By Guest Contributor Marly Pierre-Louis
I love a good adventure. So when my partner asked, “How would you feel about moving to Amsterdam?” I was game. Between the shock of making that decision and being completely overwhelmed with all we had to do, I daydreamed about what it would be like to be Black in the Netherlands. I knew about the historical love affair between Black America and Europe. Black folks, especially artists, had always sought refuge from the terrors of American racism in Europe. Stories of Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright in France painted an eclectic and humane portrait of Black life in Europe. I was thrilled at the prospect of experiencing a truly post racial existence.
At least I thought I was. Something happened as we crossed the Atlantic: I got cynical. Post racial. What a farce. From the moment we landed I became slightly obsessed with analyzing how I was being read as a Black woman – an utterly disorienting experience. I had never before been so aware of how much influence my race and gender had on the way I maneuvered through the world and how I interacted with people. Specifically, white people. Meeting my new compatriots, I searched their faces, tones of voice, and body language, hoping for hints. I wasn’t getting any of the cues that I had spent my life learning to navigate. The feeling of being somehow “race-less” was unbearable.
This realization was deeply troubling to me. It made me cognitive of what happens when we step out of the borders of the United States and are actually able to put down our racial armor but can’t. We can’t function without it. So much of my existence had been crafted as a defensive response to white racism. I identify as a radical Black, sometimes nationalist, feminist. Who was I without the white American male gaze?
I devoured everything I could find on race in the Netherlands and how racism manifested. Prior to 1975, when Suriname, one of the Dutch colonies was liberated, the Netherlands was pretty homogeneously white. So integration is a fairly recent phenomenon. Most of the Black folks who are here are migrants from Suriname or the Dutch Antilles. The marginalized groups here are not Black but Turkish and Moroccan migrants. I was told that in Europe, it’s not about race, it’s about ethnicity. My Blackness didn’t mean much to Dutch people and I was mainly being read as 1) a non-Dutch person, and then, 2) an American. Maybe post racial was possible!
The Dutch might lack the stereotypes and tropes of Black womanhood that the U.S has so painstakingly crafted over decades: i.e. sapphire, welfare mom, jezebel, etc. but they have plenty of issues of their own. In November I experienced my first Zwarte Piet season. Zwarte Piet is the Dutch version of Santa’s elf and the main character of their annual holiday celebration – a white person in Black face, curly wig, red lipstick and gold hoop earrings – in short, a coon. Hundreds of them descended upon the city for a three week period. It was, in a word … horrific.
While Zwarte Piet is the most overt manifestation of racism I’ve witnessed, I’ve watched enough BBC to know that folks here are dealing with their fair share of BS. In 2011, the Netherlands was the target of Rihanna’s rage when a Dutch magazine, Jackie, called her an “ultimate niggabitch.”
And last month, in a scene that was compared in reports to a Nazi Germany gathering, Geert Wilders, a right wing Dutch politician and leader of the Party for Freedom, asked a crowd of supporters at an election rally, “Do you want, in this city and in The Netherlands, more or less Moroccans?” To which the crowd roared back, “Less! Less! Less!”
The current coalition cabinet led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (ironic, isn’t it?), is explicitly anti-Islam and has put structural barriers in place to make it difficult for immigrants to remain. New immigration laws mandate that non-citizens pass language and cultural tests within two years or else face deportation.
And that’s just the stuff that makes the news. I’ve heard tales of racial profiling, media discrimination, and the silencing of academics and activists of color. During the driving test for her license, a friend of mine was asked her opinion of Zwarte Piet by the instructor. When she told him she thought it was racist, he vehemently defended the tradition and then promptly flunked her. Riding on public transit without a ticket is called “zwartrijden” — literally, “Black riding.” A friend explains that when Black folks get on the tram, they sometimes hear people joke, “Ook al koop je sen kaartje, je rijdt sowieso zwart.” Translation: whether or not you buy a ticket, you’re still “riding Black.”
This country is far from post racial.
Honestly though? Aside from some suspicious looks every now and then, I truly haven’t experienced much overt racism firsthand. What I’ve realized is that my status as an American expat has sheltered me. My partner and I are both here under “highly skilled migrant” visas. My privileged status has kept me from being confronted by structural racism and not knowing any Dutch has protected me from microaggressions. I exist in a bubble.
My self care plan has been to construct an existence and identity outside of both the white American gaze and the Dutch one. It hasn’t been easy but it has been liberating. I’m no longer allowing my obsession with how I’m being read as a Black woman to dictate who I interact with and how I interact with them. I’ve fully embraced the expat experience and it’s been refreshing to feel like I can be MYSELF here. Myself meaning, Marly, the multi-dimensional individual, rather than Marly, the accumulation of white stereotypes + white fear + white liberal guilt x the entire Black race. I’ve made friends with Dutch, Romanians, and Italians. In my conversations with this multi-culti crew, I’ve never felt like a spectacle, I’ve never felt exoticized, undermined or underestimated.
My bubble is fragile.
A few months ago, I was at an event with some friends. Someone they knew came over and they introduced me to her. She was white and quite tall so I assumed she was Dutch. At one point, she referenced something American and when I asked her where she was from she said “Arkansas.” For a split second, the post racial(ish) safe space I had constructed for myself collapsed, I felt exposed. Not only was she a white American, but a white American from the South – like the Paula Dean South! I couldn’t help but feel like my humanity was once again, in danger. I’m hiding from American racism in European racism — it’s a tricky space to navigate.
And it’s an ongoing struggle. Every now and then I catch myself looking at someone sideways determined to anticipate how their racism will manifest. And whenever it does, I feel a perverse sense of triumph. The world is once again as it should be.
Marly Pierre-Louis is a writer and community cultivator currently biking through the rain in Amsterdam. She is interested in intersectional feminism and sexuality.