[DEBATE] : Two Dutch Pieces on Racism (also Dutch)
p.waterman at inter.nl.net
Wed Sep 24 10:23:21 BST 2008
Two Dutch Pieces on Racism (also Dutch)
anne-ruthwertheim at hetnet.nl
There is Racism and There is Racism - I
A new kind of racism is gradually emerging in the Netherlands. Not the
classical contempt for others, but a cultural racism of distrust and fear.
In an ad in de Volkskrant, a leading Dutch daily paper, on 17 March 2008
tv-producer Harry de Winter compared how people talk about Muslims in the
Netherlands with anti-Semitism against Jews. In recent years, anyone who
ventured to draw this comparison was viewed as a nutcase. Islamophobia was
the justified fear of Muslims and didn't have anything to do with something
as awful as the Holocaust. But De Winter's comparison pertains to the
preparations, i.e. how the inhabitants of European countries were gradually
persuaded in the course of the 1930s that there was something really not
quite kosher about the Jews.
Calling what the Muslims are dealing with racism still
encounters strong reluctance in present-day society. There is another reason
why. Racism means systematically looking down on certain people and there is
little or no evidence of that here today. Racism is what happened in the
colonies, what was done to the slaves, the blacks under Apartheid and
Afro-Americans in the United States. All we are doing here is "calling a
spade a spade and saying what we think. It is a question of the right to
have an opinion, and without even being nasty. They ought to be able to cope
with that and it should have happened a long time ago."
It is true that the colonial racism we are familiar with is on its way out.
But it is not the only kind of racism there is. For centuries and all across
the globe, there has been a very different kind of racism, cultural racism.
It is not about looking down on people, it is about fear and distrust.
Though we tend to tone it down by calling it Islamophobia, this is the
racism that is gaining ground in the Netherlands.
The two kinds of racism are as different as can be, but do have
one thing in common. They are both brimming with biases and preconceptions.
Colonial racism sees certain people as being unable to take care of
themselves, stupid, lazy and childlike. The new cultural racism virtually
turns this upside down. Muslims and essentially all non-Western immigrants
are rarely called stupid, even though they do have a lot to catch up on.
They are mainly unreliable and their cultural baggage, including their
religion, is very dangerous and very scary.
I myself was once part of a minority. As a half-Jewish white
child, I grew up in the former Dutch East Indies, which is now Indonesia. In
the colony, Indonesians had to work on the plantations for very low wages.
This was justified with the usual prejudices. The literature of the former
Dutch colony is filled with examples of the racial features the colonists
attributed to the natives. Their Indonesian personnel was simple-minded,
gullible and lived from one day to the next. They couldn't help it, that was
simply their biological makeup.
As anyone who is not lily white can testify, there are still
traces of this kind of exploitation racism in the Netherlands. After the
horrors of the persecution of the Jews, the word racist did come to have
very nasty connotations. But when the Turkish and Moroccan labour migrants
entered the country, the Dutch were ready to look down their noses at them.
They couldn't do anything but heavy physical work, nor did they want to, and
they were too stupid to learn Dutch. But very gradually, something changed.
For centuries, cultural racism turned against mercantile minorities, there
were Indians and Pakistanis who were driven out of Uganda and pogroms
against the Chinese in several Asian countries, like Indonesia. And indeed,
European anti-Semitism had a great deal in common with this kind of cultural
racism. Wherever cultural racism emerged, it was fraught with malicious
preconceptions, but nowhere was claimed that anyone was stupid or lazy. On
the contrary, the group in question was sly and hungry for money and power.
It was not that there was anything wrong with their biological features, it
was their culture that was so scary, their deviant ways of acting and
thinking, their religion. And that was something they could definitely do
something about, i.e. put an end to their abhorrent practices, abandon their
religion. What is more, they were competing with the established population,
which was another thing that was not likely to be appreciated. Even though
no one liked to admit being jealous and it seemed preferable to focus on
Let us examine the similarities to the new racism in the Netherlands.
Condescension has been replaced by fear, distrust and contempt for things
"people can change, if only they want to". Fortunately most people are not
contaminated by these ideas. They can clearly see how the dangers of
extremism have been declared applicable to all Muslims. And no matter how
much they differ, how all the non-Western immigrants are lumped together
into one recognizable group. How they become a scapegoat for everything that
goes wrong, the atmosphere in certain neighborhoods, the streets that are so
unsafe, and nowadays even for traffic jams. And the contempt they are
confronted with if they speak out against discrimination, which is then
referred to as typical victim behaviour.
The people who refuse to go along with this are not blind to the problems,
they see perfectly well what solutions of this kind can lead to. They do not
close their eyes to the lessons of history.
Last year the loyalty of the New Dutch was suddenly in question because they
had two passports. Doubts about loyalty and the accusation of being loyal to
distant powers are also part of cultural racism. Jews were accused of
following the Wise Men of Zion, a non-existent sneaky association bent on
ruling the world. And Chinese traders were thought to be marionettes of the
big bad mother country.
Lastly, there are the risks of violence. Wherever exploitation racism
dominated, rebellious individuals used to be subjected to public corporal
punishment as a warning. Everyone else would be left unharmed. After all,
they had to be capable of hard labour. But wherever cultural racism
prevailed, as many members as possible of the group deemed to be a threat
would be eliminated, murdered or driven out of the country. That violence
was on a mass scale, though there were fatalities on both sides. It was
preceded by intensifying the spread of rumours about how dangerous the group
was and how justified the fear.
The dynamite was there, it was just a question of lighting the fuse. It
usually remained a mystery who made the first move. It is fortunately
nothing like that yet here, but an end does have to be put to the black
cloud hanging over us. This can be done once more people get a clear view of
the mechanisms in operation here.
This article appeared in Podium, the Op-Ed section of the Dutch daily paper
Trouw on 19 March 2008.
There is Racism and There is Racism - II
After I wrote my article "There is Racism and There is Racism'', I received
quite a few often very emotional reactions. At the Trouw web site, in
personal emails and at any number of blogs. Some of the readers who
responded are just as concerned as I am that the latest developments can
lead to violence. The distinction I drew between the two kinds of racism and
the mechanisms that go along with them have encouraged them in their efforts
to head us all in a more peaceful direction. Others reacted with
indignation. But all things considered, it is clear that a newspaper article
like this about such a complicated issue can also evoke misunderstandings.
That is why I am happy to take advantage of the opportunity Anja Meulenbelt
is offering me as a guest on her blog www.anjameulenbelt.nl to elaborate
upon my analyses based on these readers' responses.
In your article in Trouw you agree with Harry de Winter, who compares
Islamophobia to the Holocaust. That is total nonsense!
Harry de Winter compares Islamophobia to how the public mind set was primed
for the Holocaust in the 1930s. How considerable percentages of the European
populations allowed themselves to be convinced that their society's problems
at the time were all the fault of their Jewish compatriots. I think the
comparison is a valid one and I will illustrate why below.
Racism is all about races and has nothing to do with cultures!
It is true that exploitation racism is focused on peoples or ethnic groups
like the indigenous natives in the colonies or the blacks in South Africa.
Cultural racism is a completely different story. It targets mercantile
minorities, the Chinese in Indonesia and the Indians and Pakistanis in
Uganda. European anti-Semitism can also be viewed as cultural racism.
Prejudices are always expressed without people actually meeting and getting
to know each other and they pertain to entire groups. Our society puts so
much emphasis on the individual and our individual freedom. People who are
the object of prejudices are however solely viewed as members of a group and
held collectively responsible for whatever other members of the group do.
Depending on the kind of socio-economic problems and feelings that are
involved, prejudices can be focused on 'race' (whatever that may be) or
ethnic group at one extreme and culture at the other and everything in
between. The two kinds of prejudices also often both occur as factors in
Criticism of Islam doesn't have anything to do with racism!
The point here is not criticism of this religion or that. Of course that is
something that should be able to be expressed. The point is that people are
labeled because of their religion, isolated from the rest, discriminated and
ultimately perhaps even violently driven out of the country.
Muslims and non-Western immigrants are racists themselves, so what are they
There is racism all over, that is true, and it needs to be analysed and
combated all over. An eye for an eye and everyone goes blind, that is no
What in the world do you mean by different kinds of racism?
It is a distinction that can be used to clarify the mechanisms in effect at
the moment in our society. I think it is important for people to be able to
see them for what they are.
In cases of exploitation racism, a small group of people benefits from the
work done by huge numbers of other people. The happy few have workers do
hard, dirty and often dangerous jobs under poor working conditions and for
low wages. They don't want to have to admit this is exploitation, so they
spread the notion that they are so stupid and backwards they wouldn't want
it any other way.
In cases of cultural racism, competition among groups plays an important
role but not the only one. For centuries and all across the globe, there was
economic competition between the established populations and mercantile
minorities who, as it happens, had also been living there for centuries
themselves. The established population was jealous of their ingenuity and
perseverance and looked for ways to eliminate them as rivals or at any rate
weaken them. They started by casting suspicion on their deviant culture
including their religion, and telling stories about how sly they were and
how dangerous because they were out to rule the world. In the end they
started to believe the stories themselves and the fears would periodically
get so out of hand that mass violence broke out against the minorities in
what was called pogroms. In the anti-Semitism that prevailed in Europe,
competition was a factor side by side with for example the Christian
accusation that the Jews had killed Jesus.
You wrote that prejudices can serve to justify certain things.
Prejudices can mask or legitimate underlying feelings. That was clear in the
cases of exploitation racism in the colonies and in competition racism
against the mercantile minorities as well. Colonials who felt uncomfortable
with their role as exploiters were all too willing to believe the exploited
people were quite happy with things as they were. After all, they were born
stupid, lazy and childlike. An additional advantage was that the colonials
could feel superior to them. Of course the people who were bothered by the
successes of mercantile minorities could hardly call them stupid and lazy.
They turned to the aspects developed later in life, their culture. To them
the solution was to see the behaviour of the mercantile minorities as
deviant, unreliable and scary, so that in the end, they had only themselves
to blame for their demise.
The things people say about Muslims are not just made up, they are true.
As one regards the cultural racism on the rise here in the Netherlands, one
might wonder whether and to what extent there are other feelings underlying
the prejudices about Muslims and essentially about all non-Western
immigrants. Our society is permeated with competition for money and goods as
well as fame and honour. It is accompanied by all kinds of feelings that
people are not supposed to have, as we are told from early childhood. You
should not be jealous of people who are doing better than you, you should be
able to cope with loss, you should be happy for other people's
accomplishments and so forth. So it is very understandable that people
prefer to conceal their socio-economic motivation. For example, their
irritation at having to compete with immigrants, their jealousy if
immigrants are successful, and their problems about having to share the
public space with them. It is more comfortable to believe that the entire
group simply does not count, that Muslims are so dangerous that it
disqualifies them. It would not be the first time in history that the belief
in a common enemy met a need for harmony and consensus, especially in times
of economic insecurity like we are experiencing today, what with
privatization, globalization and market mechanisms.
Do you mean gut feelings?
No, because it is not a term that explains anything or solves anything. What
is more, it has a condescending sound to it. I am trying to analyse how
people come to believe in cultural biases.
You wrote that cultural racism is gaining ground in the Netherlands. But isn't
it inconceivable that competition is playing a role here? Aren't the
immigrants way too far behind and much too problematic?
In recent decades, there has been a shift in the Netherlands from disdain
for the first labour immigrants from Turkey and Morocco to growing distrust
and fear of Muslims and actually all non-Western immigrants and their
children and grandchildren. At the moment, there is a mixture of prejudices,
remains of the familiar old condescension and fear and suspicion. I think
that at least in part, this shift can be explained by the growing ability of
immigrants and their children and grandchildren to compete. So I think this
shift is going to continue. Their emancipation is in full swing and they are
in the process of taking the places they have earned for themselves in all
the sectors of society including the highly educated ones. Everyone can see
and feel this, even though most of the media do keep stubbornly zooming in
on the lags and the problems, which of course are there as well.
Nature or nurture, what difference does it make?
Sometimes victims of exploitation racism, who can't help being the way they
are, also find themselves getting a bit of sympathy, even though of course
it is not nice to get it from people who look down at you. Victims of
cultural racism however are to blame for being the way they are. In the
course of their lifetime, they have internalized their identity and
pernicious ideas and customs in their very essence. They are given a choice:
either abandon their identity, ideas and customs and lose their self-respect
or be excluded from society. If such a thing is possible, this makes
cultural racism even more ruthless than exploitation racism.
They just have to integrate, period!
Forcing people to either abandon their identity or be excluded is not
integration. All over the world, immigrants integrate into new societies,
sometimes after one generation, sometimes after two or three, in infinite
different variations. Jewish Europeans were completely integrated and often
even assimilated and it did not save them from mass annihilation.
What does group formation have to do with violence?
In both types of racism, prejudices focus on a group. It does not matter
that much to the exploiters whether the group is sharply defined, the more
people it includes, the better. In cultural racism, step by step the borders
are reinforced until a recognizable group has been constructed that can be
eliminated as a whole. The mercantile minorities could be identified by
their appearance and names and Jewish Europeans, who were more difficult to
recognize, were forced to wear a yellow star. Delineation of this kind makes
it possible to scapegoat an entire group. Over and over again this has
proved to be an excellent way to avert tension in a society.
A clearly defined group can also be more easily accused of being under the
influence of foreign powers and thus unreliable. Last spring doubts were
suddenly expressed about the loyalty of Ahmed Aboutaleb, Nebahat Albayrak
and Khadija Arib, who had all recently risen to high positions in Dutch
society. No one could claim they still had to integrate or make up for some
lag so new ammunition had to be found: they had two passports. As I noted in
my article in Trouw, doubts about loyalty and the accusation of being loyal
to distant powers are part of cultural racism. Jews were accused of
following the Wise Men of Zion, a non-existent sneaky association bent on
ruling the world. And Chinese traders were thought to be marionettes of the
big bad mother country.
If and when it comes to violence, a very important difference between the
two types of racism is the nature of the violence. In exploitation racism,
violence is focused on a few individuals in public to make it clear to
everyone else that resistance is useless. In cultural racism, violence is on
a mass scale because it is designed to murder all the members of the group
viewed as dangerous or drive them out of the country.
You wrote that we tend to tone cultural racism down by calling it
Islamophobia only pertains to the fear of Islam. Although a phobia is an
exaggerated, unhealthy and irrational fear, in only a few years and under
the influence of this very same irrational fear, the term has been weakened
to now mean a justified fear of Islam. Nowadays people barely seem to feel
any embarrassment about using it this way. I want precisely these people to
appreciate the severity of the situation. And to realize that in the end,
incessantly spreading fear and discord in a population can lead to mass
violence. It is naive and arrogant to think this kind of violence can only
break out in distant countries and that we in the West are too respectable.
That is not what our history tells us. It is also short-sighted and
misleading to act as if Islamophobia is something very different than racism
just because it targets a religion and not a race, whatever that may be. As
I noted above, the cultural racism that is emerging in the Netherlands and
is toned down by calling it Islamophobia has quite a few features in common
with competition racism against mercantile minorities and with anti-Semitism
as well. The main point of racism is that it singles out a specific segment
of the population, targets it with prejudices about traits people are either
born with or acquire, and then treats them as if these prejudices are
Why don't you refer to it as discrimination? That doesn't sound as bad.
Discrimination can be an aspect of racism and often is, but it is not always
demonstrable. The people who treat a group unfairly or exclude it can often
defend their decisions by saying they have nothing to do with race or
religion and claiming to have totally different reasons in mind. The term
racism covers a lot more than just discrimination, it also includes biases
and preconceptions and prejudices and can include violence as well.
Don't you think it turns people off if you accuse them of racism?
I am not accusing anyone of anything, I am analysing the situation and
showing what can happen. I hope and trust that it would be a good thing if
more people could understand the mechanisms in operation here. I do think
though that the people who encourage and spread fear of a specific segment
of the population are taking on a very heavy responsibility. They are
attacking, so they are the attackers. By labeling the people they are
attacking scary and dangerous, they are creating a very advantageous
reversal of the whole picture. In one fell swoop, they turn themselves into
the attacked party instead of the attackers. They present themselves as
victims of the danger they themselves have invented, and they try to
persuade everyone else to share their prejudices. And instead of seeing the
situation as something they themselves are creating, they say the Muslims
ought to be able to deal with it and should not act like victims.
But I have faith that we are capable of rational thinking, well
maybe not all of us but certainly most of us. If a lot of people, whether
they are politicians or not, see what is actually happening, in the end they
will stand behind what is in the interest of society as a whole and thus
also in their own interest.
But don't you think extremist Muslim violence is dangerous?
Of course I think extremist violence based on religion, whether it is Islam
or any other religion, is dangerous and needs to be combated. But not by
randomly holding people responsible just because they believe in the same
religion. Whenever the media focus on violence, they automatically refer to
extremist Muslim violence. I think they should also consider the possibility
that violence might break out here in the Netherlands against the Muslims
and all the other recognizable non-Western immigrants. People's fear is an
incredibly strong motivation for outbursts of violence. The media would be
wiser to expose these mechanisms for what they are.
*Anne-Ruth Wertheim is a journalist and the author of various books,
including De gans eet het brood van de eenden op, mijn kindertijd in een
Jappenkamp op Java (The Goose Eats the Ducks' Bread: My Childhood in a
Japanese Prison Camp on Java) 1994. An Indonesian translation of the book
was published in March 2008.
Anne-Ruth was born in 1934 in Indonesia, at that time a Dutch colony.
Following the Japanese occupation, all whites were interned in camps. Her
father, Wim Wertheim, the Dutch sociologist of development, was confined
separately from his family. After the war Anne-Ruth heard how the whole of
her father's Jewish family had been killed and that her Jewish grandparents
had killed themselves on the day the Netherlands capitulated to Germany. It
was this confrontation with 'racial' options and violence that provided the
source for her later research on the nature of racism.
After studies at Amsterdam University she developed methods to teach both
youngsters and adults to carry out independent research. She has three
daughters and now also three sons-in-law and six grandchildren.
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