White Allies: a Blessing or a Curse?

Photo: Alexander Khokhlov from the series 'Weird Beauty'

The biggest mistake the black world ever made was to assume that whoever opposed apartheid was an ally.

Not only have they kicked the black man; they have also told him how to react to that kick.1

Steve Biko’s message still holds today. Global Apartheid is still alive. For instance Europe amongst other things contributes to it by compiling a ‘so-called white and black’ Schengen list for travellers to protect their external borders. On the ‘blacklist’ you find a significantly high number of Muslim and developing states. It is a tool to protect ‘Western’ identity and a means of keeping the world’s poorest out.2

White allies are also still present today preventing fundamental changes and displaying global white ignorance3 and  wilful, historical white innocence4. According to Mills:

The real heart of white ignorance today, whether accompanied by such prejudicial characterizations or not, is the refusal to recognize how the legacy of the past as well as ongoing practices in the present, continues to handicap people of colour now granted nominal juridical and social equality. Racism is individualized and personalized.

Gloria Wekker5 speaks about the paradoxes of colonialism and race in the Netherlands: the passionate denial by the Dutch of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia.

Keeping things comfortable for white people

Forty years ago white allies dominating Anti-Apartheid Movements accused Steve Biko of racism and serving the interests of western imperialism. After his violent death they claimed Biko for the ANC and aligned him to the UDF.

At the same time these white allies did not put energy  into fighting institutional and structural racism in their own country and made no connection with our Dutch cruel colonial history. They only worried about keeping things comfortable for white people. That meant no platforms, no support for the radical liberation movements such as BCM and PAC, and only projecting the ANC as a palatable organisation.6

Even today colonial history is downplayed considering it to be unrelated to present racism. At the same time Jan van Riebeeck was and still is projected as an explorer, a man who likes gardening and has contributed to the development of South Africa. The land grab, the slavery, the genocide, violence and torture are shamelessly hushed up. We still have streets named after Boer ‘heroes’ and of course we still hold on to Zwarte Piet (Black Face). The white Anti-Apartheid solidarity movement did not even put these topics on the political and public agenda. They felt/feel safer seeing the mote in one’ s brother’ s eye without noticing the beam in one ’s own. As Gloria Wekker puts it:

For many Dutch people, especially  progressive ones, much is at stake in keeping intact a self-representation at whose core is a deeply antiracist claim.

The ethnic positioning of white people is made invisible. The norm that does not have to name itself or analyse itself. Exactly the way in which power is executed and reproduced.7

The Rijksmuseum

This year in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, there was the exhibition Good Hope South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600.  An example of telling a colonial history from a ‘white-coloured lens’, reproducing a harmful selective form of amnesia.8 A critical letter, initiated by black people and people of colour, was sent to the Board of the Rijksmuseum. The letter was signed by many academics, activists and artists from both South Africa and the Netherlands. It stated that the Rijksmuseum (re)produces insults and inaccuracies:  

The lack of clarification about the role of the Netherlands in the systematic oppression and exploitation of people in South Africa: its colonisation [and the] lack of acknowledgement that colonisation is both a historical crime and a violent process that perpetuates itself in present moments [fail] to point its viewers to the responsibility we carry for this unjust present.

The exhibition reproduces colonial power structures by telling history from the perspective of the colonisers.9

None of the former high-ranking Anti-Apartheid campaigners from the past came in support of the letter. Contrary to that some of them openly disagreed with the letter and called it ‘a bombastic statement’.10

Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art

In Rotterdam we have an institution for contemporary art called Witte de With. Witte de With was a high-ranking criminal colonial naval officer who worked for both the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company. Nobody in the (white) institute realised this till it was pointed out to them by a black person, Egbert Alejandro Martina. And they did not like it …

An open letter was written and they had to face that also ‘contemporary art institutions are no less entangled with the extractive colonial economy than any other institution built on the foundations of white supremacy’.11 Without mentioning who pointed at their blind spot. And that:

To trouble the name Witte de With is to trouble not only the white subject position, but the entire cultural and economic structure that supports and enables the white subject. The resolute rejection of the name should be the first of many steps toward abolishing the political and economic system that assigns value to “Witte de With”.

Just recently they decided to reject the name in what they call: [An] important and necessary step in acknowledging a blind spot in our institutional history and self-awareness.” But let’s not forget — as Miguel Peres Dos Santos, one of the co-signers of the letter, commented:

This is how white colonial institutions work: first you cause as much intellectual, psychological and emotional damage to the very person that offers you a mirror to look into and then half a year later this.

The liberal whites have to realise that:

The consumption and incorporation of Blackness, then, only serves to satiate the belly of “critical” white liberals. White institutions fortify themselves through the consumption of Blackness. Black people pass through them, seemingly without transforming them—they extract what they need from us to sustain their “criticality”.

Appropriation without credit. Tokenism and visibility without agency. Instrumentalization. Critique, pedagogy, advice, and emotional labour, as a rule, without pay. We enter and end up in their databases.

‘How many?’ rather than ‘Why?’

Year after year the Netherlands has been criticized by Human Rights Bodies such as the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) for racial discrimination. Dutch anti-discrimination institutions (mainly white dominated) report every year that racial discrimination and racial inequality is the most frequently mentioned form of discrimination. Critical thinker Egbert Alejandro Martina states:

These reports are the product of enumerative practices, that concern themselves with ‘how many?’, rather than analytic practices which ask ‘why?’ Countless state reports with facts and statistics about racial inequality have been produced, and yet Black people are still expected to ‘prove’ the reality of structural racism. We suffocate under the weight of evidence. And the expectation that we attend, underneath that burden, to the White demand for detectable and ‘unambiguous’ proof, in the face of racial violence that is gratuitous and structural, is perverse. Even when the evidence presented is unambiguous (when something recognizably racist has taken place), it is still made subject to argument.12

Martina concludes:

The organizations participating in the [anti-discrimination centre] structurally share the responsibility for the current iteration of racism. For us, liberation is more important than just combating racism.13

Antiracism is no charity

Credit where credit is due. Black people and people of colour in the Netherlands took and take the lead in putting racism and decolonization in all its aspects on the agenda. They respond to kick  in the way they see fit14. And this is real threat where authorities and opinion makers who tolerate racism create a dangerous climate in which very serious threats to black activists are trivialized and not even denounced. The activists become criminalized, off-sided. They are declared outlawed. Most well-meaning white allies are on the side-line pleading for reasonableness, flabby compromises, understanding, small steps and patience.

All the same patterns Biko described more than 40 years ago. It still bears testimony to his words Black man, you are on your own15. And white people? Start at least with not being an obstacle in breaking down white supremacy. Sacrifice your position, antiracism is no charity, dare to face up to the realities of breaking down white supremacy.

This speech was  my contribution to the 2017 Steve Biko Seminar; BIKO40: The Quest for True Humanity Continues. Steve Biko Transformative Education Project, Collaboration between UMTAPO and the Durban University of Technology (DUT)



  1. Biko, Steve. 1978. White Racism and Black Consciousness. I Write What I Like. London: The Bowerdean Press.
  2. Van Houtum, Henk. 2010. Human Blacklisting: the global apartheid of the EU’s external borders.
  3. Mills, Charles W. 2015. Global white ignorance. In Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies (pp. 217-227). Taylor and Francis Inc.
  4. Wekker, Gloria. 2016. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham: Duke UP. Print.
  5. Gloria Wekker is Professor Emeritus of Gender Studies at Utrecht University.
  6. BCM: Black Consciousness Movement; PAC: Pan Africanist Congress; ANC: African National Congress.
  7. Wekker 2016
  8. Open letter to the Board of Amsterdams Rijksmuseum May 15, 2017.
  9. Wekker 2016
  10. Luirink, Bart. May 2017. GOEDE HOOP, EEN TERUGBLIK.
  11. Martina, Egbert Alejandro; Sno, Ramona; Warsame, Hodan; Schor, Patricia; Alhaag, Amal; Guggenbichler, Maria. June 2017. Open letter to Witte de With.
  12. Martina, Egbert Alejandro Martina. 14 may 2016. Playing the Numbers Game.
  13. Ibidem
  14. Biko 1978
  15. Ibidem
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