By Jalyn Radziminski
On Thursday, June 1st Dr. Wayne Modest, welcomed us to the Troopeen Museum with these thought provoking questions: What is Freedom? What is Empathy? What is Justice? Is it portraying history in an accurate way? Is it the rehabilitation of the oppressed populations and/or the retribution of the oppressors? In the ever changing face of neo-colonialism and racism, this is not an ‘us vs. them’ problem. It is everyone’s duty to recognize their privilege, past, and social responsibility to support those who are oppressed. After Dr. Modest’s talk, fellows explored the museum with the lens that had us question what was left said, unsaid, seen, and unseen.
The Troopeen museum focuses on the Netherlands history of colonialization. What stood out to me the most was the way the information was presented. Materialistically, items and cultural artifacts that the Dutch brought back from the colonized countries were displayed throughout the museum. There were also descriptions of how specific tools were used to measure skulls of the people who lived in colonized areas as well ways in which missionaries traveled and occupied space to learn about ‘the warlike’ peoples. The lack of the oppressed people’s voice and the dominance of the colonizer’s perspective was unsettling. The normalization of these atrocities and the unbalanced descriptions in this case definitely instilled the necessity of a concrete, wholistic approach in the ways histories of oppression are taught and presented. We cannot choose bits and pieces of our histories and current realities. There is no justice if racism and oppression remain unseen. I carried this lens with me outside of the museum’s doors. The way we remember impacts our empathy; how do we get people with privilege to see? If understood the full story of colonization and slave trade, would this time period still be called, “The Golden Age” by so many citizens of Netherland?
Later that day, Humanity in Action fellows viewed the documentary, “The Colour White”, and engaged with the director Sunny Bergman and Elvin, a Black participant in the documentary. Sunny Bergman, a white woman, wanted to create a documentary that explored whiteness, what it meant to acknowledge privilege, and colorblindness all through a lens that could be relatable to white people. Throughout the documentary, it was clear that many White Dutch citizens, similar to many White citizens in the United States, do not see White as a color, but as a standard state. Histories of racism and slave trade are often distorted in both mainstream and educational platforms, and the necessity of addressing modern issues through Black Lives Matter and speaking out against systematic to micro levels of oppression is often misunderstood. Sunny Bergman of course acknowledges the controversy behind using film as an approach of empathy and relatability to white audiences. She also acknowledges the fact that, “You can’t make money off of racism”. I do think this film highlights something critical: Whiteness needs to be seen as an identity, not as the absence of color. Whiteness is an experience that effects an individual’s abilities and opportunities as they navigate the world, and the privilege associated with that identity is at the expense of people of color. No one is “just” white, and it’s about time we stop looking at whiteness as the ‘standard’. It’s time people participate in dialogue and allyship (not earn the title of ‘ally’ but actually ENGAGE in allyship) without shutting down from the fear of being called ‘racist’. It’s time to allow oppressed individuals share their narratives and speak up for their rights to equality as humans without being labeled ‘radical’.
This dialogue was followed by our final speaker that day, Anousha Nzume, a Black artist and writer of the book, “Hello White People”. Her book unapologetically demands that “White Dutch people grow thicker skin”, and discussed the disregard of the racism behind ‘Black-Pete’ as well as the fact that many White Dutch citizens that do not see how privilege operates in present reality. She highlights how inequality can be seen in segregated universities, special ed classrooms, and the workplace as well as the way Black Dutch activists were brutally arrested for speaking out against the blackface tradition of Black Pete in the Netherlands. Nzume and Bergmen, women of different races and backgrounds, both had to face criticism by the general public when trying to address issues of colorblindness and racism in White communities through their work.
The following evening, Humanity in Action fellows met Senior Fellow, Mitchell Esajas, who for his Humanity in Action follow-on project created the Netherland’s first Black Archive at the Association of Suriname. He is also an active member of the New Urban Collective. Esajas gave us a tour of the Black Archives. Then, we joined the public screening of ‘I Am Not Your Negro’. This was followed by a panel discussion featuring three Black community leaders in the Netherlands. I was shocked by the fact that the creation of the Black archives was so recent, and how despite the differences in history, peoples of the Black diaspora in the Netherlands and the Americas share so much in common. It made me ponder, what types of coalitions can we form as an international Black community, and if it could ever be an organized possibility. Sylvana Simons, founder of the Artikel 1, responded to my question by affirming that we need to look at Black oppression through a human rights lens and become more organized.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the diversity in the crowd. In my experience leading similar dialogues and programs at my university as a woman of color, it is typically only people of color who show up. In contrast, Mitchell Esajas’ program had a large turnout of White, Dutch citizens of Amsterdam as well as Black. It made me think of the potential power of both the oppressed and the privileged refusing to be a bystanders and to constantly strive to learn and to take action against racism. How can we get more white peoples to engage in conversations of responsibility? After this program, I went out with Humanity in Action senior fellows who also attended the program in support of Esajas. After thoughtful conversations we could only conclude that White people should not allow the burden to fall on just Black peoples. It is essential that we address these issues in a joint effort.