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.