Dutch elections and colonial continuity: The history of race and racism in Dutch nation-building

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Today is the Dutch general election to determine which parties will control Dutch parliament. It is essentially a race between Geert Wilders and the PVV and Mark Rutte and the VVD – one a far-right party and the other a center-right one. This election, and the campaigning around it, should by now prove two things: the first that the political spectrum in the Netherlands has moved to the right to such an extent that the term leftist politics is all but meaningless; and the second is that the emergence of Islam and race as central topics of debate is not something “new” and is not even an emergence in any technical sense; if anything it represents a continuity with older colonial modes of self-identification.

In an Al Jazeera piece on the elections, this quote caught my eye:

“We will get the verdict this evening after an election campaign that has been very divisive and has seen expressions from different party leaders concerning Islam, immigration and the economy” (Dominic Kane).

Those three core issues that have defined the election are in no way separate from one another. Islam, immigration, the economy. These three issues – framed as “problems” each political party wants to “solve” – have a much longer historical presence than is admitted in much of the analysis on the so-called “emergence of Islamophobia” in the Netherlands. What happens when we label something an emergence? What happens when Holland is categorized as having “departed” from its liberal, tolerant, reasonable past? What happens when Holland is commonly understood as “decent” and that this decency is now lost after a shift to the right?

I want to posit instead that this election has not marked the emergence of Islamophobia as a form of racialized politics; this election has merely made transparent the fact that for the past few centuries the Netherlands has operated within this framework of racialized politics. Citizenship rules and regulations, categories of belonging, media, educational and everyday semantics – all of these structures that organize daily life are thoroughly racialized. The famous categories of allochtoon and autochtoon (indigenous and non-indigenous) rely on colonial understandings of who was part of the Dutch empire and who was not. Debates about who has integrated well (Indonesian colonial subjects) and who has failed to integrate (Surinamese, Antilleans, Moroccans) are also based on clear colonial legacies, where the violence Indonesians faced when they came to the Netherlands is erased, and the racism and lack of support Surinamese, Antilleans and Moroccans were met with when they arrived is pushed to the side.

When we begin tracing these historical legacies, it becomes clear that modern nation and state building in the Netherlands was a racial project from the very beginning. When migrants began to arrive from North Africa and Southern Europe, much of the discourse surrounding the white working class was extended to these new migrant groups, specifically the notion that they needed to be civilized into Dutch culture. Another example is the way in which Surinamese men were discursively portrayed as violent and aggressive in the 1980s. Yet in the 1990s this portrayal extended to and became focused on Moroccan men. One should note, however, that such shifts are never complete. In the Netherlands today it is clear that negative assumptions about the white working class prevail, and that Surinamese men are still often portrayed as violent and aggressive. This highlights the enduring nature of these discursive formations. They are resilient precisely because they are linked to class formation and nation building through bourgeois notions of “civilized”. In other words, the identity of the rational, white bourgeois Dutchman is constituted in a dialectical relationship with numerous “Others”—thus making the discursive formation necessary to Dutch identity. This draws our attention to the continuing need in Dutch society to create “Others” in order to both construct the identity of the civilized Dutchman, but also, by extension, legitimize certain social political and economic policies. These policies range from increasingly tough stances on immigration to the increased policing of post-migrant populations and populations of color.

It is crucial to note that the underlying argument in the cases of both internal and external “Others” was a racial one. The white working class was often portrayed as being genetically different from the rest of society. While it is true that in the Netherlands there was a strong discourse that blamed class differences on context rather than genetics, it remains the case that the working class was often seen as inherently inferior. The same logic was used when it came to the external Othered, who were seen as genetically inferior because of both racial and cultural attributes. When Southern European and North African immigrants arrived in the Netherlands in the 1960s, their constructed racial Otherness was understood through cultural differences. Culture became the vessel through which racial difference was understood and class the vessel for understanding the racial difference of the Dutch working classes leading up to the 1960s. In both instances, racial constructions were hidden under the label of either class or cultural difference.

And yet, despite this, there is a tendency in the Netherlands to locate racism in individuals, as isolated incidents. As Melissa Weiner points out: “Ask a White Dutch person about racism in their society and most will quickly respond that, except for maybe a few right-wing politicians and individual racist incidents each year, racism does not exist. Indeed, it cannot. Because, according to many, ‘race’ does not exist in The Netherlands.” At the center of this process of othering is the construction of the Dutch self-image as tolerant and thus of Dutch society as excluding racism, homophobia, sexism, and so on. Dutch society is constructed as tolerant and open, and indeed this has become a universal image of the Netherlands. Attempts to argue that this election shows how the Netherlands has “changed” and lost its tolerance/liberalism/decency are problematic and plainly incorrect precisely because building the nation was a racialized project from the very start. Islamophobia is only the most recent expression of this project, but it is not new, nor a departure.

Here the emergence of the welfare state is key, and its specific ties to colonial and working class history. In an excellent post, Egbert Alejandro Martina shows how the emergence of the Dutch welfare state represented an attempt to make the white working class “fit for (bourgeois) society” which was seen as preferable to improving conditions of the working class by raising the standard of living. This shift occurred through imagining the welfare state as a disciplinary force that would deflect attention away from structural inequalities (in this case economic inequality between classes) and instead shift the focus onto disciplining the working class and making it socially acceptable. Thus the welfare state acted as a disciplinary force that, through biopolitical means, absorbed and neutralized any “threat” coming from the white working class. This later transformed as a means of disciplining bodies seen as racially and/or culturally different. Attention was deflected from structural inequalities, this time regarding institutionalized racism, and instead focused on framing such bodies as in need of socialization through intervention.

What I want to argue is new is the broader material context in which all of this is taking place, namely the crisis of neoliberal capitalism and the dismantling of the welfare state. It is not a failure of integration that forces politicians to discuss Muslims; rather it has been an extremely successful tactic that has deflected attention away from the state’s role in dismantling the social services Dutch citizens have had since the 1950s. By privileging capital over labour, the state and various political parties have sold out the social democratic pact and this is having massive ramifications on the choices, opportunities and daily lives of Dutch people. However it is not as simple as immigrants or non-whites being scapegoated either. It is not that “during economic crisis people naturally become more racist” or want to blame anyone who is different. It is not a natural human response or justifiable. It is a concrete result of the particular ways in which the Dutch elite have constructed Dutch nationalism and the Dutch state. It did not have to be this way and it is not a natural human response. It is a result of historical processes of class and race intersecting to produce the political effects we see today.

The tendency to ignore the Dutch colonial past – social forgetting as Weiner calls it – is important here in understanding why there is so little resistance to the extreme racism rampant in the Netherlands today. This Dutch colonial history is not something to be navigated or worked through, and indeed can be presented positively or, at least, as a relic of a time that was not necessarily “wrong.” The denial surrounding both its status as a colonial empire (as well as the fact that the Netherlands controlled territories until 2010) and its neutral moral position on colonialism allows the Netherlands to construct a national imaginary based on tolerance. Similarly, Gloria Wekker’s excellent book White Innocence, focuses on:

…a central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia. Accessing a cultural archive built over 400 years of Dutch colonial rule, Wekker fundamentally challenges Dutch racial exceptionalism by undermining the dominant narrative of the Netherlands as a “gentle” and “ethical” nation. Wekker analyzes the Dutch media’s portrayal of black women and men, the failure to grasp race in the Dutch academy, contemporary conservative politics (including gay politicians espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric), and the controversy surrounding the folkloric character Black Pete, showing how the denial of racism and the expression of innocence safeguards white privilege. Wekker uncovers the postcolonial legacy of race and its role in shaping the white Dutch self, presenting the contested, persistent legacy of racism in the country.

It is this archive that is important to remember. White innocence, along with social forgetting, have functioned to hide the central role of race in Dutch nation building. The Dutch self is a racialized self. This is not new, but as old as the Netherlands itself. This is why I believe the newly established political party “Artikel 1” is an important intervention in contemporary Dutch politics. Because it is based on anti-racism and not just class politics, it breaks the silence surrounding this topic – a wilful silence I would add, not an innocent one – and provides what the Dutch left has long failed to provide: a politics that is about race and class and gender and sexuality – not just about class in a reductionist sense. There is still a long way to go, but speaking about race and racism is a necessary step.

__________________________

Parts of this post are from an article I co-wrote with Vanessa Eileen-Thomas: Old Racisms, New Masks: On the Continuing Discontinuities of Racism and the Erasure of Race in European Contexts.

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7 thoughts on “Dutch elections and colonial continuity: The history of race and racism in Dutch nation-building

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  3. Nupulantsy

    > calls Islamophobia a “racial issue”, still expects to be taken serious

    The author does make some legit points, absolutely. But as a whole, this article mainly makes me feel sympathy for the cringefest Americans must go through on a regular basis; “experts” from all over the planet with only limited knowledge and understanding of their country and its history, and who nonetheless think that the world is dying to hear their latest opinion about it.

    1. Thanks – if you’d actually put forward some kind of criticism or engagement, I’d be able to respond. The world may not be doing to hear my expert opinion, but it certainly wasn’t dying to read your pointless comment 😉
      As for Islamophobia being a racial issue – I’d recommend reading up on racism 🙂

      1. Nupulantsy

        So I had this entire novel type out analyzing all the oversimplified and Americanized assumptions you’re making – and then my computer crashed and now it’s gone…

        I only want to say this now because it’s imprtant: Muslims. Are not. A “race”. They are NOT, an ethnicity. Islam is a RELIGION, and immigrants who follow that religion find themselves in countries that are either highly secular or conservatively christian. And as such neither demographic is inclined to feel warm feelings toward a(nother) extremely conservative foreign religion. The notion though that “Islamophobia” is equal to anti-semitism, but towards muslims, is the result of Saudi propaganda. PC people who parrot this mean well, but they do nothing but further spread this propaganda, thus helping to silence any criticism, and undermining the plight of Arab secular activists.

        I also further wish to comment on what you mention about Dutch people claiming “race” isn’t a thing here. I think you have misunderstood what is meant by this. While there are still racists (as there are everywhere. No country is 100% racism-free. People who claim that are either naive or lying), and there are huge problems with xenophobia, the notion of “race” has all but disappeared from European public discours. You go around talking about people’s “races” and everyone will assume you’re an actual Nazi. This is not considered an ok way to talk about people. The mere idea of race is already considered incredibly racist by most people here.
        For this reason the American obsession with everyone’s “races” is very alien to us. And for this reason, your annoying habit of condescendingly assigning every cultural tension that exists in other countries to “racialized” issues, because that is what you know from your own country (I mean, if we’re talking about racialized countries, how does any American have any right of speaking?) has become pretty frustrating and makes you look naive and ill-informed.

        Lastly, you say something about “denying colonial violence”. I don’t know what Dutch people you have spoken, but writers and political thinkers inside the Netherlands have been actively criticizing colonial oppression since the 19th century. The Atlantic Slave Trade and the brutal Politionele Acties in Indonesia after the war are extensively taught about in every high school history class. White guilt and PC hysteria has thrived here since the time that American public conversation was still focused on whether Marillyn Manson’s “gay acts” on stage would ruin the youth. We have had actual political assassinations by leftist terrorists over immigration issues.

        For this reason I have no doubt people will not have been entirely patient with you if you’ve tried to discuss “racial” issues with them. The collective memory on this goes back twenty years, and we thought we were somewhat done with it when you guys started like five years ago. The denial you’ve encountered is not a denial of racial discrimination; it’s not wishing to be talked down to about it by someone from a barely-first-world-country, where black people are shot to death by your police for doing nothing but sitting in their car or walking down the street.

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