Review ‘White Innocence’

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Review: Wekker, G. (2016). White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822360759 (paperback), €26,-



By Wouter Egelmeers

 

Now the days have become darker and shorter, Sinterklaas and his friends, the so-called Zwarte Pieten or ‘Black Petes’, have travelled to the Netherlands. Besides gifts and sweets, they bring something else that has become traditional over time: a passionate and vehement debate on the alleged racism of the very phenomenon of Black Pete. The book White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, written by emeritus professor of Gender and Ethnicity Gloria Wekker, is a valuable companion in the many inevitable discussions on Dutch racism to come.

During the last decade, the discussion on racism in the Netherlands has gained in intensity year after year. Especially during the weeks preceding the 6th of December, leading to passionate debates and protests by advocates and opponents of the concept of Black Pete. When UN functionary Verene Shepherd uttered strong criticism on the tradition of Black Pete in 2013, many Dutch people were shocked and felt attacked. One of the other ‘attackers’ of the institution of Black Pete, and Dutch racism in general, was Gloria Wekker, who stood at the cradle of the ‘second antiracist movement’ which agitates against Dutch racism and takes Black Pete as an example of unconscious racism and discrimination.

Wekker, the author of White Innocence, opens her book by explaining that after a prolonged stay in the US, her eyes were opened to the Dutch situation, ‘involuntarily seeing the emperor, the Netherlands, without his clothes on, in his most detestable nakedness’ (p. ix). After her return, she noticed interracial situations that would be totally unacceptable in an American context while the subject of race as a social and symbolic categorising principle was avoided and even denied. Her book is intended as an exploration of this paradox at the heart of the Dutch nation: somehow, people have convinced themselves that, miraculously, a long history of imperialism has not left a single trace in Dutch culture, institutions, or representations of the self and the other.

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Black Pete doll in Bijenkorf store in Amsterdam, 2012.

The Cultural Archive and White Innocence

Basing her argument on the theories of Edward Said and Ann Laura Stoler, Wekker convincingly argues that a cultural archive, made up of over four hundred years of Dutch imperialism, unconsciously influences Dutch meaning-making processes, including a specific sense of self and the way racial and ethnic minorities are conceptualised. The White Innocence to which the book’s title alludes summarises the way the Dutch like to see themselves according to Wekker. They do not take account of their colonial history, and simply position their country as ‘a small, but just, ethical nation; color-blind, thus free of racism; (…) on the moral and ethical high ground, thus a guiding light to other folks and nations.’ (p. 2).

The book provides a strong argument for this thesis of a Dutch feeling of innocence in matters of race, which is paired to a cultural archive of strong colonial experiences. Its first chapter provides a number of case studies of everyday racist events, such as a remark by Martin Bril on his daughter dating a ‘big negro’ on the popular TV show De Wereld Draait Door. Chapter two discusses how Dutch policy makers and academia – especially the discipline of gender studies – deal with the concept of race. The book’s third chapter provides a historical example of the influence of the cultural archive by analysing the sexual responses of white upper-class women to racialised and ethnicised others such as black ‘Hottentot’ women during the early twentieth century.

 

Wekker’s fourth chapter deals with gay politics in the past decade, centring on the strong Dutch homonationalism and the case of the popular gay politician Pim Fortuyn, who strongly criticised immigration. In her final chapter, ‘ … For Even Though I Am Black as Soot, My Intentions are Good’, Wekker analyses the Dutch debate on Black Pete, using hate mail as a case study. She argues that, again, a sense of ‘innocence’ plays an important role: ‘ultimately, the preservation of that precious innocent sense of self is the most repressed as well as the most driving reason for the vehemence of the debate’ (p. 166). Everyone who dares to speak out against the figure is putting themselves on a moral high plane, which runs deeply against the Dutch egalitarian ideal of ‘normaal doen’ – to ‘act normal’.

 

Moving beyond ignorance

All in all, Wekker provides a strong argument, although the narrative is somewhat unstructured at times, and it does contain some unnecessary repetition. She does not refrain from examples that show her personal involvement in the subjects she analyses. Critics might see this as ‘unscientific’, but this subjectivity improves her argument rather than compromising it. The book, then, should not be seen as a work that aims to convince the broader Dutch public to let go of their feeling of white innocence, but it does provide anyone who is open to her criticism of Dutch culture, with a valuable overview of and introduction to a subject that certainly needs to be studied and discussed more.

As Wekker argues in the conclusion to her work, stories can change the status quo. Showing multiple perspectives that go against the strong and unconscious urge to identify with dominant white readings of history and culture, she urges us to move beyond ignorance and choose whom we want to identify with: the slave owner, or the enslaved. Wekker’s White Innocence offers all of its readers a valuable starting point for doing exactly this.

 

Wouter Egelmeers has a Reseach Master’s degree in History from Radboud University and specialises in gender history and the history of (colonial) science.

On november 15th, a revised second edition of White Innocence is published in Dutch: Wekker, G. (2017). Witte onschuld. Paradoxen van kolonialisme en ras. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 9789462984776 (paperback), €19,99.