Translator: Annemarie Toebosch
One day sometime in 2019, I received an email from Annemarie Toebosch of the University of Michigan, in which I was invited to participate in a conference in early 2020.
The person and the university were completely unknown to me. The first thing I did was google her. Not particularly active on social media, so it did not help me at all. But at least I had found out she's really the director of Dutch and Flemish Studies. I confirmed I was available, admittedly more out of curiosity. There are American universities that sometimes ask permission to use some of my opinion pieces, but I do not think Michigan was ever one of them.
Of course, Covid regulations thwarted all plans, and I actually forgot about the whole affair. If I had known Annemarie then, I would have known she was actually still rearranging plans. Giving up is just not part of her vocabulary. She reminds me of a swan: elegant, graceful, calm, but beneath the surface she is furiously rowing to move ahead.
The conference only materialized in 2022, when I got to know the person behind the title and the formal emails.
I work with words, and it is usually easy for me to describe people. However, I struggled with Annemarie. She reminds me of the Walt Whitman poem "Song of Myself":
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes).
She is at once modest and confident, able to weave many identities into herself with ease, embracing contradictions. For example, when I ask her what she reads, she says that she is actually done reading herself silly. But her office is wall to wall full of books, all clearly read and enjoyed.
I went to her house for coffee one Sunday afternoon. The focal point of her living room is an oak bookshelf that covers one full wall. Clearly not so read silly, I think. Or maybe the mere knowledge that there are books makes her happy.
She does not mention at all that she is multilingual. Only when I started snooping around for the interview did I realize that in addition to Dutch and English, she is also fluent in German and French. In addition, she studied ancient Greek and Latin. And she understands Afrikaans.
Her house itself is an experience and so typical Annemarie. It is a sturdy old house, one that was ordered and shipped from a Sears catalog at the time. The architectural detail of the original front porch has already given the house media coverage. It doesn’t concern her. For her, this is a home rather than a house, one where everyone is welcome. Even the dog knows how to greet strangers with a tail wag.
She does interesting things in her classes. For example, she has an annual lecture where she invites a survivor of the Jewish Shoah to talk about her experiences. The students are challenged to witness the inhumanities that have taken place.
It was easily one of the most moving experiences of my life, and I cried with some of the students while Irene Butter spoke.
As much as she challenges her students, so deeply does she care about. A word here, aquery there, and I get the impression that her students worship the ground she walks on.I doubt she's aware of it, but to me as an outsider, it's as clear as day that she inspiresand motivates her students to do more and perform better.
As serious as Annemarie takes her work and her activism, she can also be verymischievous, with a witty sense of humor that has made me laugh out loud more thanonce. I can see her, for example, with that naughty little smile when she recounts whyher youthful act of activism for Greenpeace failed. Anyone who can laugh at themselvescarries away my approval.
Initially, we spoke English with each other, but then started talking to each in our own languages. That's why I thought it would be good to have Annemarie speak in her ownwords during our interview.
You're a Dutch person in the US. Do you feel more or less Dutch when you meetother Dutch people?
I only feel more Dutch among other Dutch people when it comes to food. In the US, Idon't think much about the food I grew up with, but as soon as I arrive in the Netherlandsand walk among the Dutch, I grab the Gouda, the coarse whole wheat bread, and the“hopjes” pudding off the shelves. The Dutch and their shopping carts trigger my tastenostalgia. Besides that, during my annual visits back to my parental land, I feelespecially like a stranger, out of place, and in my second week there I always check tosee if my passport is still there for my trip back to the US. I find the Netherlands anoppressive country that has twisted its long history of anti-revolutionary thinking (once so astutely described by Russell Shorto) into the opposite self-image of being the rebelliousand anti-authoritarian "gidsland", a country that guides others.
I feel this national self-delusion when I return to the Netherlands from the land ofMalcolm X and Russell Means: a culture built on the capitalist terrorism of the VOC thathas rapidly transformed the socialist revolution into social-liberal systems in order topreserve white supremacy. I do not know how to walk around feeling at home among apeople, the majority of which do not know, or do not want to know, that their greatestchampion of the welfare state, Willem Drees, held a gun to Indonesians’ heads to pay (incurrent money) 113 billion dollars for their freedom.
I had a chance to see you in action in the classroom. You clearly care a lot aboutyour students. What do you hope they learn from you, outside of the curriculum?
I hope my students learn from me to look honestly and bravely at their own languageand culture. I often get the explicit or implicit question whether I hate the Dutch languageand culture. I understand where the question comes from: people see me as arepresentative and teachers of Dutch and the Netherlands. But that's not how I seemyself and my work. Dutch, the language and the culture, has caused a lot of sufferingand exclusion, and still does, and I therefore do not think that the education of thislanguage and culture can be an end in itself. My goal for my students is for them to usemy confrontation with my language and culture to confront the US, where they live. Ihope that, in their confrontation, they are no longer able to see the US as “the land ofopportunity”, but instead as a colony.
And I hope they connect the dots and understand that the US is a continuation of aEuropean system of racial hierarchy that, in the Dutch context, produced or facilitatedthe Native American genocide, the Holocaust, Trans-Atlantic slavery, and Apartheid. Ultimately, I hope that this connecting of the dots will lead to bigger or smaller action intheir life.
Speaking of the curriculum. You have interesting projects that you make your students part of. Tell us a little more about it?
I share my activism work and contacts with my students. It’s an active way of learning.My students see guest speakers, attend the events I host, read my anti-colonial opinionpieces, my translations of the texts of activists I work with, and they watch their protestvideos. In my language classes, they learn the Dutch language this way without focusingon the Western European perspective. They hear Francisca Pattipilohy, a survivor of the Dutch colonial occupation of Indonesia, explain in Dutch how the tiered racial hierarchy in Indonesia worked. The hierarchy still lives one in the diaspora communities in theNetherlands. Students in our Holocaust course recognize this kind of hierarchy as theyhear Holocaust survivor, Irene Butter, in class as she compares Nazism to theoppression of Palestinians in Israel (min. 15:50). Dutch class hits close to home when James Baldwin, the famous American writer and civil rights leader, explains to a Dutch journalist that the Netherlands is the ground zero of American racism. Students learnfrom this that the Netherlands tries to hide its own guilt behind the US, before they canstart thinking about hidden histories in their own cultures. The lesson about silencingbecomes very real when they learn from erased Navajo and Dutch US presidentialcandidate, Mark Charles, that they themselves live in a colony where genocide is nothistory but is taking place right now.
Is social justice important to you? How do you live this?
I grew up with a deeply traumatized mother. She taught me the importance of human rights at a young age, as I once described here after Donald Trump declared half theworld “shithole countries”. As an 8-year old, I founded the VVV-club (Peace andFreedom for Women) and handed out buttons in the schoolyard. Soon after, I foundedthe Seal Club, sang as a fundraiser for Greenpeace, and stole paint with the intention ofdumping it over the fur coats at the expensive fur store in the city (the plan failed when Ipanicked in front of the store peeing my pants). At my elite secondary school (StedelijkGymnasium Nijmegen), within the racially segregated Dutch school system, I learned how the white supremacy works. With the great love of my humanistic parents always inmy heart, my main goal as a human being, a mother, a teacher, an activist, and a writeris to acknowledge the unequal system that I myself benefit from and to turn that acknowledgment into action.
Zwarte Piet / Black Pete: Are the celebrations becoming more controversial, or doyou think that they are not being looked at with enough awareness that they are harmful? Or maybe I should ask: Do you think it is harmful, and if so, why?
The person who taught me the most about Black Pete is activist and co-founder of theZwarte Piet Is Racism movement, Quinsy Gario. Black Pete is currently under heavy fire, but Gario made one important thing clear at the start of the protests already (min. 5:38): that the Netherlands is busy putting Black Pete in new clothes (or skin color) without facing the racism, then and now. The Netherlands is full of what I call “good colonists”,mostly “left-wing” people who make adjustments to the oppression system for show, inorder to secure their own power and continue their oppression. “Good colonialism” has along history in the Netherlands, from “State Supervision” and “contract labor”, the new,disguised version of slavery in “De West” to the “Dutch Ethical Politics”, an ill-disguisedform of cultural genocide in “The East”. And now we have a new Black Pete, called“Chimney Soot Pete”, while the Netherlands is still at the top of the racism list in Europe.I think there’s nothing that gets me as enraged as that hypocrisy. It’s based in a greatarrogance. Or, as the founder and chairman of the Dutch Reparations Committee forIndonesians, Jeffry Pondaag, says: “The Netherlands has never had good intentions.The Netherlands is shameless, truly an arrogant country!”
Afrikaans is no longer offered in any American university. Is it important for youthat your students still understand the relationship between Afrikaans and Dutch?
I understand after your visit that I know zip, zilch, nada about Afrikaans. And because ofthis, my students learn nothing except for some pointless “party tricks” in class abouthow Dutch and Afrikaans resemble each other. This is really not ok, and it is at the top of my list of things that should change as soon as possible in this Dutch program. It startswith adding your lecture to our curriculum. For the past few years, I've set up a project with colleagues and BIPOC students in the University of Michigan language programs,the report of which has just been published. I see the addition of thorough informationabout Afrikaans as an important part of implementing this project in our Dutch program. There's much work to be done.
What does your job as director of Dutch and Flemish Studies at the University of Michigan entail?
I hope you were wanting the following kind of answer to this question. In my 10 years as director, the program has grown from about 85 students to now around 265 students peryear, a diverse group of young people that I consciously recruit. I myself teach 6 coursesper year (2 Dutch language acquisition courses and 4 culture courses) with around 240student registrations in total, and for the past few years I have been supervising arotating second teacher from Flanders, Belgium who teaches 2 courses with a total ofabout 25 registrations per year. From this fall on, a permanent Flemish person has beenhired who will teach two additional courses, for a total of 10 courses in the program. Ifeel like I can finally slow down a bit. In terms of the content of my job, I do as muchinterdisciplinary work as possible. Among the culture courses I teach is Anne Frank inContext, the largest Holocaust course on our campus, shared between the Dutch andJudaic Studies programs. I also maintain strong contacts with, among others, ourCarillon Studio, people in the School of Social Work, the African Studies Center, and theuniversity Art Museum. More broadly, I serve my field in professional organizations(including on the board of the American Association of Netherlandic Studies), in theDutch immigrant community, and I maintain good contacts with the other Dutchprograms in the US. In addition to the work mentioned above, I devote about a quarter ofmy work time to academic activism outside of my institution.
You are very involved with studies and projects on decolonization. Tell me a littlemore?
Most of my anti-colonial projects have come my way through people I met on the internet in Dutch activist circles. Most of them work for justice for Indonesia and Indonesians. Projects take the form of writing (of opinion pieces in particular), translations (of activist texts), and teaching (of colonial systems then and now). Through this work, I have gradually come to understand how colonial thought forms a propaganda system in the US. Noam Chomsky, who was once my mentor in linguistics (or rather my mentor's mentor), once said that within democracies, propaganda takes the form of the well-defined but lively debate. Left/right-wing politics is an important mechanism in this system. There is a lot of complaining in the US about polarization within politics, but it is this polarization that keeps the colony invisible, and thus alive. By portraying Biden and Trump as polar opposites (as "the American colonists" versus "the British" before them), everyone forgets that they are both colonists.
In the Netherlands, the mechanism of erasure takes the form of what is proudly called “weerstemmigheid”, or, multivoicedness: inviting people of all identities to your table so that everyone forgets that the table itself is a colonial table. My motto is: The legs have to go from under the table, and I have a saw in my hand.
There is a chance that Roe vs Wade will be rejected by the court. Do you want to give your opinion on it, and on the status of women's rights in the US in general?
I won't say anything about this until the people who scream bloody murder about this misogyny find out what MMIW means.
What type of music do you listen to?
Prince, eighties pop, Prince, some guilty pleasure ABBA, some Dolly, more Prince.
Which books influence your outlook on life? What do you like to read?
I used to read myself silly all the way through high school, and had you asked me ten years ago I would have given you my list of ten or so books, plus Chomsky. But I honestly don't know anymore. For my outlook on life, right now I prefer to listen to people I meet and feel. If those people also write, like you, or like my fellow activists, then that's a bonus.
The Oprah Question: What do you know for sure?
That next year, I will know completely different things for sure.
There are probably many words I can use to describe Annemarie Toebosch. Human being feels right. Incomplete, yet appropriate.