Are there contradictions in fighting homophobia while encouraging Islamophobia? Is it possible to do anti-racism activism that suppresses the voices of black and brown undocumented migrants? Can feminism claim to advocate for the rights of all women if it excludes women of lower classes or non-white ethnicities? If our activist efforts seem to erase and hurt those that are most marginalized and oppressed in society, what is it that we are really trying to achieve? Is it a utopian dream to represent many critical political agendas at once? We sought to interrogate some of these questions through examining the state of intersectional activism in the Netherlands. To do so, we interviewed many activists who were already familiar with the term intersectionality and were involved in activist work that incorporated this framework.
What is Intersectionality?
“Intersectionality” is a feminist and sociological concept that marks the examination of the intersections between and the overlapping of different systems of oppression. A direct criticism of analyses that render larger systems of oppression as separate, exclusive and unidimensional, intersectionality makes visible the intersecting and interlocking of different axes of oppression and their consistent interaction on multiple and simultaneous levels.
The origins of the term “Intersectionality” can be traced back to the United States, initially named by Critical Legal and Black Feminist Scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Yet, it is important to note the term and its usage precedes this official publication, as it was employed by Black Feminist circles and collectives. Crenshaw unpacks this critical concept in her piece “Intersectionality and Identity Politics: Learning from Violence Against Women of Color.” She demonstrates this complex relationship by examining “Violence against Women” experienced by Women of Color.
Specifically, she highlights how the official systems in place to address issues of Battering and Domestic Violence have been inadequate for addressing the unique needs of Women of Color. For instance, some immigrant women facing Domestic Violence are unable to call authorities because of an undocumented status. Similarly, Crenshaw highlights multiple instances of Domestic Violence services refusing assistance due to language barriers. Their struggles as women who also experience racism were not accounted for in the creation of these social services for women.
Thus, intersectionality elucidates just some of the ways in which people’s experiences, and access to aid and rights, differ due their difference in positionality, or positioning of privilege, within a larger intersecting “Matrix of Oppression.” Through this more thorough and multidimensional conceptualization of oppression, the experiences and unique sufferings felt by people of multiple oppressed identities are rendered visible. An intersectional framework also accounts for the ways in which different forms of oppression are mutually shaped and informed by each other.
The use and publishing of this term was accompanied by a larger call to action to fight all manifestations of oppression with the understanding that all oppressions are all inextricably linked. This poses a challenge for activist groups that focus on one issue or acknowledge only one form of oppression, but it is precisely this type of activism that at times unintentionally perpetuates oppression in their erasure and un-acknowledgment of people at the intersections. This sort of organizing historically has left Women of Color marginalized in both spaces that claim to represent them.
This dynamic is apparent in the Women’s Liberation/Feminist Movement of the 1960s and 70s. The Women’s Liberation/Feminist Movement claimed to address women-centered issues and to work to liberate all women. However, in practice, this movement addressed issues that primarily affect only middle-class, white women. In this way, Women of Color (WOC) felt excluded from this movement. Black Feminist Movement and Women of Color feminist organizing instead advocated for issues that directly affected them, utilizing a more intersectional approach for addressing systemic injustice. This work also aims to disrupt the underlying assumption that what is adequate for addressing white women’s issues will help all women. These movements serve as real world examples of a non-intersectional approach and intersectionality theory in practice.
With time, the terms “intersectionality” and “intersectional” took on a life of their own, marking a particular and crucial theoretical framework that tints how one navigates and understands the social world. It is not only a means of analysis, but also garnered new methodologies, forms of language, pedagogies, organizing and other means of engagements. There has been a push within academia and activism to take on more intersectional approaches. Yet, whether it has been successful or not is a different question.
Intersectionality within the Netherlands
Intersectional organizing and thought in the Netherlands follows a somewhat similar trajectory of that in the States. As opposed to the “Black Feminism” rubric that marks the States, many non-white feminists in the Netherlands gathered under the umbrella term de “Zwarte Migranten Vluchtelingen [ZMV] vrouwenbeweging” or the Black Migrant Refugee Women’s movement. To address their lack of representation in the mainstream feminist movement of the 70s, The ZMV-vrouwenbeweging created frameworks and organized issues that spoke to their lives and struggles. For example, Professor Gloria Wekker, who was heavily involved in the ZMV-vrouwenbeweging, explains how many ZMV activists felt that mainstream-feminists aim of dismantling the structure of the nuclear family neglected how this familial structure provided them a necessary respite from the racism they faced outside of it.
This movement took inspiration from the aforementioned theories of North American and British Women of Color. Professor Wekker, together with her collective Sister Outsider, invited well-known American Black Feminist author Audre Lorde to visit the Netherlands in the summers of 1984 and 1986. During this visit, intersectionality or “kruispuntdenken” arrived at Dutch shores. Unfortunately, a significant amount of time passed before intersectional thought was adopted into other academic circles and beyond.
Those Dutch academics that tried to begin the conversation about racism in the Netherlands faced strong resistance, such as Dr. Philomena Essed with her 1984 groundbreaking work Alledaags Racisme (Everyday Racism). The acceptance of intersectionality within academic circles has been a piecemeal, when it has been employed, the focus remained only on gender and sexuality, yet acknowledging race as an important axis of signification remained taboo.
Social historian Zihni Ozdil sees the concept gradually taking hold with many (white) academics who were previously dismissive towards it. He explains how these academics are now endorsing the term, “pretending like they always had.” However, the sincerity and impact of this backing is questionable, as our interviewees consistently critiqued the “lip-service” given to intersectionality amidst the lack of truly intersectional work. One mentioned that intersectionality can easily be “co-opted without an understanding of its Black Feminist origins” making it more like “an empty catchphrase.”
US scholarly work may have cemented or publicized definitions of intersectionality, but activists were already conceptualizing and employing the term prior to this. The people with whom we spoke explained that the links between academia and activism in the Netherlands are less strong than they are in the States. In the Netherlands, Gender Studies are treated first and foremost as an academic enterprise, and not an activist enterprise, according to Wekker. Consequently, the move of intersectionality into the Dutch academy has been a slow transition.
Activism in the Netherlands
It is unfortunately difficult to give a comprehensive overview of Dutch activism and activist cultures due to a lack of documentation, archival research and academic attention given to this crucial aspect of society, or at least few avenues that we were aware of. This, instead, is the inside scoop from people, and figures involved in activism and intersectional work in Holland. Sources noted that there is an apparent yet minimal presence of left-based activism in the Netherlands. Activist Ruud Tevreden noted that “activism as I have experienced it in France, or the United States, or the UK, that caliber of activism you don’t see here.” He argues that most of the Dutch activism is less aggressive, less street-based and more regulated than that he’s encountered in the aforementioned countries.
The Netherlands does in fact have a long withstanding history of leftist social justice movements and organizing. Its most prominent, thriving moment took place in the 1960s and 1970s, marked by bouts of feminist organizing, the Provo movement and the conception of many Squatter collectives and protests. Some may argue that the vigor that distinguished this moment has dissipated, yet in recent times, there has been a resurgence of punchy, public and widely acknowledged activism. For example, the rise of anti-racist activism around Zwarte Piet, the organizing around issues of undocumented migrants through the organization We Are Here, the squatting of a former university building called “Het Spinhuis” by students and the formation of Queeristan, a festival dedicated to Queer politics.
Our sources noted that what distinguished activism in Holland is government interest and involvement. It seems that Dutch movements are not given the time or space to mature before being taken up as an issue of importance by the welfare state. According to some of our activists, the government is known for quickly erecting committees to address concerns of activist groups. Hodan Warsame purported that there is a popular belief that “the benevolent state takes care of its citizens, and that the state knows best and has our best interest in mind.”
The trend many of our interviewees observed is that when these political agendas are adopted by the government, it loses its original sentiment and drive and is replaced with a “watered-down” version of the original solution proposed by said activists. These methods promote a “culture of expertise,” as put by activist and Queeristan organiser Miki Stelder. It “affirms the government as the most knowledgeable about said issue and as the most qualified to envision and enact a solution, possibly taking agency away from activists, organizers, and people.” She also identified the “poldermodel” and the general Dutch culture of valuing compromise as supporting these diminishing effects.
As a result of this state-sanctioned activist climate, non-state-sanctioned means of civic engagement, such as protesting, strikes or civil disobedience, are considered drastic and “radical,” and are subsequently stigmatized. Stelder connected this to a frequently used Dutch proverb, “being normal is already crazy enough,” which can imply that there is no need to be any more crazy, radical or vocal. Ozdil concurred stating that “You can have your views but whether you are protesting, organizing a strike, writing very critical op-eds and articles or signing manifestos, it is all considered kind of radical from the mainstream and you are considered a little bit like you are from Mars.” Accordingly, few people participate in these acts and the activist circles that do remain small, discreet subcultures.
Ozdil felt that this difference was clear when compared to demonstrations in other countries. Here in the Netherlands, he only sees specific “types of people” on the streets during demonstrations, namely: “the communists and anarchists.” He feels when he attends similar events in other countries he encounters more “mums and dads with their children,” and a more diverse crowd in attendance. Ozdil envisions this changing as “the continued dismantling of the welfare state” in the Netherlands “will lead to activism being used more as a political outlet” than it is currently.
Divisions in Activism
The Sister Outsider collective was created to give voice to those erased in the mainstream feminist agenda. Divides such as this persist in activist subcultures today. Professor Wekker explained that “if you consider who interacts with whom,” the Netherlands is an apartheid-like state where social segregation is “thoroughly naturalized in Dutch society.” Thus, she was not surprised that such splits occur within activist cultures as well. This statement rings true for an activist from a Transgender collective, who explained that there were not many transgender people of color involved in her organization, she doesn’t know why they are not a part of this organization, and neither knew where they organized or congregated. She stated that this was an intersection at which her organization wants to think about more deeply and try to change. This interaction can exemplify the extent to which such segregations are naturalized and unquestioned.
But, why are these divisions so unquestioned? Professor Wekker explains that larger tendencies within Dutch society of being “colorblind” and “powerblind” are replicated by both activists and academics. Colorblindness exemplified by the lack of any official acknowledgment of racism in the Netherlands and the nation’s projected image as “the epitome of anti-racism,” despite many other claims and occurrences that would prove otherwise. Wekker explains that race and racism are projected as issues that exist abroad, in countries as South Africa and the United States, but that do not affect people’s lives in the Netherlands and as a result, do need not be discussed. This denial, in conjunction with a general attitude that historically Dutch people were the victim of foreign invaders (rather than oppressors) is what she refers to as “Innocence Unlimited.”
This collective sense of an innocent self makes handling issues of race, in Wekker’s terms, “too personally confrontational,” especially concerning matters of “whiteness and its structural benefits” for Dutch white citizens. Currently, calling someone “white” or in its Dutch translation “wit” or “blank” is seen as offensive and it is not common to use it as an identity marker. Some of the activists we spoke with felt that other activists in the Netherlands were “swimming in a sea of white privilege,” and in that way is exclusionary to people of color, partially explaining the ongoing segregation within and “whitewashing” of most activist circles.
Because most Dutch activism is still very white and male-dominated, according to Ozdil, a comprehensive intersectional analysis is out of reach, or won’t be attempted by many because it would involve questioning and grappling with their own privileges, a difficult and uncomfortable project for many.
This exemplifies a form of “power-blindness” that Wekker earlier described. Power-blindness, meaning that analyses and actions do not acknowledge particular structures of power and how they manifest in spaces. For example, activists not considering their own subject positionality in their work, how they may marginalize others in a space, or the use of alienating, problematic or stigmatizing language. For the account of language, many vocalize a preference for “Dutch directness,” in contrast to an “out-dated” political correctness. Activist Tevreden identified this lack of self-reflection about how the Dutch activists oppress their peers as a factor inhibiting him from participating in certain collectives and movements. He also thinks it is characteristic of a Dutch unwillingness to critique oneself. It seems that a lack of reflection on interpersonal oppressions contributes to a lack of diversity within many activist spaces.
There also appears to be a lack of collaboration between different activist concerns that intersect. Tevreden, who works with environmental and anti-racist movements, argued that these groups often share similar ideals but rarely even communicate, let alone collaborate with each other. The way in which these issues intersect and overlap and could benefit from this sort of co-operation appears to be limitedly appreciated and put in practice. Several activists identified this “single-issue” mindset as a limiting factor to larger collaborative or any sort of intersectional organizing.
One example recalled was an anti-racism event that hosted a well-renowned activist to speak who was also known to be openly homophobic. Some activists who expressed a desire for a broader based solidarity and who did not support the speaker’s views protested. While some acknowledged that this critique was valid, the protesters were told that “this” was not the focus of the conversation or event. This can be hard to swallow for activists present who occupy both a Black and Queer identity. Dutch activists working and writing with intersectionality in mind also often occupy multiple intersecting marginalized identities and consistently feel alienated by approaches that invalidate their other identities. It is understandably difficult to encourage collaboration when people are constantly undermining each other. Ozdil felt that this was a common problem in social activist movements. He is optimistic, however, that in the long run education [that fosters aware of others social issues and experiences] causes could change this.
Where Is the Intersectional Activism?
Radio Redmond started as a radio talk show established in 2013. They are an example of a group of activists who explicitly work through an intersectional lens. The Redmond team also organizes events, lectures and panels on varied topics. Redmond organizer Hodan Warsame explained that a lot of intellectual work goes into preparing their events. When they organize their talks, they try to consider whether they can find people who embody the issues discussed without fetishizing them, tokenizing them or eroticizing them. They think critically about topics chosen, how debates are framed, and ensure they are not privileging one oppression over another. Self-reflection is exemplified in their questioning and understanding of the limits of their identities, what each member in particular can speak to and in avoiding dominating the discussions and instead give space to those traditionally marginalized voices.
Warsame told us that her main motivation for organizing in this fashion is that she does not “want to repeat the mistakes that other people have made” in “perpetuating oppressions and erasing difference and identities and voices when you are talking about social justice.” This does not mean that they always succeed in these aims. In a recent panel debate about migration, activists from the undocumented migrants collective We Are Here were unable to attend at the last minute. Redmond felt that an essential set of voices was missing from the debate and they also faced outside criticism for this. However, Warsame is committed to intersectional organizing and hopes that through this work they can form a strong community of those with this shared vision. Activist Mikki Stelder stated you need a community before you can have a movement and this is what Radio Redmond was beginning and hoping to move towards.
It seems that the community of those fighting for social justice through this alternate lens is small. They remain a subculture of an already small subculture of activist spheres. Ozdil supposes that in other countries it took at least 20 years for intersectionality to become more dominant and in the Netherlands “we are still at the beginning of this process.”
For those pursuing intersectional activism, there are still outstanding difficulties. Stelder says her Queer collective tries to be intersectional, but at times she feels like they use the word more than actually carry it out.
A struggle they face is that “the legacies of methodologies [to address interpersonal oppression dynamics] has been invisibilized and erased in the Netherlands.” Other interviewees expressed a similar sentiment about the lack of Dutch frameworks. Many activists and academics resort to using English terms and phrases, such as intersectionality, and “white supremacy,” because these ideas haven’t been developed and are not widely used in a Dutch context. At times this undermines the legitimacy of these activists, as others argue that these “foreign” concepts hold no relevance for Dutch society. Warsame explains that the perception is: “if you can’t say it in Dutch then the issue does not exist in Dutch society,” and “people use it as an excuse to kind of tune out” when you are speaking about injustice. Translating some of this terminology “literally and culturally,” Stelder argues, seems pertinent to the push for more intersectional work.
Although the push for more intersectional work involves change on many fronts, a piece of the process involves changing the language employed by many activist circles. Snel, from the Transgender Foundation, felt that none of her direct peers in the trans-activist community were as interested in developing “politically correct” terminology as she was, as it was not considered “important.” Other sources confirmed this and suggested that in general, Dutch society considered developing “politically correct” language was a minor concern.
Cultural critic Egbert Alejandro Martina wrote about this to say: “There is a form of injustice (hermeneutical injustice) that occurs when a society lacks a conceptual framework for understanding the experiences of those it has been treating inhumanly.” This is why intersectional activists like Martina are working on developing the language to speak about these issues in Dutch society. It is also inaccurate to state that there is no legacy of intersectionality in the Netherlands. Both Wekker and Warsame brought forth the extensive history of intersectionalism in the Netherlands; however, this history of marginal yet powerful anti-oppression work is rarely acknowledged in mainstream circles.
Currently, many Dutch activists base many of their arguments around social movements outside the NL. Warsame states, “it feels disempowering to only look towards the Civil Rights Movement” and it “feels disrespectful for those who resisted in the Netherlands but are not known.” Professor Wekker referred us to a book she edited on Black Feminism and Migrant Movements in the Netherlands but also acceded that there was a limited amount of similar work. There is still much to be done in this area.
Many activists also disagree with or decide not to pursue intersectionality as a framework, and as authors, we realize their voices have been only limitedly engaged in this piece. This choice was intentional in that we chose to give voice to a perspective that is not well represented in via other sources. Yet, even one of our interviewees, Ozdil, argued that he felt at times intersectional approaches make tactical mistakes by being too inaccessible and elitist. He thinks that activists continue to reach out to the general public and not focus too much on “preaching to the choir” within “obscurantist circles.” He believes the process of spreading awareness of intersectionality will take time and requires activist to engage with spaces they consider problematic. Stelder argued “that it is a challenge to find a right balance between addressing issues that are intrapersonal in community organizing and working within or towards the mainstream”
Looking Towards the (intersectional) Future?
There is not a simple explanation for the state of activism in the Netherlands, and there is even less clarity in the quest to galvanize a new movement. In the least, many of our informed interviewees agree that it is necessary to adopt a more intersectional framing and method in many activist circles to avoid perpetuating oppressions that are still present in many of these communities. Unfortunately, as expressed by both Hodan and Wekker, there seems to be a fear of even addressing the issue of race and racism in the Netherlands. This hinders the adoption of an intersectional framing in and beyond activist spheres, because no one can begin to do intersectionality if we can’t even speak of race.
It seems that this fear of race is perpetuating oppression and hurting “the left,” as it accentuates stark divides that already exist amongst the few existing activist subcultures. (This is not to say that other systems of oppression and others are not equally important.)
Yet, becoming more intersectional, overall, requires critical self-reflection and radical changes in how activist circles organize, ranging from simple questions of accessibility to their language to in-depth analyses of power-relations within activist circles. In Martina’s words: “If you sign on to fight against oppression (which is more than just ‘being against it’) I not only expect, but also demand that you put in the work to educate yourself. Being involved in anti-oppression work takes a little bit more than just showing up [italics included].” Perhaps this sort of anti-oppression work could lead to more inclusive and intersectional activist circles.
The greater adoption of intersectionality can provide a means for larger solidarity and coalition building for a stronger, more unified activist movement. More communication and interactions amongst these sub-cultures and to the larger population could help these agendas gain leverage. A de-stigmatization of and higher regard attributed to non-government sanctioned forms of activism and civic engagement, such as protest, could do wonders to the state of activism in the Netherlands. Activists need to and have been contemplating what to do in the face of government adoption and the watering-down of their political agendas, especially when considering continuity and longevity of their cause. The only consistent and optimistic sentiment shared by many of our interviewees was that there is a great need for activism in the Netherlands and the need for its continued growth and maturing.
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