I originally posted this on June 4th. It has sparked many conversations since then which has led me to think that it needs to live on this website as well. I highly recommend that you listen to the audio file. For those who need (or even prefer) the assistance of the written text, I’ll place that below.
“Ik heb een naam, en het is niet Piet.” (I have a name, and it is not Piet.)
The moment I found out about Monday’s [June 1st] protest in Amsterdam, I felt called to attend. I felt called and I immediately knew what I would write on a sign.
My decision to attend was not made lightly. After spending almost three months judiciously following all of the rules and isolating in light of COVID-19, was I really going to break that isolation to go to an event with that many people? Knowing how police involvement and enforcement could possibly endanger me, was I really going to put myself in that position?
But this sentence kept cycling through my mind. Over and over. Ik heb een naam, en het is niet Piet. Ik heb een naam, en het is niet Piet.
The past week has shaken loose a lot of memories. I’ve got a standard loop of standout memories that, when triggered, cycle through my mind. It’s been that way my entire life. Each time I am forced to confront the reality that the color of my skin somehow makes me different, the loop plays. It plays behind my eyelids and I remember.
I hope this past week has us finally understand that it does not matter where you come from. It does not matter where you live. I spent 18 years of my life living on predominantly black islands. Racism is alive and well there. I have spent 11 years living in The Netherlands. Racism is alive and well here.
Our colonial pasts are still with us. Our biases live on. Our racism is deeply rooted in our societies.
“Ik heb een naam, en het is niet Piet.”
This is for when I came home from preschool as a little girl, and my mother put me in the bath tub. Turning around for a moment, she turned back and instead of finding me playing with my toys, she found me scrubbing my skin. Some of the kids at school had said that my skin must be dirty, because I looked like Zwarte Piet. I must have been 3 or 4 years old. My parents spent the rest of my childhood trying to convince me that the color of my skin was beautiful. If I could go back, I would convince myself that they were right. I would beg and plead that little girl to believe it was true sooner, instead of waiting until well into adulthood.
This is for when I was 10 and moved back to Curaçao. The animal shelter in Tortola had ponies and I had spent a few years taking riding lessons. I loved it. Moving to Curaçao meant going to an official riding school – a privilege. Here, riding was a status thing and all of a sudden, I was the only non-white child there. The girls didn’t speak to me very much. When they did, they called me “bruintje.” (Brown one). It’s been so long, I can’t even remember whether I told my parents that was the reason I didn’t want to go anymore. But I quit. I quit. And somehow, I never sat on a horse again. If I could go back, I would tell myself to speak up. I would tell myself to stay and command my space there.
This is for 18, when I moved to Utrecht and I boarded the bus. There was an open seat next to an older white woman and when I sat down next to her, she looked over at me and moved her handbag from her lap to the other side of her body. Away from me. I felt ashamed. Deeply ashamed that I had made her uncomfortable. I moved seats. If I could go back, I would tell myself that her discomfort should be a reason for her own shame, not for mine.
This is for 21, when on my first day in law school, I had a full room of fellow students stare at me. We were playing a “get to know your peers” guessing game, and the question had come up “which one of us was not born in The Netherlands?” As they all turned to me at the same time, I suddenly realized that I was the only non-white face in the room. If I could go back, I would tell myself to question that. To force that conversation.
This sign is for these standout memories of mine. It’s for the fact that I can’t go back in time and undo them. It’s the for fact that countless other people have memories just like these. Countless people have memories far worse than these. They can’t go back in time and undo them, either.
I’m sharing these memories of mine not for sympathy. I do not need you to tell me to be strong, or that it will become easier. I’ve been living in this skin of mine for almost 29 years. I promise you, it’s made me strong. As for easy? I don’t need easy right now. What I need, what we need, is for more people to join in the hard. Come and sit in the difficulty of dealing with what all of this means. Only in doing that can we create a space where existing in our skin becomes easier.
We are having the conversation now. We are realizing, in larger numbers, that there is a lot of work to be done. We are asking the uncomfortable questions. Our communal discomfort has value. We are looking at transgressions, we are identifying the microaggressions. Now it is time we weed them out. Please, let’s not let this be another one of the many times that racism is a trending topic and we share the hashtags only to see it fade away. You are dipping your toes into the mess now. Now it is time to jump in and clean this shit up.
Okay, so now what? What can you actually do?
I’m going to compile a list of things I think are actionable. Some things will be directed at my home community in Curaçao, some will be directed at my community in the Netherlands, and some of it will be for us all.
We’re in it now, let’s get those hands dirty and do the work. For real, this time.