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Psychology of Racism: Defining Black Identity

Introduction

Exclusion maims. Stress hurts. Disease kills. What is the environment in which these conditions exist? Many may say in an environment filled with people who endure traumatic experiences that significantly shapes their life into one of constant conflict, ultimately shortening life and lowering its quality. It might be reasonable to assume that most people, when hearing this description, might think that it describes a war torn environment filled with grief, violence and misunderstanding. However, this reality can not only be that of a war victim, but also those who encounter racism on a daily basis. Like war, a reality with racism as an ever present force not only creates and hostile and deadly environment in the external realm, but also creates major tensions within the fibers of the individual.

The Netherlands, a place that touts the title of being a "socially progressive and tolerant" country, is one particular example of a country whose citizens of color suffer silently from this social disease. One may ask: why do these citizens tolerate suffering derived from racism, especially in a country "intolerant of injustice"? 

While examining this disease, it would suffice to begin with its origins. The Netherlands has a notorious history of being among the first to dominate the industry of exploiting African people's bodies for labor during the age of colonialism. This time marked a period of one of the greatest hypocrisies in modern history: the advancement/Enlightenment of (European) society and thought produced by an industry committing one of the greatest crimes against humanity. With the establishment of colonies in the Americas and the forced displacement of African peoples into this land, a hierarchical system was established that would inextricably connect racial identity with socioeconomic status. In particular, people of African descent were systematically labeled as a permanent subhuman underclass in Western society. This hierarchy, though flawed in that poor Europeans were also under subjugation, seeped into the social perceptions of the European masses, establishing the basis for demeaning stereotypes and unjust behavior towards people of African descent. 

In the case of the Netherlands, the European masses were physically distant from the enslaved African people. This distance led to the normalization of colonial attitudes and behaviors among the Dutch population and silent compliance to racism, even in modernity. Evidence of this includes the age old tradition of Zwarte Piet. 

In analyzing this historic problem in modern times, many forget to ask: how do these people who are descendants of enslaved and displaced African peoples feel on a daily basis? This question, though seemingly simple, in fact profoundly does something that distant analysis cannot: it acknowledges the problems of Black peoples’ lives in the Netherlands, allowing them to reclaim their humanity from the dehumanizing clutches of colonialism.

Feelings are very important to analyze in that they connect human beings together across physical distance and time. People who once lived are connected to those who are living in that their experiences are remembered. Typically, these experiences are recorded or structured in a way that displays the narrator’s feelings, which is an essential aspect of the human experience. Another way of defining the preservation of feelings can be labeled as “cultural memory”:

“Collective memory is based on a system of signs, symbols and practices: memory / remembrance as such is a social phenomenon, whose opposition is counter-memory of individuals or small groups. In this system individual memory is set as a means of interpreting signs, symbols and practices, and forgetting represents the treatment of weak points. Society ceases to talk about the past and thus heals its wounds, but produces the risk of its repetition. Foucault defined counter-memory as an individual’s resistance against the official versions of historical continuity: the important thing becomes who remembers, what is the context of memory, and what does it oppose.

Even the use of memory differs. Some past events are forgotten, others are immediately given importance and are considered worthy of memorizing, while some emerge on surface after a long period of oblivion: what are the political, social and economic reasons which lead to change in perception of memory and its reproduction?”

What happens, then, if these feelings are forgotten? One may be that disconnection occurs between past and present human beings. If the conversation of the Netherlands about its history never acknowledges the full extent of its complicity in colonial slavery, the Afro-Dutch are “forgotten” in the Dutch collective memory in such a way that their experiences post-emancipation are not included in the progress of Dutch society. Thus, it would not be surprising that conversation about racism is not central in Dutch discourse. The only way in which this social amnesia can be cured is through the (re)injection of the narrative/cultural memory of the enslaved Africans’ descendants into the collective Dutch psyche.Whether you are a grassroots activist, a university professor, a medical doctor or an upcoming philosopher and educator, your daily life as a person of color can be tainted by the reality of racism. In every layer of society the presence of racism is directly or indirectly visible. Sometimes it seems only visible to those who are most affected by it. Differentiation based on race is deeply institutionalized within the Dutch society.

Gideon "Gikkels" Everduim

Being an educator and an upcoming artist, Gideon “Gikkels” Everduim has faced his share of hardship. Having no expectation from society he set out his own course to become a voice for the voiceless. He is what he describes as a “conscious rebel,” someone who is aware of the consequences of his choices. He wants to inspire people by using a positive voice. Little things such as introducing the word “Afro Nederlanders” forcefully in the media as a substitute for the more commonly accepted word “neger” or challenging the notion of the over sexualized black female video vixen is how he chooses his battles. 

Changing the perspective is the way to achieve a change within society. In his music Gikkels gives deep thought over the words he uses. He is aware that words, when chosen carefully, can spread like an oil stain and reach people who are generally not engaged with heavy subjects such as racism. Reintroducing the forgotten history of slavery in the Netherlands to the public eye and within the school system is according to Gikkels a way both white and colored people can be empowered. Before we as a society can move on, we need to acknowledge what has happened and learn from our common history. Both colored people and the majority of white people are still mentally colonized, and it’s time to free ourselves from mental slavery, Gikkels argues. The life we live is an artificial life and only knowing the facts will help you strive for change within your community. By critiquing social norms and listening to those marginalized by social ailments such as racism, the need to create a more inclusive society will be increasingly urgent. 

Mitchell Esajas 

With the pervasiveness of racism through the Dutch education system, there is a significant likelihood that students of color’s intellectual development and career path can be seriously impeded by the racially biased perceptions of their professors and possible employers. Furthermore, the shaping of cultural identity for students of color is not integrated into the curriculum of Dutch history, which suggests that the white Dutch narrative is most important in the development of Dutch citizens. Realities such as this could lead students to being constantly discouraged from pushing themselves to higher levels of achievement, developing low self-esteem and internalizing racial stereotypes. Educator, mentor and life changer Mitchell Esajas is an individual who has dealt with this dilemma both personally as well as in his career. During his interview, he spoke with us about the experiences of youth with which we worked. He recalled instances in which his students spoke of teachers discouraging them from continuing to attend the gymnasium or other opportunities for excellent students, despite their stellar grades. According to his Theory of Possible Selves, people envision a variety of future self images. When life altering events occur, however, the number of possible selves can change. If someone is encouraged to pursue only one path, then the possibility of other selves will significantly diminish. Mitchell also recounted the loneliness of being the only Black person in his classes. Not seeing other classmates or teachers with a similar background also can affect the perception of possibility. He also spoke of playing with a white doll more than his Black doll as a child, because he thought the latter was ugly. However, with support and determination, he was able to overcome these social stigmas. More importantly, he came to understand that there are many other young people of color  who did not have the same outcome as he. Therefore, he has dedicated his career to developing avenues through which the opportunity gap between students of color and white Dutch students would be minimized. One of his avenues includes the New Urban Collective, a program in which students of color learn the importance of their cultural heritage, receive mentors for personal development, and attend workshops with career professionals to develop networks that would ensure their future success. Overall, our interview with Mitchell further elucidated the reality that there is an inherent inequality in opportunity and lack of adequate inclusion for students of color, suggesting that a number of Dutch youth are experiencing a host of social obstacles that deeply maim their self-perception and ability to contribute to their society.

Umar Ikram

Echoing Martin Luther King: inequality, exclusion and discrimination in hospitals is one of the most shocking and inhumane forms of injustice (Ikram). Minorities in the Netherlands face painful discrimination in the health sector; both the access to health and the quality of life show a substantial gap compared to the white majority. Is this gap caused by their behavioral choices, or is this due to the racist behavior they face on a daily basis? Does racism directly influence your physical and mental health, or is this just a hoax? According to Umar Ikram, researcher in the field of social medicine at the AMC, there is a direct correlation between racism and health issues. By researching this, Ikram hopes to show that governments not only have a moral obligation to fight racism, but also a duty to improve the quality of life of their citizen regardless of their skin color.

Umar argues that by proving this argument he will become more effective in combating racial disparities. Because this argument is based on basic health benefits, he believes that it is stronger than just a moral imperative to fight inequality. It is more specific than using the general framework of human rights. 

Several studies have shown a strong correlation and causality between racism and health issues. The basic premise is that interpersonal discrimination causes a stressor, for example, in the form of higher levels of blood pressure (Akrim). It has been proven that there is a link between psychosis, depression and racism. Interestingly, even anticipating racism can have huge impacts on the levels of blood pressure (Akrim). However, because of the repetition of exposure to racism, these seemingly small impacts can have a long duration effect on the overall health, resulting in higher diabetes levels, heart failure and depression in minority groups. One of Ikram’s amazing conclusions is that depression in minority communities can be reduced by 15% to even 25% if racism would not be present in society. This is an awfully high amount, and one of the strongest illustrations of the destructive influence of racism in a society.

Facing blunt racism is something that could be dealt with directly. The involved parties know what is happening. Subtle racism on the other hand is not something that can easily be proven, which can make the person on the receiving end doubt his or her own ability to analyze the situation. Ikram made this conclusion based on a real life experience. After graduating from medical school he applied for different jobs. In one of the interviews, he had done really well. He had a connection with everyone in the room, which ensured him that he got the job. However, he received a rejection letter, which surprised him, and he demanded a more in-depth explanation of the reason why he was not hired. He was assured that his interview went really well and that he was more than qualified for the job; however, one of the interviewees thought that he would not be able to fit into the work floor culture. To him it felt like he had been discriminated, but how could he ever prove this? He analyzed his psychological reaction to what he experienced, because it preoccupied his mind for quite some time. Eventually, he concluded that unproven subtle discrimination builds up a lot of stress and can cause more mental damage than blunt discrimination. 

The relevance for pointing this out is the awful disproportionate understanding of stress related to discrimination. If we do not recognize both the stress due to explicit and ambiguous situations, we will not do right to the negative health impact of racism. 

Next to giving a medical insight into the realty of racism, Ikram formulates possibilities to reduce the negative impact of racism. The strength of his research is that while researching problems, he envisions solutions. There are four areas that offer strategies to reduce the impact of racism. One of the main findings of his research is that being around people of the same ethnic group gives the ability to share experiences and break collective pain. However, this is only possible if the cultural archive of the specific group is informed by a longer history of racism and exclusion of being different and pushed down in society. According to Ikram, the cultural archive of, for example, the Surinamese helps them to cope. While when Ghanaian people live together, they do not have a significant reduction of the effects of racism, because they lack the history of colonization and lived in a predominantly black society.

Another important point Ikram brought up is the need of minorities to be proactive. Being proactive in subtly racist situations reduces stress; if confronted with such a situation, demanding more information and reasons of handling will give deeper insight. This goes along with giving minorities more space to define their own identity. Offering more material in schools and educating teachers to offer children a space to formulate their own identity would suffice. This will empower the individual, make them more proud of who they are and have a stronger stand against any discrimination against their identity. If children grow up in schools and don’t recognize any of their background and only hear the white men’s history, how can they formulate a rich identity of which they are proud of? This will only create poorly eroded narratives of their cultural background.

Gloria Wekker

Gloria Wekker is an emerita professor of women’s studies in the arts at the Institute for Media and Representation at the University of Utrecht. According to Prof. Wekker, there is no sufficient research available on the psychological affects of racism within the Dutch context. Being born in Suriname, she has always been a noticeable figure within academia because she was always distinguishable. She was confronted with racism one day, during which she was a victim and a perpetrator at the same time. She was traveling without a valid transportation card and was stopped by the police. She tried to explain that she forgot her public transportation card, but the involved police officers disregarded whatever explanation she had to offer. Curious about how racism works in a normal setting, she neglected to mention the fact she was a professor and let the incident occur on its natural way. She was held at the police station for hours without any explanation, and her plans she had for that day were regarded as invalid. Professor Wekker had mixed feelings about the racist experience she had been through. On the one hand, she was curious and wanted to know what would happen. She wanted to explore the situation and later write about it. Therefore, she did not identify herself as a professor immediately. Nonetheless, she felt deeply hurt and devastated by this experience. It was a tremendous infringement in her ideas of who she was. The basic elements such as gender, sexuality, race and class that make you the person you are counted for less than the ideas the white men, in this case the police officers, have about themselves and the authority that they carry. Professor Wekker felt unpleasant and powerless.

Talking about racism is not common within the Surinamese community. When the incident occurred, Professor Wekker was reluctant to talk about it outside her inner circle. She had the feeling that the incident would reflect badly on her. Thinking about racism in this manner is the dominant discourse within the Netherlands even within minority groups. Professor Wekker argues that in a system where black people and white people live together, there is a certain leaking of principles from the dominant group to the subordinate groups. In order to survive you have to “buy into the dominant thought,” according to WEB Du Bois. This “buying into the dominant thought” also occurs in the way we deal with racism. The reason why talking about racism is uncommon is because of a lack of education. If you do not learn about racism in schools, when will you learn to talk about it?

 According to her, having tools that would help you analyze a racist situation can help those who experience it deal with it more effectively. Having a community or parents that talk about racism is a way in which a person can prepare. In the Surinamese community, there is a notion in which individuals are taught to see themselves above racism. You are not supposed to let it touch you. Professor Wekker thinks that it is unfortunate to think about racism in this manner.  How can you be above racism when you are the aggrieved party being attacked in your being while acting as if you are the one with the power?

In agreement with Umar Ikram, Professor Wekker states that having a colonial history (or not) influences the way certain communities deal with racism. The Surinamese community is used to racism due to its colonial history, whereas the Ghanian community in Amsterdam seems to lack a colonial archive and therefore seems to be more resistant towards racism. Furthermore, Ikram argues that for the Surinamese, being with “your own” people is a tool of burden sharing that helps them cope with racism, whereas the Ghanaians lack the cultural archive and experience racism on as a “lonely personal incident.” Prof. Wekker agrees with this notion. 

The power dynamic between sex, class, race, and gender is one dominated by oversexualization. The oversexualization of both the black male and female is one of the legacies of slavery. It is interesting to analyze how black men and women view their own oversexualization. In general, black men have accepted and internalized this notion of oversexualization and seem to be proud of this attribute. In comparison, the oversexualization of black women is seen to be more unacceptable. The gender dynamic between black men and women during the slavery era was more equal than the gender dynamic between white male and white female. In general, black male/female shared more similarities and shared equal responsibilities. White women were considered to be the “the angles” in the household, whereas this role was never offered to black females.

A good example of the black oversexualized “venus” is Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman. A black woman whose body exemplifies difference between the “abnormal” African women and the more “normal” Caucasian women. She is considered to be the basis in which black women are seen to be sexy but less intelligent creatures. Gikkels pointed out that this notion of the black venus is the reason for the way females are portrayed in hiphop culture.

A point Prof. Wekker emphasized is the fact that racism is also one of the reasons why relationships between black men and women are brittle. Although there is no research available on this subject, Prof. Wekker believes that even in biracial relationships, race is an interesting aspect. She talked about the example where a biracial married couple was stopped and the black female was arrested because she was considered to be a prostitute. After the incident her white partner wanted to forget about the incident whereas she wanted to analyze and do something about it. Her ally was not her ally anymore but was siding with the perpetrators. 

In the Surinamese community dialogue is needed and issues such as teenage pregnancy and hypermasculinity must be talked about. Prof. Wekker argues that dialogue has been dominated by the erroneous question of who suffered the most during slavery. According to her, this is a useless and fruitless dialogue. The achievements of the Surinamese community of the past 40 years need to be analyzed and the gaps and the problems that still exist must be addressed. 

John Leerdam

We met John Leerdam in the former waiting room of the Queen Wilhelmina at the central station. John Leerdam is active in a lot of fields to promote the interest of minorities. He is a member of several boards to offer grants to minority students, a member of the PVDA and is very knowledgeable about politics regarding minorities. We went to interview him about black identity and the psychology of racism from the perspective of an Afro-Dutch politician.

Leerdam notes a change in the rhetoric in the political arena that is extremely problematic for the protection of minority rights. A shift from the politics of change to the politics of fear has taken place. This is mainly due to a larger pressure on the white supremacist (majority) vote. Since minority populations are getting bigger, political parties are afraid to lose the white supremacist vote.

Minorities are not properly represented in politics, according to Leerdam. While minorities make up 50% and more in major cities, they are nowhere to be seen in politics. For example, 57% of inhabitants in Amsterdam are minorities. Another problem is the lack of voter participation of minorities when it comes to actively voting. This is not weird though, because there is no party really trying to represent and push the minority agenda. Leerdam shared a painful story about the PVDA. He joined the PVDA in 2005 to gain the minority vote, and he succeeded really well. In 2006, he managed to raise the active voters to a total of 71.6% in the Amsterdam municipal elections. However, when this happened the PVDA was afraid to mix up the rhetoric of their party and made clear that they are not a party of minorities. This treacherous backstabbing infuriated Leerdam.

What kind of self-image will this give minority citizens? Certainly they will not expect themselves to have a real chance at a political career, or in reasonable limits be able to add significantly to the political discourse. Their voice is not heard, their interests are not fulfilled, and their faces are not seen. It is understandable that Gikkels is adamant on starting a new political group in the Bijlmer. We can no more than applaud his reasons for this: to show the black communities that skin color does not have to exclude them from politics (Gikkels) and introduce another positive role model for the kids growing up in the Bijlmer.

These role models are essential to the liberation of the colonized mind, according to Leerdam. He critiques his students and protégées for failing to mention him as being their positive role model or at least recognizing what they owe to him. There is power to be found in mentioning a name repetitively. There is no sense of oneness in the black community, a strong willingness to fight together for a common cause is lacking. Power relations in this community should be recognized and respected. Gikkels, Quincy and others should come to Leerdam to be in dialogue. In this sense a cultural archive can be activated, and Leerdam’s years of experience in the field of politics can be used effectively to prevent the others from going through the same painful experiences.

This sense of oneness is also lacking under black people in politics. Around 2006, there were several black people in power, however, these politicians were colorless. When Leerdam invited them to have a dialogue to discuss the similar experience their skin color has caused, they made clear to neither have an interest nor want to affiliate with the other Afro-Dutch in Parliament.

When Wilders scanted: less, less, less Moroccans, a strong response was heard from the Moroccan community. But who was heard to come up for John Leerdam when he was awfully led into a prank by BNN? No one from the black community spoke up for him and got his back. This gave him the feeling of being a lone fighter, separated from the group for which he stands. We need to come together and make a strong fist, we need to stand together. Only in that way will we be powerful enough to push our agenda and demand equality.

The black community needs to be educated and take more inspiration from the civil rights movement in America. This will be mostly empowering and help them to both provide positive, empowering role models, by telling success stories. And help to find inspiration to enlarge the sense of cohesion and a common struggle. The American civil rights struggle shows us that the fight for equality for people of African descent are very much the same. The stereotypes and the rhetoric used to hold minorities in place are so much the same that only a nuanced study shows differences between the Netherlands and America.

There is no point in being stuck in complaining. We need to transform the negative energy into a positive voice for change. This echoes both Gikkel’s and Mitchel’s insistence on having a positive world view. This is essential to transforming society and having a long term political career, without ending with a depression. 

Conclusions 

Solutions proposed in the interviews show distinctive similarities. They boil down to mainly three to four areas of improvement: education, building on community ties, activating the cultural archive and reformulating Black identity. All agree that more education should be given on the history of slavery. Leerdam and Gloria press the importance to understand the American civil rights struggle. This will help the community to understand their own identity, their position in society and will provide inspiration in fighting their cause. Mitchel notes the sameness of the Black struggle everywhere: same stereotypes emerges, same battles are fought. Informing the different Black communities will provide an opportunity to learn from each other’s fight. Educating has a very close link to offering space to redefine identities. Ikram presses the importance of teacher to provide children space to negotiate their own identities. Gloria and Gikkels critique several parts in the Black community, which are oppressive and a result of either internalized racism, or trickling down of white upperclass norms. Gikkels very deliberately does not position Black women in his music as oversexualized. His definition of success is not the same as a lot of hip hop artists, who define success by big cars, expensive champaign, a lot of women and jewelry. Instead he takes prides in his fancy Africa-inspired hoody. Gloria also critiques the oversexualization of both men and women in the Black community, which is inherited from the white perspective. Trying to redefining black identity, Mitchel created a network of professionals and students to offer mentorship. Gikkels hopes to offer a positive role model to the youth by starting a political party. A stronger sense of oneness and community is the next solution to reduce the negative effects of racism on minorities. John Leerdam provides an insight on how to make a strong fist together, to be proud together, to speak out together and to be in touch with the community. This will provide the community more engaged role models. Having a dialogue, redefining Black identity and updating the cultural archive are all necessary steps to be taken. Ikram proposed the successfulness of being in the vicinity of people of the same ethnicity, however, Gloria told us how the discourse in Surinamese communities fails to empower individuals. By acknowledging racism in the Netherlands and the pain it has caused, we will finally create a common ground for sharing pain. This will eventually change the discourse as it is now. There is no shame in undergoing racism, but righteous anger instead. Undergoing racism should no longer be a lonely pain, but a pain shared and recognized by the community of the oppressed. Only then can this community claim its social position and speak out. Only then will white supremacy recede in the rise of a more inclusive society, ultimately curing Dutch society of its long lasting illness.

References

Esajas, Mitchell.  Leader of New Urban Collective. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 19, 2014.

Everduin, Gideon “Gikkels”. Musician, Leader of Bijlmer Style. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 18, 2014.

Ikram, Umar. Researcher Public Health at University of Amsterdam. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 19, 2014.

Leerdam, John. Politician, Theater Director. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 21, 2014.

Wekker, Gloria. Emerita Professor of Women's Studies in the Arts at the University of Utrecht. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 21, 2014.

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