In less than a month of living in the Netherlands, I’ve learned that nothing here is a matter of black and white. As a new temporary transplant to Amsterdam from New York, I’m in the midst of a very eclectic group of people, whose identities, nationalities, and even individual family trees range from the darkest complexional hues to the whitest. On top of that, I’ve seen more interracial couples (of all backgrounds) than I’ve witnessed ever before in my life. So, for the first time ever, I’ve been situated smack dab in the middle of “multiculturalism.” Literally.
It may be hard to conceive for some, particularly for people outside of the U.S. but until now, I have lived most of my life, and definitely my adult life, in an all-Black environment.
Everyone that I socialize with, have gone to school with, lived around, dated or worked with, have been Black. Not necessarily African American – some of my closest friends are Ghanaian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Nigerian – but they’re all Black. Their parents are Black. They partners are Black. Their kids are Black. Everybody’s Black. Black, Black, Black, Black.
Since it may be hard to conceive, try to visualize this: I went to an all-Black high school for girls, followed by four years at Howard University (they don’t call it the Mecca for nothing). Upon graduating, I taught at a public school in middle of the hood in Northeast Washington, D.C. bka the Chocolate City (Although, with the current state of gentrification, it’s looking much more like the Vanilla City these days). Then I left D.C., moved to Germantown, Philadelphia (more Blackness), studied Africana Studies at Temple University (which is situated in the center of North Philly – the hood of all hoods). While in graduate school, I worked at the city’s African American Museum. In 2007, I moved back to New Orleans Post-Katrina to revitalize a museum of African American art, owned by a Black surgeon. Then in 2009, I relocated to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn (the same hood that gave birth to Biggie) and started working at an institution that focuses on what? Global Blackness.
So, living outside of both my comfort zone and security blanket has taken some adapting but is pretty damn fun and exciting. I’ve found myself surrounded by a social circle that quotes Noam Chomsky and Dave Chappelle in the same conversation. Yes, I’m highly entertained but more importantly, I’m learning.
But don’t get it a twisted – multicultural does not mean totally progressive. As blissful as my new experiences have been, there have also been moments where I’ve sat with my mouth agape in reaction to some blatant gesture of racism.
These incidents range from witnessing a Dutch academic refer to Latin Americans as barbarians during a university symposium on multiculturalism (which was actually the least of his offenses) to a maintenance man telling me early one morning that I didn’t need to drink coffee because I was already Black enough. Huh?
The worst of these incidents was the afternoon I opened a magazine and saw the photo-shopped image of my friend, a nationally recognized Black Dutch (Antillean) theater artist and emerging public intellectual, with horns growing out of his head and a white girl dangling out of his mouth. It was on some King Kong meets Godzilla meets the antagonist in Birth of a Nation type ish. Then when he brought attention to it, he was made to feel like some kind of troublemaker. In the words of Washington, D.C. youth “where they do that at?” But get this, the theater where this happened wasn’t white…it is actually owned and run by Black people. Of course they eventually responded by having photo stickers printed and pasted over the original image in all of the magazines on their premises. (Unfortunately, however, when I walked into a local café a week later, I saw the magazine and was saddened to see that the original version was still in circulation).
On one hand, I wanted to blow-up the ordeal and make a fuss about it on my facebook page. On the other hand, I realized that while I may feel some kind of way and want to express solidarity, at the end of the day, I will be bringing my black American arse back to the East Coast, where they don’t do stuff like that.
Very quickly, I’ve come to understand that it’s not just a matter of being passive but as a dear friend here told me, it’s a matter of deliberately and intelligently, picking your battles. I can’t fathom, having to defend myself, respond or react to every single racist thing that happens here on a daily basis, and I’m merely a visitor. I had to be reminded of the fact that as a Black American, whose particular existence is grounded in learning and disseminating information about African Diasporan history, I have also been influenced by the various resistance movements that took place on U.S. soil throughout the ages. That makes me privileged. I am equipped with both the historical, socio-political-economic analysis AND furthermore, the tools needed to address these transgressions. For that, I do not have the right to turn up my self-righteous nose at the perceived passiveness in which people of African descent, broadly address (or not) racism in the Netherlands.
However, not everyone is drinking the kool-aid. Currently, there is a group of individuals, whose political views have provided a platform of solidarity in which to buck against the system. Hopefully, they will succeed in their mission. (Listen to an informative radio talk show here).
I am not in the position to judge. I recognize the need for Afro-Europeans and in this instance, Black Dutch, to formulate their own resistance identity – one that is grounded in the nuanced experiences of their own realities and not one birthed from the revolutionary movements and ideologies of Afro-America. Upon this formulation, it is then our responsibility to validate their perspective and provide a broader platform from which they can be heard and supported, across the Diaspora.
Covert European Ku Klux Klandom aside, I love it here. My cultural cornucopia of friends is incredible and there’s always something exciting happening. I live in a tiny but plush apartment in the land where tulips meet legalized prostitution, where white people dress up in blackface during Christmas (see Zwarte Piet is Racisme…more on that later), where your olfactory sense is aroused by magical herbs floating out of coffeeshops and where this Black American girl from New Orleans makes her way around town on an all-black bike named Touissant. This is my life…outside of the box.