The Netherlands: a safe haven for queers, an incredibly culturally diverse nation and a place where all fun things are legal. This, or similar, is a common picture conjured up in discussions surrounding the cheese and tulip-loving nation.
But the black and brown communities are not really on board with this one-sided presentation and point the finger to the hidden side of the coin: social exclusion of minorities, racial profiling, negative stereotyping of non-whites, and the world’s best-known blackface, Zwarte Piet.
A self-proclaimed tolerant and inclusive dutchie might respond to such accusations with their eyes rolling, forehead frowned, saying: “If you don’t like it here why don’t you go back to where you come from — what else do you want to eradicate from our culture?” Well, since you’re asking, plenty actually, but how about we begin with an open discussion surrounding racial discrimination?
Reasons as to why there is a burning necessity to open up this discourse are plenty, rooted in the draining everyday experiences of non-whites. Let’s start by talking about some of those, so we all know what we are dealing with.
My friend Etienne is African-American who came to study in Amsterdam on a scholarship. He is also very handsome and consequently takes his Cardio seriously (some days more than others). One of his runs led him through beautiful Amsterdam-west and he did some window-shopping while at it (apparently not only women are able to multi-task). As a dedicated fashionista, he spotted a pair of chic shoes and snapped a pic with his phone.
Maybe 30 minutes later back at his apartment, he notices a police car. The cops stop him, stating that he had raised their suspicion because of the photo he had taken of the shoes. Did he plan to return later and steal them? Etienne’s initial confusion (did they need directions or why are they approaching me?) turned into anger that they must have been following him for the past half an hour or so. His body trembles, but not because of exhaustion from the run, but because of the oh so familiar and agitating feeling of being accused of something he didn’t do.
He straight up confronts the cops, pointing out their nonsensical argumentation and illegitimate behavior. The very purpose of the shoes displayed in the window is to attract the attentive gaze of passing victims of consumerism. There surely had been plenty of white people starring at the shoes, too, but the unconscious bias of the cops had led them to follow him, the running black guy. The two get very embarrassed about the racist label and drive off.
“I’m not a racist, really…”
He can tell you stories like this for a week, echoed globally by black and brown people. The way you look still defines the way you are treated, immensely. A strategy he employs to protect himself from for example excessive scrutiny at the airport is that he dresses up extra sleek and bougey before hopping on a plane. I guess the lighter the complexion, the more comfortable you can go with the travel outfit (this would finally explain white girls traveling in their PJs).
My friend Cho would never compromise his afro-hipster style as a preventative measure. He is a professor at the University of Amsterdam with the most lavish dreadlocks of the entire staff (I am not sure whether anyone else has locks, but he’d win in any case) and his resistance to normative fashion in the profession has stocked him with a never-ending repertoire of stories that’ll make your mouth drop wide open.
To many in The Netherlands it does as well. The discussion here has been hijacked by agressieve and loud right wing groups. For the first time in my life I really don’t like my country. We used to be a beacon of liberal, progressive and free thinking ideas, now we condone racism.
— emts85 (@emts85) November 16, 2019
The 20 euro debacle
A few years back we were chilling at the Pllek in Amsterdam-Noord, a Senegalese band was playing. We were vibing and enjoying drums and beer, when a white lady sitting a few tables over, came and destroyed the fun. She asked Cho whether he had seen her 20 Euros. “Which 20 Euros?” “My 20 Euros that were here on the table” “Oh do you want me to help look for them?” “No, I mean…”. And that’s when he understood that the lady thought he had stolen the 20 Euros.
She was punished (or blessed) with a passionate and angry lecture about how she should be ashamed of herself for judging people by the way they look, she had chosen to accuse not the people seated next to her, but the closest black person. At some point, she starts crying “I am not a racist, really, I just…”. I am certain that if Cho had found 20 Euros somewhere, he would have looked for the rightful owner, while I would have happily put them into my pocket without feeling bad about it.
But what the lady saw was skin colour, whether she wanted to accept that or not.
He told me about another peculiar experience: he was one of the invited speakers at a conference and upon approaching the reception to register, the friendly lady informed him about the whereabouts of the utility room for the cleaners. He clarified the situation and she, too, received a talk but of more tender tone: “It’s not your fault for making an unfounded assumption, it’s the fault of the system we live in that makes you think this way…” (There’s nothing wrong with cleaning as a profession, of course).
The two cops, as well as the two white ladies, perpetuated racial stereotyping through their behaviour without being fully aware of it. Making such people sensible to the system that creates unconscious biases is most difficult because they don’t view themselves as racially discriminating. They don’t see it, so how do we get them to?
"The Netherlands has a history of trading on its international image as a progressive, tolerant nation while struggling to deal with societal racism […]" https://t.co/UJFir383PX
— Matthias Noback (@matthiasnoback) December 7, 2017
The blind man who saw
I’ll tell you another story: I met up for dinner with my friend Aziz at Botanique in Amsterdam Oost, a spot with jungle vibes and friendly staff, dimmed lights and fairly private. It’s the first time we met after a very long time, so there was plenty to catch up on. My friend is pretty accomplished in what he does, Ph.D. in the making, great job and so forth. But when he tries to go to the club none of that matters, what people see is — a Turkish man.
He might get rejected at the door or is scrutinized more intensely than his white friends, and he gets pulled over by police in his car on a regular. Aziz shared his grief about the day to day discrimination he experiences with a friend of his. Said friend is white, straight and Dutch. White guy is by no means what we would consider a racist or sexist, but he also genuinely believes in the flawlessness of the Netherlands in terms of equality. He consequently trivialized Aziz’ experiences (a problem in itself) and put them into the coincidences box. “They probably had a bad day/ you were confused for someone else/ you must have misinterpreted the situation”. Aziz let it go, and his friend probably thought Aziz was over-sensitive and living a self-fulfilling prophecy, seeing ethnicity as the issue when it really wasn’t.
Fast forward two years later. Straight, white, Dutch guy comes out as gay and doesn’t hide it. He tells Aziz that he suddenly experiences discrimination himself! From subtle comments in the day to day life “meant as a joke” towards clearly homophobic statements. His oh so accepting Netherlands turns out not to be so holy after all. He apologized to Aziz for the previous trivialization of his experiences with discrimination. Now that he is not part of the status quo anymore he had the epiphany how life is like for the non-white, non-dutch and non-heteronormative in NL. Voila, the blind man who could see and he didn’t even need Jesus for it — kinda the opposite, to tell the truth.
#Netherlands: UN experts are concerned about #racism in child welfare system. Research shows negative stereotypes about parents of African descent drive heightened reporting of maltreatment & greater involvement of state agencies for children: https://t.co/LDiE7zOSqP #FightRacism pic.twitter.com/D0X3Glnh2v
— UN Special Procedures (@UN_SPExperts) November 12, 2018
Dealing with blind men and women
A claim made by Adam Smith many years ago comes to mind: experience is the only valid source of true knowledge. So, giving someone an experience is very efficient in creating awareness of the system that creates unconscious biases, leading to racist acts, but also not very feasible. We can’t make our straight friends act gay for a day or turn the mansplainer into a woman until he’s a feminist. So what do we do?
What comes very close to experience is storytelling. Well told stories make us respond physically the same as the actual experience, we laugh, cry, sweat, taste and feel pleasure all by the power of our imagination, triggered by the right words and sentences. Hence, if we want to reinforce or transform people’s behaviours we need to give them an experience or tell them a great story. From a psychological perspective, this enables us to generate change without too much confrontation. Our beliefs are part of our identity and deconstructing and reshaping our identity is a difficult process.
Criticism can be experienced as an attack and will likely be met with rejection and backlash. A wise friend of mine once said: “If a story doesn’t create an image in someone’s head you are simply being too vague. Even the best strategy is powerless if it doesn’t trigger something from within”. Problem is, we first need to get them to listen and that is a challenge in itself. And if we did manage, it is not guaranteed that it’ll work either.
When Aziz initially told the straight/gay, white friend about his own experience, it didn’t change the latter’s position. Hence, storytelling as a strategy doesn’t always work, or at least not right away. If we as humans genuinely believe in the righteousness of a system, we will try to find excuses and bend ourselves backwards to make old claims fit newly acquired knowledge, rather than advancing our previous position.
I think showing the reality of structural inequalities requires a lot of endurance and creativity and most importantly — respect. Being openly judgmental will only trigger resentful feelings and harden the frontiers. Let’s do the judging in private together with our other woke friends, and lure them blind fellows in with a never-ending influx of stories and information eventually (hopefully) leading to the epiphany our gay/straight dutch friend had.
Have you experienced discrimination in the Netherlands? Have you unconsciously found yourself biased before? Tell us your story in the comments below!
Feature Image: Bacila Vlad/Unsplash