‘Decolonisation is a constant struggle’: An Interview with Gloria Wekker
Gloria Wekker is a Dutch-Surinamese Professor Emerita of Gender and Ethnicity at Utrecht University, and author of the book White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Duke University Press). A key intervention in the critical study of whiteness, her book addresses colonial amnesia and the contradictions of race in Europe. Wekker’s work is deeply informed by decolonial and intersectional feminism, and her writings continue to engage scholars and activists grappling with the legacies of colonialism today.
Here she speaks about what it means to be a Black woman in academia and a racialised person in the Netherlands. As anti-racist campaigns and calls to decolonise the university continue to gather strength, Wekker reminds us that the struggle for decolonisation is never a short-term, technocratic, or superficial exercise. Rather it goes deeper, as a reckoning with the different ways in which four hundred years of colonialism continue to shape the present. ‘Decolonisation is a marathon of struggle, and one that means unsettling not just knowledge production and hierarchies of academia, but global structures of power themselves’.
Elif Lootens and Sigrid Corry: What made you decide to write your most recent book White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race?
Gloria Wekker: This book had been a long time in the making. I wanted to write it, but I never had time for it. At Utrecht University, little work was done on race. In my classes, I taught race as a grammar of difference in society, and one that is as fundamental as gender; I really felt it was necessary and urgent to engage with it. After coming back to the Netherlands from the US in 1992, where I had done my PhD, I was seeing the emperor, the Netherlands, without his clothes on. The dominant Dutch self-representation is one of innocence: a nation state that claims to be free of race and racism. This representation of the Netherlands struck me as fiction.
It has been a long-held desire of mine to write this book and address this fiction. Although I was working hard to make racial injustice visible, my work and body itself were at the same time seen as hyper visible and invisible. This was the trigger to take early retirement and to write instead.
You say that the Netherlands denies the existence of race. Why are there still issues with using the term ‘race’ in Western European societies?
There are a number of factors that make race and racism a difficult topic to talk about. The denial of the existence of ‘race’ is intertwined with the cultural archive. In the Netherlands as well as in Belgium, the mainstream idea is that race is a phenomenon that only exists elsewhere; there is race and racism in the United States, in South Africa, in Britain… but not here. Yet the historical order of things was that people went from the Netherlands to the US and to South Africa and built their systems. Knowledge and ideas about race have travelled between metropoles and colonies and vice versa. So why should race not exist here? Of course race plays a structuring role in the Netherlands. However, as I said, the Netherlands considers itself an innocent nation.
In the Netherlands, the traditional winter festival features a contentious figure: ‘Black Pete’. The festival has long been criticised for blackfacing, and has now adapted to include what you’ve described as a ‘less Black’ version of this servant. Black Pete is now brown, with straight dark hair. Do you think by taking away certain racialised features of this ritualised degradation, Black Pete is any less racist?
Black Pete remains a racist figuration — he has to go! Black Pete represents a racist stereotype of Black people. He is dumb and speaks a stupid language. He is also seen as the ‘happy Black’ stereotype, who sings and is cheerful, without intellectual capacity. Black Pete plays a role in constructing a white ‘we’ versus a Black ‘they’; this is not an innocent festivity for young children. Nevertheless, we need to recognise that some progress has been made. More and more cities refuse this racist figuration in light of the protests held against it.
In your book you wrote that ‘four hundred years of imperial past have left traces in the present’. Where do you see these traces?
Traces of racial inequalities are everywhere. They are, for instance, in education. For example: there is a consistent difference in who is given what advice at the transition to secondary education. Children of colour are systematically advised to go to less prestigious schools. In university, why is it that in disciplines where the majority of practitioners are female students, the higher you get in the hierarchy, the fewer people of colour and the fewer women you see? The power bastions are still in the hands of white men.
Then you look at the law. Statistically, the same kind of crimes when committed by people of colour – men of colour, mostly – get more severe punishment than when committed by white men. Then you have this terrible scandal in the Netherlands at the moment, the child allowance scandal, where people of colour were picked out on the basis of race/ethnicity and double nationality and accused of having ‘defrauded the system’. The Border Police are empowered to stop and search people on the basis of their race and ethnicity alone. In a recent court case, it was judged that racial profiling by the Border Police is justified as one of several suspicious indicators. This example gives you an idea of how unsafe life is for people of colour in a white-dominated state. The issue of state racism is indeed systemic.
We talk about ‘post-colonialism’, but is colonialism a thing of the past in Europe?
People often claim that colonialism took place far from here and happened a long time ago. I don’t believe that colonialism is a thing of the past. This is what Saidiya Hartman means when she talks of ‘the afterlife of slavery’. When independence came for a lot of nations, did that mean that we started to dismantle the cultural archive? We need to ask ourselves what four hundred years of colonialism has done to all of us. To believe that colonialism didn’t have any repercussions in the metropole is such nonsense. How would that be possible when, in the Dutch case, so many people went to the Indies and Suriname, and in turn, enslaved people were brought to the Netherlands?
Around the world, we have seen statues of white supremacists being removed. What part do these symbolic acts play in a wider struggle for decolonisation?
We won’t be ‘done’ with decolonising if we remove all the statues of white supremacists. That is such a misunderstanding of decolonisation; that if we just rename the colonial street names, or we remove the statues of white supremacists, then everything will be alright. Decolonisation goes much deeper. It has much longer and broader roots than just a technocratic solution. We need to keep in mind that ‘modernity is coloniality’ and that both are inextricably interwoven in the ways in which we have organised our society, our institutions, and ourselves.
The broad engagement in Black Lives Matter protests could be seen as a moment of real change. Do you agree?
Yes, I am happy about it. In the Netherlands, in the middle of the pandemic, a lot of young people (also white people) showed up for those demonstrations. I think there is a different kind of consciousness among the younger generation of white people than among the older generation. I am hopeful that things may change in the future.
Recently, Critical Race- and Postcolonial Theory have been the objects of a series of attacks and controversies. In France, academic freedom has been under attack as the French minister of education Jean-Michel Blanquer accused ‘Islamo-gauchiste’, intersectional and postcolonial theories of fostering ‘intellectual radicalism’ and ‘devastating’ French universities. Why are certain frameworks in academia controversial in Western Europe?
Well, because those frameworks criticise and question the status quo in academia. Theories about race, gender, and sexuality have increased in popularity over the past decades and are perceived as a threat. I find it disquieting that so much misinformation is spread about what these disciplines entail. Especially through right-wing presses, who represent postcolonial, intersectional, and ‘Islamo-gauchiste’ work as young, hate-filled theories — which is a way to create division and hatred. Those right-wing people are claiming that social cohesion is threatened. This reasoning misplaces the blame for the problems at hand.
You talk about ‘provincialising’ European thought as a way to avoid perpetuating knowledge/power asymmetries within academia. How do you think that could be done?
My stay in the United States empowered me in an incredible way. The scholars and the people with whom I was surrounded were not only analysing the world but also challenging it. That resistant and challenging way of thought was totally lacking in Dutch academia. We see that people in different disciplines are disputing the status quo and dismantling its power structures. For example, in literature Toni Morrison centres and universalises the Black experience. It is not a sprint, but a marathon that we are struggling through.
What are the current challenges in decolonising the university at large?
Decolonising and diversifying should be among the main goals of a university. The Eurocentric curriculum, the composition of the student body, composition of the academic staff — all of these terrains need to change, and you don’t have to be a genius to think of solutions.
But within academia, there are numerous challenges. For instance, struggles with ‘diversity’. The question is: if you are a white man, why would you want to change universities? As a white man you can only lose your privileges, position, and status. Academics of colour who come to universities, one by one, have to bear the burden of this white institution. The recipe for successful diversity is that people of colour should come in clusters into white institutional spaces.
You see these same problems in attempts to ‘diversify’ the police force in the Netherlands, which is getting nowhere. To a large extent, the same is happening for people of colour in universities; it is just too hard to be there on your own and to face being a ‘space invader’, as Nirmal Puwar states. In order to change the fundamental nature of the structure of inequality, one has to think outside of the box. The university needs pressure from below and from above. If they really want to have diversity, university leaders, and governmental bodies need to provide effort and money.
What does a decolonised university and society look like?
A decolonised university and society is a post-racial one. However, in order to achieve post-racism, we first need to reach a situation where everybody is aware of race and prepared to act on that knowledge. Unfortunately, in so many spaces there is a continued denial of the existence of race altogether. We have yet become conscious of so many of the different ways in which racism operates. To me, it is nonsense to believe that we are already in a post-racial or decolonial state.
In line with this, we can observe that many people are against the term ‘decolonisation’. For them decolonisation is too radical. In contrast to diversity, there is something fundamental to the process of decolonisation. We need to go through these processes that have beleaguered us for four hundred years. Given that, we will not decolonise in one year or even in ten years: it is a journey that is going to take a long time. But I am hopeful.
Elif Lootens is a Belgian-Turkish writer and researcher. Her research concerns migration, borders, in particular the reproduction of colonial legacies and white ignorance in the academy. She obtained her Master’s degree in Migration and Diaspora studies at SOAS University of London. Currently she works at the Department of Sociology at Ghent University.
Sigrid Corry is a writer and researcher based in London and Copenhagen. She is interested in feminist futures and the intersections of colonialism, carcerality and borders. She holds degrees from SOAS and Cambridge and is currently researching UK border issues at the Institute of Race Relations.