What is happening? What am I witnessing?
The screams and cheers of those around me pierce my ears. The sound is so clear, so distinct, and yet so …
So what exactly?
Is it new? Or new to me?
Why am I so unprepared?
I didn’t expect to hear this sound.
First Rosa, and than Patricia.
Rosa spoke up and asked a question: “Does this conversation need you?”
The round of questions hadn’t started yet, she disrupted.
Have you ever witnessed a disruption?
An event where someone changes the natural course of events.
Natural is Heleen Mees sitting there up on that stage. It’s natural in Holland. It came natural to her.
It at times even appears natural to me.
That wasn’t always the case.
A Heleen disrupted my world once and caused confusion.
Repeated disruptions don’t disrupt anymore, they establish.
A new world enclosed me which I learned to maneuver.
I learned about the rules and limits,
I dreamed up scenarios but always acted cautiously.
I expected the evening to be a maneuver.
We would move, we would stir, but within set limits.
Patricia Kaersenhout made a work of art honoring 36 women of color who have been overlooked by history. Gloria Wekker and Philomena Essed — two black female scholars who have done innovative work in their studies of everyday racism in the Netherlands —
were to come to talk about forgotten histories, colonialism and everyday racism. But their conversation would be moderated by Heleen Mees. Someone arguably ignorant about racial issues, as her interview with Sylvana Simons shows.
Despite there being many well-informed and educated women of color in Holland qualified to do the job, she was flown over from New York. For reasons that remain unknown and without Kaersenhout’s consent.
This arrangement is natural, it’s natural in Holland, it came natural to the organization.
It bothers women of color, but we know that these are the conditions.
It is natural.
Mees is ill-prepared. She is getting the most basic information wrong about the works and the writers. She can’t remember the title of the books she is discussing. Can’t remember when the works were published. She doesn’t seem to know much about the careers of Wekker and Essed. She doesn’t appear to be familiar with some of the fundamental theoretic concepts such as cultural archives. Reminder — this is not to be confused with The Black Archives an initiative by New Urban Collective. She can’t remember the name of an artist she brought up herself, the South African artist Zanele Muholi.
Wekker is starting to look more and more annoyed, and people in the audience are getting restless. Mees has now interrupted both Wekker and Essed a couple of times, saying that she was the moderator after all. She disputed their claims about women of color facing discrimination and exclusion based on their racial identities within feminist movements, because she includes everyone and fights for everyone.
It is annoying, it is aggravating, but not that unusual.
She goes on after Rosa asks if she is needed in this conversation. There is not much improvement. She asks what my friend calls a ‘faux-deep’ question: “to whom does black pain belong?” Wekker and Essed don’t know how to answer that question. They don’t know what she means. Mees thinks that it’s still an important and valid question.
Her voice is about to crack, but she doesn’t want it to go on like this.
She thinks it’s best if she steps in and moderates it herself.
I see Mees getting off the stage and leaving the room.
Excitement all around me. Relief and bewilderment inside me.
To add to the chaos a black man stands up and comes to Mees’ rescue saying we’re not treating her with dignity.
Kaersenhout is having none of that. She is not willing to let someone disrespect these women, their work or hers by not knowing the basic information a 12-year old would know how to look up.
Think of that my ‘brother’.
After a much needed break the conversation goes on without Mees, and with Kaersenhout as moderator.
Wekker and Essed really don’t need a moderator, they have a lot to say.
The question of dignity comes up again in relation to what had erupted
Was Mees stripped of her dignity?
But as Essed declares: respect is something others can give you, but no one can take away your dignity. One can let go of ones entitlement, accept momentary discomfort and learn.
They should have had this conversation from the beginning.
They should have been able to talk about their views on activism and science,
Talk about the experiences they had and obstacles they faced working in their field
And most importantly be able to expand on all of this, and not be stifled.
This should be natural.
Tonight something unexpected happened.
What will the ramifications be? I don’t know.
I am still amazed, at a loss for words, by this sound of disruption.
Originally published on www.gracendjako.com and republished here with their permission.