Confronting Whiteness and Colonial Legacies in the Netherlands



In this text, Sara Salem exposes the colonial genealogy of present racism (in particular anti-Blackness) in the Netherlands. From Java to Suriname via South Africa and more, the Dutch colonial ideology has nothing to envy to its British or French counterparts. Today, a new generation of activists organizes and resists.

Salem Funambulist 2
Raziyah Heath speaking at a protest against anti-Blackness in Utrecht organized by Surinamese Dutch organization Tori Oso Utrech on June 5, 2020. / Photo by Myrthe Minnaert.

Recent elections in the Netherlands have seen the continual endorsement of racist and nationalistic views on immigration and minorities by parties across the political spectrum. In her 2016 ground-breaking book on whiteness in the Netherlands, White Innocence, Gloria Wekker writes, “With the title White Innocence, I am invoking an important and apparently satisfying way of being in the world. It encapsulates a dominant way in which the Dutch think of themselves, as being a small, but just, ethical nation; color-blind, thus free of racism; as being inherently on the moral and ethical high ground, thus a guiding light to other folks and nations.” It was precisely because of this self-image that the election results — in a country known to be progressive, tolerant and liberal — were seen as shocking for local and global white audiences. They were immediately and overwhelmingly read as signalling a new chapter in Dutch history and Dutch politics, rather than the continuation of anything that had already existed. The turn to the right was seen as something new, something unprecedented given the Netherlands’ history of liberalism and tolerance. What political work does the notion of “a break from the past” do? After all, a key part of this argument is that racism and intolerance were not part of Dutch identity, and had only emerged recently because of the far-right and their use of “extremist” discourses.

Instead, we should perhaps understand this moment as a continuity with older colonial modes of self-identification which have carried on into the present. The Netherlands, and Europe more broadly, has a long history that ties together race, nation, and belonging. One space within which this has been created is within the realm of welfare, both as ideology and as a set of institutions. The Netherlands has long attempted to socialize those seen as different into the nation through assimilation, primarily through its extensive welfare state. The disciplining of “problem” families into the national fabric was part and parcel of the emergence of the Dutch nation and it is precisely this that cannot be separated from past and present Dutch colonialism, which existed across Indonesia, Suriname, the Antilles, and South Africa, and also included forms of colonialism in Ghana, Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius at various points, as well as other territories on various continents. This history of disciplinary ways of thinking about Otherness — which I turn to next — is one of the most distinct colonial legacies we see in contemporary Europe, and is precisely why any form of anti-colonial or anti-racist resistance in the present must take structural and institutional overhaul seriously.

Despite having ruled over one of Europe’s largest empires, the Netherlands (until several years ago) tended to erase its colonial past in a process of “social forgetting,” as noted by Melissa Weiner in 2014. Unlike contexts such as the United Kingdom, where empire is often remembered nostalgically as Paul Gilroy analyzed in his 2005 book Postcolonial Melancholia, the Netherlands generally relegates its imperial history to an insignificant place within its national narrative, which in turn serves to erase the immense significance Dutch imperialism exercised on the world as well as the ways in which Dutch imperialism contributed to Dutch nation building. Gloria Wekker has argued that when the Dutch do acknowledge their imperial history, it is often through what she terms “reluctant imperialism”: “a mixture of innocent, unplanned actions that forced the Dutch, almost against their wish, to become colonizers, coupled with strong moral overtones of superiority and of a sacred mission.”