Being ‘Just Black’

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This morning I wrote an article in Dutch and after seeing the reactions and how often it was shared, I realized that it was also internationally relevant. Here is the English translation:

Among all the ‘us’ against ‘them’ discussions, lately I have been feeling rather displaced in the Netherlands. The prevailing general opinion seems to be that the starting point for dealing with one another is that there are people who are ‘from here’ (the white ones) and people who are ‘not from here’. Those are the immigrants and they are black. Native Dutch equals white and immigrant equals black. Even the people who take a stand against racism and segregation seem to do this based on the distinction between us and them. ‘Equal opportunity’ is created for ‘them’ (case in point: me). And that is exactly where the shoe pinches: the fact that (based on skin color) we have first determined that there are different classes of Dutch people and that we then act accordingly; be it with the best intentions in the world. First we create distance by classifying and then we find it strange that integration does not take place. As a child growing up in Curaçao, I learned about the Dutch ‘box culture’ and I always thought I knew what that meant. Yet only recently have I started to realize just how deeply it is rooted in the very nature of the ‘native Dutch’ people and it saddens me.

Today I came across this photograph of my third grade class in elementary school. Not a private school, not an International School, just a regular public elementary school. If I would classify it in the Dutch box system, my classmates were Negroes, Portuguese, Hindustanis, Arabs, indigenous, Chinese, Jews, white ‘native Dutch’ (most of whom were born in Curaçao, by the way) and then some brown people who do not fit into any of the boxes, including me. Here in the Netherlands they would be ‘just black’, immigrants in any case. Besides that, it really doesn’t matter who they were.

In third grade that sentiment, that premise, that apparently very normal Dutch conception, did not exist at all. There was no Hindustani or Portuguese or Arab; there was Karuna and Marianella and Farid. I knew everyone’s first and last names and I still remember them to this day. I knew where they all lived and I have been to each of their homes at least once. I know the parents of all of them and I have always felt at home in all those families. I went on to high school with some of my elementary school classmates and together we grew into adulthood. Together! I went to Marianella’s First Communion, to Karuna’s quinceañera and to Roderick’s Bar Mitzvah. And all were just parties, fun parties in the homes of loving parents. Not once did I stop to think that one was Jewish, one was Catholic and one was Hindu.

I was born in Curaçao, as was my father. My mother was born in Suriname. My father’s father is Surinamese of Jewish Portuguese and indigenous origins. My father’s mother was half Chinese and half creole of West-African and Friesian descent. On my mother’s side my grandmother came from Yogyakarta on the island of Java in Indonesia and my grandfather was from Suriname, probably with some Scottish ancestry. I grew up in Curaçao among the people in this photograph. I studied in Holland, did an internship in Mexico and sailed around the world with Holland America Line for four years, working with people from at least twenty different countries. So if here in the Netherlands they deem it absolutely necessary to put me away in a box, then they must first create an entirely new box for me. In any case, let the record show that I am clearly not ‘just black’.

 

 

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