‘Fortunately we don’t have that problem here…’

Today, my friend Marlon Reina drew my attention to a Huffington Post interview with anti-racism scholar and activist Tim Wise, creator of a documentary film entitled ‘White like me’. Marlon posted a link to the interview on Facebook, with the question ‘Can we talk about this in the Netherlands?’ One of the comments on Marlon’s post was: ‘We don’t have that problem here… so why talk about it…’ Not realizing the commenter was being sarcastic, I wrote a reaction illustrating the way in which the same problem exists in the Netherlands. Sarcastic or not, the comment triggered me to write down the first things that came to mind, which lead to a 450-word post in under five minutes. So I decided to dedicate a more elaborate blog post to it as well.

The sheer fact that people sincerely believe that ‘we don’t have that problem here’, means that we definitely should talk about it in the Netherlands. It may not manifest itself in the same manner as it does in the USA, but that doesn’t make the issue less serious. When I first moved to Holland – as the Netherlands are generally referred to in the exterior, but which is factually incorrect, as ‘Holland’ officially only includes 2 of the 12 provinces of the European mainland part of the Netherlands, namely North Holland and South Holland (but that is a whole other story to which I may or may not dedicate a blog post in the future) – in 1998, I was astonished at how little my Dutch fellow students knew about our shared history and diaspora and how much stereotypical unwitting racism there was. I was one of the three ‘allochtonen’ in my semester, and therefore by definition I was a novelty.

For all my non-Dutch followers, the word ‘allochtoon’ needs some clarification. According to the dictionary, officially the word ‘allochtoon’ means ‘immigrant’, so anyone who moves from one country to another. However, in Holland it is largely (and again, often unwittingly) used to identify an immigrant of color, a non-white immigrant, often of lesser means. The white European and American immigrants with academic jobs are mostly referred to as ‘expats’. Furthermore, the word is also used to indicate anyone who looks and/or acts differently from the general white Dutch population, even when they are third or sometimes even fourth or fifth generations, born and raised in the Netherlands.

Having clarified that, I go back to my first days at the Hotel School in The Hague. I think it is easiest to use an actual example to illustrate the baffling reality in which I suddenly found myself. One time, while we were waiting in the hallway for our next Marketing lecture, I got into a hefty discussion with six (yes 6!!) fellow students. All of me, against six poor ignorant souls; I know… it wasn’t fair to them, but I had little choice ;). It was July 2nd, ‘Day of the National Anthem and Flag’ in Curaçao, of which I proudly informed them. A 30-minute discussion followed – now before you ask how we could have a 30-minute discussion, waiting in the hallway for our next class… the teacher didn’t show up. The discussion got to its climax when one of the guys told me: ‘Autonomous or not, Curaçao belongs to Holland and you should hang the ‘Red, White and Blue’ in front of your house and sing the Wilhelmus (the Dutch national anthem).’ After I tried for another minute or two to explain the political relations between the countries of the Dutch Kingdom, I realized I was wasting my breath, for they lacked sufficient knowledge of their own history to even begin to understand what I was talking about. I walked away, leaving them thinking they had won the argument… a Dutch person never loses an argument; it simply isn’t a conceivable concept to us. (and yes, for the purpose of making my point, I am generalizing here). When I got to the end of the hallway I suddenly had an epiphany. I turned around and walked back to my classmates. I said: ‘Just now you were telling me I should hang the Dutch flag in front of my house and sing the Wilhelmus, right? Well, why don’t you sing it for me? I would love to hear it.’ They all looked at me ‘alsof ze het in Keulen hoorden donderen’ (as though they heard the thunder in Cologne – a Dutch expression used for someone who is completely clueless). I then said: ‘There are several possibilities here. Either you don’t know how to sing – in which case it is best if you don’t, because I have a very fine auditory ability – or you simply don’t want to sing right now, OR you don’t actually know your own anthem.’ One of them replied: ‘Well who does!?’. That was the answer I was expecting. I gave him a blissful grin of victory and said: I do! When I was a boy scout in Curaçao, we repeatedly sang the Wilhelmus as part of our basic education.’

Another example I would like to discuss, are the Dutch government subsidies for so-called ‘allochtone projecten’ (immigrant projects). When I became more active in artistic and cultural projects during my second college course in Theatre Studies, I was surprised to find out that immigrants from the former Dutch colonies, as well as Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, African and other nonwhite groups in our community were not part of the regular government culture funding plan, which was reserved solely for elitist white culture (or leftist screamers, who are only leftwing for the sheer purpose of being leftwing). In order to give ‘allochtonen’ a ‘fair and equal’ chance (how ironic), separate special funds existed (and to this day still exist) for the promotion of ‘black culture’. I found that I could get much more funding and easier access to public lobbying, if I submitted a project underlining my underprivileged position as an immigrant in society. If I wrote a project brief solely based on my skills and artistic premise, without a ‘black twist’, my chances suddenly got a lot smaller. That fact in itself is discriminatory and just as harmful to the black communities, as it is to the white population, as Tim Wise points out in his documentary.

Then there is the insidious racist concept of ‘zwarte scholen’ (black schools), which many Dutch policy makers will tell you ‘was never intended that way; it was a natural result of the socio-economic composition of the neighborhoods.’ I believe that is beside the point. Whether the name ‘black schools’ was intentional or not, it is the name most commonly used to refer to these school and as such they are a racist reality in our society. Another ironic fact here is that at many of these black schools the largest part of the student population is actually of Moroccan or Turkish descent, and the majority of Moroccan and Turkish people in Holland do not have particularly ‘black’ physical features. So why call the school a ‘black’ school?

I shall limit myself to one last example, which should make my point of today complete: A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine came up to me to share a fact she had just found out, which was utterly flabbergasting to her. Now before I tell you what that fact was, I want to clarify the picture here: she is white, well educated – obviously, as she has finished 6 years of VWO (pre-scholarly secondary education of the highest kind) and 4 years of med school, followed by a 4-year specialization in pediatrics. Now here is what she said to me: ‘Jairo, I visited this exhibition about slavery last weekend. Amazing! Did you know that Holland also participated in the slave trade and slavery!!?? I never knew.’

So if you ask me, yes, there are definitely things we should talk about in the Netherlands and I invite everyone to do so. I should warn you though; it may take a while. For we the Dutch have long been very adept at making ourselves and others believe that ‘we don’t have that problem here…’


For those interested, here is the link to the interview with Tim Wise:


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1 Comment

  1. Golly I love this post. Particularly the last bit. I am shocked when I speak with Americans about how little they know of the history of slavery, but to hear a Dutch person who was unaware of the extent to which they were involved in colonial rule throughout the world is mind boggling! Thank you for your insight. Although we don’t want this to be a global problem, it is and has been made so not only by colonialism but by the media that continues to spread damning images of black people around the world. Continue the conversations!

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