- White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race by Gloria Wekker
White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016, 226 pp.
White Innocence makes a significant contribution to the field of critical whiteness studies by examining the role of race, especially whiteness, and the legacy of colonialism in the present-day Netherlands. Historically situating her analysis against four centuries of Dutch imperialism in the East Indies, the West Indies, and the Antilles, Gloria Wekker examines some of the profound paradoxes characterizing a nation that overwhelmingly sees itself as color blind and racially innocent. Like many white-dominated, formerly imperial European countries such as France and Sweden, the Netherlands tends to see race and racism as issues that first and foremost concern the United States. Next might come South Africa, and perhaps even Great Britain should be mentioned—but not continental Western Europe. As Wekker argues, the Netherlands in particular is marked by a white sense of self that insists, "We are a small nation, innocent; we are inherently antiracist; moreover, we do not have bad intentions" (Wekker 2016, 166). One might say that Wekker reveals the Netherlands to be a nation constituted by Good White People (Sullivan 2014). The paradox is that Dutch white goodness and Dutch pride in being a gentle, hospitable nation go hand-in-hand with racial oppression and colonial violence.
Wekker begins White Innocence with three key paradoxes in Dutch white self-representation. The first is an aversion to identification with migrants [End Page 363] even though many Dutch people have migrant ancestry (2016, 6). Unlike the United States in which people seek out and often take pride in knowledge of their immigrant ancestry, Wekker (2016, 7) argues that "in the Netherlands there is minimal interest in those elements that deviate from Ur Dutchness," which is always and necessarily assumed to be white and thus allegedly racially unmarked. Here we can see a difference between the Netherlands and France, for example. In France, the unwritten rule for Americans to show respect and to be treated well in turn is to attempt to speak French rather than English even if one's French is broken or spoken with a strong foreign accent. In the Netherlands, however, the opposite advice is given to Americans: stick with speaking English to avoid the risk of being perceived as a migrant, which speaking broken Dutch will do. The implicit message from white Dutch people is that whatever you do, if you wish to be respected, don't be mistaken for an immigrant to the Netherlands.
The second paradox is the Dutch self-image of being an innocent victim of the German occupation during World War II even though the Netherlands was second (after Poland) in the number of Jews abducted and deported to German concentration camps. At roughly the same time, moreover, Dutch colonies in Indonesia were fighting for their independence, struggling against "excessive violence" by the Netherlands to hang onto its East Indies colonies (2016, 12). The so-called mildest and "quietest people of Europe" (2016, 2) have a strong and loud record of imperialist racism, but one that they disavow and deny even to themselves. This denial is related to the third paradox examined by Wekker, which is the silence in the Dutch educational system about its colonial past. As Wekker (2016, 13) lively puts it, "judging by curricula at various educational levels, from grade school to university level, it is the best-kept secret that the Netherlands has been a formidable imperial nation."
Chapter one of the book examines everyday cases of racism in the Netherlands, including "jokes" by a white TV talk show host about his fear that his white teenage daughter might bring home "a big negro" (2016, 33), black mothers being mistaken as the nannies of their white children in public settings (35), and black people being harassed by white police officers (36–37). As Wekker (2016, 49) notes, many of these patterns are similar to those found in other nations, such as the United States. What is distinctive about racial microaggressions in the Netherlands, however...