When Things Aren’t So Black and White: Reacting to Race and Racism in the Netherlands

In less than a month of living in the Netherlands, I’ve learned that nothing here is a matter of black and white. As a new temporary transplant to Amsterdam from New York, I’m in the midst of a very eclectic group of people, whose identities, nationalities, and even individual family trees range from the darkest complexional hues to the whitest. On top of that, I’ve seen more interracial couples (of all backgrounds) than I’ve witnessed ever before in my life. So, for the first time ever, I’ve been situated smack dab in the middle of “multiculturalism.” Literally.

It may be hard to conceive for some, particularly for people outside of the U.S. but until now, I have lived most of my life, and definitely my adult life, in an all-Black environment.

Everyone that I socialize with, have gone to school with, lived around, dated or worked with, have been Black. Not necessarily African American – some of my closest friends are Ghanaian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Nigerian – but they’re all Black. Their parents are Black. They partners are Black. Their kids are Black. Everybody’s Black. Black, Black, Black, Black.

Since it may be hard to conceive, try to visualize this: I went to an all-Black high school for girls, followed by four years at Howard University (they don’t call it the Mecca for nothing). Upon graduating, I taught at a public school in middle of the hood in Northeast Washington, D.C. bka the Chocolate City (Although, with the current state of gentrification, it’s looking much more like the Vanilla City these days). Then I left D.C., moved to Germantown, Philadelphia (more Blackness), studied Africana Studies at Temple University (which is situated in the center of North Philly – the hood of all hoods).  While in graduate school, I worked at the city’s African American Museum. In 2007, I moved back to New Orleans Post-Katrina to revitalize a museum of African American art, owned by a Black surgeon. Then in 2009, I relocated to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn (the same hood that gave birth to Biggie) and started working at an institution that focuses on what? Global Blackness.

So, living outside of both my comfort zone and security blanket has taken some adapting but is pretty damn fun and exciting. I’ve found myself surrounded by a social circle that quotes Noam Chomsky and Dave Chappelle in the same conversation. Yes, I’m highly entertained but more importantly, I’m learning.

But don’t get it a twisted – multicultural does not mean totally progressive. As blissful as my new experiences have been, there have also been moments where I’ve sat with my mouth agape in reaction to some blatant gesture of racism.

These incidents range from witnessing a Dutch academic refer to Latin Americans as barbarians during a university symposium on multiculturalism (which was actually the least of his offenses) to a maintenance man telling me early one morning that I didn’t need to drink coffee because I was already Black enough.  Huh?

The worst of these incidents was the afternoon I opened a magazine and saw the photo-shopped image of my friend, a nationally recognized Black Dutch (Antillean) theater artist and emerging public intellectual, with horns growing out of his head and a white girl dangling out of his mouth. It was on some King Kong meets Godzilla meets the antagonist in Birth of a Nation type ish. Then when he brought attention to it, he was made to feel like some kind of troublemaker. In the words of Washington, D.C. youth “where they do that at?” But get this, the theater where this happened wasn’t white…it is actually owned and run by Black people. Of course they eventually responded by having photo stickers printed and pasted over the original image in all of the magazines on their premises. (Unfortunately, however, when I walked into a local café a week later, I saw the magazine and was saddened to see that the original version was still in circulation).

On one hand, I wanted to blow-up the ordeal and make a fuss about it on my facebook page. On the other hand, I realized that while I may feel some kind of way and want to express solidarity, at the end of the day, I will be bringing my black American arse back to the East Coast, where they don’t do stuff like that.

Very quickly, I’ve come to understand that it’s not just a matter of being passive but as a dear friend here told me, it’s a matter of deliberately and intelligently, picking your battles. I can’t fathom, having to defend myself, respond or react to every single racist thing that happens here on a daily basis, and I’m merely a visitor. I had to be reminded of the fact that as a Black American, whose particular existence is grounded in learning and disseminating information about African Diasporan history, I have also been influenced by the various resistance movements that took place on U.S. soil throughout the ages. That makes me privileged. I am equipped with both the historical, socio-political-economic analysis AND furthermore, the tools needed to address these transgressions. For that, I do not have the right to turn up my self-righteous nose at the perceived passiveness in which people of African descent, broadly address (or not) racism in the Netherlands.

However, not everyone is drinking the kool-aid. Currently, there is a group of individuals, whose political views have provided a platform of solidarity in which to buck against the system. Hopefully, they will succeed in their mission. (Listen to an informative radio talk show here).

I am not in the position to judge. I recognize the need for Afro-Europeans and in this instance, Black Dutch, to formulate their own resistance identity – one that is grounded in the nuanced experiences of their own realities and not one birthed from the revolutionary movements  and ideologies of Afro-America. Upon this formulation, it is then our responsibility to validate their perspective and provide a broader platform from which they can be heard and supported, across the Diaspora.

Covert European Ku Klux Klandom aside, I love it here. My cultural cornucopia of friends is incredible and there’s always something exciting happening. I live in a tiny but plush apartment in the land where tulips meet legalized prostitution, where white people dress up in blackface during Christmas (see Zwarte Piet is Racisme…more on that later), where your olfactory sense is aroused by magical herbs floating out of coffeeshops and where this Black American girl from New Orleans makes her way around town on an all-black bike named Touissant. This is my life…outside of the box.


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12 responses

  1. Holland has never really gotten out of the state of denial. Either people don’t understand, pretend to not understand or don’t want to understand that racism is still so apparent in Dutch society and that it (still) hurts people. You’ll meet a lot of ignorance and a lot of ‘tongue in cheeck’ jokes that you’re supposed to find funny because “it’s 2012 so we can all laugh about it, right?”.
    But there’s also a lot of good stuff, so enjoy your time!

    • Ruben, thank you for sharing your comments. Apparently, according to one white Dutch woman, I just don’t know a good joke when I hear one. Furthermore, she took it upon herself to assert how Black Dutch people would respond. On a facebook page of one of my friends, she said the following:

      “Ah yes, we are such racists in the Netherlands. I understand his/her perspective but these are the words from someone who is a)experiencing mild culture shock, and b) someone who will hopefully have a more refined understanding of European/ Dutch culture and Dutch sense of humour. Guess what; things are different here. The maintenance man telling him/her that they didn’t need to drink coffee because he/she was already Black enough…. Come on, that is a lighthearted joke, and by no means meant to insult or hurt. Sure enough, Black Americans might get upset about that, but I am pretty sure Black Dutch would not. At all. I agree with him/her that he/she is not in the position to judge. Understand first, then judge.”

      Sounds like denial, or what I would aptly call psychosis to me.

  2. I lived in Holland for a number of years. I am married to a Dutchman. I am African American. We tried to raise our children there, but soon discovered that the subtle Dutch=white and born in the Netherlands, was underlying and pervasive. The negative impact on the psyche of our children was profound. While it is true (as referenced in the above comment) that Dutch humor is often biting, derisive, and demeaning, there is also a deep disdain for the cultural critique when it comes to race…especially from Americans. It seems there is a wish by many Dutch to hold on to a progressive image that characterized their land some two decades ago. Now more than a quarter of the country, as evidenced by recent election results, has fled to the right and embraced isolationist xenophobia. What your blog offers a sober perspective on a beautiful country that too often fails to see its shadows.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences Gabriel. I was telling a Black American friend who has married a Dutch citizen and moved here that despite its flaws, I still love it. I think this place is beautiful and is inspiring in so many ways. It’s just shameful that the larger population avoids openly discussing the ways in which it needs to improve as a society.

  3. Hi!

    My name is Ylva habel, and I’m Assistant Professor of Media and Communications Studes at Södertörn University, Stockholm. I really enjoyed your article! As you probably know already, Black Europeans are in a much, much weaker position than in the US. There is a lot of “white worldmaking” which makes it really hard for us to get a hearing in debates over racism and stereotypes. As I write this, there is a raging debate going on over a stereotypical character in an animated children’s film, called “Little Pink and the Motely Crew” (and yes, the association you are probably making now is correct. See the arguments I’ve posted in my last change of profile image).

    So, what I would like to add, however gently: we are not passive. Rather, we are constantly bashed, if we so much as whisper about this problem. The “stereotype culture” in Sweden, where I’m from, is unbelievably crude. The last year, there has been a constant increas of images, pouring down over us like acid rain. We are devastated, at least meany of us. Others are numb, and some are even insensitive and self-ahating enough to attack me for criticising (yes blacks internally on FB). For the moment, I have finally had a sort of breakthrough in the almost apartheid-like (“unknown” of course) barring of black critics from getting a chance to write about this in the press. The mass of articles whitesplaining to us that racist representations are not at all racist are ubiquitous for the moment.

    Please take a look at the self-representational strategies on the page notyourmotleycrew.com

    What Quinsy is doing, by the way, seems to be heroic work. Give him my best!

    best wishes,

    Ylva Habel.

    Trailer for Little Pink

    http://www.folketsbio.se/filmer/filmer/1131

    • Ylva,

      Thank you, thank you, thank you. For not just your response but for the work that you do. I’ve seen your comments on both Quinsy and Flavia’s page. I’m familiar with only but a few of the more recent atrocious acts committed in Sweden and you’re right, I can not imagine how it would feel to constantly be attacked for calling these behaviors out. This is why I had to acknowledge my place of privilege because that’s what it is, privilege.

      Also, I didn’t elaborate on the fact that the U.S. continues to have its own issues. For example, in the midst of all that was happening here, I was more concerned about the fact that my brother lives in Chicago, where the amount of murders that are happening in the Black community are outrageous. So, in all honesty, when I think about the murder rate in many U.S. cities or better yet, the amount of murders of Black people that take place every 36 hours at the hands of police or security personnel, it pales in comparison to someone telling me that I don’t need to drink coffee. But it’s all related, and interconnected via global white supremacy, thus my need to expound upon it.

      At any rate, I hope that we continue the discourse. There is much work that needs to be done.

      In Light,
      Shantrelle

  4. hi,

    Am a Euro-African living in the Netherlands for quite a while. Found this to be highly informative as well as correct. I just have one tiny issue/comment: in comparing the state of black resistance identity in NL vs US one cannot just ignore the fact that most Dutch black immigrants arrived here after the 2nd world war as opposed to USA’s long history. You have to always take this into the equation when writing/critiquing the state of black emancipation in the Netherlands. I can’t really speak for the rest of Europe like Sweden etc.

    ‘Passivity’ might also be the result of not really ever having had to deal with segregation like in the states. No ‘Whites Only’ public spaces etc. No Million Man march, no civil rights movement etc. Someone do correct me if I am wrong but once you became a Dutch citizen you automatically gained the right to vote i.e. became ‘part of the system’.

    Best Wishes EAbera

  5. Native of the Vanilla Suburbs (Bethesda) checking in here. Been living in Amsterdam for a while.

    Super interesting read. My take is there is not so much “political correctness” here. People don’t have a sense about what’s offensive (or even hurtful). It’s like in the US there’s an allergic reaction we’ve built up to overt racism – and most Netherlanders don’t have it. Of course, there’s a lot going on here that’s not straight forward, and not obvious.

    Final thought – Amsterdam isn’t the Netherlands. It’s almost like it’s the New York of the Netherlands in some ways in terms of attitudes and culture.

  6. Dutch people have a tendency to be politically correct. However that always translates in denying the reality of what is really happening in the Netherlands. The truth is that the dutch people are overwhelmingly Racist to the core. Yet they deny the very existence of racism itself in everyday life in the Netherlands. Institutionalized racism runs rampant in the Netherlands. From schools to private businesses to governments bodies. But there is still hope for the Netherlands. Today’s rise in interracial marraige and a new breed of hybrids will decide how racist a country like the Netherlands will be in the future.

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