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.”

It is precisely this process of erasure that allows the Netherlands to deny the continuity of specific processes of racialization into the present. The construction of the “civilized middle-class Dutchman” that represents the ideal of the Dutch nation has always been juxtaposed against a series of Others, ranging from colonial subjects to the working classes. This ideal — and its fluid and constantly-changing Others — have worked to legitimize a whole range of social, political, and economic policies, ranging from increasingly tough stances on immigration to increased policing of non-white populations. This ideal has, over time, constructed the Netherlands itself as tolerant, progressive and open — a self-image that continues to exert tremendous power and limit self-criticism or self-reflexivity.

However, as Egbert Alejandro Martina has argued, there is more than enough evidence to dispute this claim:

“The outward appearance of benevolence, tolerance and innocence has been central to the Dutch national self-image and to the political manufacture of the White autochtoon Dutch identity. Even in the face of resounding evidence against it, the myth of the Netherlands as a generous, welcoming and tolerant country has proven unshakable.”

One space where we see the entanglement of empire and nation is around social welfare, central to the creation of the modern Dutch state. Welfare worked through the logic of absorbing “problematic” or “anti-social” families into the national fabric, something that should be seen as central to the construction of the modern Dutch self, as well as through the creation of the category of the “anti-social.” Take, for instance, the creation of the Ministry of Social Work after World War II, whose mandate was to focus primarily on the poor who were seen as unable to adjust to modern life. It became clear that the civilizing mission against “anti-social” families was largely understood as a struggle for the socio-cultural hegemony of the Dutch middle class, encapsulated in the ideal of the white middle-class Dutchman, and sanctioned by the state and various institutions.

But this civilizing mission must also be placed within a global and imperial context, particularly in relation to the extensive Dutch empire. A growing body of work has drawn connections between the Dutch empire, its policies towards racialized colonial subjects, and understandings of the Dutch self, including texts by Philomena Essed and Sandra Trienekens. This scholarship has destabilized the assumption that the Dutch white middle-class self emerged as a result of processes internal to the nation; instead, empire and nation are seen as co-constitutive.

Two modern examples illustrate the interconnectedness of race, class, empire, and the “anti-social” as a figure to be disciplined. The first is the forms of surveillance instituted against Indonesians who began to settle in the Netherlands in large numbers following Indonesian independence, as noted by Wekker in her book. A process of forced assimilation was implemented that very much drew on a similar logic of socializing Indonesians into “proper Dutchness,” namely white Dutch middle-class norms and values. Regular visits to Indonesian households to check whether they were eating potatoes instead of rice and whether they were dressing appropriately, among other things, meant a constant regime of surveillance whose ultimate aim was to socialize migrants into the national fabric.

The second example is the approach to “guest-workers” from Morocco, Turkey, and other countries, who were brought in to build Dutch cities after World War II. It is here that we see the emergence of “integration” as a term encompassing what was expected from migrants. For example, an advisory note to the government in 1979 the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) emphasized the specific nature of the problems of many members of ethnic minorities, whose cultural identity was seen as a major problem, as noted by Jan Rath. The report continues: “They also cherish their own ideas of the relationships between the sexes, family relationships, the work ethic, eating habits, attitudes of citizens vis-à-vis the authorities, and so on. This confrontation of ethnic minorities with their new environment can obviously lead to great tension.” This advice was taken into account when the Minorities Policy was created in the 1980s.

Welfare interventions thus acted as an institutional framework through which those seen as not-Dutch-enough could be socialized into the national fabric. The values and norms they were to be socialized into were not neutral; they were very much based on the ideal of white, middle class masculinity. It is through welfare that we see the connections between social institutions, capitalist values, productivity, and whiteness materialize. It is thus crucial that any attempt at anti-racist resistance today take the structural and institutional as central spaces of transformation.

Salem Funambulist
Leader of the BIJ1 political party Sylvana Simons speaking at a protest against anti-Blackness in Utrecht organized by Surinamese Dutch organization Tori Oso Utrech on June 5, 2020. In the background, the flag of Suriname / Photo by Myrthe Minnaert.

As I write this piece, the Netherlands just announced the results of another election. The left has performed even worse than it did in 2017, but one cause for hope is the emergence of a new political party, Bij1, formerly known as Article1. Led by Sylvana Simons, of Surinamese descent, and describing itself as anti-racist and anti-capitalist, the party just won its first seat in parliament after being founded just six years ago. The party focuses on both racial and economic justice, aiming to achieve a “society that works for everyone.” Notably, the party also centres internationalism as a crucial means of fighting against imperialism:

“We cannot fight for radical equality and economic justice on our own. It requires international solidarity. Solidarity is our strength in the fight for climate justice, for the self-determination of people and against racism, imperialism and hate towards the LHBTQI+ community.”

Bij1 is an exciting instance of an anti-racist and anti-colonial form of resistance in the present that speaks to the histories this piece has focused on and attempts to rethink society from the vantage point of decolonisation. Indeed, the party understands itself as an “activist party,” and anti-racism and decolonisation are key elements of their 2021 program:

“The Netherlands has a long history of human trafficking, slavery, colonialism and exploitation for its own economic prosperity. This is accompanied by a self-image of superiority and innocence. We cannot close the chapters of this false identity and this period of injustice if we are not prepared to apologize and take action to rectify any inequalities that resulted from it. That is why we must fight together against racism and in favor of decolonization.”

These problems are understood to be structural and intimately connected to the Dutch colonial past: “the fight against racism and for decolonisation goes hand in hand with the anti-imperialist fight.” It is here that we see forms of resistance that are framed as targeting the legacies of empire — the same legacies detailed earlier in this piece. Decolonization and anti-racism are understood as connected, and internationalism is seen as central to the anti-racist fight within the Netherlands. It is precisely this type of resistance that is able to think about the structural and institutional legacies of colonialism in the present, including those of the welfare state.

To conclude, I want to come back to Gloria Wekker, who wrote so eloquently about the archive of Dutch colonialism and how it has constructed the Dutch nation. White innocence, along with social forgetting, have functioned to hide the central role of race and empire in Dutch nation building. The Dutch self is a racialized self. This is not new, but as old as the Netherlands itself. Yet where there is empire, there is always resistance — and the present is no exception to this. ■