and social order of the world. But honestly, if there’s a group of people to which I must be tied for the rest of my life and many generations to come, it’s black people.

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  3. It’s amazing how much background thinking goes on in your brain during seemingly innocuous social situations. I find myself thinking these exact same things but from the white perspective. I look around and notice other people’s reactions to a black person entering a mostly white room; I even critique my own reaction. And if I smile or am friendly, I wonder, “Does that person think I’m only being nice or trying extra hard just cause they’re black?” It’s so hard to be authentically ourselves when we’re constantly gauging the reactions of others, but I guess it all comes down to being human. Above all I think we are driven by curiosity, wondering this and wondering that about everyone other than ourselves.
    Why does my brain take off specifically when I see a black person? Because of the visual contrast and I see and interact with fewer blacks. I think about dropping myself off in a different country or in a place where I am obviously the minority and I can’t imagine what it would feel like. When I see random black people at church I get excited and want to go find out their story and say hi. Then I think, what is the matter with you? They’re going to think you’re not normal. Is it bad or uncomfortable for a black person to be glorified or more attractive for their color? It’s like a fresh chocolate cupcake on a buffet of the same old vanilla donuts, but then everyone wants a piece.
    It’s interesting to be able to think and talk about this openly. I don’t really have anyone to talk to about this. I wish I could come have a conversation with you over a glass of wine in your new apartment. Keep on processing, and please share as you do 🙂

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    • Hilary, I love your honesty. And this is fascinating. If you expect someone to face discrimination from people who look like you, I guess it makes sense to want to set yourself apart from the rest. I have noticed this with myself. When I see someone in a wheelchair, for example, I’ll become conscious of my reactions, hoping to be clear that I’m not one of the assholes who is made uncomfortable by someone in a wheelchair. But then I wonder, am I an asshole for assuming that other people would be uncomfortable. It can be a vicious cycle of sensitivity and paranoia!

      But I would say yes, when in the minority, it’s uncomfortable to be glorified because of that difference. Everyone might want a piece of the chocolate cupcake. But the cupcake’s like, I’m more than just chocolate, I’m also a cucupcake!

      Not sure that makes sense. We’ll have to discuss further over some wine. Let me know when you’re in town!

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  4. Well, I still think that the Dutch are hardly racist, if being racist means that there are conceivable circumstannces under which one would feel too superior to do bussiness with another race person, if being racist means that one uses “race” as an important description or classification system, take for instance Lornah Kiplagat and Hilda Kibet, most Dutchies will see them as “Kenyan” before they see them as “black”. The idea of “Black Dutchies” as a monolithic group does hardly exist in the Dutch public mind.

    On the other hand, I would never assume that because Dutch people classify “the other” by preference by “nationality” rather than by “race”, that that means that they are nice and understanding. If you want to be seen as “that American woman”, rather than as “that black woman”, the Netherlands might feel as paradise to you(Amsterdam is a special case), if you want to go to a place populated by nice folks, go elsewhere.

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    • How interesting! I agree that classification based on nationality take priority here. And as I’ve been told, depending on your nationality, you can face discrimination here. Since predominately white, eastern european countries can be included in this category, race clearly can’t be the only factor. But even people do not consciously judge or characterize based on race, I believe that racism is oftentimes unconscious. It’s more of a structural racism, maintaining policies and social structures that perpetuate the marginalized status of people of color. There must be a reason why more than one black person has told me they have faced employment discrimination, why university enrollment is nowhere near as diverse as the country is, and why people of color are disproportionately criminalized. Race may never be mentioned as a factor, but it’s definitely a trend that I hope people will begin to observe more consciously.

      This isn’t to say I don’t believe most people are well-meaning. Because I do! And I actually disagree about the niceness. I think Dutch people are pretty nice. Okay, maybe a little cold. But easy going and happy to mind their own business. My kinda people.

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