The issue: Racism in the Netherlands, better the acerbic right than the acerbic left wing
Text: Sanne van der Most
The political climate in the Netherlands is discriminatory and racist, a recent report by the Council of Europe concluded. “At last, someone’s come out and said it”, was the initial reaction of EUR social historian Zihni Özdil. But he is seeing some improvement. “The acerbic left wing has been replaced by the acerbic right and that’s made things better.”
How are things better?
“The left wing approach was really patronising: ‘Well, it’s just their culture, that’s what they do. Just leave those poor migrants alone’... and then continue to subsidise them. In that respect, the right wing is much more open and honest. By being direct and seeing ‘the other side’ as an opponent, you take him seriously. Only then can we enter into a real debate and make changes. And that’s urgently needed.”
In a recent broadcast of the television programme Buitenhof, national Ombudsman Alex Brenninkmeijer also described the political climate in the Netherlands as racist. Does he have a point?
“Basically I agree with him. But he uses the wrong terminology. I really don’t consider myself an alien. What kind of word is that? And that’s actually at the heart of the problem. The terms allochthonous and autochthonous were introduced in 1971 by Hilda Verwey-Jonker. She was a progressive socialist who, with the best intentions, sought neutral terms to distinguish between the two groups. But they obviously weren’t that neutral. The terms soon acquired rather a negative connotation. I mean, who do you think of when you hear the word allochthonous? Not Beatrix – the country’s greatest allochthonous mother on benefits. No, everyone associates it with coloured people and a related problem.”
So what should you call them then?
“People have a name, pure and simple. I’m Zihni, you’re Sanne. And our origins are different. Nothing strange about that. What’s more, over eighty percent of the Dutch population originally come from somewhere else. But for some reason, we have difficulty dealing with the concept. And that’s not actually something recent. Racism started in the seventeenth century with the new Calvinist authorities. The ‘native Dutch population’ was painted as superior in political pamphlets. Other groups – Catholics, Jews as well as Protestant heretics – were tolerated but not accepted. They were allowed to practise their religion as long as it wasn’t too visible. That ultimately culminated in pillarisation. Until the 1950s, Catholics were considered second-class citizens. We’ve long forgotten this, but it was a fact. Thus diversity was managed. The Netherlands has had a culture of tolerance for centuries. That same cultural DNA has formed the basis for our integration policy for decades.”
How do you explain the autochthonous stress around Zwarte Piet [Black Peter]?
“When Zwarte Piet lost his rod in the 1960s because it was too scary for children, everyone was fine with that. But now another group is upset, we’re up in arms, because it’s ‘our’ national tradition. But it’s also theirs, because the Netherlands is their country too, but we don’t realise that. The autochthonous Dutch have tolerated all those allochthonous people and their hobbies for years. When someone attacks ‘our’ culture, everyone immediately gets on their high horse. Just look at all the comments posted on social media. They start mentioning everything. Nonsense, because halal slaughter obviously has nothing to do with Zwarte Piet. These people aren’t racists, that’s not what I’m saying, but they are part of a racist culture which has gradually emerged.”
Brenninkmeijer wants to make racist motives weigh more heavily in a crime. Will that help?
“No, I don’t think so. In fact, I’m personally against criminalising racist comments or motives. You can’t enforce thoughts. So much funding is wasted on expensive campaigns, but none of it helps. However, the government must enforce and intervene when it comes to discriminatory actions. But Rutte is unwilling to commit to that. ‘As the government, we can’t do anything’, he told me in a conversation we had last year. ‘That’s the free market.’ Bullshit, is my first thought. Let the government investigate which companies consistently discriminate, publish the results and fine the companies who are proven guilty. Make it a criminal offence.”
But you’re still imposing it from above.
“That may be so. But if you maintain your position for years, as they’ve done in the United States, then you really achieve change. In daily life, everyone mixes much more. Most white Americans are genuinely insulted if someone uses the ‘N’ word. After a while, a cultural change does occur. None of us will bat an eyelid when we see a receptionist wearing a headscarf. Unknown is unloved. In our age, we really live in parallel worlds. It’s a cliché but absolutely true.”
Isn’t that different among today’s young people?
“Among a small percentage of the young people, perhaps. And then mainly among the lower educated who see each other on the street or at work. Certainly not among students. Go and look in the canteen at lunch. All ethnic enclaves. No one mixes at all. And that’s being exacerbated by the anti Muslim trend of recent years. I also lecture on the subject and I notice that autochthonous students often really regard Islam as ‘evil’. And they aren’t all Party for Freedom (PVV) voters, you know. Many Muslim students, particularly Turks, then retreat and say: the Dutch don’t like us. They go and join an ethnic club which focuses on the country of their grandparents or hide behind a long beard or headscarf. In that sense, there’s a real culture of apartheid in the Netherlands. When you say that, people look shocked, but it’s true. If we don’t embark on a wide social debate, things will never change.”
Monday 18th November 2013 (week 47)
De Kwestie is een vaste rubriek in Erasmus Magazine, het opinie- en informatieblad van de Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, waarin een EUR-wetenschapper reageert op een actueel-maatschappelijke kwestie.