Suddenly I realized she was not white

mural2 (gve)

I was having lunch in one of those coffee places that clearly signpost the gentrification process in my neighbourhood. The place has a large reading table made from scrap wood, the photos on the wall are for sale (pretty expensive) and you can buy gifts such as a starter’s kit for growing spices. I was sitting on a chair that had probably been in a classroom before. For lunch I had a sandwich with grilled veggies and hummus.

From where I was sitting I had a good overview of the square outside and my attention was constantly drawn to the people walking outside. It has become somewhat of a habit (not to say occupational psychosis) to observe the appearance of people and places, to figure out how the going together of certain kinds of people in certain kinds of places shapes how people think and feel about such people and places. I noticed that few people were ‘white’ – or, to put it differently, appeared to be ‘native Dutch’ – which is not surprising at all given the composition of the neighbourhood population in this part of Rotterdam.

While I was observing the people on the street I thought about how gentrification changes public space. I thought about the emergence of ‘white spaces’ in ‘non-white’ neighbourhoods through the settlement of trendy shops and bars. It appeared to me that I was in such a ‘white space’, that I was part of creating such a white space. Earlier, when I entered the coffee place, there was another women, also white, and the owner. For about an hour, I was the only customer until another white woman came in.

I looked to the other side of the room and saw the owner, a woman, late thirties, working on her laptop at the reading table. Suddenly I realized that she was not white. I realized that my observation of a ‘white space’ was incorrect.

Her ‘actual’ ethnic origin is not important of course. It just made me wonder why I had just assumed her to be white and whether this had something to do with the context of the trendy coffee bar. Was it because I was sitting in this marker of gentrification that I had attributed ‘whiteness’ to her? Because she signalled a certain class position? (Of course I also know that the world is not so ‘black and white’: more and more non-Dutch people in the Netherlands own a business, are high educated, become managers and get paid well.)

I have often wondered what the role of context is in how people ‘see’ colour and socioeconomic status. Colour and status are never objectively observed characteristics. Perhaps one of the most intriguing examples is that apparently some people are ‘too white’ (the British white working class‘) or not really white (‘orange celebrities’ – sun tanned). They are all ‘the wrong shade of white’.

In studying perceptions of class difference, as I do in my current research, it is impossible to ignore how ethnicity, race or culture is perceived (particularly because a significant share of the people in the criminal justice system are of non-Western/non-Dutch origin). How does the context of the criminal justice system matter in the social construction of origin and status?

If the context of a trendy coffee bar can make someone white (and privileged), how will the context of a criminal justice institution shape one’s colour and status?

Photo: mural in my neighbourhood (by me)

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