Wounds of Dutch history expose deep racial divide

Some 50,000 people took part in demonstrations early last month

Bronze statues of colonial icons have now been spray-painted. Black Lives Matter protests have broken out. And now the Dutch parliament has backed a petition by three teenage women requesting the addition of racism to the institution curriculum.

Winds of change are swirling across the cobblestones of The Hague. Faced with a strong colonial past and a legacy of slavery, the Dutch are being asked to have a more impartial look at their history.

“We’re still a very white nation,” says Mirjam de Bruijn, an anthropologist at Leiden University. “Our colonial legacy is visible every day in our streets. There’s an inherent racism and acceptance of inequality. Racism is inside all of us.”

How the protests began

What happened in Minnesota found echoes here too. In June, more than 50,000 people knelt throughout demonstrations over the Netherlands.

“We have deaths of people who died like George Floyd, but still no arrests,” explains poet and campaigner Jerry Afriyie, who has been detained at a number of anti-racism protests.

He points to two recent deaths in Dutch police custody.

Tomy Holten died one hour after that he was arrested on 14 March, after reportedly causing a nuisance in a supermarket in the central city of Zwolle. Images appear to show one of the arresting officers pressing his foot down on his face.

Last month, Mondy Holten paid tribute to his brother where he was detained

In 2015, Mitch Henriquez died after being arrested for allegedly claiming he had a gun at a music festival in The Hague. An officer was given a six-month suspended sentence for applying the neck grip that killed him.

Aruba-born Mitch Henriquez died in June 2015

Mr Afriyie believes the Netherlands has problems with “white-supremacy” sentiment and he has his or her own experience: “I was put in a choke-hold and had to struggle for my life.”

Protesters complain of institutional racism and a disconnect between a society that sees it self as anti-racist and the particular experience of black people within it.

There is a distinct absence of black MPs in the current Dutch parliament. And that reflects a sense of invisibility felt by many.

Poet and campaigner Jerry Afriyie leads a movement called Kick Out Zwarte Piet

“It’s a strange country,” says Mirjam de Bruijn, who finds it impossible to begin to see the Netherlands as truly democratic when part of society is silenced or told the racism they endure is imagined.

The three teenagers fighting back

The place to have the issue addressed is in the class room, according to senior school graduates Veronika Vygon, Sohna Sumbunu and Lakiescha Tol.

The three friends launched a petition calling for lessons on racial discrimination to be included with the national curriculum.

L-R Sohna, Lakiescha and Veronica

Within weeks they had collected 60,000 signatures, and had been inundated by an explosion of support from politicians, musicians and social influencers.

“In school, people told us ‘Your skin looks like poop’,” Veronica, 18, explained. “You aren’t born a racist, it’s taught by your parents, your environment, school. We want to unteach it, to utilize the same institutions reproducing stereotypes to turn them around.”

A Labour politician submit a motion backing their petition also it was passed by MPs on 23 June, with 125 out of 150 votes.

“The response has been amazing,” says Veronica. “We are working on programmes and lesson plans to help teachers. Do I think this will make a difference and change lives for the better? One thousand per cent.”

History teacher Rodrigo van Loo believes there has been already a shift in Dutch schools. “The books mention the people who were visited by the Dutch. And on slavery, we now teach how slaves became slaves.”

He teaches in a so-called “black school”, where most pupils originate from migrant backgrounds.

Bitter blackface row that divides Dutch

Every 5 December, white people in the Netherlands paint their faces black, apply red lipstick and pull on curly wigs to embody fictional festive character Black Pete.

Defenders of “Zwarte Piet” vigorously reject accusations of racism. But opponents argue that the fact it continues, when so many in the black community are upset, shows black lives matter little here.

One recent poll, however, suggests fewer than half of Dutch people now support the tradition – a dramatic fall in a matter of months.

Getty Images

Discrimination in Netherlands

Experiences of non-white citizens

  • 56%in shops and businesses

  • 29%experienced from police

  • 40%in schools or universities

  • 78%believe institutional racism exists

Source: Survey of 5,000 on Een Vandaag panel, June 2020

Old attitudes die hard, though. When veteran TV football pundit Johan Derksen suggested black rapper Akwasi appeared to be a photo of a man in blackface, the Dutch men’s and women’s national teams said they’d boycott the programme.

Derksen said it was a ‘”stupid joke”, but stopped short of apologising. The TELEVISION network refused to sanction him, citing freedom of expression.

Stirring up history

As elsewhere, Dutch colonial legends are actually coming under scrutiny from those whose ancestors experienced the nation’s inglorious side.

During the “Golden Age” from the late 16th to late 17th Century, the Netherlands was a global pioneer in science, art and trade. Its wealth grew over 200 years through the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

But statues of famous, seafaring figures attended under attack from a group called “Helden van Nooit” (Heroes of never):

  • In Amsterdam, a monument of Joannes van Heutsz, Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, was defaced
  • In Rotterdam, Piet Hein, 17th-Century vice-admiral of the Dutch West India Company, had what “killer” and “thief” scrawled on his plinth

The word “killer” was daubed on Piet Hein’s statue in Rotterdam last month

  • Outside the Dutch parliament, slogans were daubed on a statue of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, a hero of independence from Spain and co-founder of the Dutch East India Company
  • Riot police in the northern town of Hoorn protected a bronze statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a 17th-Century officer who seized control of the spice trade.

Jan Pieterszoon Coen became a flashpoint for protesters – that he founded Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies

A significant majority believe these monuments should stay, one survey suggests. However, a debate has stirred on the Netherlands’ history of slavery.

On 1 July, the Dutch marked the formal abolition of slavery in 1863 in the old colonies of Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.

The day is recognized as Keti Koti (broken chains in Surinamese), but slaves in Suriname were not freed for still another 10 years, because of a mandatory transition period. Even chances are they received nothing, while their owners got compensation.

Should there be an apology for slavery?

There is increasing support, but Prime Minister Mark Rutte rejected the concept in parliament, because that he feared it might create further polarisation.

Statues must not be removed either, he said, as they offered a chance to think about a history that can’t be removed.

But D66 liberal MP Rob Jetten called for more attention to be paid to the descendants of slaves: “A large section of black people in the Netherlands say: see our pain and feel it.”

More on Europe’s debate on racism and history

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What do we do with the UK’s symbols of slavery?

Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher told MPs: “Being against racism is not left or right, but a sign of civilisation.”

But the populist right profoundly disagrees with an apology.

Thierry Baudet of the Forum for Democracy party laid flowers on Gen Coen’s plinth, and urged the others to celebrate national heroes.

Is there a sign of change?

Apologies for slavery attended from the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, while King Willem Alexander apologised on a trip to Indonesia “for excessive violence” throughout its war of independence.

“Don’t deny the terrible wrongs we did. Amsterdam is built on the products of Indonesia,” says anthropologist Mirjam de Bruijn.

The perception that modern Dutch society is inherently inclusive and tolerant was challenged this past year by the UN’s special rapporteur on racism.

“In many areas of life… the message is reinforced that to be truly or genuinely Dutch is to be white and of Western origin,” wrote E. Tendayi Achiume.

Historian Alicia Schrikker believes failing to understand what not being white is similar to gets in how of more critical reflection.

“People being raised now find it difficult to imagine what it was like,” she explained. “Going back to history is essential to understand how much of that has influenced our contemporary culture and ways of seeing or not seeing.”

If the Netherlands is to protect its open and democratic society, that could require rethinking what this means to be Dutch.

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