Does the Netherlands have a blind spot for racism?

All are equal in the eyes of the law. The Netherlands is a tolerant and hospitable country, in which everyone gets equal opportunities, regardless of his or her background and colour of skin. At least, that’s how the Netherlands likes to see itself. But the numbers and the people behind them tell a different story.

Editor’s Note: This article was written in December 2019 but we believe it is more relevant than ever given the current discussion around Black Lives Matter and racism globally.

Research shows the inequality of opportunity in what types of schools non-white children are encouraged to attend, job applications, in renting an apartment, buying a house or in appointments to administrative positions. The figures also show that the political and public debate has hardened in recent decades and that xenophobia and racism have not just been increasing but have also become more normalised.

Young Dutch people with a migrant background have noticed how the public debate has changed in recent decades. Politicians have slowly succeeded in normalising xenophobia, populist rhetoric has also contributed to a negative image of Muslims, and on social media, it is constantly raining racist comments/insults.

Recently, the Dutch Football Association launched an investigation after a second division game between FC Den Bosch and Excelsior was stopped due to racist abuse. The match was temporarily halted after Excelsior winger Ahmad Mendes Moreira was subjected to racist chanting by the home fans, including songs about ‘Black Pete.’

In the same week, Kim Kardashian posted a tweet in which she called the ‘Dutch tradition’ called Black Pete ‘disturbing’. Kim Kardashian’s tweet opened a cesspool of insults with Dutch folks on Twitter calling her names like whore, attention seeker, etc. What started as a simple tweet soon grew into massive hurling of insults from the pro-Zwarte Piet camp.

Whether the Netherlands likes to admit it or not, the country has an ugly and brutal past of slavery and colonialism. The Netherlands, albeit beautiful, is divided into those who enjoy the profits that were once stolen, or who have to endure the effects of the theft, exploitation and injustices of years past. Since the Netherlands was built in part by the exploitation of other people, cultures, countries and the theft of their natural resources, it is sometimes interesting to see how the country desperately wants to develop a society in which everyone is expected to pretend that this history has left no effects on the Dutch society of today.

In contrast to how the Germans openly teach their young ones about the atrocities of the Nazis, the slavery past of the Netherlands is glossed over in the Dutch school curriculum. A nice slick film about Max Havelaar or a proud description of the Golden Age, throw in some WWII documentaries, and that is usually where the history classes end. Because of this, lots of white Dutch folks often prefer to close their eyes to the sufferings of people of colour.

Recently, the UN rapporteur for racism and xenophobia, Tendayi Achiume, stated that the Dutch government is taking too little action to combat racism. The Zambian UN official stated this at a press conference in The Hague at the end of a working visit to the Netherlands.

As a UN rapporteur, Tendayi is the successor to Verene Shepherd, who strongly criticised the “Dutch tradition” of Zwarte Piet in a report in 2015. Verene Shepherd, a professor at the University of the West Indies and a former UN expert on people of African descent said she still gets hate mail from the Netherlands even years after publishing her report.

Tendayi Achiume’s new report states that the Netherlands has since taken some important steps in this area. For example, she praises the decision not to use Black Petes with fully painted faces at the national Sinterklaas entry this year, but only soot wipes. “The most important thing is that there is a dialogue now,” she said.

At the same time, Tendayi believes that the Dutch government should take more responsibility in the Black Pete issue, especially because it concerns events that are subsidised. With that, she meant the position of Prime Minister Rutte, who has repeatedly said that he leaves the change of Zwarte Piet to Dutch society. Prime Minister Rutte has also refused to address the issue of the violence suffered by anti-Zwarte Piet protesters at the hands of pro-Zwarte Piet hooligans.

Educating the populace

According to Tendayi Achiume, another important role for the government lies in education. She stated that the history lessons should pay much more attention to the Dutch involvement in slavery and colonialism, and also to the arrival of guest workers (gastarbeiders) in the Netherlands. “This ultimately helps to combat discrimination and intolerance,” she added.

The Zambian UN rapporteur criticised the recently introduced burqa ban. She pointed out that it is aimed at Muslim women, who are already a vulnerable group in the Netherlands.

The findings of Tendayi Achiume are still preliminary. A report will be published in July 2020 with its final judgment on racism and xenophobia in the Netherlands.

The UN wasn’t the only institution to write a report on the Dutch Black Pete issue. In 2016, the Dutch children’s ombudsman, Margrite Kalverboer, after speaking to children in the country, reported that non-white children in the Netherlands experienced discrimination on a daily basis that worsened around Sinterklaas.

She wrote that the racial stereotype of Zwarte Piet contributes to bullying, exclusion, and discrimination and is therefore contrary to the international Convention on the Rights of the Child. Margrite received so many death threats from Dutch folks who were pro-Black Pete that she had to make an official complaint to the police about them.

Racism in the Dutch labour market

Over the years, many studies have already been conducted on discrimination in the Dutch labour market. Time and again the result is that Mohammed has less chance of a job than Johan. Not because Mohammed does not have the papers or is not qualified for the job, but because his name is Mohammed and not Johan.

A joint study by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Dutch Crime and Law Enforcement Study Center (NSCR), Radboud University and Utrecht University show that ethnic minorities with a blank criminal record received a significantly less positive response to their application than applicants of Dutch descent with violent crime on their criminal record. The preference for white Dutch people is so deeply rooted that most employers aren’t even aware that they are doing it.

Dutch blind spot for racism

In the Netherlands, the denial of racism is rooted in a national self-image of the Netherlands as the country of openness, tolerance and equality. This national self-image stems from the belief that a history of 400 years of colonialism and imperialism has left no traces in contemporary society.

Yes, it is true that the Netherlands has a liberal soft drug policy, a liberal policy for sex workers in the Red Light District and was the first country in the world where same-sex marriage was legalised. As a result, you have Dutch folks who ask the question: “How can we be racist when we are so tolerant?”

Same Dutch folks believe that: “If you are a person of colour and you work hard in school, you can achieve just as much as any other white person in the Netherlands.” The statistics, however, contradict this. Discrimination in the labour market means that people of colour — even if they work hard — do not always get equal opportunities. And even the tolerance that the Netherlands has long been known for is currently under threat from right-wing and populist politicians.

Black folks sometimes wonder: “If right-wing and left-wing politicians and their followers claim not to be racist, then where does racism in the Netherlands come from?” It is customary to associate racism primarily with the (extreme) right or Nazis, while no attention is being paid to the daily and more subtle forms of racism that black folks have to deal with at work, school, playgrounds, in the media, on the streets, public transportation, etc.

Nowadays the term ‘micro-aggressions’ is also a thing in the Netherlands. Subtle racial comments and insults that are thrown at people of colour on a daily basis. Examples of micro-aggressions are: “You’re African and you speak Dutch so well?” “Wow! You’re African and you study here in the UvA. You are not like other black people that I’ve met.”

The annoying thing about micro-aggressive racism is often not even in the comments themselves, but in the world view or meaning behind them. A white person telling a black person studying at the UvA that they are not like other black folks he/she has met is only drawing the conclusion that black folks are not intelligent enough to study at such a university. Or that black folks usually don’t go to (or finish) school.

These micro-aggressions can also mix with other forms of discrimination. Racism also intersects with sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, etc. For example: “Is that your real hair?” Or when white folks touch the hair of black women without permission, as if they are some exotic animals and their bodies are entirely at white folks’ disposal for them to satisfy their curiosity.

You also have white Dutch folks who immediately go into ‘defence mode’ once the topic of racism is brought up. That is called white fragility. White folks who live in a comfortable “white bubble” where no uncomfortable discussions about racism should be had. And they fight tooth and nail to keep it that way.

If someone (mostly black folks) brings up the topic of racism, slavery or the Dutch colonial past, these fragile white folks react with anger or quickly want to put a stop to the conversation. This white fragility is nurtured in Dutch classrooms where young pupils aren’t taught or exposed to the uncomfortable and ugly parts of Dutch history.

Note: The term “white fragility” was coined in 2011 by Robin DiAngelo, an American professor of multiculturalism, who wanted to give a name to the sometimes defensive or evasive reactions of white people to racism discussions.

Recently, Daniël Buter, a young man born and raised in Amsterdam was threatened with deportation by the Dutch Immigration Services (IND) due to not having a Dutch passport. This was due to a series of registration mistakes and also being abandoned by his parents.

In an article about the young Daniel, NOS referred to him as an “Amsterdammer” which somehow, did not sit well with right-wing and populist politician Thierry Baudet. So what do you call a 19-year-old young man born and raised in Amsterdam? You would say an Amsterdammer, right? Well, Thierry Baudet saw it differently. He thinks that it was wrong of the NOS to refer to Daniël Buter as an “Amsterdammer.”

So according to Thierry Baudet, if you’re not a white person like him, then you’re not an Amsterdammer (or Dutch), even if you’re born and raised in the city. Unfortunately, Thierry Baudet’s mentality can be seen throughout the Netherlands. Lots of white Dutch folks don’t consider people of colour who are born and raised in the Netherlands to be their fellow countrymen and women. This is the main reason why the African, Moroccan and Turkish communities are largely marginalised.

When people from these communities do well in their respective fields, then they are considered “Dutch.” If they somehow commit a crime, then they are “African with a Dutch passport” or Moroccan/Turkish with a Dutch passport.” As a person of colour (or a minority), you’re constantly expected by white Dutch folks to prove yourself. You’re always reminded that you’re a guest (even though you’re born and raised in the Netherlands) in the Netherlands, you should be grateful that “you are allowed to live in the Netherlands” and if you commit a crime, you run the risk of losing your passport.

So how racist is the Netherlands?

While the Netherlands may be a tolerant country, Dutch society must admit that it does struggle with the issue of racism. Racism in the Netherlands can be found in everyday life and even in the so-called “good intentions” — such as white Dutch folks who claim not to see colour (colour blindness) and thoughtless micro-aggressions. All of these provide a blind spot for how racism manifests itself in this country.

The discussions about racism in the Netherlands must be had. Our country is, unfortunately, one of those countries where the discussion about racism is still a taboo. At the mention of the word, many white Dutch folks immediately retreat to their shells. The same applies to the discussion about police brutality, slavery and colonialism. By and large, the Dutch response to criticism of Black Pete, slavery and its colonial past has been defensive, at times even aggressive.

Young Dutch pupils should be taught about the slavery and colonial history of the Netherlands. If the Netherlands intends to build a truly inclusive society, then the contributions of guest workers such as the Moroccans and the Turkish to Dutch society should also be taught in schools. Their hard work helped build the Netherlands that we’ve all come to love and appreciate today.

And it is very unacceptable and sad that these communities are still treated as outsiders. You have politicians constantly talking about taking away their Dutch passports or putting them in a plane and deporting them – minder Marokkanen. How can you marginalise the Turkish and Moroccan communities and then wonder why they do not want to “integrate” into Dutch society?

Yes, the Netherlands is a beautiful country but it is time to admit that it has a racism problem. It is time that the right steps are taken to solve this problem. Enough with referring to the racists in the Netherlands as “a few bad apples.” Racism should not be accepted in any facet of Dutch society.

If we want to tackle racism at the root, then we must first admit that there is a problem. This is a persistent cultural system of categorisation and marginalisation that has crept into all parts of our society: the police, politics, education, the law and the way in which people of colour are treated in their daily lives, often without white folks noticing. And then there are those who notice and do (or say) nothing!

Racism in the Netherlands is not the fault of an individual or a group of bad eggs and “uneducated farmers” somewhere in the deep countryside. Racism is an encapsulated cultural problem. It is part of our history and therefore also our daily life. From job application inequality to police brutality. From only white science departments to an educational curriculum that does not mention a word about the injustices that other people and cultures have had to suffer so that the Netherlands would be where it is today, and which especially makes excuses for our shameful acts in other countries.

If the Netherlands wants to show the international community that it does not have a blind spot for racism, then the goal must be to reach a point where black people and other minorities can just live their lives instead of always trying to survive.

Do you think that the Netherlands has a blind spot for racism, and have you ever been a victim of racism in the Netherlands? Let us know in the comments below.

Feature image: DutchReview(edited); GTorres/Pixabay(edited); constablequackers/Wikimedia Commons (edited).

Chuka Nwanazia
Chuka Nwanazia
A renegade wordsmith, freelance writer, poet, and digital marketer based in Amsterdam. Besides writing, he extremely enjoys traveling around Europe in search of old and rare books, writing poems while riding the train to nowhere, performing at poetry events, spending too much time reading books, contemplating the meaning of life, preparing tasty dishes and desserts, and searching for the perfect bookshelf.
  1. Actually, as far as colonialism and slavery goes, the Netherlands doesn’t have a particularly brutal past. On the contrary, I can’t think of any less brutal colonial empire or imperial power, the Dutch tended to let the local rulers do the oppression and concentrated on trade. Also it did very little slavery compared to it’s share of Europe’s and the world’s trade. 5% of the transatlantic slave trade and more than 50% of all Europe’s trade in the 17th century. So the divide is not between those who have stolen and the ones who is stolen from.

    The divide is between those who succeed in the Dutch education system and job market and those who don’t. Dutch upbringing culture is quite effective in making people succeed in the Netherlands and it’s often that part of culture that immigrants don’t integrate too. Not that it’s all great, besides regularity, reading, try your best, respect your female teacher there are also more dubious things to Dutch culture of succeeding. But that’s the same for many white Dutch people too. Many immigrants seem to think that getting a degree is all there is to it, it isn’t especially since education standards have dropped massively to make the statistics look better to the politicians.


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