Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Francio Guadloupe

This conversation was recorded on 7th October 2020. Speakers: Paul Gilroy, SPRC Director // Francio Guadeloupe, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Uni of Amsterdam

Paul Gilroy: Hello everybody, my name's Paul Gilroy, I am the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre at University College London. My guest this afternoon is Francio Guadeloupe, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences and a Professor at the University of Amsterdam, formerly President of the University of St. Martin in Philipsburg. I encountered Francio first in the Netherlands when he was working at the University of Amsterdam in previous iteration, and I was a great admirer of his brilliant ethnographic writing, particularly the book Chanting Down the New Jerusalem: Calypso, Christianity, and Capitalism in the Caribbean which came out some years ago from Duke. I would hazard that a number of our listeners aren't familiar with Sint Maarten - Saint Martin - a unique and interesting place from which to reflect on the history of the Black Atlantic. So let me, without holding up a map, say that there is in Francio's ethnography an engagement with the particular cultural and political and communicative life of this bi-national Caribbean island. Is it a département of France on the one side?
Francio Guadeloupe: Yeah, indeed it's a collectivité, a d'outre-mer.
Paul: And then the other part of the island is a component of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, I believe. So, this is a very interesting place to think about questions of tolerance, of cultural difference, of interculture, of mutuality and so on. For those of you don't know Saint Martin, Sint Maarten is one of the Leeward Islands, known for no doubt anomalous historical reasons you will explain to us as the Friendly Island in the northeast Caribbean Sea, I guess east of Puerto Rico; and if you don't know where it is, then go and look it up and think a little bit about the history of St. Eustatius and Aruba and Curaçao, these residual colonial territories that were signed over or passed between European empires in- I guess the 17th century?
Francio: Correct, yeah.
Paul: Not the ones that changed hands during the Napoleonic Wars. So, Francio, thank you so much; I'm really, really grateful you could make the time from your very busy schedule to come and have a conversation with me. And I suppose we could begin, rather than jumping straight into talking about our current predicament, maybe you could just start by talking a little bit about the work you're doing and the work you're thinking about at moment, the things that have come into your mind in the last couple of years since we were in touch.
Francio: Thank you for having me. Let me start by talking about the two books that I'm busy with right now; one book is called Rotterdam: a post-colonial city on the move; so it's a book that looks at Rotterdam, and it happened because many of the Dutch cities are busy thinking about their colonial and their slavocratic past. So, Amsterdam just brought out a book, and Rotterdam also felt we need to actually do a study. Rotterdam actually decided to do three books; they said we'll do a book about the history of slavery, we'll do a book about the history of Indonesia and the east, and we're going to do a book that looks at the current Rotterdam. So they felt for the current Rotterdam let's ask Francio to edit this book; and I felt that if we were going to look at Rotterdam in its current iterations we actually had to involve novelists, artists, not simply as informants but also persons who could contribute to the book. So the book contains academics, but also what I call non-academics but actually experts in their own fields I would say; and together they present a picture of Rotterdam, how it's dealing with its past, and how it's dealing with the new diversities that it necessarily contains. The book is one part of it, and the second part is actually a dance performance; one of the famous dance groups in the Netherlands will actually take the book and translate it into dance, and say Rotterdam's postcolonial condition can be understood this way if we look at movement because of course movement is different than words; how do you move about with all your differences is a different something than how you talk about it or how you explain it. So, it has two components to it. The second book, which will come out next year with Mississippi University Press, is a book that's now titled So, how does it feel to be a Blackman in the Netherlands: an Anthropological Account. And the book came about because whenever I would travel to the US or meet American scholars, they would ask that question: so how does it feel to be a black person living in the Netherlands? And I recognised that I needed to give them an answer; so I felt that the answer I needed to give them, and that's within the book, is an answer that says to understand the black condition in the Netherlands you have to understand the condition of Moroccans, of Turkish persons, of all that diverse mixture in which we actually live, and then I can start to explain to you how the Netherlands is changing; and perhaps that's not the question to ask in the end, but the question you would have to ask is what are the diversities in the Netherlands, and that politics, left and right, doesn't work to understand the black condition in the Netherlands. So those are my two projects currently.
Paul: Well, just to say something about the second one, the argument about being black in the Netherlands and your response which suggests that in order to understand - to get to grips with - the specificity of that experience, one has to open it out, one has to open out the category of black...
Francio: Correct.
Paul: ...and how it resonates or conflicts or amplifies the wider dimensions or wider products of Dutch colonial history; because the Dutch, like the English, were a dominant world power for a long time and part of the peculiarity of their political responses to challenge of a pluralistic society over several generations involves the decay of those imperial relations and psychological patterns of identification with their imperial past; not on the scale of 'making America great again' or anything like that, but there is a sort of haunting. I'm curious really because a lot of the younger activists these days are very much opposed to that gesture of inclusion, of relational thinking; they would associate, certainly in the UK context, they would say that the attempt to make those connections was part of an older political outlook which is really redundant now, and that that turns around the idea what they call 'political blackness'. Political blackness, in other words, black is a political colour and that it may be an important political symbol, a galvanizing possibility for a range of different people who are racially abused and insulted; whereas I think a lot of younger activists want to hold on to what they perceive to be the intensity and uniqueness of anti-black racism in that story; and there can be quite a lot of tension around this. So, how does that problem arise, if it does arise, in your setting?
Francio: It does arise. The way I explain it and the way I see it whilst researching it was that there is a group of youngsters, young activists, who emerge from the diverse neighbourhoods. They went to the university, and at the universities they started a particular kind of activism; an activism that is informed by lots of the vocabulary coming out of the United States of America. What many people forget was that many persons did not go to the university; they stayed in the neighbourhoods or they went to other professional universities. Those persons continue to create a politics that is different; if you look at a city like Rotterdam, then you see that one of the major political parties which is called the NIDA, Islamic-oriented political party, that party is able to mobilize diverse Rotterdam in all its colours to actually deal and connect the Palestinian issue with the Black Lives Matter issue. That happens outside of lots of the talk about the uniqueness of blackness, so if you start to really do ethnographic studies then you recognize that politics that might resemble political blackness are alive and well in the Netherlands, for the simple reason that people continue to live with each other, they continue to go to the same schools, inhabit the same neighbourhoods, have the same musical preferences and so forth. So, there is a politics that occurs next to the black politics that resembles the politics that you find in the United States.
Paul: I suppose, in my attempt to do work that's centred on cultural patterns that approximate that in some aspects of life here, I've found a notion of conviviality to be useful; I know it's got a kind of slight connotative suggestion that people are at some sort of party and are all standing around with their drinks; but that's not what I mean when I'm trying to open up the kind of complexity and dignity of intercultural life in everyday urban experience. I wonder what kind of vocabulary as an anthropologist you tend to use to talk about these connections; I suppose from Glissant, who's so important I think to both of us really, there's a kind of language of creolization as a theoretical device to open up some of this. What sort of conceptual system or conceptual constellation have you found most useful?
Francio: One of them is, of course, creolization. The other is transculturation, of Fernando Ortiz, which has a similar move; it says that if you're living together there will be some kind of deculturation and neoculturation happening at one and the same time. Conviviality is one of the terms I've also used, and I've used it next to creolization, and I'll explain to you how I used it. So, I use conviviality to signal what was happening with the youngsters in the Netherlands in the 1990s - growing up in the 1990s and the early 2000s - in neighbourhoods where they had to construct a cultural similarity whilst their parents were from elsewhere; and these were also native white Dutch youngsters, they had to construct the similarity together. That is how I use conviviality, and I linked it to The Dozens; they made jokes about each other's ethnic specificities, so it wasn't like they all became the same, it was that a lot of translation was constantly happening. That's the way I used conviviality. I used transculturation to look at the mothers and fathers that were of Surinamese descent, who were bringing youngsters in neighbourhoods together and saying 'you will do your homework here'; that's how I used that to say they were busy with that transculturation because what they took from Suriname and from the Antilles was a particular idea of being the mother of the neighbourhood, and you will show respect and you will say 'good afternoon' to me and so forth; that's how I use that. Creolization I use in a much wider sense because creolization contains harmony and struggle; I use that in a much wider sense to say we've always looked at what the Hague or the Netherlands is doing to people of Antillean and Caribbean descent; let's now look at what they are doing, what they're contributing and how they're changing the Netherlands and treating it as though it is one of the islands - one of the Caribbean islands - in their whole behaviour. So, that's the way I've used these three concepts, and I've used them specifically to explain certain ethnographic examples.
Paul: Before I went to Rotterdam and walked around there, I suppose I'd been introduced to some of these possibilities through my sense of the life of the sometime Arsenal footballer Robin van Persie, known as Robin van Judas locally in our neighbourhood because of the treachery in defecting from the local team and going off to play in Manchester. And it's interesting that in terms of sporting culture, both in the Netherlands and I think in France also, there's a layer of people who might previously have been consigned to the category of whiteness, which they don't necessarily choose to occupy, who are part of the kind of syncretic-complex-plural-heterocultural formation that you described. So, I'm really wondering, when you say what you just said, about where the question of Islam fits into that story. I think one of the things we've struggled with a lot here is the idea that these relations and patterns can be understood better when we accept or explore the ways in which the category of 'Muslim' itself has become a racial concept. Would you say that your research has endorsed that possibility that there's some sense in which the figure of the Muslim becomes a racial figure in the Dutch environment, in the city of Rotterdam, but also I'm sure in other parts of the country too? What does that make when we see the Muslim as a racial trope?
Francio: That's a very good question. I would answer it two-fold. On the one hand, the idea of Islam is, in the Netherlands, as much a Caribbean idea because at least one third of Surinamese persons were Islamic. In the Caribbean, where I grew up, there was Islam, but it was a particular kind of Islam that was already there. So, when one encountered persons who came from southern or western Africa or Indonesia, saying that they were Islamic was not something new for you, they just had a different mode of doing their Islam, like you have different kinds of Christians. So that's one part of it. I think when you look at the racialisation of Muslims, which is definitely taking place as well, one would then have to ask oneself: how is this category of the Muslim, on which ethnicities has it been grafted? And I think to a large extent it's being grafted upon persons of Moroccan descent in the Netherlands; there's where it's being grafted primarily, Moroccan and Turkish descent, not so much those persons of Surinamese descent, also less those persons of Somali descent; it's primarily being grafted upon those two ethnic categories in the Netherlands. So, I think when one speaks about Muslims becoming a racial category, you constantly have to ask yourself which Muslims are becoming that racial category in the imaginary of the society; it's not primarily the Muslim who is from Nigeria, that's not where it's been, so that's the way I would look at it - very specific.
Paul: And of course the mosque is a place of conviviality too, certainly where I live in Finsbury Park in London, a place that was notorious 20 years ago for its association with some unsavoury varieties of political Islam; and that neighbourhood has had to work very hard in collaboration with a number of local activists and community organizations, not least the Imam of the mosque, to really create a different understanding and to reach out, and in some respects actually to formalize a kind of civic conviviality. So, for example, in Ramadan, Iftar held in the street outside the mosque of which hundreds of people of all kinds come, opening the mosque out as a place that people who don't necessarily hold the faith don't have to fear their exposure to the otherness that they are told is held and amplified there. So, I think that sense of encountering the kind of complex differentiation of everyday life in our cities, in our postcolonial cities, and investing for us as academics, as scholars, as researchers, in the dignity and complexity of that everyday life, which doesn't conform to the sort of cultural rules of a sort of civilizationist mentality; investing in that is terribly, terribly important. I suppose I've also struggled somewhat with the professional habits of anthropological and other social science perspectives which don't really seem to be capable of seeing any value in those exposures to otherness. Maybe it's because we're shaped by a certain relationship to leftist kind of assumptions in thinking that conflict is always somehow easier to deal with than care. I don't know why that is, and I know you have views on the importance of care, of caritas, across these lines of division that we're told the concept of culture must inscribe.
Francio: Yeah, so therefore I would say I don't necessarily use the term culture that much, I use it as an active culture role, and in looking at the cultural I look at practices. So, when I say Islam, it's a set of practices, but it's so multiple that how a person practices their Islam is what you look at. If you start your investigation by saying I'm looking at Muslims, then you've already hardened the category into something. Even if you said I'm looking at Moroccan Muslims, you've hardened it. So if you're looking at practices of Islam, then you are able to see the connections, you're able to see the divergences, convergences with other practices that you would not associate with Islam, then you can start to see it. One of the things in the book was to see one of the young persons who at that time was very much into En vogue - which was an American R&B group - together with certain practices that she was doing related to Islam; that was how you could actually typify her and a set of persons that she associated with; and then you move out of these problematic sociological categories.
Paul: How has your formation in the context of the complex postcolonial life of the bi-national Caribbean island of Saint Martin shaped your anthropological lenses through which you look at Dutch society? Because it sounds from the way you talk as though there's something fundamental you've learned about these relations and processes in the context of a Caribbean life that has been incredibly useful to you in looking at the Netherlands itself. And I say that partly with the ghost of Glissant on one side and the ghost of Stuart Hall on the other: two Caribbean thinkers, who in different ways saw in the history of the Caribbean, in the great experiment that was conducted in the Caribbean, the future of earth, the future of the whole planet.

Francio: First I would say that I look at the Caribbean as- I deal typically as three different types of societies: you have 'white gold' societies, these are plantation societies - sugar, salt, banana, etc. You have 'black gold' societies, these are societies where you had industry - the Shell, the Lago - the Dutch Caribbean was primarily a black gold society when I was growing up, all these oil tankers coming in. And then you have the 'visa card gold' societies, these are like the tourist, hospitality-based societies. And I grew up in many different places, but one of the places I grew up on was on Saint Martin. On Saint Martin because it was a visa card gold society, so you had a lot of tourists coming in, you had a population of let's say 70,000 persons on both sides of the island; of those 70,000, 80% was immigrants from the 1970s onwards; so we all were newcomers, we were the majority. And then you had about two million tourists coming in annually; which means the West, if you want to call it like that, the North Atlantic, was coming to visit every day. And then you recognize the distinctions that you said 'I might have the same skin coloration as this African American coming in, but our modes of living are not necessarily the same'; you recognize those distinctions, you recognize the class distinctions between that, and therefore the simplicities of thinking - I think what the CNN tries to present - that Afro-America is necessarily working class; no, there is a lot of working class, but many who came to visit were definitely not working class coming to Saint Martin. You recognize also that because my family or I was born on Aruba, which was the Lago oil refinery, a black gold society in a middle class position, that I recognize that much of the colourism that people spoke about did not necessarily hold because the lighter skinned persons were coming from the Dominican Republic or Columbia that was poorer than Aruba. So then you recognize those things don't necessarily hold that much; and because you're Caribbean you're mixed up no matter how you twist or turn it, you then recognize that the simplicities of race will not work because in your whole family everything is there, and in your neighbourhood everything is there. So you learn relation, à la Glissant, but you learn relation in singularities; and therefore you see persons as singularities and not as ethnic markers, because that never works in the Dutch Caribbean, and I think in the French Caribbean as well.
Paul: Yeah, I associate that insight with an amazing and beautiful essay written by the African American poet, essayist and playwright, June Jordan, who was also of Caribbean heritage. She wrote this piece based on her experiences of being an African American tourist in the Bahamas, I don't know if you know that essay, called Report from the Bahamas; and it's really about how her assumptions, the sort of mental furniture that she brings with her on holiday from her life as an African American, decays and is forced into retreat through her experiences of being in one of those tourist hotels. It certainly is an enduringly valuable piece of writing for me and I use it a lot in my teaching, it's really shaped my work a lot - my memories of her and her thinking. What about the situation that we're in now then: the Covid pandemic and the incredible uprising in the United States around the death of George Floyd? How have these things begun to change life in Rotterdam, in Amsterdam, to change the quality, the tempo, at which the politics of race is unfolding around you?
Francio: With Black Lives Matter there was an outpouring of especially young people on the streets in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the Hague- all these big cities- big Dutch cities I should say, they aren't so big, but big Dutch cities- and two things happened there. One is that one is beginning to see a kind of racial settlement in the Netherlands, which one has to be careful with; and that racial settlement goes as following: the Surinamese Dutch are being considered part of the establishment. There's no way that one should be discriminating this group, so when they make pleas you see that the government is now being open and saying, 'of course you're supposed to enter'. What is dangerous there is that one will say 'I won't show solidarity and say I'm not entering if the rest are staying out'; that's a struggle right now that is taking place, and I do hope that people will recognize that it's important not to have this kind of- it's a typical Dutch move because it was done with the Indonesians beforehand in the '70s, there were issues and then people said 'now you're part of us', but that means others stayed out; and now you're seeing a similar move with the Surinamese Dutch happening. So, that's definitely an issue. Covid is a major issue also in the Netherlands, and in the Dutch Kingdom I would say, because the visa card gold societies of the Dutch Caribbean have suffered heavily because of Covid, and what you're seeing is a tension between the government in the Hague, and the government of Philipsburg, and the government of Oranjestad, on how they will deal with this matter because the Netherlands has more money right now than these others; so there is a tense and hard negotiation. Then you have the Antillean Dutch, like myself, who I think differently than perhaps in the UK primarily, because we are Dutch citizens we move up and down; sometimes we live in the Dutch Caribbean, sometimes we're here; so we have a dual investment, and what you see with that group in the Netherlands is that they're saying 'we are not choosing any of the two because we don't particularly like the two governmental agencies'. So what I like that I'm seeing occurring is that they're thinking we need a different politics than the politics of the Hague or the politics of the political elites in the Dutch Caribbean; we have to figure something out that's different on how we wish to live in this transatlantic Kingdom - if we wish to continue living in it and how we want to do so.
Paul: And what about as the right recomposes itself in the Netherlands, and the kind of Henk and Ingrid era, is replaced by a more intellectual, a more cerebral, a younger more identitarian, more alt-right in its focus politics, for which Thierry Baudet supplies the figurehead. How do you think that's changing the politics of racism in the culture and the polity? Do you see that shift as being a significant shift?
Francio: It is. It is a very important shift, and one of the things I've begun thinking about and looking at is how many persons in that new party of Baudet- or their parents were newcomers, or they themselves are newcomers. How many of them are part of that? And that means that you have to think politics away from skin and recognize politics differently. So that is something that you're seeing happening. One of the situations, I think a couple of months ago, was that one of the figureheads in Baudet's party came onstage and defended him and said 'I'm fully for this', but this was a person who had links to Suriname; so it makes it more difficult to then use the old anti-racist vocabulary to say 'you are this' because you can say 'look at my party, what are you talking about', and people in his party will respond to that. So that means we have some rethinking to do for sure.
Paul: Well, I'm gonna press you there because we have this problem too; we have got a kind of routine version of corporate diversity sitting round the cabinet table in the most right wing government we've had for a hundred years in this country. And, of course, they don't just use the limitations of that old vocabulary to thank themselves, they use the limitations in our old vocabulary to attack the left by saying 'you think all black people, all brown people, should have this politics; well, the fact you don't understand this, the fact that you are operating as a racist yourself is evident in your inability to accept the possibility that I'm actually an ultra-right wing conservative; it's wrong, it's mistaken, it's simplistic, it's patronizing for you to think that I don't have the right to be that'. And, of course, habitually the anti-racist movement here's turned around to those people, turned to those voices and said, 'oh they're not really black'.
Francio: I don't think one can do that, no. I don't think one can do that, and in the conversations I've had on this matter, I remind people that no matter how positive people might be about some of the ideas and politics of Marcus Garvey, he contained some of that as well; and if you really look hard enough at the anti-colonial struggle you will recognize that it always contained conservative elements in there, and also ultra-right elements. So, they're not so new; the configuration of it is new, but they're not so new really.
Paul: But if racism doesn't let black people, subordinated people, brown people, be individuals, is there a sense in which the impact of racism on their lives makes them particularly drawn to the neoliberal exercise of individuality, in ways that they wouldn't have been before? Garvey for me is like Samuel Smiles or something; you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you be the best you can be - there's an element of that Victorian idea responsibility for oneself- race first and what's the next thing in Garvey's slogan? Self-reliance! We rely on ourselves. So, yes, you're absolutely right that this is part of the history. But I'm thinking about neoliberalism as something even worse than that because it allows you to resolve the effects, the power, the impact of structural and systemic racism in your life through a kind of enhanced individuality, a hyper-real individuality, which may be especially resonant to those who've been its victims; that's my anxiety. 
Francio: It is, though, an individualism that is tied to a glorification of a strange notion of western civilization, also amongst those persons who claim 'I'm finally free' when they speak two or three sentences further then they start to glorify this old thing called western civilization. So, individualism always links itself to something, to some larger ideology; and when you notice what's happening with Baudet's party, that's what's happening; regardless of their ethnicity, they're all harking back to this strange thing called western civilization.
Paul: Well, that's a rather depressing note for us to end on. But I'm really grateful to you for taking the time from your very busy schedule to have this conversation with me. I'm really, really grateful to you. Thank you very much indeed for doing that. And I hope that the dialogue will continue, and I hope that in the new normal we'll be able to cultivate and extend this dialogue and I really look forward to that possibility. I can't wait to see the new work that you've been working on in interim since we last spoke.
Francio: Likewise, thanks.