Identity in Amsterdam

Hester Dibbits discuss the different types of clothes youth Dutchmen wear in the chapter, Moroccan Dutch Boys and the Authentication of Clothing Styles. A combination of data from previous studies, information gathered from Internet chatrooms, and excerpts from conversations with the boys themselves guide the discussion. Mainly, there seems to be competition between those who wear baggy street clothes and tight fitting Italian designer clothes. The baggy streetwear comes with an image related to rappers such as Ali B, “guys of the guys”, and a “black style” (Dibbits 28, 32). Meanwhile, the Italian clothes are associated with homosexuality, social and economic prestige, and lack of masculinity (Dibbits 22). The youth use their clothes to “authenticate” their different subcultures, Moroccan-Dutch, Antillean, Afro-Surinamese, Turkish-Dutch, and etc. Through the research conducted Dibbits concluded that the Moroccan-Dutch boys who wear Italian clothes are seen to be more “authentic” and most clothing choices are made in relations to their physicality and vernacular (Dibitts 33).

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Herman Roodenburh discuss the disappearing culture of wearing traditional klederdracht on the Island of Marken in the chapter, Their Own Heritage: Women Wearing Traditional Costumes in the Village of Marken. Those who lived on the small island of Marken north of Amsterdam took pride in their tradition and daily habits of wearing their dracht (Roodenburh 246). After going to primary school, boys went off to fish with their fathers and uncles and the girls would continue to learn how to make clothes, a skill that their mothers taught them from a very young age (Roodenburah 250). Many of the garments worn were family heirlooms and held sentimental quality and generations worth of memories, not only from wearing them but from making them too, which was a family activity (Roodenburah 250). Much blame in placed on the dyke installed in 1957 that connected the island of Marken to mainland Amsterdam for the disappearing culture of the Island (Roodenburah246).  Each woman since the 1900’s has had to make the decision for herself to continue to wear the dracht or to change to burger. Although the dracht created separation from the modernizing world, it also held generations worth of traditions, and unfortunately a unique way of life which has become to be seen only as colorful costumes.

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Emily Raboteau’s essay, Who is Zwarte Piet?, uses her personally experiences from living in Amsterdam to describe the unwillingness of the Dutch to acknowledge to racism apart of their traditions. “Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaa’s [the Dutch version of Santa Claus]  shadow, his servant, his slave” (Raboteau 144). The Sinterklaas parade features hundreds of people in blackface dressed as Zwarte Piet crowded onto boats who toss treats to the children who line the streets cheering with joy (Raboteau 149). Raboteau discloses several discussions she had with her friends and neighbors in Amsterdam who refuse to accept that the celebration, and the character himself is racist. “Ninety-two percent of Dutch citizens don’t associate Zwarte Piete with slavery and 91 percent oppose any effort whatsoever to change the way he looks” (Raboteau 153). Raboteau claimed that the Dutch may not feel as close as an association with the role they played in the slave trade because they never came face to face with the horrors of it as slavery was always illegal on Dutch soil (Raboteau 148). However, regardless of how the Dutch feel it is very clear that these traditions are effecting how children perceive people of color, thinking only of them as Zwarte Piet (Raboteau 154).

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Arnold Karksken’s photographic essay One Way to Live presents intimate mini-biographies of prostitutes who work behind the Central Station in Amsterdam. The combination of story and photos show how much these women struggle. All of them are addicted to hard drugs, and spends hundreds of guilders a day to feed their addictions (Karksken 77). AIDS has become a real problem and the women seem to operate either oblivious to it, or go to great lengths to avoid contracting the deadly disease (Karksken 76, 79). Many of the women have been in very dangerous situations due to their line of work, but feel they have no other options because they are wanted by authorities in other countries (Karksken 75, 76). These women live in their own subculture, there is a sense of community, but only when it is selfishly beneficial (Karksken 79).

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These articles present four different subcultures, all brought about by disadvantageous situations. The Dutch boys in Dibbits chapter feel the need to differentiate themselves from other people who are dark skinned, the 20 women on the Island of Marken are the only reminder of a way of live that once filled an entire island, the native Dutch people use tradition as an excuse to carry out extremely racist celebrations and hide from their role in the slave trade, and the women in the photographic essay are fighting to distinguish themselves from one another in order to make more money to buy more drugs. Identity is important in all of these writings but it is not always a good thing.


Hester Dibbits, Moroccan Dutch Boys and the Authentication of Clothing Styles.

Arnold Karksken, One Way to Live

Emily Raboteau, Who is Zwarte Piet?

Herman Roodenburh, Their Own Heritage: Women Wearing Traditional Costumes in the Village of Marken


6 thoughts on “Identity in Amsterdam

  1. Media, politics, identity–yes they’re all mutually complicating! Is identity always political, in some way? (What would Dibbits say, for example?) Or, if so, what do we mean by “political”? And what do we do with this lack of control over perceived identity, as you carefully point out? Why are the outward symbols (which include things out of our control, like skin color, hair type, etc.) so easily (and purposefully?) misread by others? What means do you see of people here trying to control the narrative their fashion choices make in this political context?


  2. An outstanding issue with identity is that it is used by many people as a scapegoat and as a way to vilify others. As shown in Buruma’s writings, Ayaan Hirsi Ali used her identity as Muslim to protect her right to criticize the religion. Similarly, Ayaan Hirsi Ali identified as a Dutch citizen (because she has been granted citizenship after she sought asylum), however, this did not stop her critics from telling her to “fuck off back to where you came from!” (Buruma 175). A lot of people, not just in the Netherlands, seem to believe that because they identify as a part of a group means they will be accepted, as most people know this is not always true. Dibbit’s chapter reveals how those are looked down upon (and called “fake”) when those who are not Moroccan-Dutch dress as though they are. “Authenticity” comes from knowing how to dress and how to put an outfit together, with less regard to their background is actually “authentic”. From what I have read by Buruma it seems that what many regard as the “Dutch Identity” is those who hold the polder model to the highest standard and seek to emulate the golden age of the seventeenth-century. Identity gives a sense of purpose and belonging to many of the individuals we have read about this week. Identity can be very useful, but it can also make people feel like they cannot do something or say something because it goes against their identity. Buruma’s readings complicated my understanding of identity because it involved politics and oftentimes when politics is involved it becomes a slippery slope.
    The most intriguing part of Burma’s writing was how when a television reporter declared, “The country is burning,” in response to the increased number on arson attempts at places of worship. “In fact, the country wasn’t burning at all. The arsonists in Uden were a bunch of teenagers looking for kicks. The “civil war” that some feared, the pogroms on Muslim areas, the retaliations by newly recruited jihadis, none of this actually happened… But the constant chatter of politicians, newspaper columnists, television pundits, headline writers, and editorialists in the popular press produced a feverish atmosphere in which the smallest incident, the slightest faux pas, would spark endless rounds of overheated commentary.” The media plays a large role in how we self-identify and how we identify others, and I think this is something worthy of further investigation.

    Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance. 
    Hester Dibbits, Moroccan Dutch Boys and the Authentication of Clothing Styles.


  3. I agree with Professor Troutman that the U.S. places a great deal of emphasis on identity. I could also see how those things can become repressive. But while you might think that identity is bad, what does it do for people? People want to feel relevant, like they are part of a greater narrative. They also want to be loved, and cared about. What do you think about identity’s role in that?


  4. Nice challenge at the end there: what are the possible problems with “identity”? We in the US tend to celebrate it uncritically, along with “community.” But in what ways can those concepts become repressive? More broadly, in what ways do you see identity working differently here? What counts as “authenticity” w/ those wearing Italian fashions? Are they crafting identity in similar or different ways than the women of Marken?


  5. I agree with your thesis that identity is not always a good thing. In the case of the four disadvantaged identities in the articles, what do you think together unites the identities and subcultures to make them “Dutch”? What would you define as Dutch identity? I think that in a similar way to America’s “melting pot” cultural identity, the main factor linking these different subcultures is simply their nationality.
    You also mention that identity is not always a good thing to have. I agree, but wonder in what context you mean by that. I think that if the Dutch were to be less attached to their heritage and identity, it would make it even more difficult to change any of the traditions that we consider racist in their holiday.
    I like your mention that the four articles are linked in that they are four subcultures linked by the fact that they are in a disadvantaged situation. I agree with the exception of the Zwarte Piet celebrators. They seem to have full advantage of the situation, using culture, tradition, and popularity to continue their racist holiday tradition.


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