The Dutch debate on racism is shocking, at best

The current social movement to fight racism has gone global. Countries around the world are (finally) engaging in this long overdue discussion on how to make society more equal. The Netherlands is also talking about it. Last week, the Dutch Public Broadcasting (NPO) held a debate on the topic. I watched it out of curiosity, and also to get an idea of what is in a Dutch person’s mind when racism is discussed. My expectations were low, but I was disappointed anyway. The debate was shocking at best, and disgustingly racist at worse. Here is why.

The debate featured participants from politics, the public sector, academia, the industry, and others. However, it felt more like a hooligan’s fight than a constructive discussion among experts. Some people yelled at each other, some made insensitive punchlines mocking other people’s informed points or invalidating other’s experiences.

Another dubious aspect of the debate was the moderating role of the presenter Jort Kelder. Choosing a white, upper class, able-bodied, middle age man as a ‘moderator’ gives the impression that the network doesn’t take the topic seriously. The first thing the man did in the beginning of the debate was to explain why he is not a privileged person. This was either a provocation, or a proof that both the network as well as the moderator don’t have any idea what privilege and white supremacy mean. Probably the network justified their choice by calling the myth of meritocracy. However, this choice reinforced the same hegemonic roles and made clear on which side of the ‘debate’ they were.

One of the topics that touched a sensitive nerve among the panelists, especially the white ones, was the Dutch past as slave traders. Their white fragility immediately cracked when asked whether apologies were owed. One panelist even mentioned that the Germans didn’t apologise for the horrors their forefathers committed during World War II. Only that they did. They have done so multiple times. Other nations can learn from Germany’s efforts to reconcile after these historic crimes. But before trying to change the present, and start shaping the future, it is relevant to learn from the past.

The pain was outsourced

Talking about modern racism also means talking about the history of the transatlantic slave trade. Between 1602 and 1873 the Dutch exploited Black African slave labour; becoming the biggest slave trader in the world in 1640, which lasted until 1670. The Netherlands was one of the first countries to trade people as merchandise on this scale, and one of the last ones to stop with it. In fact, it was a Dutch man of war which carried the first 20 enslaved Africans to the United States in 1619.

Slavery brought prosperity and wealth to the Netherlands. The East Indian Company (VOC in Dutch) and the West Indian Company (WIC in Dutch) made it their enterprise to colonise and exploit Africa and Asia. After the WIC conquered the then called Dutch-Brazil, or New Holland, in 1630 the Dutch brought slave trade to a massive scale. During these two centuries the Dutch kidnapped at least 600.000 Africans, 13% of which didn’t survive the trip.

In the series American Gods there is a majestic scene about the slave trade era that shows the impact of the Dutch and the transatlantic slave trade. In the scene a group of kidnapped Africans are taken to America. In the ship they pray to their god Anansi. Anansi shows up and tells the slaves about what is awaiting them in their new life. He tells them in this powerful monologue by Orlando Jones: “Shit! You all don’t know you black yet. You think you just people. Let me be the first to tell you that you are all black. The moment this Dutch motherfuckers set foot here and decided that they white, you all get to be black” (sic). The Dutch, together with the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Danish set the foundation for the racist monster that still lives today.

After the official abolishment of slavery in the Dutch Caribbean islands in 1863, the now ‘freed’ slaves had to continue working as slaves in the plantations for ten more years as a way to compensate for the ‘losses’.

In the seventeenth century sugar and tobacco, and later coffee and tea, became important products for the Dutch economy. Until the nineteenth century these products were produced by slave labor in the Dutch colonies. In the 30’s of the eighteenth century a document titled ‘Benefits the city of Amsterdam got from the colony of Suriname’ acknowledges that pretty much everyone in the city won a “piece of bread” out of the colony.

Unlike the United States, the Netherlands did not live with slavery in-house. It officially was forbidden in the country. Despite that prohibition, Black servants in Dutch households lived and worked as slaves. The Dutch outsourced the pain to their colonies in the Caribbean and Indonesia. This period is also known as the Netherlands Golden Age, and is something some Dutch are still proud of, including the Dutch prime minister. They call it the VOC mentality, and it intends to exalt the bravery and entrepreneurship of their forefathers. This period of trader’s spirit and dare, is also a period of raids, colonialism and slavery. That should not be a mentality for any country.

Outsourcing the pain had its benefits for the ones inflicting it. They didn’t have to look at it, or live with it, making it easier to deal with. In 1863 slavery was finally abolished in the Dutch Caribbean islands. The slave owners were compensated by the Dutch government with 350.000 guilders, that’s almost 4 million dollars today. Besides that, the now ‘freed’ slaves had to continue working as slaves in the plantations for ten more years as a way to compensate for the ‘losses’. This is a very difficult story to process today.

Source: Amsterdam City Archive

The problem is not racism. The problem is talking about it.

This is a very brief summary of some facts regarding Dutch slavery history. But knowing this, it is obvious that a debate on the topic is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable.

The fact that this is set up as a debate already implies that racism is an opinion that people can be in favour or against. It is not. In words of the Black Renaissance Collective “Racism is not an opinion but a murderous system that has systematically exploited, excluded, suppressed and oppressed black people for centuries”.

The debate’s discussion statement was: “The current racism debate is driving the Netherlands apart”. This was strategically chosen and set the tone for what is discussed and how. The statement implies that is not systemic racism that is driving the Netherlands apart, or the open wounds from slavery which have not healed. The problem is talking about it. The problem is that white people may feel uncomfortable when the topic is addressed. This discomfort is what some panelists rushed to denounce as discrimination in their own country.

“Why do Dutch schools have a full program on the German occupation to the Netherlands during World War II, which lasted four years, while the story behind slavery that lasted four hundred years is reduced to a couple of pages in the school book?” — Debate panelist

The debate was rushed and unprepared. Some people in the audience were just exposing and defending their biases as facts. The moderator finished people’s sentences and cut them while they were speaking. It called my attention that the moderator was particularly interested in listening to the stories of blatant racism some of the non-white participants have experienced. An unprepared moderator, rather than educating himself on the topic, focused on reducing a societal problem down to a series of anecdotes. I was also not surprised by the typical roles panelists took. To name a few:

The privileged white lady who thinks privilege is only for nobility such as the Royal House of Orange. Her lack of empathy and knowledge of the topic showed what the producers were interested in: Someone who could express what ‘everybody’ thinks; that is, everybody who repeats what they see on tv. These panelists got more mic time and got to interrupt others.

The “I’m not a racist, but…” guy who fails to see how race is used as a proxy to justify social difference. They mention how black people can be racist to each other, but fail to ask why. Here’s why: it’s because racism is not an individual preference. It’s a system from which we are all part of. When a person has been excluded their whole life (and for generations) it is natural to develop ways to cope. In some cases that includes (self)denial, anger, and compliance.

The Aunt and Uncle Tom are the most shocking to see. I know it is an insult among Blacks to be called an Uncle Tom. But how else do you call someone who fails to acknowledge their own reality? Someone who has adjusted their sense of reality and their life expectations as a way to cope. They empathise with people going through problems, or that experience other types of exclusion, but fail to see how race maximises other forms of oppression. Having a disability is difficult, but it’s even more so when you’re black. Being poor is challenging, but it’s even more so when you’re black. Transgenders are a vulnerable group, but blacks trans are even more. Unfortunately they don’t see the bigger picture and focus on protecting their own comfort. They fail to see that in the fight for equity, injustice for one means injustice for all.

The white saviours with their sympathy and plans. They talk about how they have the solution to all the problems. Some “well-intended” politicians present their plans. But the laws exist already, the rest of the work has to be done on the streets, in the industry, and in the real world, not on paper. Others advocate about how we should all look into ourselves and try to empathise with each other because deep down inside we all mean well. Again, looking at racism as an opinion that can be debated. This makes it more difficult to actually deal with the system that propagates and normalises exclusion.

The common sense soul sister and brother is there to bring hope. These are the people asking relevant questions. One question that stayed with me was: why do Dutch schools have a full program on the German occupation to the Netherlands during World War II, which lasted four years, while the story behind slavery that lasted four hundred years is reduced to a couple of pages in the school book? You can hear the white fragility cracking when these questions are asked, but that is the point. White supremacy has to crack in order for it to be broken.

Today the Netherlands is a relatively egalitarian and wealthy country. The Netherlands has the fifth lowest at-risk-of-poverty rate in Europe. This wealth has a history that should not be forgotten. And despite this equality, there is still a lot of work to do. Ethnic profiling is present in national institutions such as the police and the tax office. The Dutch language is also loaded with (micro)aggressions. In Dutch the word “neger” is used as an insult towards black people, while the word “blank” is used as a regular way to refer to white people. The former creates a false illusion of inferiority among the Blacks, while the latter creates a false illusion of superiority among the whites.

In the Netherlands, the discussion has taken its own form, while the Dutch face some demons from their past. That is normal, each country has a different history, culture and way of dealing with their problems. I appreciate that the Dutch are trying to talk about racism. Other countries with a similar history are not doing the same. I guess that is the first step. The next step is to have a meaningful discussion on white supremacy.

I think everyone should be talking about racism, and everyone enjoying the benefits of white privilege should be listening. Not only now, but always. It should be a part of every school book and educational program, especially in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. A structural problem can only be solved by learning about it, talking about it, and doing something about it.

I write about my learnings and experience regarding race, female empowerment, representation and leadership.

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