woensdag, juli 8, 2020

herdenking slavernijverleden op 1 juli in Oosterpark, AmsterdamHonest talk about racism

The demonstrations in so many countries against racism and discrimination are impressive. Obviously restraints are gone. It is special that not only black people are demonstrating, but also white people. Widely supported discontent with unequal treatment.

But more than demonstrating is necessary. Dutch like I, who profit from the privilege of being white, need to hear the stories, with examples, experiences. Necessary to really live into the lives of other people. To get a small inkling of what racism brings about. What happens to someone when meeting suspicion and mistrust solely due to the colour of his/her skin. It is good that the EO broadcasts personal stories dealing with racism in a short daily programme, #ookhier.

This awareness is not a knob you can simply turn on. It is a process. How did it happen to me, I wondered. My thoughts went to patches and flashes from the past. A long time ago I lived and worked as an only white person for a period in a Maori community in New Zealand. A time that shaped me and that I look back on with great pleasure. An older Maori made the remark that he thought me working there was special, as he associated me as a Dutch person with the apartheids regime in South Africa. So strange to me then that I still remember now. But it is telling that that is how I was looked upon.

A huge leap in time: during the ‘80s I read two books that made a big impression on me: Wij slaven van Suriname (We slaves of Suriname) by Anton de Kom (1) and Hoe duur was de suiker (The price of sugar) by Cynthia McLeod. When I wanted to share my new insights gained from reading these books with others, I realized they sometimes met with anger and incomprehension.

Knowing and being known

Building trust through the means of honest conversations has always been a core activity of Initiatives of Change and Moral Re-Armament, as it was known before 2001. I remember a conference in 1994, organized by Aad Burger and team in Utrecht, with the theme: ‘We live next to each other – but do we also live with each other?’ Among others present was police commissioner Hans Papeveld who became director of the newly created centre of expertise for police and immigrants (EXPA) in 1998. In 1999 he gave a speech with the theme ‘Police in the multicultural society’ ending with a call to invest together in knowing each other and being known. His story on our first website (online since 1998) was well visited.

More flashes: from 2006 till 2010 Roy Dannarag organised conferences in Almere with the aim to get different cultural and ethnic groups into dialogue with each other. Several participants also went to Caux, where in the first decennium of this century international multicultural conferences took place. Lothy Bouwe-Day from Almere spoke from the platform in Caux as offspring about the Dutch slavery past. She urged for a new historic awareness and for solidarity between offspring of enslaved and slave owners in processing and overcoming the history of slavery. She also gave her public an insight into Suriname culture. Her story resonated, especially with English of Caribbean background. 

Commemorating the abolition of slavery

A few years later Valika Smeulders (2) helped me further along in the awareness process. Together with her, Lothy Bouwe-Day and her friend Mildred Uda-Lede, we of IofC organized in February of the commemoration year 2013 (150 years abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies) a large meeting in the IofC centre in The Hague. In preparation Valika and I did things together and she shared her life and thoughts with me. Among other things she took me along to the annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam on 1 July 2012. Strange in a way that I never got the idea myself to go there. While considered in all honesty this commemoration could be as important to all Dutch as 4 and 5 May, when we respectively commemorate the death of Worldwar ll and celebrate freedom.

The meeting in February 2013 with the theme: Commemorating slavery, what for? was a huge success. Well lead by Lothy Bouwe-Day, good speeches by Valika Smeulders and Mildred Uda-Lede. And a wonderful Suriname buffet meal. Valika wanted in her speech to take the example of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) as exponent of racism. Because I was afraid this might spoil the atmosphere I asked if she had another example. She had, but looking back now I think I was a coward. The same year she made up for this in the article ‘A St. Nicholas party without after taste’, in which she shows a St. Nicholas film from 1935 (!) with white Peters on horses.

The richness of our society

Valika introduced me to Mercedes Zandwijken, who came to speak in the IofC centre in The Hague one evening about the Keti Koti dialogue tables, where black and white eat a ritual meal while questioning each other. (Keti Koti means breaking the chains of slavery.) That same evening Stefanie Schuddebeurs told how she had discovered that one of her ancestors owned a plantation on Curaçao with enslaved. It was an evening where you felt we were moving closer together.

From her side Mercedes encouraged me to read and review the recently published book White Innocence by Em. Prof. Gloria Wekker. It was also published in Dutch later on. This book was a revelation to me. The Netherlands never processed losing their colonies, claims Wekker. Could that be the reason our self-image does not tally with the image others have of us? 

Mercedes also invited my husband and myself one first of July for a Keti Koti table in the Muiderkerk, preceding the Keti Koti commemoration in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam. Both beautiful, solemn and impressive. What stays with me is an older black man telling us how pleased he was to see us there. It is our commemoration too, we said, but it does not yet really feel like that. Our worlds are still too far apart.

We need honest conversations. Where those who have a story to tell about racism find a listening ear from those who do not have that experience. It is the only way our worlds can come closer. That they remain different does not matter so much. That is the richness of our society. What does matter is if we remain ignorant of each other. The call from the police commissioner in 1999 is as relevant as ever: let us invest together in knowing each other and being known to each other.

  1. In the recently presented new version of the Dutch history canon one of the 50 windows is devoted to Anton de Kom.
  2. From July 1 2020 Valika Smeulders has been appointed head of the history department of the renowned Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Hennie de Pous-de Jonge

English translation: Lotty Wolvekamp