“Which number are you singing? Number 39 with rice?” Gordon said, and I was paralysed with shame.

Or maybe that sentence should read this way.

“Which number are you singing? Number 39 with rice?” Gordon said in English, and I was paralysed with shame.

Or maybe this is better.

“Which number are you singing? Number 39 with rice?” Gordon said in English, and Xiao Wang did not respond anything, and I was paralysed with shame.

It wasn’t just about what Gordon said, there were quite a few things that conspired to make that clip hurt so many of us and they cannot fit into a single sentence. For one thing, if Xiao Wang looked and sang exactly the same, but was Dutch, the chances are he would have had something to say back to Gordon. This is, after all, a culture where the gift of the gab is much appreciated and not much of that gift is really required to throw something back at Gordon. Plus, if Xiao Wang were Dutch, he would have known Gordon, he would have known that Gordon turns everything he touches into a banality.

But this was not a Dutch situation, and not a truly international situation either. This was an in-between situation – an expat in the Netherlands, a Dutch audience, a Dutch show with a mixed jury – it was, on many levels, a perfect example of what linguists call intercultural communication. While in both intranational and international communication the common ground is clear, in intercultural communication the common ground needs to be negotiated rather than assumed. And that is exactly the kind of interaction that, I have been observing for years, many Dutch people cannot really handle. This fear of a shaky common ground, I believe, is reflected in Dutch people’s aversion to speaking Dutch to second language speakers, but also in the prevalent idea of integration, which is not really about assimilation, but rather about the ability of removing all the traces of your otherness when interacting with us.

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But so it happened and the world got informed about it and the public discussion started. Both Dutch contributions in English I have read – DutchReview’s Martijn Van Veen and FrontaalNaakt’s Peter Breedveld  – framed this incident as additional evidence, on top of Zwarte Piet and many others, that the Netherlands is a profoundly racist country and tried to back up their claim by showing even more cases of what they would call Dutch discrimination. And then, while preparing this text, I was happy to read Frank Kool’s text on the issue. To speak with Frank, “there’s something odd and uncomfortable about the public response to Gordon’s poor sense of humor and lack of tact” and the real question that remains unanswered is “what separates Gordon’s racist insults from all the other ones”.

In case you thought it couldn't get any worse then Zwarte Piet (source: http://www.shared-all.nl/fsimages/10022943gr.gif)
Speaking of odd and uncomfortable – Something called the Africa man costume  (source: http://www.shared-all.nl/fsimages/10022943gr.gif)

I hope I’ve shown that what distinguishes this racist insult, or rather what renders it so overwhelmingly racist to the international viewer, is the fact that this interaction took place outside of the safe Dutch common ground, where whatever Gordon says is banal. But there remains something “odd and uncomfortable” about the discourse that emerges in this country every time something Dutch catches the eye of the international community for looking like a blatant case of discrimination. It looks like a special case of a the general inability to handle the lack of a clear common ground, but that does not really explain the problem, it just classifies it within a broader observation.

So what seems to be killing the debate?

A little less classification, a little more action

I talked a lot about Zwarte Piet and I have come to one methodological conclusion: in order to talk productively about sensitive issues where there is no alignment on anything, we should try making verbs and not nouns/adjectives our keywords. The reason is that, when using a noun/adjective, there is a huge chance you will create a set of entities that this noun/adjective refers to (say, the set of racists or the set of civilised people) and soon enough you will have called someone something. But, more importantly, the way you talk will also influence the way you conceptualise: you will see more categories and less action. And conceptualisation is crucial here. After all, this whole offense is due to the fact that Gordon remained stuck with the fact that Xiao Wang is Chinese (or even a Chinese) rather than focusing on how he sang. Also in the Zwarte Piet discussion, I think that the against side made much more sense when people talked about how the Zwarte Piet tradition hurts their feelings than when they were insisting that the whole thing is racist. The fact that most people have started contributing to this discussion by calling things racist (or non-racist) seems to have made us forget that it is not them just standing there and being racist that hurts, it is their making people feel bad and do bad things that hurts.

If we take this perspective, what is clogging up the debate is the assumption that the world becomes a better place if we manage to make an exhaustive list of all racist things and individuals and tell them what they are. I think we then miss every chance to say anything about what is and can be done to subvert what we consider harmful.

In this vein, if we really need to talk about the Dutch, we should at least try to talk about what the Dutch do and fail to do, instead of what they are like. And now let’s talk about the Dutch.

Pre-war Dutch newspaper cartoon.
From a melon slice to a Negro – A pre-war Dutch newspaper cartoon.

“Can’t think, must judge. Lekker hoor.” – The Dutch according to my Serbian friend

The most insightful theory about the Dutch I’ve ever heard comes from my Serbian friend (henceforth, MSF) who lived here for a while. His theory was entirely about a very special kind of lack of empathy that he observed in social interactions with the Dutch. MSF devised it to defend the Dutch from someone (wasn’t me!) who was accusing the Dutch of a total lack of compassion. MSF was basically making the point that the Dutch will need relatively more time to start feeling/thinking with you than many non-Dutch people. I present his theory in a pseudo-scientific way below.

a) The Dutch, compared to people from other cultures, fail at empathising in real time. Empathising is not necessarily feeling bad for someone suffering, but also the “capacity to understand another person’s point of view or the result of such understanding”.

b) Real-time empathy requires thinking&feeling in social situations and the Dutch perform (relatively) poorly on thinking&feeling in social situations, since most of their working memory is consumed by judging.

c) Judging, in this case, is not about judging other people, but assigning values of those binary parameters Dutch people parse the reality with: deciding whether things are +leuk or -leuk, +lekker or -lekker, +gezellig or -gezellig etc. This is evidenced by the fact Dutch people keep pronouncing this very limited set of evaluative adjectives in every interaction, and it is even weird to perceive or think of something that is gezellig or lekker without pronouncing the word (attested by those armies of gezellig-sayers at birthday parties and lekker-sayers in the supermarket). A huge part of what is usually perceived as the Dutch directness is actually people reading the parameter setting from their judge-o-meter. This is why this “directness” is usually expressed by sentences of the type “This is not nice” , but never in emotional outbursts or really complicated personal opinions.

I think this theory (true or not) has interesting consequences for the intercultural debate. What looks to most people like a total lack of introspection/empathy is actually the fact that most Dutch people (especially on social media) were speaking from their judge-o-meters, which had just gone from +leuk to -leuk. And when that happens, no serious thinking can happen and the only two possible reactions are the denial of the other (“You are insane if you think there is something wrong with that.”) and  self-denial (“We are racist.”)

From this perspective, we actually still need to do the thinking and the serious discussion of what has been internationalised as the Dutch discrmination still has to start, which of course does not mean it will.

But then again, in order to have a serious discussion on what you are doing and whether you should change, you need to exist, and there we might have a problem.

“We would love to work on ourselves, but we unfortunately don’t exist” – The Dutch according to our queen Máxima

The Dutch might not really exist. We have known this at least ever since our present queen told us so in 2007. “The Dutchman does not exist,” she said and every time I see this speech I have one of those rare moments of pride for being Dutch. (It is a brilliant speech, do see it. You might also notice that she praises the report for using the term identifying rather than identity – a nominalised verb form rather than a noun – which “leaves room for negotiation and diversity.”).

This declaration of non-existence was, of course, too good to be true and the government had to do a lot of explaining of what the then princess really meant. An inconclusive public debate followed, and ever since this debate, there has been a hope in some of us that we might still irrationally align on something, have that one thing that only we get, an identity, if you want.

And there you have it: part of what is clogging up the debate now might lie the fact that many Dutch people are sensing that what we have in common (and so also what we could align on) doesn’t amount to much more than “getting” the stupid jokes of a clown. Which then makes that clown, whether his name be Gordon or Piet, so painfully ours that, when we see him bashed by someone who knows nothing about us, we just remain hurt and paralysed.

You know, just like almost everyone remained hurt and paralysed when Gordon made that joke.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Loved it from start to finish, great article!
    Also, am I projecting, or do I detect the influence of Sartre in this essay? (the argumentation about verbs vs. nouns reminded me of the Sartean distinction between ‘pour-soi’ and ‘en-soi’).

  2. I tend to think that “discrimination” is wrongly used. It would have been racist discrimination if they wouldn’t have allowed Xiao Wang to sing because he was Chinese. I also tend to think that it wasn’t a racist joke as much as it was stupid and uncalled for. I think “racism” is bilaterally subjective: the source and the receiver may or may not agree that the message is racist. In this case it feels more like the only ones who believed the message was racist were outside of the conversation: mainly foreigners, from the west, with our built-in political correctness. Something tells me that Xiao Wang did not speak up because either he didn’t get the joke (if you’re Chinese and you’ve only been living in the west for a little while, you won’t know what “number 39 with rice” means) or his own cultural set of behaviours stopped him from reacting. And Gordon certainly didn’t get that his comments were racists, as the American judge tried to make him see after Xiao Wang left the stage.

    I am Dutch by nationality but Chilean by birth. I have been living in the Netherlands for 10 years so I’m a naturalised expat. Many times I have had the comments thrown at me. But I believe you choose to acknowledge them or not, you answer back or not. In most case I don’t, because I simply don’t find offensive someone telling me jokes. I am also gay so let’ throw in even more reason for me to get called names or so. Funny enough, I have almost never heard any offensive jokes because of that. Only once that I over heard two Dutch colleagues talking about how gay people deserve getting AIDS because we’re so promiscuous, in which case I did get up from my chair and told them how wrong they were. I didn’t feel offended or discriminated against. You choose to get into that mindset. I chose not to. They were only ignorant.

    My point with all of this is that there’s no such thing as racism until you decide something is. I don’t think the Dutch are racist by nature. I also think that the +leuk and -leuk bar simplify things a bit too much. As Maxima said in that speech: People are multidimensional, we’re not just Dutch, or Chinese, or racist. We are a mixture of our values, our history, our experiences and our beliefs. It may as well be that Dutch are cheap, direct and rude, but we’re also a lot more than just that. So, yes: de nederlander bestaat niet.

    • I couldn’t agree more with your response and I just want to say that your mindset is great. It’s really easy to call an entire nation racist when one guy makes a really not-funny joke (or even when one guy is a racist). But you can also think he is just an ignorant and not funny individual. Just like some other Dutch people are racist and some are just not funny. There is nothing constructive about calling an entire nation racist, no one will change, they will only be offended and maybe even say racist things (or become more racist). Everyone is different and obviously there is no such thing as ‘de nederlander’. Luckily we are all different people

    • And yet – at least in the region where I live – it’s extremely segregated. I’ve never met a black professional yet, and there are no black people in the middle and upper-class neighborhoods. The neighborhood behind mine, on the other hand, is known as one of the “worst” in the entire country. I am acquainted with the woman who works for the gemeente and is responsible for that neighborhood. I asked her, what is wrong with it? I walk through it all the time. The houses and yards are small, but neatly kept. The cars are older. But it still seems like a family-oriented environment. She told me – but there are a lot of African immigrants there. Stuff goes on behind closed doors. I said, what kind of stuff? She said – we don’t know. We just try to clean it up. No problems are actually being reported – it’s just assumed that dark-skinned people are doing nefarious things.

      And then there’s the school where my stepkids go. Supposed to be one of the best in the area – also close to the “dark” neighborhood. In all the time I’ve been here, there has been one black child in her class. They all go to the lower-quality school. One of my neighbors is an activist who tries to get the affluent white parents to send their own kids to this school with the black kids – she likes to be seen advocating diversity. I’ve been to her kids’ birthday parties. Although almost half of the children in their classes are dark, all of the kids they have to the house are blonde. All of their parents’ friends are blonde.

      My Dutch boyfriend doesn’t even know a black person by name. Not a single one. He’s never met one socially. And not because there aren’t many in the Netherlands – there are. But they are pushed into their “bad neighborhoods” and ignored in public… made to disappear.

      Dutch people as individuals may not be actively racist, but the culture of tolerance has allowed them to deal with difference by just pretending that it isn’t there – to deal with everything by simply not looking at it. So the people who are racist are getting away with it, and segregation – along with inequality of opportunity – is also tolerated.

      • It’s interesting to hear your characterization of Dutch society as being segregated as being surprising. I live in Toronto, one of the West’s most diverse cities (with more than 50% of the city being born abroad or non-white).

        Even in a city with such high levels of diversity, and, arguably with far fewer political racial tensions, I see the EXACT same segregation at work.

        Black people are universally and disproportionately under-represented in professional occupations and also in terms of friendships. While it’s common to see people of various skin colours and ethnic backgrounds, it’s rare to see black people in the mix.

        In my workplace (with hundreds, if not thousands of professionals), it is rare to see a black person, especially in a position of authority. And, you’d expect at least every 10th person to be black given the population breakdown. The same can be said for universities.

        For a city that (justifiably) prides itself on its tolerance and diversity, there are still factors at work that act against one group of people, solely on the basis of skin colour.

        • Just to follow my post up…

          In the most junior positions in the service industry, I’ve noticed (over the last two decades) a rise in the proportion of black people far out of line with their percentage of the population.

          It is certainly not anywhere near the total culture shock* you experience in some parts of the US but it’s noticeable.

          *I still remember one trip through one of the airports in Philadelphia where (yes, I counted) ALL of the caretakers (janitors), sales clerks, baggage handlers and other very low paid, junior positions were filled by black people, while managers, pilots and stewardesses, ticket takers and the likes were white. And, even in New York city the divide was noticeable, though, nowhere near as extreme as my one experience in Philli.

        • Wow, that’s interesting. I really think of Canada as being very non-discriminatory.

          In the parts of the US where I have lived, black people certainly do not have equal opportunity, we still have a long way to go too. However, it is not really noteworthy to have a black doctor, attorney or professor. I had black teachers as a child in school and in university. Both my doctor and my dentist in Houston were black. I have always had black coworkers and friends. Not as many as I should (not a ratio consistent with the population) – but the number isn’t zero. What shocks me about the Netherlands is that this segregation is complete – it’s like America in the 1950s, except that the black people are actually visible in public. White people can see them in the grocery stores or at the swimming pools – but it’s like they are floating on a separate plane, invisible.

          • It depends on where you are and who you are. If you’re in a big city (500,000+) like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton you’ll find a fairly diverse population with a substantial amount of interaction amongst people of different ethnic backgrounds. East Asians and people from India are largely integrated—and income levels suggest no systemic discrimination. The smaller the city, the smaller the mind (I’ve lived in big city and small town Ontario)!

            But, when it comes to Canada’s native populations (Indian, Inuit, Metis, etc.) there are systemic barriers and also high levels of overt social discrimination. This is especially strong in small-town Canada where it is not unheard of to hear perfectly “decent” people pontificate on the laziness, corruption, unearned privilege or incompetence of natives. And, we even hear that narrative repeated in the federal political sphere (most notably by the federal right wing Republican-wanna be party… though, they now couch it in more politically correct terms).

          • Re: the presence of black people in professional positions

            One thing to remember about parts of the US–especially in a southern city like Houston, Texas–is that the black population is a substantial minority or even an absolute majority of the population.

            According to Wikipedia a quarter of Houston calls themselves black or African-American. So, even in the presence of high levels of systemic discrimination, you’d expect to see some black people in professional positions. In the Netherlands the percentage of black people is around the 5% mark so that’s a fifth of what you’d expect in Houston.

          • I think the percentage in Eindhoven is about 10%, while the national average in the US over my lifetime has gone from 12-15% or so (all urban areas have higher concentrations of minorities – if you include the surrounding areas of Houston, the percentage goes down – another thing to remember about cities like Houston is that most people there are transplants. My black mentor at university was from a little town in Kansas.) So, yes, there are more black people in America – but they aren’t that much rarer here. Really. If you keep your eyes open, you see plenty of them on the streets and in the stores – and working in McDonald’s.

          • More comment – I just finished a program at University of Amsterdam. Over my life, I’ve attended courses at a handful of American universities in a handful of states, and Amsterdam was the first school in which I haven’t seen any black people. The only ethnic minorities I saw while there (and yes, I counted too :-)) – were an Indian-American girl and a Japanese man who were in the same “international” (English-speaking) program I was. I never met a non-white faculty member, and the study halls and cafeterias were solid seas of white faces every day. It’s never been that bad at American schools, even in South Carolina which is one of the states with the worst record of discrimination and hate, or Rice University which is a very selective school in the south.

            But I want to repeat that I am NOT saying that America isn’t racist or that minorities have equal opportunities there. I know better. What I am saying is that I grew up in the south in the 70s – I remember the integration of schools, for christ’s sake – and even to ME, the Netherlands looks and feels segregated and discriminatory.

  3. very well done. As an expat here I have endured this experience, and one of my biggest issues with dutch society is the intensive search for a classification or definition… in some way I believe this is an act of lazyness, or in other words an effective form of thhinking, where no emphasis is placed in trying to understand, because it is easier to classify.
    Gr, Bratzo Z

  4. Excellent article! Really intelligent discussion and you described it really well … But I think the problem may be much simpler; maybe the Dutch just aren’t funny? Dutch stand up and humour on tv shows I have seen is really basic, it is like slapstick. It relies on stereotypical caricatures; for example the bumbling idiot who speaks in a high voice and also the over confident idiot, who usually resorts to being the bumbling idiot. Having seen it, I think Gordon was trying to be funny, but did not know how, and so resorted to a racist joke. Racism isn’t funny, it is offensive. Since Borat et al, there has been confusion that has led to the dangerous belief that being offensive is funny. It isn’t. Gordon is racist, but more dangerous than that, he isn’t funny.

    • I have this discussion with my Dutch boyfriend often. We talk about the offensive jokes, and he explains to me that in the Netherlands, ‘nothing is sacred, irreverence is okay here.’ So I have to repeat – ‘yes, I see that, but where is the JOKE?’ And then we’ve hit a cultural stonewall because he doesn’t understand the question. I think being rude or mean is considered humorous here in and of itself, and the Dutch believe that that is justification enough.

    • couldn’t agree more. lived here for 20yrs and the Dutch, in general, are not funny. they’re good at being ‘bot’ and ‘lomp’ but ‘grappig’… not so much.

    • Funnily enough, I’m crazy about Dutch humour. 95% of the things that can make me laugh at the top of my lungs are Dutch. I like Brigitte Kaandorp better than Louis C.K., de Speld better than the Onion, and nothing really compares to a bit of kakhiel or Toren C or good old Kreatief met Kurk.

      But, I guess crucially, these are all *things* that make me laugh, that’s all performed/produced/institutionalised humour and it’s the kind of humour that doesn’t carry over to actual interactions between people. I guess that’s also why I also tend not to find my favourite Dutch comedians funny when they are interviewed.

  5. Thanks, I really enjoyed this article, and it has given me a lot to chew on, as I spend a lot of time thinking about the Dutch and the Dutch language. I’ve lived here for almost four years – and although I have learned many Dutch words and can generally understand the gist of things in Dutch, I really can’t speak it worth a damn. One of the big problems is that my thoughts don’t seem to translate into Dutch. When I ask my boyfriend to help coach me – “How would you say this in Dutch…” he often responds with something that includes “leuk.” And that isn’t what I wanted to express at all. If I repeat my original thought and describe it and ask again, how would a Dutch person express this idea, it is often that I get the answer “A Dutch person wouldn’t.”

    I also find the ubiquitous diminutions in Dutch interesting. (I sometimes joke when somebody asks me if I want a “kopje koffie,” that I could really use a big one if they don’t mind. Dutch people definitely don’t get that joke.) It’s especially interesting because I find that the Dutch tend to try to downplay the seriousness of most things. It isn’t just racism, they also insist that you’re exaggerating an illness if you go to the doctor – even after coughing up blood. Few things are found to be worth getting concerned about, it seems. Like when I had pneumonia, it was just a little “hoestje.”

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