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White masks – De Groene Amsterdammer

History is not the past
It is the present
We carry our history with us
We are our history
If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals

James Baldwin

White masks

We are becoming increasingly aware of the racist (under) currents in the domination of Indonesia by the Netherlands. How do we lift the carpet under which colonial racism festers and spreads? It is never far away.

De Groene Amsterdammer*, 12 augustus 2020, By: Artien Utrecht

* In this English translation, we have included two important paragraphs of the essay which were not included in the Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer. (See highlighted parts.) We have done so upon request by the author.

For a long time I stayed far away from it. But since I came to live in The Hague eleven years ago, and cycle past reminders of it almost every day, it is hard to escape it. At least for a week and a half every summer. The mega complex of white tents on the Malieveld reminds me of a giant white-painted tortoise. Half a kilometer away, a line of queueing visitors comes into view, slowly disappearing through the small entrance into the belly of the turtle, there to be let loose in the gigantic party. This is the Pasar Malam Besar, renamed some twenty years ago the Tong Tong Fair, the festival of Indies food stalls, exotic souvenirs, and many stages where stories from colonial times are told and traditional Indonesian dance and music performed. Admittedly, the fair is no longer just Indo-nostalgia. More than once I have answered the call to move through the gates of the festival, albeit with pre-selected destinations in mind: an interview with a contemporary Indonesian novelist, a modern Indonesian dance performance, or stories by Indo and Moluccan youth of their encounters in today’s Indonesia. Or a discussion that criticizes the flawed manner in which the Netherlands has renounced its former colony in the East.

Artien Utrecht

Have those visits made me optimistic? No, or rather, not yet really. For the time being, I experience the new voices at the festival as nothing more than weak and sporadic counter-voices that are immediately lost in the deafening echoes of the rock bands and the traditional martial arts acrobatics, which both feel like tempo dulu. I imagine that the audience here comprises three generations of Indos, descendants and relatives of the repatriated , other Dutch people with a history in the colony, and their children and grandchildren and families who have made Indonesia their favorite holiday destination. Altogether these may be as many as two million people, I was recently surprised to read in a newspaper article. Half a million, I read somewhere else; even the size of this population group seems to be hard to estimate. After my visit, I quickly slip away from the nauseating atmosphere inside. Outside, relieved, I suck in the fresh air.

***

What is it that I can’t bear about this ‘Indies fuss’? This fuss is more than the melancholia when I see  the wobbly antique office-desk and my grandmother’s pale-colored ship’s chest. It’s more than the image of the ornately carved but uncomfortable teak wood sofa I inherited as a family heirloom nearly 40 years ago. Rather, it is the memory of the often embittered look of my Indo grandfather who was never able to swallow his anger at my mother’s life choice. She had embarrassed the family by marrying my father, a dark-skinned Indo with hardly any trace left of his European origin.

Even worse, in the early 1950s she and her husband chose a future in Sukarno’s left-nationalist Indonesia. Where on earth did she get the idea from? My mother always had to live with her father’s wrath, which made her immensely sad.

That ‘Indies fuss’ – for me it is the shock of that same grandfather when he heard that, more than twenty years later, I wanted to visit him and my grandmother with my then Surinam-Creole friend. Alright, eventually I was allowed to visit my grandparents but without the “Negro”. I was baffled.

Racism is hot-wired in the mentality that permeated colonial society. It was a society of ranks and classes, and racism was an effective means of maintaining it. In her 2018 Anton de Kom lecture, the novelist Marion Bloem characterizes the colonial mentality as thinking-in-steps: “… the Indo-European saw himself somewhere, on one step, accepted the people above him, and looked down on the people below him”. Above or below, your position was determined by your social status or class, and by your skin color. The two largely coincided within colonial society: the whiter your skin color, the greater your chance of a decent education, job and income.

The tragedy of the Indo is that of having belonged to the intermediate layer in colonial society, a buffer between the white colonial elite and the colonized masses. That intermediate layer eagerly imagined itself as being equal to the elite above, but encountered discrimination and humiliation there. Those belonging to that intermediate layer had no affinity whatsoever with the “native” population, to whom they felt superior. Reason for those masses to distrust the Indo. To make matters worse, the Indo community, or rather the part of this community that was lucky to be admitted to the “old motherland” after Indonesian independence, were treated as unwanted guests. Once more they felt humiliated, especially since the stingy Dutch even demanded reimbursement of the costs of their passage to the Netherlands, and of the assistance and accommodation provided.

What kind of impact must this history have had on the identity of the Indo in the Netherlands? For Marion Bloem there is a concise answer in her old demented mother’s response to her question what she would like to keep from the Indies.  – I quote, again from her Anton de Kom lecture in 2018 – “That you don’t have to be ashamed because you are Indo.”

Shame. My mother often spoke of the twisted Indo mind when she explained to me where my grandfather’s bitterness and racism came from. He too belonged to the social in-between layer in what was then the Dutch East Indies. He had enjoyed the privilege of attending an education in the Netherlands, after his white father had recognized him.

Metropole, Jakarta 1956, private collection Artien Utrecht

Of my grandfather’s mother no trace was left. No doubt she was his father’s local concubine, his njai, who gave birth to and raised their two sons but was ultimately sent back to her village. Despite being bullied at school for being brown-skinned, my grandfather later worked his way up to become a senior staff member on various sugar plantations in Java. Despite his light brown color, he was successful enough to count himself and his family among those who benefited from what we now call white privilege. But he was always fearful of losing this status, of slipping down to the darker regions at the bottom of colonial society’s rank and file.

***

Spread your wings like a young bird, reach out to your new freedom – this is how, as a 20-year-old student, I stood on the threshold of a new life in Delft. I had just fled to the Netherlands from Indonesia with my parents following Suharto’s bloody coup. The new life that smiled upon me was littered with books. I came into contact with unknown philosophies, cultures, new friends from different corners of the world. I embraced all the novelties at once. Nothing stood in my way, not even a language barrier, because with foresight my mother had brushed up my Dutch on a regular basis. The world seemed all the more exciting to me with the spirit of the 1968 student revolt blowing its way through like a gusty wind. I soon joined the most activist of my fellow students, took to the streets with full conviction protesting against the power of what we then called the bourgeois-capitalist institutions and in solidarity with victims of war and injustice in other parts of the world.

I still easily recall the images of protests against the war in Vietnam, against apartheid in South Africa, and for the release of the black American civil rights activist Angela Davis. Against racism, against (neo) colonialism. To me, life in the 1970s felt like traveling on an express train that took on fresh cargo at every station: people packed with suitcases full of new insights and tools, whom you continued your journey with. An exciting and eye-opening journey into the future.

Let me, for the sake of convenience, call the social and cultural ideas that helped shape the layered colonial society and policy “colonial thinking”. This thinking did not immediately disappear with the independence of the colony, it has remained ingrained in the subconscious. I understand that now, but even then I had an inkling of it, when I used to cram on the nationalist rhetoric in Indonesian history books at school. Those books, as well as comic strips and heroic films, told the story of domination by the cruel white Belanda (Dutchman), which, thanks to the heroic struggle of the nationalists, has long been overcome. Colonialism has been fought, the colonizer chased away. The colorful and multi-ethnic society of an independent Indonesia embodies a nation where racial equality reigns and racism has been eliminated.

Racism banned? I could not reconcile the curriculum with the omnipresent tendency to look up to people who were whiter than you. If white represents the brutal colonizer, how can you adulate white people like that? As a fair-skinned school girl, I too was looked up to. As Indo you were at least half a bule (white) and therefore by definition more beautiful than the rest. Always having to catch those furtive admiring glances and comments such as: “This dress just looks much better on your white skin.” It felt like pure deceit.

The obvious downside of adoring whiteness or white skin is the aversion to a dark complexion. A common offensive term from my youth comes to mind: keling, the name for the dark Indian Tamils ​​who settled in the Indonesian archipelago from the nineteenth century. “Don’t forget your parasol in that blazing sun, or you’ll be black as a keling.”

And what about the term hitam manis (sweet black)? A dark-skinned person, especially a woman, is still okay, provided all of her other physical features meet the prevailing beauty standards associated with a Westerner: a narrow pointy nose, thin to moderately full lips, straight or slight wavy hair. She may be black, but look how perfect that woman looks otherwise! My Creole friend (the same one who was rejected by my grandfather) apparently came across as anything but sweet when I traveled with him through Java in the 1970s. His black skin and impressive afro haircut evoked piercing looks and loud taunts in the street.

In today’s Indonesia you rarely hear the word keling. I briefly searched for information about the fate of Tamils ​​in the country. Could they have left by now, moved to neighboring Malaysia? In a magazine article from 2018, I read, under the heading “forgotten population groups”, that Tamils ​​lead a secluded life in enclaves, especially in North Sumatra.

The gap between the official narrative in school textbooks and the public perception of race and social status is as wide in 2020 as it was in earlier days. On the numerous billboards we see light-skinned women in trendy semi-traditional batik dresses, light-skinned women and men promoting dream houses in suburban residential areas under construction. Light-skinned people play the role of the good guys in the various soap operas on television. As a beauty ideal, the pure European features have been replaced by the ivory-colored skin and straight dark hair of the Asian princess. For women who are unhappy with their skin color, and they appear to be many, skin whitening creams are readily available in drugstores and beauty salons. White beauty and modernity merge seamlessly in the imagery toolbox that sets the standards of happiness and fortune for today’s Indonesian elite.

***

As I write this, another wave of violence has erupted in Papua. What started with brutal police violence against Papuan students in Java has resulted in an equally brutal crackdown on protest actions in the region. Reports are coming in about arrests, detentions, killings and the sending of more and more troops to the region. All this goes along with the territorial appropriation of Papua, the naked kind of colonialism that the area has been subject to since the 1960s. This latest wave of violence is one of many that the Papuans have had to endure for more than half a century, half a century after an area as big as half a continent was annexed through a fraudulent “act of free choice”. Therefore, there is no term more accurate for this annexation than colonial occupation. It is exactly occupied Papua land where the racism of the oppressors has pierced all the way to the bone. To be honest, the word racism actually sounds a bit soft and watered down to me in this context. It brings us to the limit where human beings are no longer seen as human, but as equal to animals. Mistreatment of the Papuans is almost always accompanied by swear words that are unmistakably are an expression of the latter.

With their slogan “I am not a monkey”, Papuans – often together with young Indonesian allies – are protesting against the systematic racial violence that is inflicted on them every day. A new awareness seems to be growing in the larger public that underlying the racism against Papuans lies the intent to dehumanize, to deprive the people of every bit of human dignity.

Local fish market in Wamena, Papua. © Willem van Gent

Racism is robbing the Papuans of their sustainable livelihoods and at the same time saying that they are lazy and primitive. Racism is ignoring the voice of Papuans and blindly labeling them as provocateurs and separatists. It is the absence of schools and clinics in many places and at the same time saying that Papuans are stupid, that they stink and cannot take care of themselves.

The comparison between current power relations and those in the Dutch Indies of the past hold true for the propagated mission of the ruler: to bring civilization to the dumb natives. In this context I come across a 1993 lecture of the Surinamese-Dutch publicist Anil Ramdas in which he targets, among other things, the ethical side of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. He summarizes the essence of the so-called Ethical Policy in the Dutch Indies as follows: “A desire for emancipation and upliftment of the Javanese [1], combined with paternalism, arrogance and deep disdain.” And it is the (supposed) good intentions behind the late colonial ethical policies that are emphasized when Ramdas argues that colonialism has always had a schizophrenic character, that is, a combination of barbarity and civilization.

It is not difficult to recognize this schizophrenia in the development rhetoric of the Indonesian administrators regarding Papua. The progress that the administrators claim to strive for indeed goes hand in hand with nothing less than paternalism, arrogance and deep disdain. Not to speak of everyday practice. What does this progress look like, and who is it benefitting? We go through the countless reports and articles that were published over the years, and read mainly about the robbery of Papua’s abundant natural resources. We read how construction of the trans-Papua highway is being praised as a giga-project to accelerate the development of the region, but are also flooded with images of trailers piled high with tree trunks, oil palm fruits and containers that transport their cargo ever faster on the paved roads to the export ports. We are repeatedly overwhelmed with reports of armed skirmishes, of villages being burned to the ground after their inhabitants have been tortured. We read about a district in the highlands where the Papuan population has been systemically neglected, succumbing to poverty. We read that the provinces Papua and West Papua that make up the region, the richest in natural resources, is statistically one of the poorest areas in Indonesia. And a researcher tells us that since the beginning of the millennium, the Papuans have dwindled from being a majority to a minority in their own land. I wonder if we can still speak of schizophrenia between civilization and barbarity in this case, or whether it is more appropriate to stick to the latter.

Old-style colonialism has been defeated, the old colonizer expelled. The post-colonial nation is a colorful and multi-ethnic society where racial equality rules and racism is wiped out. But is this wonderful depiction not more than just a slogan, a velvet cover under which new colonial atrocities are committed, where new false myths have been created and parts of history are obscured?

***

Commuting between two continents, between the country of the ex-colonizer and that of the ex-colonized, I am in search for the experiences of others. Others on both ends of the path, but especially over there, in Indonesia. How do we lift up the carpet under which colonial thinking festers and spreads, how do we reveal the deep traces of colonial racism carved into the floor?

Decolonizing the mind is not a new catchphrase. British-Palestinian social critic Edward Said mentions that the term was associated with the cultural emancipation of previously subjugated communities by some writers from ex-colonized continents as early as the last decades of the 20th century. Such emancipation could be achieved through a return to the native language and culture and a radically different perspective on history.

My search in the stream of publications on decolonization of the mind to find articles on Indonesia has so far only resulted in one short essay. It is written by Indonesian historian Aria Danaparamita and appeared on the online discussion platform Counter/Narratives, founded in the Netherlands. She calls the dominant image in Indonesian media of praising fair-skinned people as attractive and morally superior an indirect result of the inferiority complex on the side of the darker-skinned population, a complex that has its roots in the racial politics of the former Dutch oppressor.

Feeling inferior is not much different from feeling ashamed. It is the same shame as that of Marion Bloem’s mother. And my grandfather’s. It is the shame Frantz Fanon already wrote about in his Peau noir, masques blancs in 1952, first translated into Dutch in 1971 as Zwarte huid blanke maskers [2] with an epilogue that includes a discussion of the later work of the writer who died in 1962. Fanon’s essay grew out of the experience with French colonialism in the Caribbean and Algeria, but is no less true for the experience of the (former) colonized elsewhere in the world. It is the story of generation upon generation of transmitted and internalized racial thinking: “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.” (Markmann, translator) This seems to capture the phenomenon at its core. It is the tangled mess of its many shapes that obscures the what and the how of decolonizing the mind. The injured soul is the one who is ashamed and who tries to bleach his or her skin. But it is also the one who denies his origins, who kicks down  those below, and acts the new colonial.

***

What were those new voices that I was looking for at the Tong Tong Fair? Didn’t I call them counter-voices?

I mean the voices that try to unravel and tear down colonial thinking within the Indo community on the waves of the anti-racism debate in the Netherlands. The voices of the young, third-generation Indos. Young Indos who are tired of the racist prejudices of their (grand)parents. In the footsteps of a few, second-generation Indos – I must not forget to mention this – they travel to Indonesia where they build friendships with like-minded people in search for a common history, often through literary and artistic initiatives.

These new Indo-Indonesian co-creations do anything but land on dry soil. This soil is fertile with a range of innovative arts and literature that are yet to reach an international stage. Colonial thinking is being discussed too. There will be multiple Aria Danaparamitas among them, and in their creations the body of colonial thinking will be skinned, pulled apart and eradicated. Friends will also draw my attention to the renewed recognition for the work of well-known Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, long banned under Suharto’s regime. His brilliant novel Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), part of his tetralogy about colonial history written in political captivity, has now been made into a movie for the first time.

In the final episode of the four-part series, Rumah Kaca (House of Glass), the writer introduces the character of a Javanese noble with a “bleached soul”, a prototype of the feudal aristocrat who identifies with the colonizer and thereby betrays the nationalist struggle. Anti-colonial literature of Pramoedya’s caliber has nothing to do with the crass nationalistic rhetoric about brutal oppressors and courageous freedom fighters. This literature pierces the minds of those molded by colonialism.

In early 2018, the Multatuli Museum was opened in Lebak, West Java. In an interview in [national Dutch newspaper] De Volkskrant, historian Bonnie Triyana said that it is high time for a museum like this to show that colonial history is much more complex than people in Indonesia think: “For many Indonesians it is simply a history of white domination. That was, of course, there, but in reality a grey area existed too in which, among others, the local nobility played a major role.”

Historiography apparently still suffers from the same simplification that I remember from the schoolbooks of my youth. Multatuli’s Max Havelaar is an indictment of the colonial system, but also of the oppression of the rural population by the local aristocracy or regents who provided the colonizer with land and recruited slaves for all kinds of forced labor. In the past year, intensive public relations have been built in support of the brand-new museum. A discussion program about colonial history for young citizens in particular will start in which art and literature are prominent.

The museum sails on the same new current of awareness building as the revival of Pramoedya’s books. That current should herald the beginning of a history debate in Indonesia. There is movement towards such a debate, and where there is movement there is hope. It is implicit in the protests for solidarity with victims of human rights violations all over the country, including in Papua. It is hidden in the incalculable streams on social media. And in the world of hyperactive millennials who pursue their own path to change. As we are witnessing with the Papuan Lives Matter movement that emerged not long ago among Indonesian students in Bandung following the worldwide BLM movement.

***

Racism, that is what started this essay for me. Racism, as it was already present in pre-colonial times, but was then eagerly used by colonialism and institutionalized and transformed, according to its needs, into an instrument for oppression.

Racism is of all times, what are you worried about, I sometimes hear. There is no doubt that it is difficult to find periods in history where racism as a social phenomenon is absent. Moreover, no one is immune to it, its seeds hide also in you and me. Every reason to be very concerned about it. What would the world look like if no one had ever stood up against racism? Racism does not stand alone, because where people rise up against it, they also rise against all the other abuses that make their lives unbearable.

Challenging racism over and over again pays off, even if a world without this devastating evil seems to exist on another planet. In a public speech in early 2013, Angela Davis, by then already in her seventies, looked back on fifty years of political activism and called on all  change-minded citizens to hold on to the imagination of a “different universe”. Change is not a straight line up, it is also a question of patience. Sometimes you have to raise your voice against injustices that you think have long been overcome. “… We have to learn how to imagine the future in terms that are not restricted to our own lifetimes”.

Artien Utrecht is engaged in human rights advocacy. She worked for more than twenty years for the international development organization Hivos. Some of her essays have been published in the literary magazine Extaze.

[1] The Dutch language adopts a grammatical usage that singularizes population groups. In Dutch, “de Javaan” (“the Javanese man/character”) has a singular grammar that encodes racial stereotyping en dehumanization (“de Javaan is…”). The Javanese literally is individualized. This in contrast to the English “the Javanese”, which has plural conjugation and connotation (“the Javanese are…”).
[2] “Black Skin, White Masks”. The Dutch language has the color-erasing term “blank” for the racial term “white”. “Blank” is not a color term and denotes “devoid of color”. It has the connotation of “pure”.