In one of the most anticipated talks of the evening, professor Gloria Wekker exposes some of the modern day effects of 400 years of Dutch colonialism. Her talk bares the same name as her latest publication: White Innocence.
It’s clear that Professor Wekker has many admirers in the room when she is met with a loud, roaring applause as Marian Spier announces her. The message in this talk will be ‘tough’, says Marian, but it is important for everyone to hear. Thankfully, Professor Wekker brings her message in a calm, almost soothing voice.
As a child Gloria Wekker had a deep love for reading adventurous, so-called ‘boy’s books’. She found the stories written specifically for girls to be boring and couldn’t connect to the female protagonists. She always knew that she wanted to write, but it was only in her late-twenties to thirties that she found black female role models she could relate to. She studied the works of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and decided to move to the US to start her studies at UCLA. This was one of the most important moments in her life. For the first time she had black female professors and for the first time she had the feeling she could achieve the same as white people and more.
Now, many years later, professor Wekker has written a book she claims: “needed to come out of me.” In her book she refutes the idea of White Innocence. In her talk, professor Wekker claims the Dutch have raveled in white innocence for centuries, priding themselves for being a progressive country and it’s inhabitants for being ‘color-blind’. However, this view is rarely shared by migrants and people of color living in the Netherlands and their shared experiences suggest otherwise. Professor Wekker recalls going to one of her first meetings as a civil servant. She remembers extending her hand to greet a white male who was already in the room. Instead of greeting her, he handed her his coat. She goes on to tell that this was not a deliberate racist act, but more an act of instinct. For the first time she realized: “There are images that proceed me.” Images that have nothing to do with her, but are caused by the “cultural archieve”, deeply rooted in our society.
Centuries of colonial rule have left their traces in Dutch society and have become embedded in Dutch culture, language and institutions. In our current society we see examples of this everyday in ethnic profiling, finding a job with a ‘foreign sounding’ name and the hottest topic of polarization in the Netherlands: Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
Professor Wekker is convinced we can overcome this inequality in our society by making people aware of their privilege and the white innocence way of thinking. According to her we need to think of a bigger way to build an inclusive society that is not entirely based on race, gender and ethnicity. People of color need to speak out and speak up, this will sometimes be met with anger, hostility and incomprehension, but it is the only way to move forward as a society.
Gloria Wekker is a cultural anthropologist and emeritus professor of Gender Studies (Faculty of Humanities, Utrecht University). She was also the director of the expertise center GEM – Gender, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism in higher education – at the same faculty. In April 2016 her book: White Innocence; Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, came out at Duke University Press and has, since then, sparked renewed discussions on gender, race and colonialism in Dutch media and beyond.
Text by: Anjuly de Geus