A repetition of what has been said

So I haven’t written anything in a while. It might seem strange that I remained silent during these times of all times. Me, a black woman of color in Holland, how could I not say anything about the annual blackface celebration? But I did not, and still do not, know what to say. What more do they want us to say? Do they need more compelling arguments, historical facts or personal testimonies? What can I possibly say?

I went to a protest a few weeks ago. A friend of mine organized one in her hometown of Weesp, a small town near Amsterdam. This too has become an annual thing. Two years ago she held her first anti-Zwarte Piet protest there, alone. A cop took the sign she was holding up away from her, the people of the town who have seen her grow up intimidated and assaulted her. The images were spread on social media, since then more people joined her.

We were escorted by policemen to an assigned place where we were allowed to protest. That’s right, in Holland you need to ask for permission in order to hold a peaceful protest, and then you’ll get assigned a place. But we’ll play the game if that’s what it takes to be heard.
We came into a hostile environment, as we expected. We were mocked, people asked us if we were employed; “You probably don’t have jobs right?”. It was a Saturday, and obviously the people asking weren’t sitting in an office somewhere either, but screw logic. People were filming us and taking our pictures, who knows where these images ended up. Many passed us by and shook their heads or made dismissive hand gestures, others angrily flipped us the bird, young men with their friends and older women holding their shopping bag. There were people who tried to come up to us violently, fortunately they were stopped by the police. Some came up to us to ask why we were protesting, after being provided with an answer they’d say that we were falling into victimhood and that we needed to get over it. There was no right answer to their question.

The same day another group of activists, on their way to Dokkum, a town in the north of Holland where the national festivity of the entry of Saint-Nicholas into the country was to be celebrated, got blocked on the highway by a group of extreme right counter activists. They never arrived in Dokkum. The police didn’t arrest any of the counter-activists blocking the highway, they seemed to be fraternizing with them instead, shaking their hands and patting them on their backs, while ignoring the activists waiting in the busses, frightened and unsure of what was going to happen. Politicians in the next days regretted the events, yet said they understood the sentiments of the counter-activists. There were voices saying activists should wait until after December 5th to discuss Zwarte Piet. Now now, not while the children are celebrating. Don’t expose innocent children to protests. Nobody talked of the innocence of black children, what they go through during this time of the year. Their eyes see too much too soon, they experience too much too soon. During this time they are being introduced to a social phenomenon that will haunt them for the rest of their lives: racism. Now they know. But racism can wait until after they are done with elementary school and need to apply for high schools, or after they graduate with a degree and enter the job market. Not now, not while they are suppose to be celebrating.

One of the houses I pass by each morning now has a picture of a little girl posing with 2 people dressed as Zwarte Piet pressed against the window. The picture isn’t hanging on a wall inside the house, or put in a nice frame on a sidetable, it is pressed against the front ground floor window. Whoever is living inside is not able to look at their own picture. It has not been put there so that the family could enjoy and reminisce about a joyous occasion. Who is meant to see it?

I saw two Zwarte Pieten this evening, while walking through my neighborhood, on their way to a celebration. They might have been the last ones I will have to see this season. They were laughing and goofing around, however whatever innocence they may have once had is now gone. Now they know.

After tonight it will be December 6th all Saint Nicholas festivities will be over and we will be preparing for Christmas. We will now be allowed to discuss Zwarte Piet because the children will have had their fun. But what is there left to say?

Why Intersectionality?

[A Translation of my column ‘Waarom Intersectionaliteit?’]

Many of us are familiar with the stereotypes and stigmas that are placed on working women, and the expectations that are imposed upon them.

We know for example that they often receive comments about their appearance, and that they are more often self-conscious about their appearance. We are aware of the fact that they receive comments such as “You look cute”. Or that they are seen as ruthless and unpleasant when they are ambitious, like Miranda Priestley, the character played by Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’.

But there are also women who are faced with additional stereotypes that don’t exist for other women, on whom stigmas are placed upon that aren’t placed upon other women. Certain expectations are held about these women that aren’t being held about other women.

In these women’s cases it isn’t just the men that are guilty of this, but also the women that don’t’ share the same characteristics as them.

I would now like to talk to you about one such woman.

Sophie Olúwolé

Last week Nigerian philosopher Sophie Olúwolé was in the Netherlands. Her book about Orunmila and Socrates has recently been translated into Dutch and she came here to promote her book. She has a remarkable story; she was born in 1935, during the colonial era. She was the first in Sub-Saharan Africa to earn a PhD in philosophy and she was the only female philosophy student at the faculty of philosophy in Nigeria. She is currently one of the most important philosophers in Africa, she has done groundbreaking work by studying the Yoruba language and the ideas that are contained in it. I wrote my Master Thesis on African Philosophy, and had studied her work for it. So for me it was a great pleasure and a great honor to meet her. I also organized a Masterclass and public lecture about her work in collaboration with NiNsee (The National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy), where she came to talk about her latest book.

She talked about her research, notions of gender in Yoruba thought, the differences in Western and African thought, the stigma that is placed on African philosophy. But she also told fun stories about her childhood and how she got the name Sophie. One of my favorite statements of her she made that day was about the difference she noticed between Western and African marriages. There is no polygamy in the West, like there is in many African cultures. But as she said “In the West you marry 1 wife, divorce 10 times”. She called it ‘Progressive polygamy’. It was a successful event that was frequented by a diverse audience.

White/Hipster Privilege

The night before had gone very differently. A certain philosophical institute, that portrays itself as a life school, co-founded by a popular British philosopher, with franchises in various places around the world, had organized a class with Sophie during which they interviewed her about her book.

In the announcement for the event this institute stated that Africa has a rich philosophical tradition that can make the West look at itself in a different wat. African philosophy can help people in the West to dwell on what they’re feeling and what the people around them are feeling. The feeling and emotion is what Africa can enrich the West with, and its Olúwolé task to bring this knowledge.

It quickly became clear to me that Olúwolé had not been invited as an equally-valued Academic colleague, but as a ‘wise’ woman from Africa. She and the class that had been organized about her book functioned as an ‘exotic outing’ for a group of urban, high-educated young people.

This announcement made me think of an essay by African-American author and activist Bell Hooks, who in her essay ‘Eating the other’ said the following: “The contemporary crises of identity in the west, especially as experienced by white youth, are eased when the “primitive” is recouped via a focus on diversity and pluralism which suggests the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives” and […] “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture”(Hooks 2015:25).

On this night the audience was much less diverse, with significantly fewer people that looked like her. The interview started, this was done by Ikenna Aziuke, who is of British and Nigerian descent. They talked about her work, but also about Nigeria’s colonial past and the consequences of it. What was remarkable was that, not even 30 minutes into the program, people started walking out. I looked around me in a state of bewilderment. These people had paid €42.50 for a ticket and didn’t even bother to sit out a 2-hour program. It was shameful. During the course of the evening more people started to leave prematurely.

In the midst of the program a question round was done. A young white woman asked Olúwolé a question; she asked if the interview could go back to African philosophy, because that is what she came here for. They had now often talked about colonialism, about white and black people, but that is not what she came here for. Could they please go back to just talking about African philosophy. It now became awkward.

Was this young woman acting as her ally, her partner in ‘sisterhood’? Why did this young woman think she could learn from Olúwolé’s philosophical ideas without being confronted with the harsh and painful reality from which they originated; the setting of the reason why African philosophy has been systematically ignored and why Olúwolé’s work is being ignored?

Did she want to withdraw the perks of these ideas, or at least aspects of these ideas, to obtain some sort of wisdom from them without knowing their roots? Apparently to her it was not important to know these ideas in their context. It is as Bell Hooks said: “White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure” (Hooks 2015:158). Or another great quote by Bell Hooks: “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other”

Unfortunately this painful evening had an aftermath. The following day I received an email from the philosophical institute titles “Sophie says sorry”. In this email they apologize, on behalf of Olúwolé, for the evening that had not gone as planned. They knew Olúwolé had a ‘complicated’ accent (Nigerian), and this was the reason why they had asked host Ikenna Azuike to do the interview. Participants of the event were offered a free class with a drink included to soften the blow of the disappointment.

I learned afterwards, through her publisher, that Olúwolé was not aware of this so-called apology.


Why intersectionality?

So why Intersectionality? So that female African academics such as Sophie Olúwolé will be considered as equally-values peers, and not as ‘wise African women’.

So that what they have to say, their ideas, will be appreciated and acknowledged in their entirety, instead of merely extracting a supposed essence from them.

Grâce Ndjako


Hooks, Belle (2015) “Black Looks”

Waarom Intersectionaliteit?

Disclaimer: This is a column I recited at an event called ‘Vrouwenlogica’ in Amsterdam on May 29, 2017. I recited the column in Dutch, so I decided to publish it in Dutch as well. 

Velen van ons zijn bekend met de stereotypen en stigma’s die er op werkende vrouwen worden geplaatst, en de verwachtingen die hen worden opgelegd.

Dat zij bijvoorbeeld veel vaker opmerkingen krijgen over hun uiterlijk en zich veel vaker van hun uiterlijk bewust zijn. Dat ze opmerkingen krijgen als “U kijkt zo lief”. Of hoe ze als meedogenloze krengen worden afgeschetst als ze ambitieus zijn, à la Miranda Priestley, het personage dat Meryl Streep speelt in ‘The Devil wears Prada’.

Maar daarnaast zijn er vrouwen die daarbij ook nog last hebben van stereotypen die over hen bestaan, die er niet bestaan voor andere vrouwen en stigma’s die op hen zijn geplaatst die niet op andere vrouwen worden geplaatst. Men koestert van deze vrouwen verwachtingen die men niet van andere vrouwen koestert.

In hun gevallen zijn het dan niet alleen mannen die zich hier schuldig aan maken, maar ook vrouwen die niet dezelfde kenmerken hebben als zij.

Ik wil het nu over één zo’n vrouw hebben.

Sophie Oluwole

Afgelopen week was de Nigeriaanse filosofe Sophie Olúwolé in Nederland. Haar boek over Òrúnmìlà en Socrates is onlangs naar het Nederlands vertaalt en zij kwam hier haar boek promoten. Ze heeft een opmerkelijk verhaal; ze is in 1935, in het koloniale tijdperk, geboren. Promoveerde als eerste in Sub-Sahara Afrika in de filosofie en ze was de enige vrouwelijke student aan de filosofiefaculteit in Nigeria. Ze geldt momenteel als een van de belangrijkste filosofen in Afrika, ze heeft baanbrekend werk verricht door de Yoruba taal en de ideeën die daarin schuilen te bestuderen.  Ik heb mijn Master Scriptie geschreven over Afrikaanse filosofie, en hiervoor ook haar werk bestudeerd. Het was voor mij dan ook een groot genoegen en een grote eer haar te mogen ontmoeten. Daarnaast heb ik in samenwerking met het NiNsee een MasterClass en een publieksavond georganiseerd over haar werk, waar zij kwam vertellen over haar laatste boek.

 Ze sprak over haar onderzoek, gendernoties in de Yoruba filosofie, de verschillen in het Westers en Afrikaanse denken, de stigma op Afrikaanse filosofie. Daarnaast vertelde ze ook leuke verhalen over haar jeugd en hoe ze aan de naam Sophie kwam.  Een van mijn favoriete uitspraken van haar die dag ging over het verschil dat zij had opgemerkt in Westerse en Afrikaanse huwelijken. In het Westen kent men dan geen polygamie zoals in veel Afrikaanse culturen, maar zoals ze zei “In the West you marry 1 wife, divorce 10 times”. “Progressive polygamy” noemde ze dit. Het was een succesvolle dag, dat door een divers publiek werd bezocht.

White/Hipster Privilege

De avond ervoor was heel anders verlopen. Een zekere filosofische instelling, dat zich profileert als levensschool, mede-opgericht door een populaire Britse filosoof, met franchises op verschillende plekken in de wereld, had een lesprogramma met haar georganiseerd waarin zij over haar boek werd geïnterviewd.

Ter aankondiging van het evenement vermelde de instelling dat Afrika een rijke filosofische traditie heeft die men in het Westen op een andere manier naar zichzelf kan laten doen kijken. Afrikaanse filosofie kan mensen in het Westen tussen alle drukte heen helpen stilstaan bij wat zij zelf en de mensen om hen heen werkelijk voelen. Het gevoel en emotie van Afrika is waar zij het Westen mee kan verrijken, en aan Oluwole de taak deze kennis te komen brengen.

Het werd voor mij al vrij snel duidelijk dat Oluwole daar niet was uitgenodigd als volwaardige Academische collega, maar als ‘wijze’ vrouw uit Afrika. Zij en het lesprogramma dat rondom haar boek werd georganiseerd zouden fungeren als een ‘exotisch uitstapje’, voor de groep jonge hoogopgeleide mensen uit de grote stad.

Bij deze aankondiging moest ik denken aan een essay van de Afro-Amerikaanse auteur en activiste Bell Hooks, die in haar essay ‘Eating the other’ het volgende zei:

“The contemporary crises of identity in the west, especially as experienced by white youth, are eased when the “primitive”is recouped via a focus on diversity and pluralism which suggests the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives”  en “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture”(Hooks 2015).

Het publiek was deze avond minder divers, met aanzienlijk minder mensen die er als haar uitzagen. Het interview begon, dit werd gedaan door de Brits-Nigeriaanse Ikenna Azuike, er werd over haar werk gesproken, maar ook over het koloniaal verleden en de gevolgen ervan. Wat opviel is dat er, na nog niet eens een half uur, mensen weg begonnen te lopen. Verbaasd keek ik om me heen. Deze mensen hadden €42,50 neergelegd voor een kaartje en namen niet eens de moeite om het 2 uur durende programma uit te zitten. Het was beschamend. In de loop van de avond liepen steeds meer mensen vroegtijdig weg.

Midden in het programma werd er een vragenronde ingelast. Een jonge witte vrouw stelde Olúwolé een vraag; ze vroeg of het gesprek weer kon gaan over Afrikaanse filosofie, daar was ze namelijk voor gekomen. Het gesprek ging nu vaak over het kolonialisme, over wit en zwart, maar daar was ze niet voor gekomen. Kon het nu alsjeblieft weer alleen over Afrikaanse filosofie gaan? Er brak een ongemakkelijk moment aan.

Was deze jonge vrouw op dat moment haar ‘ally’, bondgenoot in ‘sisterhood’? Waarom dacht deze jonge vrouw te kunnen leren van Olúwolé’s filosofische ideeën zonder te worden geconfronteerd met de harde en pijnlijke werkelijkheid waaruit deze zijn voortgekomen; de achtergrond van waarom de Afrikaanse filosofie systematisch wordt vergeten, waarom het werk van Olúwolé wordt vergeten?

Wilde zij van de ideeën, of dan in ieder geval bepaalde aspecten ervan, de voordelen eruit kunnen onttrekken, om hier zelf wijzer van te worden, zonder de wortels ervan te kennen? Het was voor haar kennelijk niet belangrijk om de ideeën in context te leren kennen. Zoals Bell Hooks zei:

“White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure” (Hooks 2015).

Of een ander mooi citaat van Hooks:

“When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other” (Hooks 2015).

Er volgde helaas nog een nasleep op deze pijnlijke avond. De dag erna ontving ik van deze filosofische instelling een mail genaamd “Sophie zegt sorry”. Hierin bieden zij namens Olúwolé hun excuses aan voor de avond die niet zo goed was verlopen. Ze wisten dat Olúwolé een ingewikkeld accent had (Nigeriaans-Engels) en hadden daarom de presentator Ikenna Azuike gevraagd haar te interviewen. Deelnemers aan de avond werden uitgenodigd voor een gratis ‘class’ inclusief drankje om de teleurstelling te verzachten.

Ik leerde achteraf via haar uitgever dat Olúwolé niet op de hoogte was van haar zogenaamde excuses.

Waarom Intersectionaliteit?

Waarom Intersectionaliteit? Zodat vrouwelijke Afrikaanse academici als Sophie Olúwolé als volwaardige collega’s worden gezien, en niet als ‘wijze Afrikaanse vrouwen’.

Dat wat zij te melden hebben, hun ideeën, in hun volledigheid wordt gewaardeerd en erkent, en er niet slechts een vermeende essentie uit wordt getrokken.

Grâce Ndjako


Hooks, Belle (2015) “Black Looks”