Europeans have idealised their continent as a place of accomplishment and civilisation, of excellence and enlightenment. But, in a challenging essay, Surinamese-Dutch writer GLORIA WEKKER argues that there is another side to Europe, of exclusion and denial.
One evening in the dead of winter 2015, close to zero degrees and with a cold wind searching out everyone’s bones, my longtime friend Marjan showed up at our door in Amsterdam, with two men who turned out to be refugees from Somalia and Eritrea: Mo and Abdou.
Marjan had been active with the undocumented refugee group ‘We are here’ since 2012, helping the men and women move from one relinquished apartment building to another empty church in Amsterdam; they had been squatting for years, being chased like vermin by the police.
Now the group had recently relocated to a vacant garage in our neighbourhood, a huge empty shell without any facilities, like water or electricity, in it. The garage was a desolate and dangerous place of last resort.
Marjan had talked to me about the various needs of the group: money needed to be donated for food, for transport, for visits to the doctor, to court or to the IND, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, the institution responsible for deciding on refugees’ applications for permits to stay.
But there were also daily needs to be met, like having their clothes washed, warm blankets and clothing, being able to take a shower. I had, thus far, contented myself with donating money and had not expected her to show up at my door. Meeting Mo and Abdou was raw and chilling, very uncomfortable to be face to face with real people, ‘no future’ written all over them, while they must have been in their thirties, the face of Europe’s latest wave of hysteria.
The men were hungry, cold and in bad need of a shower. My lover Maggy and I fed them, drank red wine with them, talked about the families they had left behind. When they left past midnight, we felt an awkward mixture of being wholly inadequate, powerless, full of shame at our warm house, and food that we could easily share.
We were acutely aware of the sheer luck, in my case, of having been born with a European passport or, in Maggy’s, having been able to obtain it relatively easily. Even though we had, in the eyes of a growing group of people in Dutch society, the wrong bodies for the passport, as both of us had been born in Suriname – a part of the Dutch Kingdom until 1975 – our fates had been sealed in a fortunate way.
Their misfortune, their crime was to have been born in the wrong countries, with the wrong passports, being dispensable and unwanted, card-carrying members of the tribe that Europe has declared unfit to enter and to live among us. Their most likely future in Europe was and is death. There but for the grace of the goddess…!
Europe has meant many different things throughout history. “Rosy-fingered”, Greek poet Homer called the dawn of Europe, containing a promise of beautiful things to come.
In some respects, Homer was right: in terms of music, painting, writing, Europe has been rosy-fingered, it has delivered on the promise. In others, notably humanitarianism, it has failed miserably. During the colonial period, white people in the Dutch colonies of the East Indies and Suriname identified with and called themselves ‘Europeans’, not Norwegians, Dutch or British.
An imaginary unity was bred, far away from home, while in the heartland of Europe itself, national identifications remained paramount.
Fast forward several centuries and we see a new incarnation of Europe: for some, a necessary focal point, the only chance at global economic, political and cultural survival; while for others Europe has come to represent an undesirable configuration, one that takes away power and cherished identity from national entities, endangering their autonomy.
Brexit and other attempts at leaving or merely taking advantage of the benefits of the European Union illustrate this ongoing tense relationship to a transnational Europe, which is accompanied by unprecedented waves of nationalism, xenophobia and resentment.
The death of many African, Middle Eastern and Asian refugees at the borders of Europe is a price we are momentarily shocked by, but willing to pay, if we can continue to turn a blind eye to and be spared the sight of refugees at our doorstep.
Immoral deals with Turkey and with Libya to stop the refugees before they reach Europe, the cooping up of tens of thousands of refugees in Greece and Italy, like they were chickens, reneging, except for Malta and Finland, on our EU-wide promises, are defended by even the left.
The majority of European citizens is lulled into thinking that we are doing our utmost in an impossible situation that we have not asked for, that ‘we have nothing to do with’. Is this the best that we can do? Seriously?
I am struck by the bitter continuities and the utter lack of shame manifesting in European political attitudes towards the non-European Other during the colonial era and now.
Entitlement impelled many European nations to travel halfway across the world, in order to take possession of different territories, sometimes importing new populations but always subjugating them, appropriating their resources and making enormous profits.
While there was no question of egalitarianism between white European colonisers and the colonised, sexual relations of male colonisers with colonised women were, of course, exempted from the general rule of ‘not going native’ and resulted in mixed populations almost everywhere.
Importantly, such relations also inexorably pointed to deep patterns of Western hypocrisy, which have not gone unnoticed by the colonised. In the wake of these ‘adventurous’, proud accomplishments, deep and abiding chasms were installed between north and south in access to valuable knowledge and resources, which were often appropriated from the local populations; unequal access to capital, to ways of making a living, to prosperity.
In addition, a cultural archive was established that provided Europeans with a unique sense of superiority, accomplishment, excellence and a deep sense of the inevitability of the course that history took. Europe’s was a sacred mission to bring civilisation to these downtrodden, uncivilised folks and that particular effect, cemented in its cultural archive, is still operative now towards people of colour.
On the basis of these divergent roots and routes of development, the tables have been turned in terms of who is doing the travelling now: ‘we have come here because you were there’. That reverse travelling and especially the arrival has become increasingly difficult in all kinds of respects.
In the summer of 2010, Maggy and I travelled to the Dominican Republic for my work, trying to establish collaboration with colleagues in gender studies there. Eventually, the mission was not successful, due to language difficulties, but apart from that, European passports in hand, we had no problems whatsoever. It was an extraordinary experience to encounter a Caribbean society, inflected by Spanish architecture and culture. We met and befriended a woman, let’s call her Dora, who worked in the hotel where we stayed and a couple of months later, she came to visit us in Amsterdam, at our invitation.
Her arrival at Schiphol airport was sheer drama: waiting for hours, after the plane had landed, she still had not shown up, until my name was announced on the intercom. I had to come to the office of the military police at the airport, in order to verify who I was and whether I had the financial means to support Dora during her stay.
It was not sufficient that I verbally stated that I was able to do so, I had to digitally show them the amount of money in my bank and savings accounts and what my monthly income was. My distinct impression was that she, hailing from the Dominican Republic, was seen as a sex worker, having come to The Netherlands to make money and that I, as a black woman, did not exactly fulfil the visible requirements of a credible host.
In a world that has become increasingly global, particular representations of especially men and women of colour, have become stuck. One of my PhD students from Taiwan was, upon her first arrival, interrogated at Schiphol and asked, even though they knew her professional status, whether the real reason for her coming to The Netherlands, was finding a Dutch man.
Her white Canadian colleague who arrived the same day was spared such intrusive questioning. Racialising moves that have been installed in our cultural archive have not lost their purchase. No matter how removed Dora, in reality, was from the branch of work that the police imputed to her, this stamp was automatically, like Pavlov, put on her.
I was not only mortified and hurt at her treatment at the airport on her first visit, also her very first international travel, I was also painfully aware of the fact that I, as a full university professor, but first and foremost guilty of being a black woman, had to show my bank statements. Sexism, racism and classism were on full display in both our cases.
It was one of those familiar moments when even having the right passport is not enough, the carrier of colour also needs to show her credentials, i.e. she does not automatically share in the privileges accorded to white citizens, to be bona fide.
In between being aware of the privileges of having a Dutch passport, yet being livid and ashamed at the treatment people of colour, myself included, receive at the hands of Dutch (border) police, what can we, people who have some measure of historical knowledge and ethical and political responsibility, do in order to make another moment of rosyfingeredness in Europe, possible?
Let us first be reminded of Toni Morrison’s words in her beautiful essay Home (1998): I have never lived, nor have any of us, in a world in which race did not matter. Such a world, free of racial hierarchy, is usually imagined or described as dreamscape, Edenesque, utopian, so remote are the possibilities of its achievement…
How to be both free and situated: how to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home. How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?
In this quote is the programme we need to work towards to attain another rosy-fingered Europe. In the first place, we need to become aware of and dismantle the cultural archive that was installed and cemented in European populations, in the framework of imperialism, since the 16th century.
A racial grammar, a deep structure of inequality in thought and affect based on race, was installed in European populations, whether they actually did have an Empire or not, and it is from this deep reservoir, this cultural archive, that, a sense of a superior, innocent self was formed.
This self-representation tells us Europeans that since we are, by our own acclamation, non-racist, nothing that we do or say, can be racist.
We need to fundamentally rid ourselves of the self-flattering understanding that ‘racism is done elsewhere, in the USA, in South Africa, but not here. We do not do race’.
Secondly, we need to ask why there is no serious investigation of the possibilities to have people from the south enter and work in Europe under regular conditions. This would entail getting rid of deplorable treaties like the Dublin Claim, incarcerating people in their first country of arrival.
Why do we spend our appreciable financial resources in keeping them out or cooping them up, instead of making a decent way of living in Europe possible for them, in which periodic return migration becomes feasible? Why do we want the benefits of globalisation only for ourselves, not for Others?
The issue, finally, is whether we allow our basest fears and anxieties to define who we are as Europeans, continuing to deny the historical advantages taken by this continent at the expense of others.
- Gloria Wekker is an Afro-Surinamese Dutch anthropologist and writer; she is a professor emerita at Utrecht University
- This essay appears in a new collection, Europa28: Writing by
Women on the Future of Europe (Comma press), published as part
of Hay Festival europa28.The free digital event, from October
6-9, features 28 women writers, journalists, artists, scientists and
entrepreneurs – one from each EU country, plus the UK – and will
cover issues from migration and nationalism to the continent’s
response to Covid-19.
- Register now at hayfestival.org/europa28