on multiculturalism and racism in the Netherlands

A few weeks ago, the Council of Europe published a report on the problem of racism in the Netherlands. As an immigrant to the Netherlands, I was asked by a Dutch national newspaper, nrc next, to write an op-ed on the subject. It was my third piece on Dutch multiculturalism and racism for this newspaper. Due to interest from English-speaking friends and colleagues, I have translated the last op-ed which appeared in nrc next on October 17, 2013, and publish it here.

(If you read Dutch, please feel welcome to visit my Dutch blog, anastasiainholland.com.)

“Dutch culture is above reproach” by Anastasia Hacopian

This summer, while sitting outside with the neighbors, we were hit by a swarm of miniscule, black insects. The bugs were so small they could fit through the eye of a needle. The neighbors swished them away.

“Stupid Turks.”

I looked up. “What did you say?”

“Turks, that’s what we call these bugs.”

When I first came to the Netherlands, I remember trying to explain to someone why I had a problem with the Dutch slang for a person with Down’s Sydrome – “mongooltje,” or translated, “little Mongol”.

“Imagine you were sitting at the dinner table with someone from Mongolia. Would you still use that word to describe someone who was mentally disabled?” My question was met with a quiet look of total incomprehension.

After living here for eight years, I’ve stopped asking people questions. Irritating insects are called “Turks,” and the Dutch clearly don’t have a problem with it.

I’ve also grown accustomed to the less subtle comments – about Romanians and Bulgarians breaking into your house, about Polish plumbers taking Dutch jobs, about “black” and “white” schools. I hear this type of thing pretty regularly. It doesn’t seem to matter that I’m an immigrant myself, that I look like I’m from elsewhere and that I speak Dutch with a foreign accent.

All that negative attention paid to other cultures reveals the most about what these Dutch think about Dutch culture itself – namely, that everything Dutch is better.

The Dutch, however, aren’t willing to talk about racism. Qunicy Gario, a performance artist of Dutch Antillian descent, recently tried to address this point on the talk show, Pauw en Witteman, in the context of Zwarte Piet. He received a frontal attack from another guest, singer and aspiring mayor of Utrecht, Henk Westbroek. In the days following the talk show, Westbroek’s anger was echoed in Dutch social media. As proclaimed by a popular post on Facebook, the Dutch have “more important things to do” than to address claims of hurtful – let alone racist – behavior. By such belittling of the debate, the hurt party has been denied a platform and the culprit rendered infallible – above reproach.

Gario made the same point in his television interview: the Dutch fail to consider the voices of the hurt as credible, valued voices.

The Council of Europe published a report this week calling on the Netherlands to address the problem of racism. According to the report, the Dutch have their work cut out for them. But how do you talk to someone who fails to recognize racism? How do you make room in public debate for an insult that no one wants to take seriously? How do you explain to someone who still uses the word “Negro” that the term is obsolete?

In the talk show, Pauw en Witteman, Henk Westbroek talked about the word “negerzoen,” which literally translates to “Negro’s kiss.” A “negerzoen” is a chocolate-coated marshmallow whose name has, in recent years, been scrapped for a more politically-correct term. In referring to the use of the word “Negro” in “negerzoen,” Westbroek claimed that every word could be abused and used as an insult. “Negro” was only offensive in an offensive context.

To someone of the same opinion, one would have to explain that the term “Negro,” in a Dutch historical context, stems from the Dutch slave trade. One would have to explain that black members of the Dutch community find this association offensive in any context.

The most important condition for participation in a multicultural society is, then, the ability to acknowledge insult, even when one is unable to understand it. When someone tells you they are hurt, you take their word for it, even if you don’t think you’ve said anything hurtful. Instead of responding with mockery, or “liking” the insult on Facebook, you restrain yourself – or better yet, apologize. You use your ability to take a step back and admit that maybe, just maybe, you are wrong.

In his 2005 lecture, “Reflections on Holland,” Dutch writer Thomas Rosenboom summarized the Dutchman as follows:

a)      He thinks that he has a right to everything, and that the world revolves around him.

b)      He is unrestrained.

c)       He thinks that the rest of the world thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Since the assassination of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn, I’ve experienced the Netherlands as a country where everyone has a right to say everything. It has become a society where the right to free speech is exercised at the cost of other people. The Dutch individual described by Rosenboom fits right into that society.

But is he right? Does Rosenboom’s description apply? Are the Dutch, as he wrote, “unable to curb their impulses or restrain themselves to any degree”? Is it then possible, seeing the cultural and social character of the Dutch, for a Dutch person to take a step back and admit fault? For in a culture, as the Dutch one, that claims to be above reproach, no one can be held accountable for their words or actions. And in a culture lacking accountability, there’s no such thing as racism.

© 2013 Anastasia Hacopian

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8 thoughts on “on multiculturalism and racism in the Netherlands

  1. Im also an import and have been living in NED since 2008. In 2009 I decided to try out my Dutch speaking ability with my work colleagues. This attempt was met immediately with the response ” you sound like a Turk!” followed by a chorus of laughter by the peanut gallery. Needless to say I stopped trying to speak Dutch for fear of being pidgeon-holed as some kind of inferior being. I was better off speaking my Australian- english and hence avoiding the racial be-littling.

  2. The Dutch are doing this? Generalisation ever heard about that? Do you think it’s different in other countries? I have lived and and traveled abroad a lot and these things are happening in all countries.

  3. Very well put. I’ve written a few posts myself on the racist nature of Zwarte Piet, and what people don’t seem to understand is that white people don’t get to determine what black people can or cannot find offensive. It comes back in every pro-piet comment I’ve gotten. It drives me nuts!

  4. Hey Anastasia, this was a great article. Though our time in the Netherlands I noticed the exact same things, especially on attitudes towards Turks, and a lack of awareness of why those attitudes are harmful.

  5. This stuff happens every where, in a Nation as small as the Netherlands it just stands out more. The statement: “It has become a society where the right to free speech is exercised at the cost of other people”, is entirely unfair!

    This happens on a grand scale in the U.S. for example. Look at websites like Mugshots, Ripoffreports, Potentialprostitutes, etc.(there are 80+ such websites ending in dotcom/dotorg), the damage isn’t a mere insult/lie but includes real financial hardship, and it never goes away, never ends, it’s permanent! According to the New York Times there are some 16.8Million known victims.

    In essence you are right of course but fail to mention that in many places in the U.S. the Mexicans are treated like the Turks are in the Netherlands, including armed civilians patrolling the border. It seems like a fact of life that the latest immigrant groups will get the scorn of the ones already there. There are no easy answers but singling out the Dutch, or the Americans for that matter, won’t help.

    I do admire your willingness/courage to tackle the subject, because it’s an open invitation to criticism.

    • Thanks for your reply and admiration. Your points are all true and relevant – for a piece on racism in the U.S. It is indeed fair to single out the problems in the NL because I have my home here now. This piece is on Dutch culture, and it does not make any statement about or comparison to American culture, does not claim any “holier than thou” attitude, not even by default. If you want to read a piece by an American in Holland who bashes her home culture and praises the NL…see my piece on homophobia on anastasiainholland.com. Ik hou ook van Holland, and I am trying as much as the next Dutch gal to make it a better place for everyone else to live in.

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