18 Jun Blog: “Bound up with mine”
By Alison Fischer.
Last fall, I saw a job announcement for a PhD position at the KITLV. It identified KITLV as ‘a formerly colonial institution reflecting on its own past’ and suggested ‘a fresh research agenda that aims to understand the nature and impact of [Dutch] colonial legacies.’ I applied, proposing to examine the role legal institutions in the Netherlands have played in constructing and privileging whiteness as an aspect of Dutch identity. My application used phrases like ‘race as a system of power relations’ and critiqued responses to racist violence that ‘problematized blackness… instead of examining whiteness’ as a potential cause. Well-meaning friends in academia read my application, patted my shoulder, and rolled their eyes. No Dutch institution, they said, was going to put money behind research like that. But KITLV did. I started April 15.
I know that the movements to acknowledge racism in the Netherlands, decolonize academia and reexamine our cultural institutions – movements that have existed for ages, but demanded more attention recently, in large part because Black people have put their bodies in peril in cities like Gouda, Amsterdam, Dokkum and Den Haag, movements whose energies are now surging into the Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the country — are a big part of the reasons the KITLV created and the KNAW funded this PhD position at all. David Kloos’s recent blog says as much.
But if my new PhD position is part of what institutional change looks like, then the significance of who I am in this position – a white woman educated at elite universities, an American immigrant, here less than a decade – is also not lost on me. I am, as Esther Captain describes so wonderfully in her blog, an implicated subject. In a different context, I might draft a nuanced explanation of positionality in relation to my project, the benefit of an insider/outsider perspectives, add a well-referenced critique on concepts like objectivity and neutrality. Instead, I will confess, that what mostly informs my work, for a long time already but especially now, is a voice in my head repeating the phrase: earn this. Or more accurately, knowing you will never earn this, never stop trying.
As I write, demonstrations around the Netherlands are entering their third week. Thousands of people showing up, not just in Randstad cities, but across the country. The demands are old, the organizers have been around a long time, but many of the faces are new. I keep coming back to Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal activist and educator in Australia: ‘If you have come here to help me,’ she is credited with saying, ‘you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” We are bound up together – institutions and individuals, implicated less by the legacies we inherit than by what we do, or fail to do, with them now. The work is there to be done. Earn this.
Image: Black Lives Matter protest in Rotterdam, 3 June – @SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett.
(Alison Fischer is a PhD Candidate on the topic of law, race and post-colonial communities in the Netherlands. She is exploring how law has played a historical role in constructing racial identities in Dutch society and how those constructions affect the exercise of citizenship and belonging in the Netherlands.)