Netherlands, we need to talk about racism (and not just about Zwarte Piet)

Clouds of tear gas, burning police cars, broken store windows, and thousands of people shouting and marching in the streets. If you’ve been tuning in to the news (or even if you haven’t) you’ve probably heard about the civil unrest in the U.S. right now.

In cities all over the country, people are gathering in protest against America’s police brutality, racial inequalities, and deep-seated systems of racial oppression. The Netherlands has joined in the protests, bringing a new awareness to the racism that exists all too commonly here as well.

Breaking point

The video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police was shocking to see, but sadly, not as surprising as it should have been. We hear stories and know that incidents like this take place, but more often than not, these cases go largely unnoticed. In this instance, the video evidence was so clearly inhumane it couldn’t be ignored, and it catalysed a movement that had been building for some time. 

And there have been too many other cases like these. From February’s shooting of Ahmaud Arbery at the hand of two white vigilantes to Breonna Taylor, an innocent, black emergency medical technician who, in March, was shot at least eight times by police officers in her own home. So often we’re blind to the racism all around us, but in these cases, there was harsh evidence and such an uproar it was impossible not to take notice. The protests happening now may have been awakened by these recent events, but they’re the result of having had to suffer too much for too long.

Systemic racism

These U.S. protests are often being categorized in the media simply as “anti-police brutality.” While this is a large part of it, to assume that the protests are just about addressing police brutality would be a disservice to the movement. The violent behaviour of police officers is just one symptom of the systemic racism that maintains inequities for people of colour.

The same institutional racism that bred the unacceptable police behaviour that resulted in George Floyd’s death is also reflected in other systems through disparities in income, employment, health care, education, and criminal justice, to name a few. It’s no coincidence that the timing of these protests coincides with the coronavirus pandemic. Since COVID-19 took hold of the U.S., the country’s already marginalized communities have suffered the most with disproportionately higher rates of infection and death, as well as job loss and wage cuts. Reaching a breaking point was inevitable. 

It’s not unique to the U.S.

As people all over the world are standing with American citizens, joining in their own protests of solidarity, each nation’s past racial injustices are rekindled. It’s an important reminder that racial inequities aren’t confined to the US. Racism isn’t an American issue, it’s a human issue.

For the Netherlands, a country whose pride is built on ideals of tolerance and acceptance, it’s still a place where racism is a subject not easily broached. The denial and outrage that result from suggestions of racism indicate that people are afraid of confronting their own complicity in these systems of oppression (this is precisely where and why I won’t mention Zwarte Piet, because we’ll get stuck there, and this is something bigger). It makes sense that the idea of racism isn’t compatible with a culturally-accepting and tolerant self-image, but this idea, and the resulting defensiveness, only serves to maintain racial inequities and preserve the status quo from which white people benefit while others are marginalized.

White privilege and unconscious bias

An important conversation being brought to light during this movement is that of white privilege and the deeply rooted racism that is ingrained in our cultures and everyday thinking at a systems level. From our laws and regulations to our unquestioned social structures, systemic racism assumes white superiority both consciously and unconsciously, rewarding those privileged with better resources and opportunities.

Part of understanding institutionalised racism is realising that it’s about more than individual morals and that we are not born racist, nor can we simply choose not to be. Most of us white folks don’t walk around every day choosing to be racist, but we do have pre-programmed biases that are generations deep. We need to broaden our understanding of racism, recognising it as more than simply deliberate discrimination, but more commonly, subconscious associations.

In her book, ‘White Fragility,’ Robin DiAngelo writes, “We whites who position ourselves as liberal often opt to protect what we perceive as our moral reputations rather than recognize or change our participation in systems of inequity and domination.” In the Netherlands, perhaps the pride that goes along with being a widely accepted leader in cultural liberalism and tolerance gets in the way of identifying the ways in which racial discrimination exists here too.

Where racial biases come from

Remove for a moment the individual moral burden and see that we’re raised in societies where racism lingers in educational and financial institutions, hides in unequal access to employment, housing, and healthcare, buries its face in the criminal justice system, and thrives in the media. But it’s not just around us — it’s inside of us, instilled through generations of normalised discrimination, and built on the foundation of history too unpleasant to properly recount in our history books.

The history lessons we received growing up in the U.S. were most often white-washed tales of heroic discovery and pilgrimage in a land of freedom and opportunity. The stories have been sanitised in such a way that they de-emphasis controversial topics, teaching complex issues like slavery as almost a short-lived mishap of the times. By minimising the representation of slavery and other injustices throughout history, the suffering that was associated is thereby trivialised, and discrimination remains the norm. 

Slavery shaped the very core of American life. From its politics, rooted in the capitalism that viewed slaves a legal form of property — a commodity that could be traded for other kinds of goods and services; to its economies, which were dependent on enslaved African labour for their survival. And slavery didn’t exist in a shadow, rather, it defined the social landscape with ideals of white superiority that are still all too common today.

And this dark history of racial oppression that was glossed over by tales of white heroism in the US holds stark similarities to the Netherlands. The Dutch history shared today most widely involves stories of the extravagant Golden Age, impressive world trade operations, and Nazi resistance during WWII. Less commonly discussed are the ruthless colonialism and slavery of the 17th and 18th centuries, which played an enormous role in driving the Dutch trade economy.

In a country that was one of the last to abolish slavery, in 1863, it would be ignorant to presume that all traces of discrimination have simply vanished. While it might not show up in all the same ways here, it takes only willingness to see the vulnerabilities of a society built on age-old racism. 

“Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains — whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Letter to My Son,” The Atlantic.

Break the cycle

Authorities have to take the lead in shifting the existing power imbalances to weigh equally in favour of all humans, regardless of skin colour, but it’s up to everyone to take part in listening, learning, and acting in favour of racial equality. We have to be willing to talk about race, even though we don’t always know the answers or have the right words. The topic of racism is uncomfortable, and that’s okay. It should be because change doesn’t come from feeling comfortable. 

Substantive discussions on racial inequalities can’t begin from a place of denial and indignation. “Denial is the heartbeat of racism, beating across ideologies, races, and nations. It is beating within us,” Ibram X. Kendi writes in ‘How to Be an Antiracist.’ I would love to sit here today and say that I’m an exception to the influence of systemic racism, that I fully understand my white privilege and I don’t bear any implicit biases, but I can’t. I was raised as a white person in the same society that bred the police brutality that killed George Floyd. As difficult as it is to recognize and accept, I have inherent prejudices, and I will have to continually work to unravel them. I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a person of colour, but I can try to empathise, listen, and learn.  

Treading water in a sea of white guilt gets us nowhere. It’s not our fault, but it’s our responsibility. It can’t be left exclusively up to people of colour to change the system that is inherently stacked against them. White complacency won’t lead to progress or reform. Institutional racism was constructed by white people; it’s our problem and we have to be the ones to dismantle it.

Recognising the existence of racial discrimination is the first step. And then we listen — which is not the same as staying silent — we listen first, so we can better understand, and use our privilege to amplify the voices of those who are silenced or marginalised. 

And with that, I leave you with a few resources from folks who can say it much better than I:


  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo
  • How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X Kendi
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson


  • When They See Us
  • 13th
  • Dear White People


  • NPR’s Codeswitch
  • All My Relations
  • Intersectionality Matters with Kimberlé Crenshaw

Also check out

There are many other resources for navigating racial discrimination, and countless other voices that need to be heard — do you have any recommendations to add?

Feature Image: Vlad Moco-Grama/Supplied

Brin Andrews
Brin Andrews
Brin is an avid ice cream eater from the US, calling Amsterdam home since early 2019. As a lover of mountains, life below sea level has been a bit of an adjustment, but she manages to stay afloat with long runs, wine, and frequent travel. Incidentally, these are a few of her favourite topics to write about.


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