Thandi Soko-de Jong is a PhD student at the Protestant Theological University, Groningen. She is also a tutor at the Foundation Academy in Amsterdam. She holds an MTh in Theology and Development from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg; and a Research Master in African Studies from the African Studies Centre, Leiden University . She lives in Aalten.
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I arrived in the Netherlands ten years ago as a Malawian post-graduates student. Before my arrival, I had briefly lived in Eswatini, South Africa and the USA. I was first in Leiden, a city with a significant international student population. There, I had my first encounter with conversations about racism related to the topic of Zwarte Piet.
However, if you had the ear for it, you could pick up other conversations in which racism played a role. Most of those conversations concerned microaggressions that were subtle enough to make proving them racist difficult. Usually, it is the subtle, daily-life expressions, attitudes and stereotypes that keep racism intact. This reality underpins why our current national conversation on racism is significant.
More people now recognise, some for the first time, that racism goes beyond using racist words. It informs our attitudes, choices and how we interpret the world around us. One of the effects of the recent protests in reaction to police brutality in the USA is the raising of awareness about systemic racism. In this response to Paul Rasor’s essay, I will dialogue particularly with his response to Zwarte Piet, his call for engaged pluralism and his discussion of the spiritual dimensions of racism as a structural evil.
Binary Thinking and Racism
In Paul Rasor’s A Liberal Look at the Dutch Racism Debate, he describes two scenes that are striking in their similarity. The first is his experience of a minstrel show as a young child in the USA. The second is his first encounter of Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands much later.
His association of Zwarte Piet with minstrel shows is not uncommon for new arrivals who are familiar with the legacy of Jim Crow. As a figure, Zwarte Piet resembles minstrel show characters and Golliwogs (a black rag doll, also appearing in children’s literature) in sustaining a depiction of people who look like him (curly-haired and dark-skinned).
His portrayal is within a binary construct in which he is inferior to the Sinterklaas character. For instance, he is childlike, servile, unintelligent and dependent. In my view, the binary that informs the relationship between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is a candid reflection of how systemic racism works. It accords superiority/inferiority status to humans based solely on skin colour. Thus, dismantling systematic racism is a collective effort towards a more just society in which we recognise that “whiteness” is not merely about having white skin.
As African American theologian Willie Jennings puts it, “whiteness” is gestalt, that is, “a social and theological way of imagining, an imaginary that evolved into a method of understanding the world. And in our day, an imaginary that puts whiteness in terms of culture, industry and theology at the centre of history.”
Against this background, I am in general agreement with Rasor’s (Liberal) theological response to the realities of systematic racism. However, I am not in full agreement with him on two points.
The first is his position on the spiritual dimensions of racism. He argues that, as a structural sin, racism takes on a life of its own. My position is that his argument over-emphasises the objective nature of racism by undermining the subjective, human desires that fuel and invigorate racism.
A second point is that in his discussion of engaged pluralism, his emphasis seems to be limited to the agency of White (and liberal) communities and how they can offer hospitality and welcoming. This may overlook the need for joint, intersubjective agency across the colour-bar. To unpack my response to the above two points further, let us turn to the first point.
The Desire for Supremacy
My position is that as a structural sin, racism is also actively invigorated by individuals’ equally sinful desire to benefit from the status and superiority of systemic racism. In other words, for many who abhor racism, the very systems that are based on racial hierarchy can be very attractive (subjectively).
Systems such as biased education, economic policy, etc. maintain pathways to social, political, economic and cultural power – at the expense of others. They offer a “winners and losers” dynamic, where one person’s loss is another’s gain. Thus, for the “winners”, these systems are attractive in their power to sustain a winning status even at the individual level. Thus, arguably, this quest of status/supremacy is what invigorates racism. It is a sin at the structural and the individual level.
Take the case of inexperienced people setting off for the Majority World to “solve” complex problems there. Many of these scenarios involve a White or Westernised person taking it for granted that they know best how to solve long-standing, difficult situations. They do this without first acquiring the necessary education and consulting the local community about the complexities of their situation. The end result is that although many such interventions flop, the White/Westernised persons remain the hero of the story. They are lauded for their intentions for good leadership, sacrifice and goodwill. But their failures are blamed on existing stereotypes of the local communities.
In the case of African countries, failed projects are often explained away using racist tropes that are applied to Africans (as well as Black people in general). Such tropes include laziness, greed, poor planning, poor time management, violence, sexism – the list is endless. At the core of such scenarios, I argue, is the attraction to be at the centre of the narrative, as the leader and knower.
Stories like these suggest that deconstructing racism from a spiritual perspective requires addressing its objective and subjective dimensions. This is a necessary step towards nurturing communities that affirm the equality of all members. Thus, for liberal Christians, a practical question to consider is whether they are willing to actively participate in an inclusive community even when this may lead to sharing their privilege and social status.
For instance, do they possess a sense of openness to recognising other ways of seeing the world and dialogue with those ways on an equal footing. This involves engaging with the reality that equality does not necessarily mean sameness. Rather, applied to the Dutch context, equality across the colour-bar involves the quest of finding common ground.
Inclusive Community Building is Inter-subjective
Secondly, resisting supremacy also calls for recognising and supporting others’ subjective experiences, agency and autonomy. This stretches Rasor’s application of geëngageerd pluralisme to include “acceptance”, “compassion”, and “empathy” alongside his call for gastvrijheid and verwelkoming (instead of vijandigheid and angst). Across the Western world many communities of Colour have long cultivated a variety of autonomous life-affirming spaces in which the effects of racism are minimised. Validating such spaces is not an endorsement of racially segregated social spaces. Rather, it is an empathetic recognition of the need for racial minorities to nurture their positive qualities, particularities and contributions to society, without the constant fear of denigration.
For instance, in the Netherlands, it is not uncommon for Christians with non-European heritage to form church communities where their expression of faith is validated. Apart from their affirming role, such spaces also play the important role of theologizing against racism. Many in these communities have the experience, knowledge and skills-sets for fighting racism. Generally, the agency of racial minorities that is formed in such spaces is visible in public discourse on various platforms, from academia, to sports, the arts and activism. Sadly, even within Christian circles, few White people are willing to listen and learn, so a meaningful conversation is discouraged.
I recall hearing a Black pastor share that White preachers were always welcome on her pulpit but she has so far never received an invitation to preach in their churches. In other words, there exists the idea that Black people or People of Colour have nothing meaningful to offer to anti-racism discourse. This attitude also affects how Dutch people may encounter the Majority World. There are stories of Dutch development workers, missionaries or philanthropists participating (alongside other White Westerners) in the White Saviour Complex abroad. In my first home country of Malawi I recall a pastor sharing that he does not feel welcome when doing home visits to the homes of his White (including Dutch) congregants. Although these congregants profess to emulate Jesus, they do not emulate his humility. They tolerate their Malawian pastor preaching to them from a pulpit but do not expect him to have any relevance for their private lives. Such attitudes hurt and dehumanize both the sides.
Conversion from the Desire for Supremacy
There needs to be a conversion from such quests for supremacy. In whatever sphere of life, there needs to be conviction and self-awareness of the attraction to dominate others based on skin colour. A conversion experience reveals who we ALL are as human beings and co-partakers of what the apostle Peter describes as the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). This action of remorse and the subsequent change in behavior (radical conversion) takes time and its fruit will result in a paradigm shift, system change, improved community involvement, solidarity and appreciation.
These values are potentially more meaningful than just tolerance and assimilation of the diversity. Ultimately, they force the rediscovery of what it means to “be enough” as a human being without demanding that others be inferior. Only through this, I argue, can racism be disrupted, when those who benefit from it rediscover non-racist ways of seeing themselves and the world around them.