maandag, juni 20, 2022

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’

By Shereen Siwpersad.

In middle school, I had a crush on a boy, Tim. He was was blonde, handsome, and exceptionally good at soccer, which was enough social capital to make him popular. I went to a Christian public school and there was only one Indian boy, Yves, in my class. Since we were the only two brown kids, everyone including the teacher assumed that we must have been in love, though we barely spoke to one another. We were both in that awkward phase where you just desperately wanted to fit in: you did not want a brown boy- or girlfriend, you did not want to wear traditional clothing, and God forbid if your parents came to pick you up blasting Bollywood music from their car.

I ignored Yves and fancied Tim, like all the other girls. One day, whilst playing outside, we got into a silly argument, I don’t remember what it was about. Tim ran to the teacher, came back, and shouted the derogatory term ‘coolie’. I had heard this term many times. At home, anything could be ‘coolie’: a particular shade of red, a way of speaking, preferring a certain type of music. It is a slur that is used to indicate a perceived vulgarness or commonness amongst Surinamese Indians. In our community, it has lost its shock value from being overused.

Hearing it from my crush was still jarring enough. When I asked him how he knew this word, he said that the teacher had told him to use it. I confronted the teacher, and she smiled and replied that she was married to a Surinamese man, as a way of justification. I should not have been mean to Tim, she told me. I felt put in my place.

It would not be the last time I would have a racialized run-in with a teacher. In the Netherlands, middle school children take a standardized test to determine their academic potential. The stakes are very high as these tests, for better or worse, play an important role in determining your academic future. When the test results came in, the teacher added a coda to the results, assigning to me a much lower level. When my parents indignantly asked her for an explanation, she coldly explained to them that higher education was a waste of time for a Surinamese-Indian girl. After all, she said, I would marry young and have children, like so many others.

After my middle school education, I experienced hardly any outspoken racism or discrimination. There were, however, many questions. Your father’s name is Willem, were you adopted? Are your parents very strict? Are you black? Will you have an arranged marriage? Are you from India or Surinam? How come you are Indian, but not Hindu? How is it possible that you are Indian and Muslim? Do your parents speak Dutch? Or Indian? (Note: this is not an existing language). These are understandable, but sometimes exhausting questions. And sometimes I do not know the answer either.

However, in these times of renewed interest in colonial history, I feel inspired and encouraged to analyze these experiences. What does it mean for me to be a woman of color in Dutch society? How do my experiences relate to the history of indentured servitude, from which the term ‘coolie’ (low-wage laborer) originates? (photo right: Baba en Mai, the immigration monument in Paramaribo, Surinam that was erected to commemorate the arrival of the first Indian immigrants to Surinam).

I have only begun to scratch the surface. Last year, I wrote a more general article for IofC about the complicated race relations between Blacks and Indians from Surinam. After slavery was abolished, the Dutch plantation owners looked for cheap labor elsewhere, finding it in India, China, and Java. In the Netherlands (and globally), there is very little academic research and public dialogue on the history of indentured servitude. This lack of dialogue sharply contrasts with the lively national debate on racism and slavery, spearheaded by prominent Black Dutch-Caribbean intellectuals. A refreshing exception is Gaiutra Bahadur’s book Coolie Woman, in which she explores the system of indentured servitude through the story of her great-grandmother.

According to Bahadur, the female Indian indentured laborers existed in a precarious grey area. Their unusual position as women of color, immigrants, and laborers made them vulnerable to abuse, but at the same time offered opportunities for independence and emancipation. Extreme poverty, domestic violence, and forced sex work/marriages drove many of these women out of India, where they belonged to the most vulnerable groups (unmarried women, widows, and sex workers).

As laborers, these women were able to earn their own money, even though it was not much. They were also able to practice a new kind of social mobility. In times of indentured servitude, the female laborers were vastly outnumbered by the male laborers, sometimes 10 to 1. As a result, the women held significant sexual power, which some of them used to their advantage, by, for example, swapping a man who was abusive or poor for a man who was nicer or wealthier.

It is important to note that Bahadur’s book is not some sort of feminist endorsement of indentured servitude. Rather she shows how opportunities for emancipation existed within a system of oppression. Regardless, the female laborers suffered the full brunt of systemic oppression, including sexual and physical violence and sexual enslavement. They were also paid less than their male counterparts.

However, the plantation owners and the Indian laborers had a common interest. Some male laborers, deeply frustrated by the lack of women from their own group, expressed their dissatisfaction with violence aimed at both the Indian women and the plantation owners. To keep these men in check, the plantation owners encouraged often polygamous relations between the Indian workers. Of course, the plantation owners had no genuine desire to empower the female laborers. Instead, granting the women some privileges prevented the system of indentured servitude from collapsing into chaos.

One of the most famous phrases in world literature comes from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ This is how many Indo-Caribbeans think about the history of indentured servitude. Some believe that indentured servitude offered the Indian immigrants progress and opportunity, while some argue that it was a form of slavery. However, the period of indentured servitude was characterized by racism and oppression as well as new opportunities. In this regard, Indian immigrants lived complex and ambivalent lives (photo right: Indian family in Nieuw-Nickerie, Suriname, 1947). 

They still do, especially Surinamese-Indian women (who live in the Netherlands as well as Surinam). Like our foremothers, searching for independence within patriarchal, oppressive structures is something that we do well, for better or worse. On the outside, we have adjusted well to modern Dutch society: pursuing higher education, having high-powered careers, and increasingly seeking out our own partners. This positive narrative contrasts sharply, however, with the hidden issues that we face, such as sexual violence, domestic abuse, and the pressure to take on both traditional as well as progressive roles. These issues lack public and scholarly attention. A Google research will lead you to a single article from the Dutch newspaper Trouw, which reported in 1992 the shocking suicide rates amongst Dutch Surinamese Indian women.

You cannot forget the past; it always intrudes into the present. Like the descendants of Black slaves, the Surinamese Javanese, Chinese and Indian people also bear the legacy of colonialism. The gender-specific aspect that I have highlighted in this article is only a small part of that. It is time to broaden and deepen the dialogue about our colonial past. Bob Marley once sang in his famous Redemption Song: ‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.' Are we ready for a version of Bob Marley telling us to free ourselves from mental labor?

Photo monument: Times of Suriname.
Photo family: Willem van der Pol, Nationaal Archief.