'Become like us': the Dutch and racism

About the author
Dienke Hondius is a historian and sociologist working at the Erasmus University (Rotterdam) and the Anne Frank House (Amsterdam). Her doctoral research was on ethnic and religious intermarriage in the Netherlands; she is now writing a book about race and racism in Dutch society, from 1600 to the present.

In the post-1945 period, ideas and images from the United States have had increasing impact in the Netherlands. Relations between the two countries were generally positive. During the war years, the Dutch government and the royal family stayed in Britain and Canada. American and Canadian troops liberated most of the Netherlands from the Nazis. Their presence made a deep impression. The anglophile is a well-known figure in the Netherlands. Our academic research, like our literature, culture and policy-making, began to look increasingly to America, Britain and Canada.

This was a major change in direction from the pre-war period, when relations between Germany and the Netherlands were intense. Relations both with Germany and with Germans became taboo in the post-liberation years, as the United States and Britain became the new, more acceptable partners.

But US influence is neither linear, nor constant. Post-war, the image of the US was of a vast, modern country, associated with freedom and liberation. More recently, Dutch politicians have begun to point to the US as an example of how to handle issues of immigration and – a key Dutch preoccupation of the moment – integration.

What inspires them today is to be found in particular in the gratitude that new American citizens express when they are granted their citizenship papers; and in the proud, patriotic ceremonies that accompany these formalities. Immigrants to the US receive no support; they have to ‘save themselves’. In a recession such as the one being experienced in the Netherlands, this gives us the seed of a rather attractive idea. It goes like this: the Dutch are not proud enough of their history and political culture. If we, the Dutch authorities, showed more pride and more force, immigrants might show more respect, a quicker willingness to ‘become like us’; in particular, they might show us more gratitude.

Dutch attitudes to racism, past and present

Dutch academic debate on racism is scarce: some of the current analysis falls into the category of the maximalists who argue that ‘racism is everywhere’, as opposed to the minimalists who regard racism as exceptional, or new abolitionists like Paul Gilroy, Vron Ware and Les Back who argue that ‘racism must and can be overthrown’. Maximalists strive to include all types and all varieties and shades of racism in one term.

The public and political acceptance of such analysis is limited to say the least. Much more common in Dutch everyday life is a hesitation to discuss race at all, a tendency to keep the phenomenon at bay through a form of denial: better not mention aspects of ‘race’ such as skin colour, since they really ‘do not matter’. This is the anti-racist norm that senses a problem, but at the same time refuses to go into it.

Anti-racism became a new norm in our culture out of revulsion against what the American historian George Fredrickson has called ‘racist regimes’ such as Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, as well as racial segregation in the United States. But the end of such regimes did not end racism: racism and various forms of spontaneous segregation endure in spite of, and alongside, the now widely shared anti-racist norm.

Multiculturalism, by which people strive not just to acknowledge diversity, but to accept it wholeheartedly, is an important part of this normative package. In the Netherlands, multiculturalism has come under harsh attack and is much discredited. In the current Dutch debate you can safely say that multiculturalism has become a dirty word, certainly generally avoided by politicians.

It is seen as a naïve, wimpish way of looking at the world, unrealistic and dangerously blind to the forces threatening modern society. Opponents of multiculturalism focus on the need for anti-terrorism, for the emancipation of Muslim women and girls, and for the protection of gay rights, Jews, and generally the basic rights of the free western world. The tone of this debate is harsh and direct: whoever is not with us, is against us.

What brought us to this point? Historically, the end of the second world war was a turning point.

1945-1975: anti-Semitism, liberation, end of empire, migration

Dutch society was deeply marked by the tremendous loss of life during the Holocaust: more than 75% of the Jews deported from the Netherlands were killed. It took some time for this fact to sink in. It continues to influence policy in many different ways: ‘never again’ is a strong cry.

One side-effect was that the census became impossible. We have had no census taken since 1971, as a result of much altercation about the ease with which the German Nazis were able to separate Jews from non-Jews, thanks to almost watertight population administration.

The immediate post-war year of 1945, however, saw an unexpected and for many shocking rise of anti-semitism expressed towards returning Jewish survivors from the concentration camps. A nationalist policy approach required Jews to be thankful for having survived. They must know their place.

Meanwhile, former resistance groups, in particular the more moderate and Christian among them, became the moral victors of the war against the evil Germans. However, as a new social hierarchy was consolidated, and normal politics restored, open forms of anti-semitism and racism gradually became taboo.

In 1949, Indonesia gained its independence when the Netherlands succumbed to US pressure to give up its empire. The 1954 treaty of equality between the Netherlands, Suriname and the Antillean Caribbean islands soon followed. The official policy regarding the large-scale immigration of the Indonesian Dutch was one of assimilation. They were offered ‘civilisation lessons’ which included tutelage in how to peel potatoes and clean the house.

Moluccan immigrants who were expecting to return to Indonesia were however segregated, given separate housing and places of worship. There were frequent reports of street fighting between Dutch and Indonesian boys. There were also many mixed marriages.

From the second half of the 1950s onward, immigration from both the former colonies and labour migration from Italy, Spain, Morocco and Turkey rapidly changed the population. In 1945, nearly 100% of the population was ‘white’ and born in the Netherlands. Today, two-thirds of the primary school population in the main cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, belong to what are still called the “ethnic minorities”, and Islam is the second largest religion.

In the cultural revolution of the 1960s the post-liberation, post-colonial nationalist discourse was challenged, and anti-semitism and racism fiercely opposed. A new anti-racist norm was installed. Here the American civil rights movement, and the opposition against apartheid in South Africa were strong inspirations for a new generation. However, Dutch culture drew no parallels with its own recent colonial past or with its history of the slave trade and slavery.

1975-1985: establishing Islam, new racism and new irritation

From the 1980s a new awareness of the history of the Holocaust was linked with growing concerns about right-wing extremism and racism. Multiculturalism and anti-racism, focusing on the acceptance of ‘others’ including their ‘own culture’ became a widely shared norm. It was also a starting point for public policy.

In these years, immigrants from Muslim countries such as Morocco and Turkey were able to reunite their families, and many women and children entered the Netherlands. Their visible presence in cities immediately provoked considerable negative reactions amongst the Dutch. In particular, we heard much about the treatment of Moroccan women and their severely limited freedom.

I interviewed many mixed couples at that time. Dutch women married to Moroccan and Turkish men reported that when they first got married in the 1960s, they did not meet with a lot of opposition. However, from the end of the 1970s onwards, they received much more hostile reaction and suspicion. Seeing the subordinate role played by Moroccan and Turkish women, Dutch people leapt to the rapid conclusion that anyone who married a Moroccan or Turkish man would be subject to similar oppression. These points of view came as an unpleasant surprise to these mixed couples, many of whom had been married for ten or fifteen years by then, but were now suddenly seen as backward, strange, oppressed.

New racist political parties were established, first opposing the black immigrants from the Caribbean former colonies, only rather later focusing on anti-Muslim feelings. But in the same years, Islam established itself in the Netherlands and became the second largest religion.

This was a highly unexpected development. The Dutch in the same period were leaving their Christian churches in droves as society underwent a rapid secularisation. This simultaneous development of secularisation on the one hand, and the building of an Islamic community on the other, separated into two worlds of believers and non-believers who found it hard to understand each other. It took some time for these new realities to sink in. Irritation grew, but was kept under wraps until the 1990s. The general anti-racist and multicultural norm, linked to the memory of the victims of the second world war, lingered intact for about a decade.

However, during the 1990s these norms were increasingly challenged. A variety of politicians, intellectuals and many others came to regard the taboos against racism and anti-semitism as altogether too ‘politically correct’, while irritation about new migrants, and in particular about Muslims, rose rapidly.

Breaking the taboo became a favourite activity for some politicians, who always claimed to be ‘the first to say what many people think but are afraid to say’. They were echoed by popular entertainers in talkshows, on television, screen and stage.

In 1991, the leader of the liberal conservative party, Fritz Bolkestein, now a member of the European Commission, took the lead in debunking the taboo. He called for more attention to be paid to Dutch history and tradition, expressing contempt for Muslim traditionalism and trepidation at the oppression of Muslim women, in particular their wearing of the veil, the practice of polygamy, and incidences of sexual violence.

The warm welcome given to Bolkestein’s stance in many quarters revealed a large reservoir of anti-Muslim sentiment. ‘Finally someone who says what we think’, was a reaction very often heard, across the political spectrum. Only then did it become clear that non-Muslim Dutch irritation with their Muslim neighbours had been swiftly on the increase. Support for such new ideas discredited anti-racism and multiculturalism equally rapidly.

The last politician to fiercely attack this taboo on racism and discrimination was Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn was a populist conservative, openly gay and a hugely popular sociologist. Once an active Marxist and social democrat, he had become a disillusioned political nomad, finally drawn to populist circles. Among his demands was a call to change the first article of the Dutch constitution by removing the ban on discrimination and equal rights. He said it was not necessary to have this article.

He also called for the closing of the country’s borders to all Muslims, whose religion he described as achterlijk (backward). In only a few months he rose spectacularly in popularity, in particular through many television interviews on public and commercial programmes. His media image and television presentation was strong and charismatic.

Fortuyn soon became the leader of a large political party. When he was murdered on 6 May 2002, it was one week before the elections that might very well have resulted in his being made prime minister of the Netherlands. The young man who killed Fortuyn was an animal rights activist who declared that he found Fortuyn’s ideas a menace to society. He is now serving eighteen years in prison.

In the year that saw the rise of Fortuyn and that following his death, multiculturalist policies and ideology have become even more unpopular than during the 1990s. Multiculturalism today in the Netherlands is associated with the recent past, in which immigrants were not told how to ‘behave’, when their ‘integration’ into Dutch society ‘failed’, because public policy was too ‘soft’.

‘Integration Policy’

Almost every week over recent years, there have been public outcries about Muslim women and girls wearing the headscarf at school or at work. Especially teenage girls in secondary schools and in higher education who wear the veil provoke reaction. This is an ongoing controversy. The white Dutch appear to have reached consensus on one point: the rejection of the niqab (a face-covering scarf). Very few women in the Netherlands use it, but it is clear that a line has been drawn here. The academy for social workers working in nurseries, daycare centres and primary schools was the first to introduce a ban. Women and children must be able to see each other’s faces.

In 2003, an official parliamentary investigation committee was given the task of establishing, ‘why and how the integration policy has failed’. The committee is interviewing former politicians and high civil servants, professors and community leaders to find out what happened over the last thirty years. Its work was controversial from the start, as its mission statement was drafted by a research group headed by a prominent member of the radical leftwing party Groen Links (Green Left), Jan Willem Duyvendak. Could its work be biased? Publicity about this as so many other issues seems to have become very person-directed lately.

Everything is hyped that can be hyped: but only for one or two weeks maximum. Then a new scandal or controversial figure is found. We will have to wait and see what the results of this investigation are. In general, multiculturalism is now avoided as a term; it is replaced by ‘integration’.

After Pim Fortuyn was killed, his party became the largest in the country and part of the coalition government. Although this coalition did not last three months, the minister of justice from the List Pim Fortuyn party set the tone for what continues to be a very negative terminology regarding minorities. What integration meant to him, Hilbrand Nawijn explained, was that “They (minorities) have to learn to do what we (‘the Dutch’) want them to do: they have to become like us”. So much at least, was clear.

Now there is another cabinet, not including this party, but still quite conservative, together with a secretary of state for integration whose department is part of the ministry of justice that also controls immigration policy. The call for deportation of asylum-seekers who have failed to procure legal status and yet who illegally remain in the country is one of the most urgent items on Rita Verdonk’s agenda (a former head of the Dutch intelligence service).

Memories of the slave trade

At the same time in recent years, we have seen a small movement towards recognition for the first time of the role played by the slave trade and slavery in Dutch history. This resulted in the unveiling of a national monument in Oosterpark, Amsterdam, on 1 July 2002, in the presence of Queen Beatrix and the prime minister.

The initiative was taken by Surinamese women’s organisations, whose plans suddenly received the go-ahead from the minister of urban affairs, Roger van Boxtel, five years ago. Several related initiatives have followed: a research centre was opened this year; large exhibitions are under preparation – the first one opening in Rotterdam; there are theatre and music projects, and discussions.

I find it surprising that four hundred years after the beginnings of the slave trade this hidden history is now gathering a new momentum. New questions are being raised about Surinamese and Antillean history and migration. It must be as a result of the normalisation of everyday interaction between light and dark Dutch people. Finally, the white Dutch are having their eyes opened to questions about Dutch history and the place of the slave trade in Dutch culture, politics, religion, arts and so forth. But it is equally significant that this growing awareness happens while at the same time the anti-racist norm is under attack.

The Dutch have a particular terminology for ethnic groups and others, the current lingo dividing the population into those who are ‘autochtonous’ and others who are ‘allochtonous’. The allochtonous category is an undefined mix of ‘others’, seen as more or less problematic. Over the last two years, I have noticed that the Surinamese are no longer mentioned as belonging to this category. It is not that they are explicitly accepted as belonging to Dutch society, but more that they are absent from the problematic category. There is talk of a Surinamese middle class. On the other hand, the Antillean, Caribbean group continues to be seen as problematic, in particular the young men.

Right-wing extremism and racism

Since 9/11, strong anti-Muslim sentiments have been accompanied by a noticeable rise in verbal abuse and a more general impatience. Increasingly, we are encouraged to ‘speak our mind’ in a generally negative atmosphere in which violence feels as if it is in the air. There is greater stigmatisation in particular of Moroccan and of Antillean boys: but there is also more anti-semitism directed at Dutch Jews or at people perceived to be Jewish on the street.

The harder questions for Dutch society are in fact similar to those confronting the United States. They concern ethnic, racial, and economic segregation. In spite of decades of anti-racist and more or less multicultural policy, Dutch cities – its schools in particular – have become completely segregated. For a country that wants to be different, with a population that has supported the struggle against apartheid in South Africa for a long time, this is an embarrassing state of affairs. Most recent debate therefore has finally begun to explore how to encourage mixing in a situation of structural ethnic apartheid.

Where is the love?

Where, one might ask in conclusion, is the old Dutch image of tolerance and acceptance of minorities? Where is the love?

I want to end somehow more optimistically. Two weeks after the elections in which one third of the voters of the second largest Dutch city, Rotterdam, chose to back the right-wing extremist party of Pim Fortuyn, there was a major multicultural festival, Dunya, in the city. Approximately half a million people came to this festival, and there were no incidents whatsoever.

This simultaneity is striking. Racist violence has not increased in Rotterdam. The negative comments remain verbal. In the voting booth, Rotterdam voters expressed their alarm about migration and their rapidly changing city – their irritation and impatience about the persistence of difference. It is quite clear that racism plays a significant part in this irritation.

Openly-expressed irritation is perhaps the most accepted form of violence in our society: it is common. However, it also has its limits. On the street, people continue to live alongside each other. There appears to be no direct connection so far between how people vote and how they treat each other. The anti-racist bottom line is buffeted, but it has not been given up. The ideal is still there: and the laws are still in place.

To accuse someone of being racist or anti-semitic still has grave consequences. Where convincing, such an accusation can easily end a career, a friendship, and membership of virtually any organisation. However minimal, it is this qualification that allows us to remain hopeful for improved relations in the next few years, and for the much-needed normalisation, calm and patience.

Hatred, I would argue, has never played a prominent part in Dutch racism, whether you look at 17th or 18th century racism, or at the attitudes of non-Jews to Jews. Hatred seems to be an exception. Hatred is generally regarded as wrong.

Instead, what you will find is paternalism and patronising attitudes.

Dutch racism is a well-intentioned, friendly apartheid: white, Christian, and fuelled by feelings of supremacy and superiority which are self evident, although they will be generally denied.

Denial, indeed, appears to be a built-in part of the mix. Both in the form of anti-semitism, and in the various forms of racism, patronising attitudes prevail. In this sense, the anti-racist norm on which we have relied is part of this denial: since racism is seen as barbaric, nobody – except for small fringe groups – will allow themselves to be called racist or anti-semitic for one moment.

I wonder whether this type of racism, that is present and denied at the same time, present and absent, present and pushed away, ignored, is specifically Dutch. Any reactions or thoughts you who read this might have on this point, would be very welcome.