Producing Whiteness through Urban Space: The Socio-Spatial Construction of White Identities in Amsterdam
R.T.M. (Rozemarijn) Weyers 10369104
Thesis Article Research Master Urban Studies Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands
First reader and supervisor: Prof. dr. R.K. (Rivke) Jaffe Second reader: Dr. W.P.C. (Wouter) van Gent
June 16, 2022
Word count: 9835 words
Producing Whiteness through Urban Space: The Socio-Spatial Construction of White Identities in Amsterdam
This paper argues for an approach to the formation of whiteness that includes an explicit focus on urban neighborhood spaces. Extending literature that mainly focuses on whiteness at the national scale, I show how the construction of white identities also takes place on the urban scale. My analysis is based on a comparative case study of two urban spaces, conducted in a diverse neighborhood in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. To capture the co-constitutive processes between space and race, I conducted ethnographic research that included participant observations, as well as narrative and go-along interviews with people racialized as white and of color. Drawing on this research, I identify six socio-spatial practices that construct, maintain, or reinforce white identities.
I propose an understanding of the construction of white identities as a multi-scalar socio-spatial process.
Keywords: Whiteness; urban space; national identity; the Netherlands; geographies of race
When I asked Dennis1, a non-white Dutch man with Vietnamese roots, why he did not like to visit Urban Village, a café in his Amsterdam neighborhood that many of my interlocutors considered
“white”, he responded:
What is the norm in our Western society? What points to wealth or having status? It is not just what you wear, it is also having straight hair and a white skin. I don’t look that way and I don’t dress that way, so when I enter a place like that, people look at me like: “What the hell are you doing here?” I don’t want to wallow in victimhood, but when I enter a place like that, too many people look at me for a little too long. So I start thinking: “What am I doing here?” That feeling of being excluded is how I feel quite often. It is painful and something that I can’t explain very well, but I feel it every time I enter a space full of white people.
Dennis’ response shows that people of color generally feel as the “other” in white spaces, because physical markers become the criteria by which people in spaces decide who is considered white and who is not. This touches upon one of the many socio-spatial practices through which people construct, perform and shape white national identities in urban neighborhood spaces.
In what follows, I focus on those urban neighborhood spaces to contribute to debates on whiteness and the racialization of national identities. Drawing on geographical scholarship on race, I emphasize the socio-spatial formation of racialized identities that takes shape in and through
2011; Cretton 2018; Beaman 2019), I start from the notion that whiteness is at the core of various national identities. Narratives about those national identities often ignore or deny racial histories (Müller 2011; Cretton 2018) and exist in contexts that claim to be colorblind (Möschel 2011; Essed and Trienekens 2008). In such contexts, being white is generally taken for granted and perceived as “normal” by white people (Peake 2009; Müller 2012; Cretton 2018) and others who become accustomed to a white norm that they learn not to see it (Ahmed 2007).
Beyond the formation of white identities on the national scale – as the abovementioned literature states –, Dennis’ quote suggests that the racialization of identities also takes place on the urban neighborhood scale. The role of space in the construction of racial identities becomes especially relevant as a growing body of literature within the geography of race shows how racial identities shape and are shaped by spaces. Scholars have, for instance, looked at the racialization of neighborhoods (Burke 2012), educational spaces (Moore 2020; Harris 2016), workspaces (Reitman 2006) and craft breweries (Anderson 2015). Central in these studies is the claim that racialization needs to be understood in relation to a normative position of whiteness that situates non-white people as in and out of place (Brunsma et al. 2020: 2002).
In order to unpack processes of racialization, I examine six socio-spatial practices that people in urban neighborhood spaces employ to construct and perform white identities. Based on an ethnographic study of two neighborhood spaces commonly interpreted as white – a café and a park – in the Dutch city of Amsterdam, I scrutinize the role of urban space in the construction of white identities. The analysis is based on observations and both narrative and go-along interviews with white interlocutors and interlocutors of color who lived in, or regularly visited, the neighborhood under study. Extending literature that mainly focuses on whiteness at the national scale, I argue that the construction of white identities also takes place at different scales and that the racialization of identities is therefore a multi-scalar socio-spatial process.
Despite the growing body of literature on both whiteness studies and geographies of race, few of these studies explore whiteness outside of the Anglo-American context (Michel and Honegger 2010: 424; Peake 2009). Yet, within most European countries notions of whiteness do not emerge in the same way as in the American context (Essed and Trienekens 2008; Cretton 2018); rather, they relate to particular histories and are entangled with other identifications such as national identity (Loftsdòttir 2012: 295). Accordingly, my study focuses on the constructions of white identities in the Netherlands and builds upon the small number of explorative studies about Dutch whiteness. These studies stress the reluctance in the Netherlands to acknowledge race, which makes whiteness as an identity complex and convoluted (Essed and Trienekens 2008;
Wekker 2016). Public discourse is mostly about ethnicity and national identity, and references to race are implicit and often intertwined with notions of culture and ethnicity (Essed and Trienekens 2008; Çankaya and Mepschen 2019: 628).
This paper is structured as follows. I first discuss the existing literature on whiteness studies in Europe and geographies of race, and in doing so I explore the relationship between racialized identities and space. The literature review is followed by a description of the neighborhood under study and the methods that I used. The subsequent section offers an ethnographic account of two
neighborhood spaces in Amsterdam, in which I outline six socio-spatial practices that construct, maintain, and reinforce white identities. I conclude by discussing the importance of connecting spatial and racial processes for understanding the racialization of white identities.
The objective of this paper is to analyze how white identities are constructed, maintained, and performed in and through urban neighborhood spaces. In order to do so, I first bring together literatures on whiteness studies, racialization of national identities and geographies of whiteness.
Until recently, research about racialization processes primarily focused on people racialized as non-white (Peake 2009: 250). With the reflexive turn in social sciences, dominant categories, including whiteness, have increasingly come under investigation. Mostly developed in the United States, those studies emphasize how whiteness is a way of being in the world and ‘a set of cultural practices to be drawn upon, often not named as “white” by white people but looked upon instead as normal or natural’ (Ibid: 247). In other words, it is a type of habitus and the norm against which others are judged (Meer 2019: 505). This norm is often invisible for white people and for others who ‘get so used to its inhabitance that they learn not to see it, even when they are not it’ (Ahmed 2007: 157). Moreover, those studies widely acknowledge that whiteness is ‘a location of structural advantage’ (Frankenberg 1993: 1) – a privilege ‘granted to individuals and groups associated with their whiteness’ (Housel 2009: 132).
Within most European countries, notions of whiteness emerge differently than in the United States and have to be explored in relation to other discourses and contexts (Essed and Trienekens 2008). Loftsdòttir (2012: 295), writing from the Icelandic context, argues that ‘within the European context, “whiteness” has to be theorized as emerging from particular histories and realities, being entangled with other identifications such as national identities’. Indeed, the growing body of research about whiteness in the European context mostly focuses on the (trans)formation of white identities at the national scale. What those studies have in common is that they conclude that whiteness is (implicitly) at the core of various national identities: being, for example, French (Beaman 2019), German (Müller 2011) or Swiss (Cretton 2018) is equated with being white.
Narratives about those national identities often deny racial hierarchies or ignore histories of colonialization (Ibid.), which makes it nearly impossible for people racialized as non-white to fully belong in the nation-state (Beaman 2019). In everyday encounters, physical markers are often used as proxies to decide who belongs within, or stands outside of, that particular national identity (Müller 2011: 627; Cretton 2018: 849). Whiteness is seen as normal and taken for granted, and therefore does not need any explanation (Müller 2011: 627; Cretton 2018: 849; Beaman 2019:
556). In other words, white national identities in the European context often remain unquestioned and are mainly characterized by their invisibility.
Similarly, many people in the Netherlands see whiteness as “not important”, normal and devoid of meaning (Wekker 2016: 2). At the same time, Wekker (Ibid.) argues that ‘an unacknowledged reservoir of knowledge and affects based on four hundred years of Dutch imperial rule plays a vital but unacknowledged part in dominant meaning-making processes, including the making of the self’. Çankaya and Mepschen (2019), for instance, show that the construction of whiteness in the Netherlands is contingent on liberal, middle-class discomfort with alterity. The idea prevails amongst middle-class people that if a residual racism remains in liberal Dutch society, it is “bad” whites – who lack education and respectable civil values – who are responsible for it (ibid: 628-629). At the same time, middle-class people preserve distinctions in status and prestige by assuming deficiencies among groups racialized as non-white and through benevolent attempts try to educate and enlighten them. While these processes may seem subtle and unintentional, they invoke culturalized and racialized stereotypes that lead to differentiation. As a result, categories of nativity and alterity come into existence in everyday situations, clarifying that
‘to be Dutch is to be white’ (ibid: 630).
In sum, whiteness studies in the European context mainly focus on how people relate to white national identities. Much less research has explored how white national identities are formed and transformed at other scales, and specifically in and through urban neighborhood spaces. A focus on the socio-spatial formation of racial identities is especially relevant as a growing literature within the geography of race shows how racial identities shape and are shaped by spaces.
Geographies of Race
A growing number of scholars have explored how racial and spatial processes can be seen as co- constitutive in nature (Neely and Samura 2011: 1934). They argue that space is materialized through social and racial relations and vice versa: our everyday relations and practices shape and are shaped by space (Gottdiener 1993: 130; Bonam, Taylor and Yantis 2017; Bonnett and Nayak 2003). On the one hand, racial interactions and processes – such as racialized identities, inequalities, and conflicts – affect how we collectively make and remake the spaces we inhabit (Neely and Samura 2011: 1934). Bonam, Taylor and Yantis (2017), for example, describe how certain racial meanings are attributed to space: “ghettos” are often associated with people of color and “middle-class suburban areas” with white people. On the other hand, the making and remaking of space also affects the making and remaking of race. As Delaney (2002: 7) suggests, space can be understood as an “enabling technology” through which race is produced.
Perhaps the most explicit theorization of race-space connections to date has been done by Knowles (Neely and Samura 2011: 1940). In her work on the social analysis of race, Knowles (2003: 78) argues that a spatial analysis of racial processes ‘teaches us things about race we cannot know by other means’. She shows how space interacts with people and their activities as an ongoing set of possibilities in which race is fabricated (Ibid.: 80). Building on these insights and related scholarship, I highlight two ways in which white identities are performed and shaped in and through space.
First, space and race are interactional and relational (Neely and Samura 2011: 1944).
Meanings of space and race are continuously made and remade through interactions between groups and individuals at both the macro- and micro-levels. This spatial meaning-making involves
“othering” processes that establish and maintain particular racial and spatial positionings. Spaces are constantly defined in terms of belonging, of “insiders” and “outsiders”, which facilitates the polarization of a continuous range of colors (browns, beiges, tans, and pinks) into “white” and
“non-white” and ‘hence the freezing of identities into “we” and “they”’ (Delaney 2002: 7). Harris (1993) shows how “othering” is especially associated with whiteness, as it carries a privileged sense of belonging and entitlement to space. The spaces that white people control materially and symbolically require the unjust (dis)placement of people of color (Ibid.). As such, spaces become contested ground for who belongs and who does not (Embrick and Moore 2020: 1939).
Second, this process of co-constituting race and space involves political struggles (Neely and Samura 2011: 1941). Conflicts over meaning, resources and access to space – that is, how a particular space should be known and used – may play out as conflicts along racial lines. Knowles (2003: 79), for instance, discusses the site of a nightclub in Ghana where, centuries ago, enslaved people were held captive before being transported to the Americas, and shows how differences compete with each other spatially. The same space cannot be both a sacred shrine and a disco because these designations sustain incompatible practices which compete for the same space.
Through a number of social mechanisms, including stories and meaning making, race becomes attached to physical space (Ibid.).
Following the shift to consider whiteness in racialization studies, geographies of race have also demonstrated a nascent interest in the geographies of whiteness. Scholars have, for instance, focused on the role of whiteness in neighborhoods (Burke 2012), educational spaces (Moore 2020;
Harris 2016), workspaces (Reitman 2006) and craft breweries (Anderson 2015). Mostly developed in the United States, such studies see racialization as a process in which whiteness situates people of color in and out of place (Peake 2009: 250). Racialization not only involves the exclusion of people of color from social spaces but also entails the active cultural work that is done within social settings to centralize and normalize whiteness (Brunsma et al. 2020: 2002). Accordingly, a white space can be understood as a social space where whiteness goes unquestioned (Anderson 2015).
White spaces function, often implicitly, to normalize the organization of social spaces around white values, beliefs, logics and ideologies as well as white activities and practices while at the same time asserting that these spaces are non-racialized (Embrick and Moore 2020: 1941).
Whiteness is the norm and those who does not abide by these white standards are often considered to be informally “off limits” (Anderson 2015: 10-14.). This is reflected in the often unremarkable and neutral experience of white spaces by white people. In turn, white spaces might evoke feelings of discomfort and unease for people of color. They have to perform a “dance” in order to gain
acceptance and appear as if they belong (Ibid.). As such, racialized spaces can facilitate whiteness (Embrick and Moore 2020: 1939).
Building on the theoretical insights provided by geographies of race, I argue for an approach to the formation of whiteness that underscores the role of spatiality. Extending literature that mainly focuses on whiteness at the national scale, I show how the construction of white identities also takes place in urban neighborhood spaces.
Researching whiteness in Amsterdam
To examine the ways in which white identities are constructed, performed, and shaped in and through urban neighborhood spaces, I conducted two case studies in a diverse neighborhood within the ring road of Amsterdam. When the neighborhood was built during the 1930s, it was intended for white Dutch working-class families. Due to de-industrialization and the lack of maintenance in the 1970s, the socio-economic position of the neighborhood changed and the white Dutch working class mostly left to other neighborhoods. At the same time, with the settlement of large groups of “guestworkers” the neighborhood became ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse.
Currently, around 46% of the inhabitants has a migration background, of which the largest groups are of Turkish and Moroccan descent (Municipality of Amsterdam 2022).
Although the Netherlands has no explicit “race’ discourse, public discourse distinguishes Dutch people with a migration background from other Dutch people by using the terms autochtoon and allochtoon. Those terms – official categories that are no longer used by state institutions but are still firmly rooted in everyday speech – set apart white Dutch citizens on the basis of kinship and alleged cultural and geological rootedness in Dutch soil (autochtoon) from the non-white and not-quite-Dutch (allochtoon) (Yanow and van der Haar 2013; Çankaya and Mepschen 2019: 627).
Dutch Muslims, often with a Turkish or Moroccan background, are in particular racialized as non- white and are portrayed as a strain on society’s resources, as unwilling or culturally and socially incapable of integrating into Dutch society (Essed and Trienekens 2008: 56.).
In the last years, the municipality of Amsterdam started a process to renovate and upgrade the neighborhood under study through a process of state-led gentrification. This entailed the sale of social housing, allowing for more amenities, leisure and consumption, and investments in public space (Savini et al. 2016: 108). Consequently, the neighborhood has seen an influx of white residents, mainly students and young urban professionals, with higher socio-economic status than the “old inhabitants”. In a context of diversity, Çankaya and Mepschen (2019: 626) argue that white Dutch are increasingly forced to look at themselves through the eyes of others. With this in mind, I regard the diverse neighborhood presented a useful context to encourage both white and non-white people to reflect on elements of the socio-spatial formations of whiteness.
Data comes from ethnographic research including open-ended, narrative interviews with 26 individuals, seven go-along interviews and participant observations in the café and park under study. I began my sampling by reaching out to acquaintances in my network who lived in the
neighborhood under study. To enlarge and diversify my sample, the initial interlocutors forwarded me to others and I reached out to people at community centers in the neighborhood. Most of my initial interlocutors identified as middle or upper class due to the snowballing method based on my own network. After some considerations, I decided to remain focused on this group to be able to work around and alleviate the conflation of race and class.2
During the narrative interviews, I asked the interlocutors to describe the neighborhood, in what spaces they feel comfortable or not and why, and in what neighborhood spaces they become aware of their (racialized) identity. My approach was to initially allow discussions about race to arise organically and to identify how Dutch discourse is implicitly about race and whiteness.
During the course of the interviews, and especially in the go-along interviews, I asked more explicit follow-up questions about whiteness and white spaces, to reveal the complexity and ambivalence around these social issues. Moreover, in order not to impose racial categories on the interlocutors, I asked the interlocutors which cultural or racial groups they identified in the neighborhood and with what groups they identified (most). Eventually, twelve interlocutors participated who identified as white, three interlocutors identified as mixed (having one white parent and one parent of color) and eleven interlocutors identified as a person of color.3
From the narrative interviews, key ideas emerged about, amongst others, how whiteness is actively constructed in space as well as in which spaces this particularly took place according to the interlocutors. Because of the co-constitutive relationship between white identities and white spaces, I focused on two spaces commonly interpreted as white. This resulted in in-depth case studies of a white, upscale café and a white, public park in the neighborhood, which allowed for a comparison between socio-spatial practices and the construction of white identities in a commercial, private and public space. In order to gather detailed information about those spaces, I supplemented data from the narratives interviews with go-along interviews, in which I accompanied interlocutors on outings to the two white spaces under study. Because the environment can function as a ‘tool that prompts interaction, conversation, and reflection from interlocutors’ (Harris 2016: 366), the go-along interviews elicited responses about practices and experiences of whiteness that otherwise might have remained implicit or invisible.
The interviews lasted anywhere from thirty minutes to over two hours, with an average interview length of approximately one hour. Interlocutors were assured that their name and any identifying information would be protected in this study. Accordingly, names and any identifiable information haven been changed in this article. All interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded in ATLAS.ti with respect to theme, viewpoint, and forms of racial talk. Codes like ‘diversity’,
‘(dis)comfort’, ‘stereotype, ‘practice’, ‘white space’, and others allowed me to see patterns and by comparing the codes I came to an understanding of how socio-spatial practices construct white identities. By conducting multiple rounds of analysis, I was able to increasingly focus my research and ask more concrete follow-up questions.
Taking into consideration that the positioning of the researcher can influence the collection of data, I consider that my own whiteness had an effect upon the self-definitions and answers of the interlocutors – and especially the interlocutors of color – at least to a certain extent. Moreover,
in a context where talking about race is seen as uncommon or even contested (Essed and Trienekens 2008), the interlocutors generally struggled describing racial processes. As a result, my role as a researcher often required the interpretation of more nuanced and underlying notions of race. Consequently, a danger is that the analysis is more influenced by my own positionality as a white researcher than is desirable. I attempted to deal with this by constantly reflecting on my own whiteness and assumptions as well as checking my understanding of the themes that came up with especially the interlocutors of color.
Socio-spatial practices in urban neighborhood spaces
In talking about people in the neighborhood, my interlocutors often struggled to define different groups. They referred to white Dutch residents simply as Dutch, and occasionally included the word “wit” (white) or “blank” (the traditional word for referring to a white person). The terminologies used to describe non-white Dutch people were wide ranging and multiple, including terms such as “Marokkanen” (Moroccans) or “Turken” (Turks), foreigners, migrants, allochtonen, people with a migration background or, more specifically, “Dutch with a Turkish background”.
What all these terms have in common is the application of an explicit non-racial terminology (Müller 2011: 627), which points to the reluctance of Dutch people to acknowledge race as identity marker. Moreover, these ways of speaking reflect the cultural and racial context within society, in which the white Dutch person is the norm. In a country that is perceived as white, people with a darker complexion are inherently referred to as coming from “the outside” (Cretton 2018: 849).
Relating to these processes of racialization, and drawing on the theoretical insights outlined above, in what follows I show that the construction of racialized white identities is a socio-spatial process that takes shape in and through urban neighborhood spaces. This becomes evident through six socio-spatial practices that I identified in two case studies: a café and a park.
White identities in the café
The first case study that illuminates the socio-spatial formation of white identities is that of an upscale café at the border of the neighborhood under study. When weather permits, the large wooden picknick tables in front of the entrance of the café are crowded with the neighborhood’s new, predominantly white residents enjoying a specialty beer or cocktail. Although the terrace is located along one of the busy main roads in the neighborhood, high hedges shield the café visitors from the cars and cyclists passing by. The inside café offers two light and brightly colored rooms decorated with plants and art. In the back of the café, mostly white, young urban professionals sit and work behind their laptops. The front of the café has comfy looking sofas where young parents like to sit with their children, giving it a living-room feel. The minimalistic style – with its recycled wooden furniture, vintage lamps, and many plants – was one of the reasons why many interlocutors highlighted this café as one of the “most white spaces in the neighborhood”. In this space, I have identified three socio-spatial practices that construct, maintain or reinforce white identities: the
territorial marking of white space, the multi-scalar construction of white identities and consuming diversity in neighborhood spaces.
Territorial marking of white space
A first socio-spatial practice that stood out was that white people construct racial boundaries through space, because they use physical markers to decide who is considered white and who is not when someone enters a space. As soon as a person crosses the border of a white space, the
“white gaze” lets people of color know that they have entered a space in which they are seen as different from the dominant group. This was especially evident during my visit to the café with Amal. As a veiled, Islamic non-white Dutch woman with Indonesian roots, Amal expressed that when she entered the “white space” of the café, the people present there gave her the feeling that she stood out and that she had to reassure them that she was a “good Muslim”.
When we entered this place, I saw people looking at me, I noticed their glances. I know they are thinking: what is she doing here? That’s why I always walk in smiling. I try to make contact with the people present, I try to break the ice. Once I’ve made eye-contact I know whether that person welcomes me or not. If my smile is returned with a smile, it’s all good. Then I feel all right.
Amal’s narrated experience illustrates that when people of color cross the entrance of a space dominated by white people, those white people immediately try to make sense of that person or attempt to gain a sense of what that person is doing there. This is reflected in Amal’s experience of being looked at, which suggests that her physical appearance (in particular, her complexion combined with her veil) made her automatically “other” in the eyes of the white majority. Similar to Müller (2011: 627)’s description of whiteness in the German context, physical markers appear to be the criteria by which white people decide who is in and out of whiteness. Amal’s experience, however, shows that this is also a socio-spatial practice: it is through territorial marking – i.e., ‘too many people looking a little too long’ at people of color when they enter the white café – that white people can collectively estrange people of color, making them feel the “other” compared to the dominant white group.
Amal’s experience shows that the racial boundaries of a white identity are not just constructed when people enter the “white territory”, but that this identity is also regularly reinforced during the entire time that people of color stay in the space. Amal expressed that once she had entered the café, she “checked in” with both the white people who were already present and new, white visitors who entered the café. She had accustomed herself to make eye contact, smile or make an innocent joke when in contact with white people to show that she is a “good Muslim” and to make sure that her presence as “the other” was accepted by the white group. People of color often have to prove to white people that certain negative stereotypes do not apply to them (cf. Anderson 2015: 13). They perform the “good other” to be accepted, for instance by dressing well and speaking in an “educated way” (Ibid.) or, as Amal did, making eye contact and smiling in a non-threatening fashion. In addition to Amal, several other interlocutors of color narrated
– or even hostile – glances. Their experiences show that when people of color cross the border of a space dominated by white people and when they are present in such as space, they are made to feel “the other”. It is through this unconscious and implicit socio-spatial practice of “othering” that whites determine who is “white enough” to be part of the “white” group.
The multi-scalar construction of white identities
Besides racial boundary making processes through space, the role of spatiality in constructing white identities also becomes visible in how the discourse of national white identities is reproduced on the urban neighborhood space. Yasmin’s account below shows how values associated with the dominant white Dutch national identity are used to draw boundaries in the micro-space of the café to construct a “white” and “non-white” group. Yasmin, an Islamic non-white Dutch woman who was born in Morocco and raised in Amsterdam, narrated an experience in which she was interrupted by a white couple while having a conversation with a friend.
Once I was with a friend in a café and she told me that her father wanted her to get married soon and that she was looking for a husband. We were just having a conversation and all of a sudden a couple next to us made a comment. “What does it matter?”, they said. “You just have to decide for yourself how to live your life”. At that moment I realized again that white people have all those stereotypes about us, about arranged marriages and all that, but not all Muslims marry through arranged marriages. Since that moment I constantly think about what kind of people I’m surrounded by in a certain place. Who can listen in to our conversation? What kind of prejudices might those people have about me? Sometimes I start explaining what I just said. Not because the person I’m with doesn’t understand me – they always understand me because we know each other’s situation – but just to be sure that if other people heard me, they won’t think anything negative about us.
This quote reflects how notions of the national discourse about what it means to be a white Dutch person emerge in a micro-space like a café. In national discourse, the idea of white Dutchness is constructed in relation to the stereotypical idea of the non-white “other”, who is reluctant to accept
“typical Dutch” values and ways of living (Essed and Trienekens 2008). As Bonjour and de Hart (2013: 63) show, women particularly embody the boundaries of the cultural and national community, in which non-white Muslim women and white Western women are constructed as opposites: the Muslim woman as oppressed by a patriarchal culture and denied all autonomy and control over sexuality, and the Western woman as sexually liberated, independent and emancipated.
By telling Yasmin and her friend to decide for herself how to live her life, the white couple preserved distinctions in status by stressing supposed “deficiencies” they identified in Yasmin and her friend’s way of life (Çankaya and Mepschen 2019). Through a (possibly benevolent) attempt to educate and enlighten them, the white couple reproduced the stereotype that Muslim women are not allowed or capable of making their own life decisions. Concurrently, the white couple positioned themselves as the opposite of Yasmin and her friend, i.e., as liberated and independent persons, traits strongly associated with white Dutchness. In doing so, the white couple demarcated
clear boundaries of what is considered “normal” based on normalized and taken-for-granted white national values and preferences. By implicitly referring to the national white norm about how to navigate the social world, the white couple reproduced the boundaries that create a “white us” and
“other” in the micro urban space of the café. This shows that the construction of white identities is a multi-scalar process: people reproduce elements of the dominant white national identity to construct white identities at the urban micro scale.
Yasmin’s quote also shows how people racialized as non-white learn what topics can be discussed – and especially which topics cannot be discussed – in white spaces such as the café.
Several interlocutors of color expressed that they learned not to mention issues related to race, racial inequalities, discrimination, the Dutch colonial past, or any other topic that is not in line with dominant white Dutch perspectives. Talita, who has a white Dutch mother and a Moluccan father of color, and who identified as mixed race, emphasized this necessity to mute topics that involved racialized contention:
In general, when I’m in a café with my white friends and we’re talking about politics, I’m mentally checked out. I really don’t want to give my honest opinion in such situations, because I might offend someone. Many Dutch people have a history of colonialism, but they find it very difficult to talk about. Or they don’t agree with my convictions and quickly accuse me of being too radical.
I don’t want to come across that way, so usually I just keep quiet. I noticed that in such spaces you are more accepted, or you feel more comfortable, if you present yourself in a certain way.
As Essed and Trienekens (2008: 55) argue, race has become a word deemed “not important” and rather not to be mentioned in the Netherlands. Both Yasmin and Talita demonstrated that they had learned this dominant national discourse on race and whiteness to the extent that they reproduced it. In order to be feel comfortable in a space dominated by white people, like the café, people of color learn to comply with the taboo topics of the national white discourse. The internalization of this national white discourse ‘is a common process that reproduces whiteness – not only by white people and elites – but also by non-white individuals’ (Cretton 2018: 852). This shows that the multi-scalar process in which elements of the national white identity are reproduced on the urban micro scale does not rely on the involvement of white people alone, but also on non-white people.
Consuming diversity in neighborhood spaces
Urban space is not just a stage on which the dominant national white discourse is reproduced, but also a stage on which different racialized groups contest meanings and through these struggles construct the boundaries of a dominant white identity. This is reflected in the socio-spatial practice of consuming diversity. The café under study served foods from different parts of the world, presented on the menu as “Vietnamese pork belly”, “Surinamese roti” and “Middle Eastern shakshuka”. My white interlocutors expressed pleasure in consuming those dishes, experiencing it as something unique and authentic. Emma, a Dutch white woman, for instance, stressed that she liked trying “new” food, because ‘it allows me to explore new things. I gain new experiences and
whose food was presented, generally questioned the authenticity of those dishes. Dennis, for instance, a non-white Dutch man with Vietnamese roots, pointed out that this type of diversity was built upon a very specific formulation.
What makes me almost angry is the cultural appropriation of the menu. I’m Vietnamese and I see dishes on the menu that are not Vietnamese but are advertised and sold as such. It’s a hodgepodge of what white people like and what is trendy at the moment, but they have no idea where it exactly comes from or what the real ingredients are. It is adapted to their tastes and sold as authentic. It contravenes all my principles. It almost feels disrespectful to my ancestors and family. I feel very uncomfortable in places like that, so I just don’t go there anymore.
According to Dennis, the café promotes a particular kind of diversity that de-emphasizes racial differences and adheres to the white norm. This white norm is present in spaces like the café, and is often invisible to white people – who enjoy the kind of diversity that is presented – and generally creates discomfort for people of color. Dennis explained that in discussing the authenticity of the representation of those cultures with white friends, he often feels misunderstood and sometimes even offended. Those white friends consider the Vietnamese dish sold at the café, for instance, as authentic, because it fits with their ideas of what Vietnamese food looks and tastes like. According to Dennis, it is hard to counter the stereotypical ideas that white Dutch people have about his cultural background. It is in such spaces, and during such conversations, that Dennis especially feels as “the other”.
Dennis’ experiences show that boundaries of “white” and “the other” are constructed by who is seen as a legitimate actor to define the meaning of diversity. White people see eating these dishes as “doing diversity” (cf. Burke 2012: 654-655), as is illustrated by Lara. This white Dutch woman expressed that she and her white boyfriend enjoyed going to the Turkish bakery to get a
We were always one of the few white people, but I think because we often went there – instead of going to the FEBO (a typical “white Dutch” snack bar) – we began to feel a relationship with that place. And therefore indirectly with the people there as well.
Lara’s quote shows that even when they live in a racially diverse neighborhood, consuming is for many white people the most tangible act of encountering diversity. Spaces like the café reflect this dynamic, as it presents and defines diversity based on the tastes and preferences of white people.
In doing so, those spaces promote “diversity” while at the same time ‘keeping whites in the position to decide how to value its potentially “enriching” qualities’ (Reitman 2006: 272). In short, it is in processes such as “consuming diversity” in neighborhood cafes, and how those spaces present “diversity”, that the white norm is constructed or reinforced, and people who have different perspectives might be “othered”.
White identities in the park
The second case study that illuminates the role of urban neighborhood spaces in the formation of white identities is a park. As the only large green space, and centrally located in the middle of the neighborhood, most interlocutors (used to) frequently visit the park. The white interlocutors liked the park for its canals and easy-accessible grassy fields that surround the edges of the park. On sunny days they would swim and sunbathe here, often accompanied by alcoholic drinks and music.
Some of them also enjoyed the recently opened bar in the park that sells specialty beers and coffee, organic cakes, and ice creams. People of color associated the park mostly with their childhood, when they would picknick there with their extended families and play soccer on the larger grassy lawn in the middle of the park. All interlocutors in this study considered the park more diverse than the café, although the interlocutors of color stressed that the park was “whitening” because white people increasingly used the park – which will become clear in the following paragraphs. In what follow, I will outline three socio-spatial practices that I identified in the park: white forms of mobility, navigating diverse urban spaces comfortably and the construction of racial boundaries by claiming space.
White forms of mobility
A first socio-spatial practice that I identified in the park is that whiteness becomes an identity through specific ways of moving through public space. According to my interlocutors of color, certain forms of mobility, such as dog walking, are associated with whiteness and become signifiers for a white identity. This became apparent during the go-along interviews, in which mainly interlocutors of color pointed out that some parts of the park were ‘claimed by white people walking their dog’. One of those interlocutors, Naomi, a non-white Dutch woman of Curaçaoan and Moroccan descent, explained more specifically why walking the dog is considered a white practice.
In this park you only see white people walking their dogs. I think it has to do with keeping pets, because I know different cultures have different relationships with dogs. In the Netherlands it is totally normal to have a dog, but Moroccan and Turkish people – let’s put if differently: Muslims in general – are rarely seen here walking a dog, because they are not allowed to have dogs at home.
They can keep them outside their houses, but not inside. And in the Netherlands that’s nearly impossible, because it’s often cold and rainy. That’s why I associate dogs with white people.
In addition to Naomi’s description, Layla’s story also shows that moving through public space by walking the dog is a signifier for whiteness. Layla, whose roots are Egyptian, owns a dog and told an anecdote about how people were confused by her racial identity when she was walking her dog.
Especially if my hair is a bit darker during the winter and I wear it down, people think I look quite Moroccan. But when I’m walking my dog, people don’t know how to categorize me. In terms of appearance, I don’t look Dutch, but perhaps still more Dutch than Moroccan.
This account shows that a physical complexion may be interpreted in different ways depending on specific socio-spatial practices and contexts. It demonstrates that white Dutch identities are also formed through performing specific activities in space. In a dominant discourse where Dutchness is conflated with being white (Çankaya and Mepschen 2019: 630), performing a white practice makes a person more likely to be Dutch. Although Layla might not look “typically Dutch” due to her dark complexion, walking the dog make others consider her Dutch. The park facilitates such
“white practices” of walking the dog and is therefore the stage on which white identities are constructed and reinforced.
Navigating diverse urban spaces comfortably
Besides forms of mobility as signifiers for white identities, the data of the park showed that white identities are also constructed at different scales. This becomes visible in how white interlocutors navigated and engaged with more racially diverse neighborhood spaces, such as the park. When I asked my white interlocutors about their experiences in the park, they often stressed how much they enjoyed the diversity – and the diversity in their neighborhood in general. This is exemplified by Bram, a white Dutch man who expressed excitement at being able to navigate culturally and racially diverse spaces in his neighborhood.
I very much enjoy living in this mixed neighborhood and all the different options it has to offer me.
If I want to eat Moroccan bread, I go to a Moroccan bakery. If I want to eat Turkish food, I go to a Turkish restaurant. I might be the only blanke (white person) there, but to me that’s a beautiful thing. I never feel unwelcome there. I guess that’s because I grew up in Amsterdam. I’m used to being around different cultures. Yes, sometimes when I visit a local supermarket, I’m the only white person there. At first that felt a bit weird, because the staff looked at me weirdly, but at some point they started recognizing me. So now that I think about it, maybe I did feel a bit out of place sometimes, but not very often.
By stressing the racial and cultural diversity of Amsterdam, Bram constructs a white urban identity in relation to other whites. He implicitly stresses that, in contrast to white Dutch people outside of Amsterdam, he grew up in Amsterdam and is therefore ‘used to being around different cultures’.
In setting himself apart from other white Dutch people, he constructs a specific white urban identity that is related to the cultural and racial diverse make-up of Amsterdam.
Moreover, Bram’s quote reflects the experiences of many of my white interlocutors who expressed that they only become aware of their white identity when they chose to visit a non-white space, like a “Moroccan supermarket” or “Turkish bakery”. Although this might invoke feelings of discomfort at first, most white interlocutors could quickly embrace this feeling. The initial discomfort often changed into excitement for experiencing new things or even feelings of comfort, enabling white interlocutors to navigate different racialized spaces without much trouble (in contrast to people of color’s discomfort in white spaces, as illustrated by Amal’s story in the café).
Moreover, being in a non-white space does not lead to deeper understandings of white people’s whiteness. In describing their experiences in the diverse park, for instance, it was more common
for the white interlocutors to define the “other” than to critical scrutinize one’s own identity and how whiteness has affected their daily lives (cf. Essed and Trienekens 2008: 65). Wekker (2016:
29) argues that this unawareness, and especially whiteness, is at the core of the Dutch national identity: the combination of not knowing the extent to which race and racism underwrite Dutch society, and actively not wanting to know, characterizes Dutch “white innocence”.
In sum, Bram’s experience illustrates how white identities are constructed on different scales and can therefore be understood as a multi-scalar spatial process. Besides the construction of national white identities (see for instance Wekker 2016.), my research shows that white identities are also formed on the urban scale by white people in Amsterdam who set themselves apart from whites who live in less racially and culturally diverse places. In addition, white identities are experienced and constructed in micro neighborhood spaces like “Moroccan” and
“Turkish” venues as well as the park. In both instances, white identities are strongly related to feelings of comfort in navigating racially and culturally diverse spaces. The white interlocutors were not engaging diversity in ways that radically altered the normative center of their identity.
Consequently, as Burke (2012: 652) argues, when the white norm remains unchallenged and firmly centered in how white people experience diversity, a secure white identity remains intact.
The construction of racial boundaries by claiming space
White people construct white identities not just through the comfort by which they navigate diverse spaces in the neighborhood, but also by claiming space. When white people perform white activities, like dog walking, they unconsciously construct racial boundaries in space based on who feels welcome and who does not. Similarly, many interlocutors of color mentioned how white people increasingly used the park in summer to sunbathe, which creates feelings of discomfort for people of color and sometimes excludes them. Nora, a non-white Islamic Dutch woman of Moroccan descent, explained this in more detail during a go-along interview.
I associate the park with picnics, with being with my family and relatives. But it is not family- friendly anymore for Moroccan people, or anyone related to Islamic culture. My parents won’t come with me to this park anymore and I also don’t visit the park with my brothers anymore either.
The reason for that is the few clothes that people wear here. They are literally half-naked. And if you walk towards that part of the park (she points to one of the corners of the park, next to one of the canals), people even sunbathe topless. Don’t get me wrong, they can do whatever they like, but I don’t want to see scantily dressed people; do you get what I mean? Because then I must turn my head all the time: when I look in a certain direction, a group of people arrives and starts undressing, so I make sure to look in other direction but then a new group arrives… That’s the reason a lot of different groups don’t like being in the park anymore.
Whereas non-white families used to gather in the park for picknicks, the park increasingly changed into a space where a white Dutch way of behaving had become the norm. Because of their comfort with navigating spaces racialized as non-white, as discussed above, white people are often not aware that differently racialized groups tend to use the park for different kind of activities and that
the way they use the park have consequences for people of color. Dressing scantily or showing nudity is so ingrained and magnified in dominant white Dutch culture, and so “normal” for many white Dutch, that white Dutch people are often not aware that this can lead to feelings of discomfort – or even exclusion – for many non-white Dutch in the space. Tessa, a white Dutch woman, expressed for instance that ‘the area around the bar is hundred percent white, yes, but when you look at the rest of the park, that’s exactly where I see the neighborhood coming together. Everyone is BBQing, sunbathing…’. Several scholars argue that part of whiteness are predictable patterns of behavior (Lipsitz 2011: 209) that “make sense” and “feel right” to those who have been socialized in the white way of being (Brunsma et al. 2020: 2010). The normalcy of these practices become so deeply embodied by subjects that they appear natural and that people unconsciously reproduce the racial inequalities that produced them (Withers 2017: 6). Consequently, through claiming space by performing certain activities, people create a “white group” who (unconsciously) feels comfortable with those activities and exclude “others” who experience discomfort.
Moreover, Nora’s account shows how the construction and performance of whiteness in space relies on the displacement of people of color. Most interlocutors of color expressed how they struggled to comply with the new normative way of behaving in the park and therefore felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. They expressed that they could either adapt and accept the presence of scantily dressed white Dutch or they had to relocate to a space where they feel more comfortable. As Neely and Samura (2011: 79) argue, the struggle over how a particular space should be known and used can play out along racial lines. In this case, the same park cannot be both a place where non-white Dutch families gather and a place where white Dutch sunbathe, because these sustain incompatible practices which compete for the same space. In the competition for space in the park, white identities are not only constructed in relation to the “other” but white people also create normative ways of behaving that exclude people of color and normalize their own white identities.
This study has shown the role of space in the construction of white identities by outlining six socio- spatial practices that are performed in urban neighborhood spaces. It demonstrates that spaces are racial boundary-making sites because it is through who enters white territory– as seen in the café – or for whose activities the space is claimed – in the park – that people decide who is in and out of the white norm. The processes of in- and excluding people in the “white group” are reinforced by the white normative ways of behaving in a space, such as refraining from mentioning taboo topics, referring to certain stereotypes and performing activities like dog walking and sunbathing.
The interlocutors complied differently with those white normative ways of behaving in the café and park, which suggests that different kind of spaces influence the construction of white identities in different ways. Whereas most interlocutors of color expressed that they learned to
“perform whiteness” in white spaces, they stressed that they struggled to adapt to the white normative way of behaving in the park. This suggests that commercial spaces, which can be
exclusively catered for white people and where people need to pay to use it, might be more territorially marked and facilitate stronger white normative ways of behaving than the park. The park is a public space that is supposedly open for everyone, which may therefore allow for more contestation between racial groups over how the space can and should be used.
The socio-spatial practices in the café and the park often assured white identities to remain unchallenged, because those spaces facilitated a specific form of engagement with diversity. This shows that spaces can promote a form of “diversity” that fit the perspective and normative ways of behaving of white people. This enables white people to engage in diversity without radically reflecting on their own racial identity or evoking a deeper understanding of their whiteness – and therefore white identities are maintained.
Beyond the specific socio-spatial practices outlined in this article, the findings emphasize that the construction of white identities takes place at different scales and that the racialization of identities should therefore be understood as a multi-scalar socio-spatial process. White identities are wrapped in sets of power relations that are located and exercised in urban micro spaces, like specific venues, the urban context of specific cities and the large-scale realm of the nation. Spaces on all these scales not just facilitate discursive processes about who are considered “insiders” and
“outsiders”, what to value in life or who is allowed to belong in the space. Spaces are also stages on which white identities are performed through specific white activities and white normative ways of behaving. As such, space can be seen as actively shaping racial processes and producing processes of racialization.
In demonstrating several ways in which dominant white identities are constructed and maintained in and through space, my research also underscores the call to shift the analytical lens towards whiteness. Although the focus on researching groups racialized as non-white might give needed voice to those facing material and psychological racism, it also turns attention away from the agency of privileged groups in creating and reproducing dominant identities (Reitman 2006:
267). Since groups maintain dominance precisely through the characterization of their actions as
“normal” (Ibid.), it is partly through unpacking the often-invisible structures of whiteness that we can better understand processes of racialization.
1. All names of the interlocutors and places are pseudonyms.
2. Many scholars point to the importance of paying attention to the intersectionality of race and class in the Dutch context (Wekker 2016; Çankaya and Mepschen 2019), as well as the intersectionality between race and other factors such as gender and age. Because my aim was to focus on race, and especially whiteness, I decided not to differentiate between different classes in my sample. In doing so, I attempted to work around the conflation of race and class.
3. Although I have used the more simplified terms “white people” and “people of color” throughout this article as a shorthand to describe people racialized as white and color respectively, I would like to stress that I see racialization as a continuous process in which race is given significance.
Moreover, I am aware there are no single, coherent groups of “white” people and people “of color”,
and that there might be a wide variety and differences in how racialized groups experience their racial identities and social life.
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