Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Gloria Wekker

This conversation was recorded on 1st October 2020. Speakers: Paul Gilroy, SPRC Director // Gloria Wekker, Professor Emeritus at Utrecht University

Paul Gilroy: Hello, I'm Paul Gilroy, the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London. Today's the first day of so-called Black History Month and it gives me great joy to have with me this morning as a guest, Gloria Wekker, who is Professor Emeritus at Utrecht University, and a pioneering multiple prize-winning social scientist, somebody whose pathbreaking career spans numerous fields of politics and policy. Wekker has been a key feminist voice in political debates in the Netherlands and beyond it for many, many years now; and most recently she published White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race with Duke University Press - which was a key intervention in the wider critical study of whiteness. Gloria, thank you so much for finding the time to join me for a conversation this morning. I wonder if we might begin with your view of the situation in the Netherlands at the moment. Has the US uprising over the value of black life been registered there? And how do things look today in the context of the pandemic?
Gloria Wekker: Oh, surely it has registered, with a vengeance. In the most general terms, we're suffering under four simultaneous crises: there's the ecological crisis; economic crisis; there is the Covid crisis, obviously; and the crisis around the racial contract. Really all of the crises are cut through by race. The murder of George Floyd obviously has registered here, and in the midst of the Covid pandemic a lot of demonstrations took place really on a scale that we have never seen before in the Netherlands; like in June there was a first big demonstration - anti-racism demonstration - on the Dam in Amsterdam. There was a lot of uproar around it like 'we are trying to save people's lives, we're in the middle of a lockdown; we're trying to save people's lives and here you go in such large numbers to the Dam'. But it was clear that that connection between race and Covid was, of course, very clearly present; but that isn't in the minds of many white people, that many of the people who are working in the frontline in the vital professions are people of colour. So, you cannot really disengage those crises. I've been writing about this now - I'm still in the middle of it - I'm writing an introduction to the third printing of the Dutch version of White Innocence, where I look into all these four crises and how they are interconnected. The thing that is really invigorating is that, for the first time, so many people of all different races and ethnicities came out for those demonstrations. We've never seen that before; Black Lives Matter demonstrations have always been the purview of people of colour, but now young white people also came out - the Goddess knows whether this was a nice little outing in the middle of the lockdown to do a 'woke' thing, but there it was. I prefer to read it as 'we cannot sustain this racial order; we have to also come out and do something about it'. So that's one part of what's going on. Then, since I'm an incorrigible optimist, I also want to count our blessings the things that are going well. So, now it's Thursday (1st October), so on Tuesday (29th September) we had this wonderful event where the city of Amsterdam had asked researchers to dig up all the material that is known about the relationship of the city with colonialism. They have asked for that about a year ago, because the city of Amsterdam - which was a gigantic player during imperialism - it owned the colony of Suriname for a long time. I mean, can you imagine the city owning a whole colony? So, the city of Amsterdam is asking, we may be prepared to offer our apologies for our role in the slave trade and slavery, 'but tell us what we are apologising for?', they are asking the researchers. So, a group of four researchers started work, asked 41 people in the field to write short accessible essays; this book came out this month and so on Tuesday it was offered to the city of Amsterdam, and I think this is such an important moment because it will have repercussions for other cities in the Netherlands, but also for the national government which hasn't offered apologies yet. And so, who knows what will come of this, but I find it an important moment.
Paul: Yeah. Of course, winter holidays are looming, and I wonder this year when a Sinterklaas arrives in the city on the boat, whether the energy and the concern that's been evident in these conversations about the colonial past, and of course the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings in the United States, whether they'll translate into that struggle which has been- I mean, okay, I've only been watching closely for about 30 years, but I know it's been a continual focus of activism and political concern to read that tableau in that important historical moment in the national calendar of the country through a frame that's provided by colonial history. Do you think that the crowds will be out for that this year?
Gloria: Well, what has been decided already is that the pageant around the entry of Sinterklass and Black Pete is not going to go through nationally; too many people afoot, it's too dangerous. But that leaves unanswered what individual cities and individual people will do; and the battle isn't over yet. This has become a vocal point for many white Dutch people who say 'this is the core of our culture, what do you want from us? This is our culture, it's innocent; you are vilifying our culture'. So, it's absolutely the case that not everybody has given up on Black Pete, but at the same time I think you see a couple of things happening that are pushing him into the background more and more; like on Facebook his portrait cannot be portrayed anymore. He cannot be shown anymore. So, some of these things are working towards displaying the scandal that he really represents - the national scandal - and I think we have made a lot of progress in showing how untenable this figure is, but we're not there yet.
Paul: You've raised the question of 'white innocence', and that I know has been a very important concept for you; one which is actually a very different kind of a concept to the idea of white privilege or white advantage. And I'd like to talk a little bit about that, if you'll indulge me for a moment, let me tell a story. It's a story from the small autobiographical book written by Cy Grant. Cy Grant was a lawyer, a poet, and a Guyanese Air Force pilot in World War II, in the bombers going over to Germany from here. His experience was that he was shot down over the Netherlands on his way back from a bombing raid, and he became a prisoner-of-war of the Germans and he writes interestingly about his experiences in the prisoner-of-war camp. When I read your book about white innocence, I was reminded of a passage in his book, that people probably aren't familiar with, and it's about what happens when he gets shot down; eventually the Dutch policeman of the village spots him as he's walking along the road, and I just want to read it very briefly:

"I did not quite grasp the fact that he, the policeman, was about to hand me over to the Germans. His manner was so warm and comforting that I entertained the irrational hope he was helping me to escape in some way. But at the same time, I was feeling emotionally drained and apprehensive. I was still in a state of shock from the events of the past 20 hours, I was becoming resigned to my fate. Soon we were passing houses and the road was no longer deserted. We were entering a beautiful and quaint little Dutch village. I would not have expected the policeman to take me to his home, but that is exactly what he did. His wife made tea; a teacher who spoke English and lived nearby was called over; the daughter of the house put on a pretty frock. They were the essence of hospitality. I had gathered that I was about to be called for by the Germans; they were very sorry about that. Meanwhile, they went out of their way to be pleasant, to ask me about the invasion, they kept a short wave radio upstairs and fetched it to show me they listen to the BBC every night; it was still on when the Germans arrived to take me away."

Gloria: Oh my God, wow, I definitely will want to read that book. It is so striking that while smiling and being merry, drinking tea, offering one’s testimony of being on the right side by listening to BBC, it's still possible to transfer him to take Germans. This is very typically Dutch, you know, like how Jewish people were treated during the Second World War. There is this expression in Dutch, "being like a mayor in wartime"; which means you basically collaborate with the Germans, but at the same time you try to do little things to make life a little bit easier, like giving Jewish people a package to eat while you put them on the train. There is this very deep sense of conformity within the Netherlands, like whoever is in power you follow them. There is a great urge to be obeisant to authority; and then, if you have little possibilities to be insurgent, maybe you do that; but the main picture is you do not question authority. So, white innocence to me is so woven into the Dutch state of being that you find it everywhere. There is a deep conviction that we do not do race; we are colour-blind; we are treating people in an egalitarian way; everybody is the same. There are lots of expressions that state this, 'equal monks, equal cows, we are all the same, we are all equal'. Well, in reality, of course - and that is the mainstay of my book - how is it possible to have been an empire for 400 years, to imagine that that will not have left traces in who we are today. Coming back to today and to the Covid crisis, one of the things that really irks me to no end is that when you read in the media about who is afflicted by the crisis, you standardly get data on gender and on age; you do not get data on race-ethnicity. White innocence plays a role there too, because supposedly the virus is colour-blind, it afflicts everybody without taking into account class or race-ethnicity which patently isn't the case. If only you look at the data from the US and the UK, at least you might be a little curious. So, what is happening with class and with race-ethnicity? So that isn't standard practice to collect those data, and I'm making a plea to be transparent about those data being out there. So there is this mantra, this official mantra, that we are not collecting this data because of the Second World War, because look what happened, we had our administration - our population administration - in such good shape that the Germans just had to come take the data and round up Jewish people and get rid of them; we don't want that to happen again. But meanwhile, there are all sorts of ways in which this data can be collected and are collected. But we aren't transparent about it. And when it suits us, like in this case we don't really want to know that there is a racialising force that's affecting people of colour during this Covid crisis, we don't want to know that; so it's among the best kept secrets what's happening with us. But when you go to the hospitals in this area where I live, in the southeast of Amsterdam where 95% of the population is black, you see what's happening, who’s in the hospitals, and so on and so forth.
Paul: Of course, I don't want to give the idea that because we collect that data the problems are solved here, because it's true that the Covid pandemic has revealed the mechanisms of inequality and injustice which are fundamental to the operation of our society, but there's an endless commitment to mystifying the significance of that outcome. We have a very right-wing government, which is full of black and brown bodies, none of whom are remotely interested in or committed to an anti-racist perspective. Actually, listening to what you say I'm also really struck that- I know you did your PhD in the US, your graduate training, but I think you also lived there as a younger person too at some point.
Gloria: Yes.
Paul: So, I wanted to ask you about- of course, the right here say, 'oh it's all about the US, we're importing American stuff here and it doesn't fit in our culture, and so on'. And obviously I think we're both really against that. But I do wonder about the limitations of simply seeking - particularly maybe among some of the younger activists - seeking to think that the models, the tactics, the incredible inspiration they draw from US freedom struggles can somehow be just brought through the computer into our circumstances without being adjusted. Do you have a view about that?
Gloria: Yeah, so you mentioned my living in the US earlier, that was when I was 18. I'd just graduated from high school here and I spent one year in a small town called Normal, Illinois. I lived with a white German family. It was an incredibly influential year as I learned that I was black in that year, because we didn't have a discourse in the Netherlands to talk about these things. So, in my family we knew that we were brown, and we were in a sea of white people, but we didn't- well we were fond of American music, Black American music, and we listened to Black American radio stations. We were totally into Black America, but there wasn't much of a discourse going around to talk about that. So, when I came to the States, it was a high school of 1400 students, maybe ten of them were black. I had one black friend, Linda. And during that year, 1968-69, Jesse Jackson came to the campus of Bloomington State University, which was the twin city of Normal. And so, at the front of the auditorium there were all these brothers in black jackets with their fists like this, with the gloves. They were saying black people should sit in the front, white people in the back, and I didn't know where to sit, where that division put me. But since Linda, who was black, walked to the front, I walked with Linda. So that was such an incredibly influential moment for me. And also, the speech that Jesse Jackson gave, I quite remember that, that 'America was a sick man and Black America was there to cure America'. Oh man, when you think of where we are now, thinking of the first debate between Biden and Trump the other night, oh my God. Anyway, so that time has been incredibly influential. I also think it has led me to the work that I later started to do on intersectionality, because one other very incisive moment was the prom at the end of the year, the big dance in your senior year; who was going to invite me to go to the prom? So, gender, race, class, sexuality came together there. And so, there were not enough eligible black boys to invite me- because of course this is a hetero-normative situation, I have to go with a boy- I mean, I didn't know that I was a lesbian at the time, but still. So, all of these things are playing up; eventually I went with a white guy who was low in the scale of popularity, which is a very important thing in the US, but everybody was up in arms. I couldn't understand, so what is going on here? The committee that had invited me to be their American Field Service student, they really wanted me to go and they did a lot of effort to make me go, but everybody was in a panic. So, only later on could I unpack what was happening there in terms of those four grammars of difference; so, it had been an incredibly important year. So, I knew when I was in my late 30s and I wanted to do my graduate work that I had to go to the States because race wasn't even being taught in the Netherlands. I wanted to go to the US to do my PhD which was on sexuality - the sexuality constructions of Creole working class women. And by the way, Audre Lourde played an important part in my making that decision to go back to school; I was a civil servant at the time for the city of Amsterdam, and of course that was quite a big decision to take to leave everything behind and go and do my PhD. I remain eternally grateful to what I learned in African American Studies at UCLA; I took every course that there was to be taken in African American Studies, on music, on literature. I was also very fortunate in, for the first time, having a black female professor, who was the chair of my committee, Claudia Mitchell-Kernan.
Paul: Oh yes, of course.
Gloria: Do you know her?
Paul: I know her work, she's a pioneering anthropologist, who I read as an undergraduate myself. Amazing, amazing work on language.
Gloria: She's fantastic. But the significance of it was that this is the first time that I have a black female professor. I thought 'oh my, I can be that too'. So, on a daily basis when I see students here in the Netherlands, and I think I'm probably the first black female professor that you see with your own eyes, who knows what this will mean to you, especially to black female students. This significance cannot be overestimated how important that was. So, I don't think at all that we are transmitting wholesale American thought into this European situation, but I have to admit that the tools that were given to me have been very useful in analysing the situation in the Netherlands and in other European societies. And like James Baldwin says, especially with regard to the Netherlands, the Dutch are the ancestors of the Americans because they occupied upstate New York; so whatever notions about race that they took with them from the Netherlands were implanted there; we gave it to them, so to speak. So now to say, 'oh my, your work is so American and so not applicable here', that's really another form of white innocence, like 'how are we going to keep ourselves out of this discussion which supposedly doesn't pertain to us?'
Paul: Well, yes, my mother's family comes from the Berbice River, and half of them are from the other side; so I know only too well how the colonial transaction of swapping Manhattan island for Run island- in fact, we wouldn't be having our conversation here this morning if that hadn't happened perhaps, but there we are.
Gloria: Yes, yes. I have this - and I think you have it to some extent too - this love-hate relationship with African American Studies. I love reading whatever I can get my hands on from Black Studies, African American Studies, but I'm also very aware of the power relationships that exist within this broad field of Black Diaspora Studies. There is African American Studies, African Studies, Black European Studies; but to the extent, let's say, that there is a fund to study Black Europe or Africa, then chances are that it is black Americans who will do the studies before we in Europe will get the funds to do such a project. Like this guy, Johny Pitts, who was here the other day, who has written Afropean; I was struck by the fact that he undertook this journey through Europe to track where are the black people, where are they? He funded it himself, he took the train, he bought a pass, he stayed in very cheap hostels; that's a shame that he has to do it that way, whereas the funds and the resources that are available to African Americans, simply because they are part of America, are so incredibly and vastly wider than what is available to us in Europe. So, I feel we should really be aware of those power relationships that are existent, and that all these folks are coming over here to do their studies while we cannot go over there to do it; it's kind of unfair.
Paul: I worry that the history of writing the stories of the black movement in our country - the anti-racist struggles in our country - really being sort of outsourced to a layer of US graduate students who are published, who are doing that research, doing it really well within, as you say, the kind of resources that are available to them. I'm really glad they're doing the work, don't misunderstand me, but it does make me sad a little that we don't have that same support for that work. Of course, we have other things, and of course the discipline and the forms of political engagement that flow from taking responsibility for doing that work for ourselves, that's all for something. I think the real question for me about that is how do the generational factors enter into the kind of strongly- not just romantic attachment that yourself and myself connect with the freedom movement of that really important stage of the '60s, of black power and its transformation- I'm thinking really about what it might mean now for people, that connection with the US. And it's something that does come through social media, it does come through the computer screen a lot, and there are amazing strengths that follow from that, incredible inspiration that comes from that, but there are also maybe some vulnerabilities that come from that.
Gloria: Absolutely. I really second that, and especially I find it really unfortunate that the latest body of thought that is coming from African American Studies is this body of thought, Afropessimism, which has large purchase among the younger generation here. And it is such a pessimistic view of the world, I would say, in which the position of black people is analogised to that of being eternally a slave, being put outside of human framework, incomparable to any other position of other disenfranchised people; really a kind of Olympics of oppression is being propagated in this body of thought. And it actually doesn't necessitate any work, like if you want to ask 'so what are we gonna do? How are we going about changing this?', there is really no answer; and the author of this work, Frank Wilderson III who is at UC Irvine, really feels kind of put upon when he is being asked questions like this. So, it boils down to the only thing that you really you have to do is to be black; that's all there is to it, and you don't form alliances, or you are not in solidarity with other disenfranchised people or white people who have developed some kind of consciousness because your position is incomparable. So, this is quite an influential body of thought, and I have written about it in the sense that I want these younger folks to be aware of what our history has been in European countries; what struggles we have gone through, what bodies of thought we have developed; because it's true as we said earlier, our histories, our bodies of thought, haven't been written down. They have been erased from general histories of the women's movement or of queer movement. There is a way in which our presence in the Netherlands keeps being erased all the time. So, I don't blame these young folks for not knowing. I find it very important that we do engage in intergenerational knowledge exchange; it's not transfer from our generation to the younger ones; it needs to be...
Paul: ...mutual.
Gloria: Absolutely.
Paul: I think if they don't know the history of the movement, it's our fault actually, because it's an indictment of our- I know we've had other things to do, we were doing other things that are important. But I do feel there's a kind of indictment to our rebel generation, which had to fight so hard for so much to survive even. I mean, I look at my own life and I think, well, I know I'm not the best of them because when I think of the best of us, the best of us are all dead, Gloria. I know I'm not the best, you know, I might look like that but that's the way that the weird distorting lens of power produces excellence or supposed excellence and it's wrong really. I know that so many better, more interesting minds than myself aren't alive now, and that's a sad thing. But if the young people don't know the story, it's our fault, so we have to engage openly and we have to be able to translate our concerns and history into their language, and we have to plead with them to be patient with us so that they can do the same.
Gloria: Yes. So, let me briefly react to that, ‘the best of us are dead'. So, I have been aware for some time, life gets lonelier with people our own age as you grow older because so many of my friends have died. And I think there is something there that also harks back to what I said earlier about our not having knowledge about Covid and race-ethnicity; we also do not have knowledge about the causes of death of people of our generation. But when I look at my circle of friends when I was in my 30s and 40s, I'm about one of the last ones standing. People have dropped like flies. It really makes life very lonely to be aware of that. People with whom they were my comrades. This can not to have been, and their lives cannot have been, in vain; so, I really feel that responsibility to carry their legacy further. And one concrete way in which I have done that during the crisis is I felt that all kinds of things were going wrong, and one example is suddenly the Prime Minister, Rutte, becomes aware, 'hmmm, there might be a thing as racism going on in this country', while before this he had been strongly aversive to the whole word; now suddenly he gets to the point where he thinks 'hmmm, something may be wrong'. So, he invites young activists to come and talk with him; but the way they are invited to talk is to bear their stigmata, to talk about their personal experience; so, what has happened to you? What is your experience? What are you feeling? So, it is done in a way that he holds the power; he determines how are we gonna talk about this, 'you black people tell me your stories and I'll be the final arbitrator whether this is a serious thing or not'. No kind of connection is made to systemic racism, it's all in terms of experience and subjectivity and what have you.
Paul: That personalisation, that shrinkage, that contraction- this is the moment, I guess people call it neoliberalism, this sense of that particular kind of subjectivity which is shaped. I get so tired of being asked what my feelings are about things; I've got really bad tempered, I'd say, 'actually, my feelings don't come into it, it's my thoughts that matter'. I want to hang on to that distinction, and I want to say that feelings are interesting, but they've never been sufficient, I'm afraid, to take us into the kind of conversation that we need to have. But Gloria, I think your feelings and your thoughts this morning have been really, really stimulating and I'm really grateful to you once again for taking the time to set that aside. And I hope that as our Centre grows, and as we do more things and we seek new European partners and conversations for the future, that you'll be able to be part of that conversation.
Gloria: I would love that, yes, thank you for inviting me, Paul. And the struggle continues.
Paul: Yes, hopefully we'll see each other in the flesh again.
Gloria: Yes, I hope so.
Paul: Thank you, Gloria.