You were born in New York; you live in Amsterdam and you have Surinamese roots. Where do you feel like you belong?
“My parents were immigrants from Aruba; they were born in Suriname but lived in Aruba for several years. When my mother got a job in the US in the sixties, they immigrated to New York City, where I was born.
Growing up I felt lost between my American and Surinamese identity. As a child I didn’t fit into the image of a typical Black American girl, as I was often rejected by my peers because I was so different: my parents spoke with a Caribbean accent; I dressed differently; and I ate different food. I tried to suppress my Dutch and Surinamese roots to be more ‘American’, but I didn’t feel Dutch or Surinamese either. I tried to assimilate in Black culture and life, but it wasn’t until my teen years, and going to high school, that I embraced and claimed my Black identity. And even now, it’s still evolving. It doesn’t have an endpoint. But now I am able to embrace all my identities. I never feel I have to choose to be either American, Dutch or Surinamese; I am all of it!”
You felt different.. Did you experience racism in the US?
“My parents came to the US in the sixties, in the middle of the volatile civil rights movement. We lived in Brooklyn, New York in a time where Malcolm X and the Black Panthers were prominent. But because my parents were immigrants, their status was always a question, and therefore they felt getting involved wasn’t an option. When my parents got divorced, my mother and I moved to California. New York and California were two different worlds. I was living in San Francisco’s Japantown area, and there was a lot of diversity all around me. I was aware of racism but I was protected as much as possible by my mother. Because I was so young, I wasn’t allowed to go to the area where the Black power movement was happening nearby, in the Fillmore District.
The first time I felt confronted by racism was ironically when I first traveled to Europe at 12 years old, in the 1970s when I became aware that skin color makes a difference. While traveling first class a flight attendant said: “there must be some mistake, you people can’t afford first class’. I remember feeling very offended by that.
In my teens we moved to the suburb, and because I spoke differently, I would be called names by white as well as black people, that were very racialized. People would call me ‘Oreo’ (like the cookie), because they thought I was black on the outside and white from the inside. It took me a while to make friends. I was confused and felt alienated until my early teens.”
In 2012 you moved to The Netherlands to explore the relationship between the Dutch, Surinamese and American heritage, and in that respect your own family history. What did you find?
“I found a big disconnect in the academic world. I was taking courses about colonial history, and I remember the discourse was so much focused on the glory of the ‘golden age’, without any mention of black history, colonialism, war or invasion. How do you become one of the ten richest countries, without talking about colonialism and slavery? You can’t. There was a lot of historical distancing in the academic world. They also taught us that there was no slavery in the Netherlands; slavery only took place in the colonies, not on Dutch soil. I questioned that. That led me to develop the Black Heritage Tours.”
“My family didn’t have a lot of pride in the Dutch side of their heritage; they only embraced their Surinamese roots. I came to wonder: what is this Dutch identity about? Dutchness was always associated with whiteness. The terms ‘allochtoon’ and autochtoon’ were a key factor in shaping identity. It’s not about where you were born, but where your parents were born. You cannot claim the Dutch identity, if three generations before you migrated. That left a really traumatizing scar on people who have Surinamese or any other ethnic roots. But I found out that there’s a history behind that: it was intentional. And it is still that way to some extent, even though it’s changing. That really inspired me to explore it and write about it. When I understood the relationship between the Dutch, American, and Surinamese heritage, it brought all these different parts of me together.”
With your organization ‘Black Heritage Tours’ you want to make the hidden stories visible. Can you share some of these hidden stories?
“I found out there’s been this Black identity and presence since the 16th century, with the rise of the Dutch empire. Now there’s a lot of new knowledge about it, I’ve co-written three books: Amsterdam Slavery Heritage Guide (2014), Dutch NY Histories (2017) and Netherlands Slavery Heritage Guide (2019) that try to locate and position where in the Netherlands and New York State (formerly, New Netherland), this history can be traced. When people take part in the tour they are blown away by the historic sights of memory, because it’s such a visual experience. You come in direct contact with the past. We get on a boat and we start at the Dam Square and on this journey, we stop at places and give a historical background of what happened there, who lived there, how it’s connected to the early black presence in Amsterdam. There’s a whole history of Amsterdam and the Netherlands that emerges through this visual experience. The way that we tell the story, is the way it comes to life.
In the beginning only white Dutch people would do the tour. Black people and people of color were reluctant at first, because of the anticipated resistance from white people. It is a very emotional experience. If you grow up with the illusion that you don’t belong, that you are an outsider, you suddenly realize that you weren’t told the whole story. For a young person of color, it is really moving to see that you were always part of the built heritage, you were always part of society, even before slavery became institutionalized. And yes, slavery was part of Dutch society too. It was visible and present right here, not just in the colonies.”
What are the stories that heal? And what are the stories that harm?
Stories that heal are the stories that humanize. People don’t want to hear numbers and figures; they want to hear more about the lived experiences. How do I translate the history of people that has been denied for centuries, into making them real? Making them human? And by that: humanizing the trauma. When people take the Black Heritage Tour, they see for example, where Jacob lived, where Francesca lived, where they fought and were baptized – instead of saying ’20 people with black heritage lived here’. We give back their identity.
What is healing are organizations and institutions that are here specifically with the mission and the vision of telling multiple stories: The Black Archives, Sites of Memory Foundation, Mapping Slavery Nederland, NiNsee, Keti Koti etc. What does Black life look like? What does it mean? How can we not just tell one side of the story but make it more complete?
And what are the stories that harm? What is harming is that the legacies of some of this history is still playing out, for example: Zwarte Piet. If you look at the history of Zwarte Piet, and how it’s been represented, it is traumatizing, and it has a deeply rooted racist history. That’s something that’s re-harming every year. It’s changing of course; people deconstruct the symbolism. But every year we are traumatized by the intocht, and see the symbols in shops and stores. That is still harming.
How can we incorporate the plurality of stories in the societal narrative?
The dominant narrative has been for centuries that you have to be white to be Dutch ‘we became who we are as a nation state, because of our own doing, we were entrepreneurs and we built the Dutch empire’. That narrative is changing in terms of the plurality: you cannot talk about becoming one of the richest nation states in this period of time, without including other narratives about colonialism, migration and war. These stories are also part of who we are.
It is therefore very important to claim Dutchness because it belongs to you, by virtue of your inheritance, by virtue of your geopolitical positioning. In the end: everyone is an immigrant. The plurality of our society should be embraced, as a multi-ethnic, cultural, diverse space. Through art, through storytelling, theater, education, knowledge production; these are the ways we should be bringing these stories together. To show that we are connected. We are more connected, than we are different.
Has anything structurally changed since the Black Lives Matter movement?
“The BLM movement amplified and elevated the conversation about racism. It is a platform that different countries around the globe have taken up to address racism and social inequalities. It has made us listen to the voices of people that have been dispossessed and oppressed for ages. The BLM movement has helped to accelerate a movement that has been ongoing for hundred years, but now the whole world is watching!
Black Lives Matter wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have police brutality, even in the Netherlands. Last year, just before George Floyd was killed, Tomy Holten was killed by the police in Zwolle. It’s not just happening in the US.
I was one of the speakers in Amsterdam on the Dam Square. My message to the crowd of over 10.000 people, was to acknowledge that the Netherlands also has to confront its own history of racism in society.
What has changed since the protests? One of the big shifts that happened was that Anton de Kom was added to the Dutch Canon. Institutional, systemic racism is more visible in society and in how you are educated. It was very telling that in our history books that we don’t talk at all about Black presence. And, the anti-racist activism is having an effect: Prime minister Rutte acknowledged that there is ‘systemic racism’ in the Netherlands; Amsterdam and other cities are planning to apologize for its role in slavery.”
What is effective in fighting discrimination?
“Becoming fully aware of how discrimination operates. How racism functions within the government, in education, or within financial institutions etc. Once you become aware of how it functions, you can begin to dismantle the structures of racism and power that continuously create, reproduce and reinforce this hierarchical system.
We also have to make power more shared. Making sure that we have representation in every aspect of society. People that look like me or you, could add to the discourse and conversations on what it takes to be a more inclusive and just society.
Thereby it is essential that we transform our educational system: the multiple layers of history and identity should be shared, so that people of all origins can feel that their stories are included and matter.”
If racism doesn’t affect you, do you feel the urgency to stand up against it?
“Racism affects everyone! Racism is the cancer on our society. Even if you are the beneficiary of white privilege, your lack of knowledge and awareness does affect you; it is in some ways even worse. If you are a person that identifies as white, but you never think about it, even if unintentionally, you are reproducing the very issues and problems by your ignorance that can be harmful and traumatizing to non-white people. Becoming aware is almost like a light going off in your conscious mind. What does it mean to be white? It embodies power, privilege, and to some people terror. You are in a position to inflict harm. Knowingly or unknowingly. The most dangerous person is someone that is unaware of this.
The most difficult thing for many white people to do during this BLM movement, is to stand back and listen. What does it mean to be an ally? It’s not enough to be ‘non-racist’. What does it mean to be fully anti-racist? The joke is that we live in a society of ‘racism without racists’. But white people must reconcile the fact that they were born into a society that unfairly benefits them because of race. Every nation-state that was built on colonialism has to deal with this problem. Let’s change that: let’s build our society on a foundation of equality and justice.”
Jennifer Tosch: “Racisme raakt iedereen, het is de kanker in onze samenleving.”
Jennifer Tosch werd geboren in New York en heeft Surinaamse roots. Haar ouders woonden lange tijd op Aruba. Als kind voelde ze zich verloren tussen haar Amerikaanse en Surinaamse identiteit. Ze paste niet in het plaatje van een typisch Afro-Amerikaans meisje. “Ik probeerde mijn Nederlandse en Surinaamse roots te onderdrukken om meer ‘Amerikaans’ te zijn”, zegt ze. Nu omarmt ze alle drie haar identiteiten. “Ik voel nooit dat ik moet kiezen om Amerikaans, Nederlands of Surinaams te zijn. Ik ben het allemaal!”
Sinds 2012 woont Jennifer in Nederland. Ze onderzocht de relatie tussen het Nederlandse, Surinaamse en Amerikaanse erfgoed. Tijdens colleges lag de focus vooral op de glorie van de Gouden Eeuw. “Hoe kun je één van de tien rijkste landen worden zonder te praten over kolonialisme en slavernij? Dat kan niet.” In een zoektocht naar wat de Nederlandse identiteit is, komen de woorden ‘allochtoon’ en ‘autochtoon’ prominent naar voren. “Het gaat er niet om waar jíj geboren bent, maar waar jouw ouders geboren zijn. Je kunt de Nederlandse identiteit niet claimen als je voorouders drie generaties geleden migranten waren. Dat zorgt voor een pijnlijk litteken bij mensen met Surinaamse of andere roots.”
Jennifer zet zich in om racisme te bestrijden. De Black Lives Matter-beweging versterkte het gesprek over racisme. Na de protesten werd de Surinaamse schrijver en activist Anton de Kom opgenomen in de Canon van Nederland. Om racisme effectief te bestrijden is bewustwording nodig van hoe racisme werkt. “We moeten ook de macht meer verdelen, zorgen dat er vertegenwoordigingen zijn in alle lagen van de samenleving”, zegt Jennifer. Racisme raakt iedereen, ook de mensen die er niet direct mee te maken hebben. “Het is de kanker van onze samenleving. Zelfs als je de voordelen van white privilege hebt, raakt jouw gebrek aan kennis en bewustzijn je.”