Dispatches from Amsterdam: Race and Culture

Introduction to the issues of race in the Netherlands: Language, Tradition and Society

Racism in the Netherlands is rooted in the colonial history of the country, however the concept of race is perpetually stated to be a non issue within society. With such statements as “race is an American issue” frequently used in social conversations about race it is questioned to what extent ignoring racism perpetuates the issue of racism within Dutch society. Ignoring the fact that racism exists in society with traditional figures such as black pete, racism rooted in language with the use of auchtoon and allochtoon and even used in science with race being an integral part of medicine, prescriptions and medical records. This paper will examine the history of racism in the Netherlands and how this history intersects with the cultural issues of race within the culture, as well as a look at in what ways ignoring this history perpetuates ignoring modern issues with racism and the effects that this ignorance has on Dutch society.

Race in the public discourse- Language and Free Speech

Race within the Netherlands is stated to “rarely be used in the public discourse” (Vieten 2016). A study done by scholar Vieten conducted interviews to examine how the use of language achotoon meaning Dutch heritage and allochtoon meaning not from Dutch heritage, solidifies racial hierarchy and division within society. An excerpt from the study stated from a participant that “the Netherlands is multiethnic but also very segregated, I have a lot of Dutch friends that look at me like a token of allochtone gemeenschap” (Vieten 2016). This way of viewing society in two contrasting classes is way of othering the minority. This means of othering is both seen as innocent from the Dutch perspective yet highly problematic in the way in which the culture views society as white and non white. The use of the language allochtone and auchtone being viewed as innocent perpetuates the fight for “free speech” as the Dutch utilized the language as part of their “tradition” and “culture” stating that the Dutch language displays the “right to have rights’ (Vieten 2016). This right to have rights can be defined through exploring the concept of “entitled racism” which is stated to exist when you believe that “you should be able to express yourself publicly in whichever way you like” (Essed 2016). This belief in the perseverance of a right to free speech can border on a relation to hate speech.
Hate speech perpetuated by free speech is seen through radical political groups who leverage the right of free speech to express their political beliefs in “potentially nationalistic and racist ways” (Essed 2014). An example of the belief in a right to free speech is the language used in soccer culture in the Netherlands. With players utilizing racial slurs to identify each other and fans partaking in “explicit racism” (Essed 2014) the soccer culture in the Netherlands is seen as a part of the public discourse in which free speech leaks into hate speech and ignorance of the issues of utilizing racist language incurs on society. Racist language within soccer culture in the Netherlands leaves “a discursive space where they avoid responsibility” (Essed 2014). The way race is expressed in language through use of allochtone and auchtone to divide classes as well an integrated belief in a right to free speech demonstrates the ways in which race is talked about in the public discourse and how this language sets standards for social and political relations.

Racism or tradition?- Black Pete

Dutch idea of a right to have rights, brings about a way of thought about cultural traditions that have racist implications but are praised as “innocent” (Pijl 2014). An example is the widely celebrated childrens figure of black pete. The figure is a representation of saint nicholas in which the face is painted black resembling the concept of “black face” (Pijl 2014). The celebration of the figure explains in what ways “Dutch racism is a complex issue” (Essed 2014). The complexity within the problem with black pete is due to the intersection of issues with both how the figure is celebrated in the context of ignorance towards the Netherlands “legacy of slavery” as well as “how the black body is commodified” (Pijl 2014). Scholar Wekker views the usage of allochtone and auchtone with the costuming of a tradition through use of black face as perpetuating the idea of whiteness as being the standard (Wekker 2016).
The visible issues with the tradition of black pete caused a “public uproar” in 2013 (Pijl 2014). Even in Amsterdam, which is seen as an international city, celebrates black pete with parades to this day (Pijl 2014). It can be theorized that the tradition has not been abolished due to the factors of the belief in free speech, ignorance about racial past and even “colour blindness” (Wekker 2016). The concept of colour blindness present in Dutch society is said to reflect Europe as a whole wherein there is a general belief that Europe is “a space free of racism” (Wekker 2016). Despite protests the concept of black pete remains a complex issue which reflects major themes about the way in which race is discussed in culture.

Concluding with the implications of the current racial discourse in the Netherlands- Medicine and Politics

The racial discourse in the Netherlands seen in culture, language and traditions manifests in the political and medical fields. Medical reports in the Netherlands are marked with what ethnicity the patient is and are done inconsistently (Helberg-Proctor 2016). This inconsistent marking can be rooted back to the racial biases seen in language. The definition of western and nonwestern is utilized in the medical field with the translation for western including areas that are similar in views to northern Europe such as all of Europe excluding Turkey as well as Japan and North America (Helberg-Proctor 2016). Blank states that this classification is defined as “scientific racism” as it creates a “racial hierarchy” (Helberg-Proctor 2016).
Race in politics in the Netherlands can be examined through political figures such as Geert Wilders who is said to “promote differences between the Moroccan and the Dutch” (Vieten 2016). Extremist political groups practicing the right to free speech in the Netherlands can be seen opposing immigration. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte stated “we are going to give this beautiful country back to the Dutch” (Mepschen 2017). Through an examination of race in the political and medical fields it is possible to see a connection between history, language, tradition, culture and society in the way ideas of race are diffused.

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