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 their unreliability.
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.
(After this article“There is Racism and There is Racism I’’ was published, I received quite a few often very emotional reactions and questions. So I decided to publish an article in which I answer the questions and explain more, see: There is Racism and There is Racism-II ).
This article appeared in Podium, the Op-Ed section of the Dutch daily paper Trouw on 19 March 2008 and is reprinted here in English with the author’s permission.
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 Snatches the Bread from the Ducks, My Childhood in a Japanese Prison Camp on Java, 1994). An Indonesian translation of the book was published in March 2008.She works with the concepts of exploitation/colonial racism (contempt or condescension) and cultural/competition racism (envy and distrust). Other articles she wrote about racism could be found at http://www.risq.org/article492html, at http://www.risq.org/article427.html and http://www.risq.org/article441.html.