Praised and abused because of ‘everyday racism’

Praised and abused because of ‘everyday racism’

Racism expert Philomena Essed to give Tans lecture

17-11-2021 · Background

She hit a sensitive nerve in the nineteen-eighties when she pointed out the almost inconspicuous day-to-day racism to the Dutch. A couple of years later, she was the target of keen criticism. Next week, Philomena Essed will give the Tans lecture on, among others, a racism-free environment.

Strengthened by the advance of Black Lives Matter, a discussion has been raging in the US about the critical race theory for months. This body of ideas originates from the nineteen-seventies, when lawyers argued that racism was in the hair follicles of society, that it was ingrained in institutions, in the legal system, in education, the labour market, the health system, and the housing market. That is the reason why inequality and white dominance continues to exist. 

The fat was in the fire when the critical race theory was introduced in American schools and teachers wondered how to deal with it. In one of the school books, it was called: 'Racism is a white person's problem and we are all caught up in it'. Trump caused a ruckus in Virginia and in Florida the Republican politician DeSantis reckoned that "we teach our children to hate each other and their country".

These are remarks that miss the point completely, the other camp reckons. The idea is not to blame white people for racism, but to expose the underlying social structures. 

Racism scenario's

That is also what Philomena Essed (1955, Utrecht) has done her whole life. She is professor of Critical Race, Gender and Leadership Studies at Antioch University in California, but in the Netherlands, she is mainly known for her book Alledaags racisme (Everyday Racism, 1984), that came as a bombshell. 

It was a result of her graduation research, in which Essed interviewed fourteen Surinam women asking them about their contact with Dutch people. What did that show: the women were often picked out in shops to open their bags, felt humiliated by colleagues, as well as being harassed on the bus. Not shocking incidences by themselves, but they are structural, happening every day. 

Essed – at the time a cultural anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam – gave racism a new face. It wasn’t merely something big and historic, such as the slave trade, but something inconspicuous, everyday, in the here and now. Her book formed a prelude to the anti-racism wave of the nineteen-eighties. According to activists, it appeared that the Dutch were less tolerant than had unquestionably been assumed.

How are things in the Netherlands now, after all the commotion surrounding ‘Zwarte Piet’, after the worldwide revival of anti-racism movements such as Black Lives Matter? It will most likely be talked about during Essed’s Tans lecture. Although it still isn’t clear exactly what she will talk about. In the announcement, she speaks of tools to create a racism-free environment, of racism scenarios that can be used to identify "effective interventions".

Pretentious scatterbrain

Essed left for the US in 2005. She has always denied the claim that she was harassed into leaving the Netherlands. It was love that drove her to the United States. True or not, in the years before that, there was a storm of criticism after her second book Inzicht in alledaags racisme (Insights into Everyday Racism 1991), the public version of her thesis. In it, Essed interviewed higher-educated Surinam women and compared their stories to those of Afro-American women. That comparison, which she had also made in her first book, caused a lot of irritation. 

How could you compare the Netherlands to the US, which has a centuries long history of slavery and race segregation? How sound, actually, were her scientific methods? Frank Bovenkerk, the authority in the field of minorities and equal treatment at the time, reckoned in the magazine De Groene Amsterdammer that racism researchers should avoid two things in particular: asking offenders and victims questions. “Offenders will never give honest answers and victims have a reason to exaggerate.” 

The review in newspaper NRC Handelsblad was also very harsh: "Her book is filled with tendentious statements that result in vague accusations." Later on in the same newspaper, she was called a “pretentious scatterbrain”.


For others, Essed was a source of inspiration, a pioneer who held a mirror in front of white Dutch people, someone who asked for attention to be paid to blind spots. Essed’s books found a lot of response in groups that supported women and civil rights movements. By now, she stands her ground as an authority in the field of racism, which is apparent from the two honorary doctorates, from the universities of Pretoria (South Africa) and Umea (Sweden). 

Her current research is centred around terms such as human dignity and 'entitlement racism'. In newspaper Trouw, she typifies the latter as racism under the heading of freedom of speech. Or more specifically, making hurtful remarks because it is allowed. Anyone who complains, is made out to be oversensitive, someone who can’t take a joke. "As if then it isn’t hurtful," says Essed.

The Tans lecture by Philomena Essed (in English) is on Wednesday, 24 November at 20:00 hrs, via Zoom; sign up here

Photo Hellen J. Gill

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: tans lecture

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