On Friday, April 19, 2002, Gloria Wekker delivered her inaugural address in a packed Nicolaas church in Utrecht. With that speech she accepted the position of professor of Gender and Ethnicity. Wekker was the second Surinamese-Dutch woman to become a professor at Utrecht University. She put intersectional thinking on the map in the Netherlands.
Gloria Wekker is born on June 13, 1950, in Paramaribo, as fifth of six children of Esseline Fredison and Desi Wekker. Father Wekker worked for the police as head of the criminal investigation department and was entitled to six months leave in the Netherlands . Neither he nor his wife had been to the ‘mother country’ before, but Desi wanted to study law and that was not possible in Suriname. In 1951 the Wekker family came to the Netherlands and never returned. After his studies, Desi Wekker worked as director of a regional GAK (Gemeentelijk Administratie Kantoor), a predecessor of the current Employee Insurance Agency (UWV).
Gloria Wekker grew up in Amsterdam and, from the age of nine, in Nijmegen. The Surinamese-Dutch family was Catholic and therefore fit the environment in terms of religion, but still stood out because of their colour. Race was never explicitly discussed at home, but Gloria’s parents did instil in their children that they were beautiful and smart. When his children’s primary school teachers advised them to continue their education at the lowest school levels, father Wekker protest. Gloria went to the highest-level school (Gymnasium).
In 1968, Gloria went to the United States on a scholarship to attend the last class of high school. She lived with a white family in Normal, Illinois, but had a black girlfriend for the first time in her life. In the spring of 1969, the two attended a lecture by minister and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. Gloria Wekker said in 2016:
“That changed my life. There were Black Panthers, at the front of the auditorium, who said: “Black people should sit in the front, white people in the back. Because Linda went forward, quite naturally, I walked with her. At that time, however, I had absolutely no idea what I was.”
Back in the Netherlands, Gloria started studying law at Radboud University Nijmegen. She did not like the study but became acquainted with the anti-colonial movement. She chose cultural anthropology and moved to Amsterdam. There she engaged in the predominantly white women’s and lesbian movement. Together with Tania Leon, Tineke Sumter and José Maas she started Sister Outsider (1983-1987), a literary-oriented group of black lesbian women. The group’s name was taken from a book by Audre Lorde, an African American Caribbean writer and thinker. She did not want to be reduced to ‘woman’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘black’, but drew attention to the complexity of identities.
Lorde was a pioneer of intersectional thinking. This opposes simplistic approaches to people and social problems, such as discrimination. Intersectional researchers take a holistic view and try to tackle problems by analysing how all kinds of differences interact at the same time: race, gender, sexuality, religion, and so on. After all, these factors also intertwine in people’s ‘real’ lives. In the Netherlands, Gloria Wekker has played an important role in giving intersectionality a place in politics and science.
After working as a civil servant for several years, Gloria returned to the United States on a Fullbright scholarship. From 1987 to 1992, she conducted doctoral research at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on erotic relationships between folk women in Paramaribo.
The women with whom Wekker worked during her field research had sex with men too, before, after or during their relationships with women. They did not call themselves lesbians, however, but used the word ‘mati’ instead. According to Wekker, the black ‘mati culture’ is therefore characterized by a different approach to sexuality than the West: your sexual preferences and actions do not define your identity.
Around the turn of the millennium, when Wekker did follow-up research, it turned out that young women in Paramaribo did identify as lesbians. Gloria was ambivalent about this, as shows from an 2001 interview:
‘Being gay is a successful Western export product. I don’t know if one should applaud that. In the west everything is pigeonholed, straight or gay, white or black, so-called polarity thinking, where one is better than the other, or as [the African American academic] bell hooks wrote, one the norm and the other the deviation.’
Gloria Wekker has rarely called herself ‘lesbian’. Together with Mariette Hermans she did write a chapter on black, migrant and refugee women for the Lesbo Encyclopedia (2009) in which they emphasized the variation of lesbianism, beyond the ‘dominant Western form’:
‘You don’t have to be white. to be a lesbian, you don’t have to call yourself a lesbian to love women, you don’t have to assume an immutable identity, and you can enjoy women’s love even if you don’t tell your parents about it.’
After her PhD, Gloria Wekker returned to the Netherlands. She commuted from her home in Amsterdam Southeast to Utrecht, where she was affiliated with Women’s Studies (now: Gender Studies) at Utrecht University from 1994. In 1999 she also became director of the Expertise Centre GEM – Gender, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism in (higher) education.
GEM worked, among other things, on research into university curricula and textbooks, with the aim of achieving more diversity in education. This also applied to teaching materials of emancipatory studies. Textbooks on the history of feminism, for example, paid little or no attention to the movements of women of colour. Gloria Wekker and colleagues therefore made the book Kaleidoscopic visions (Caleidoscopische visies). The black, migrant and refugee women’s movement in the Netherlands (2001). It was presented on March 10, 2001, in the Savannah Bay bookstore in Utrecht.
In September 2001, Gloria Wekker was appointed as endowed professor of Gender and Ethnicity at Utrecht University. ‘Endowed’ means that the position is made possible by a social partner, in this case the International Information Centre and Archives for the Women’s Movement (IIAV, now: Atria. Knowledge Institute for Emancipation and Women’s History). On April 19, 2002, Wekker gave her inaugural lecture: Building nests in a windy place. Thinking about gender and ethnicity in the Netherlands. (Nesten bouwen op een winderige plek. Denken over gender en etniciteit in Nederland). The title was taken from a poem by Audre Lorde.
Following her heroine, Wekker once again championed intersectional thinking. She argued how one-sided focuses on either gender or ethnicity in Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies lead to blind spots that work to the disadvantage of people who do not belong to the implicit norm. She therefore called for more explicit reflection on whiteness too.
Although she retired in 2012, Gloria continued to work on a new book. For White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (2016) she delved into the ‘cultural archive’ of the Netherlands. She found and problematized traces of colonialism and racism in all facets of Dutch society in the past and present, including the gay emancipation movement and LGBTI policy.
The book earned Wekker a lot of hatred and criticism. She was accused of being subjective and ‘unscientific’ because she used personal experiences in her argumentation. But there was also praise. In 2017 she received the Joke Smit oeuvre prize from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science for her contribution to the emancipation of black women. She herself is not entirely positive about the integration of intersectionality in her discipline, Women’s and Gender Studies. Nevertheless, her work inspires queers of colour and many intersectional thinkers – inside and outside the universities in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
Greetje Bijl, ‘Vaderlandse geschiedenis creëert ‘witte onschuld’. Genderview Gloria Wekker’, Historica 46:1 (2023) 22-26.
Maayke Botman, Nancy Jouwe, Gloria Wekker (red.), Caleidoscopische visies. De zwarte, migranten- en vluchtelingenvrouwenbeweging in Nederland (Amsterdam: KIT Pubishers, 2001). Online beschikbaar via: https://collectie.atria.nl/bibliotheek/item/146299-caleidoscopische-visies
Fiep van Bodegeom en Thijs Kleinpaste, ‘Seize the moment. Gloria Wekkers pleidooi voor bondgenootschap’, De Groene Amsterdammer, 14 juli 2016.
Gianmaria Colpani en Wigbertson Julian Isenia, ‘Strange Fruits. Queer of Color Intellectual Labor in the Netherlands in the 1980s and 1990s’ in: Sandra Ponzanesi & Adriano José Habed (eds.), Postcolonial intellectuals in Europe: critics, artists, movements and their publics (London: Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd, 2018) 213-230.
Cassandra Ellerbe-Dueck & Gloria Wekker, ‘Naming ourselves as Black Women in Europe. An African American-German and Afro-Dutch Conversation’ in: Stella Bolaki & Sabine Broeck (eds.), Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies (Amherst/Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015) 55-73.
Chandra Frank, ‘Sister Outsider & Audre Lorde’, With Pride, https://withpride.ihlia.nl/story/sister-outsider-audre-lorde/
Mariette Hermans en Gloria Wekker, ‘ZMV-vrouwen. Aïsha is cool, Black Orchid en Kroesje’ in: Mirjam Hemker en Linda Huijsmans (red.), Lesbo-encyclopedie (Amsterdam 2009) 231-244.
Anke Manschot, “Nederland is een stuk leuker geworden.’ Hoogleraar Gloria Wekker wil de zonkanten van migratie aantonen’, Opzij, 1 november 2001.
Gloria Wekker, Ik ben een gouden munt. Subjectiviteit en seksualiteit van Creoolse volksklasse vrouwen in Paramaribo (Amsterdam: Vita, 1994).
Gloria Wekker, Nesten bouwen op een winderige plek. Denken over gender en etniciteit in Nederland (Universiteit Utrecht, 2002)
Gloria Wekker, White Innoncence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); Witte onschuld. Paradoxen van kolonialisme en ras (Amsterdam University Press, 2018).
Gloria Wekker, ‘How Families Navigate Empire’ in: Nancy Jouwe (ed.), Gendered Empire. Intersectional perspectives on Dutch post/colonial narratives: Yearbook of Women’s History 39 (2020) 127-132.
Gloria Wekker at her inaugural lecture, 2002. Photo: Mieke Schlaman. Source: https://atria.nl/haargeschiedenis/leren-en-scholing/buitengewoon-hoogleraar-gender-en-etniciteit/
Sister Outsider, 1984. From left to right: José Maas, Tania Leon, Gloria Wekker, Tieneke Sumter. Photo: Robertine Romeny. Collection IAV-Atria, Amsterdam. https://atria.nl/haargeschiedenis/liefde-seksualiteit/sister-outsider/
In 2006 Gloria Wekker published an extended version of her dissertation on Surinam mati. The American Anthropological Association awarded The Politics of Passion the Ruth Benedict Prize (2007). Photo: ILHIA
A Feminist Classic: Kaleidoscopic Visions (Caleidoscopische visies) 2001. Photo: Atria, https://atria.nl/agenda/ken-je-klassieken-caleidoscopische-visies/
Gloria Wekker during a tribute to Audre Lorde in De Balie (Amsterdam), March 6, 2016. https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloria_Wekker#/media/Bestand:GloriaWekker2016.jpg
Cover of Gloria Wekker’s much-discussed book White Innocence (2018). Source: Bol.com, https://media.s-bol.com/BrnDKr685PrX/766×1200.jpg
On 11 December 2017, Gloria Wekker received the Joke Smit oeuvre prize from Ingrid van Engelshoven (on the right in the photo), Minister of Education, Culture and Science. The chairman of the jury was journalist-presenter Eva Jinek (left). Source: https://jokesmit.info/2017/12/13/gloria-alarm clock-get-joke-smit-oeuvre price-2017/