Anthropological Approaches to Identity in the Netherlands

The readings this week focus on the human element of Dutch society and culture. Previously, we have looked at visual culture (architecture, art, museums) to try to learn about Dutch identity. This week, there is an anthropological approach to analyzing Dutch  identity. The authors are interacting with the environment they are assessing, interviewing people and noting their own perception of human life in the Netherlands. Some of the articles are more scholarly and look at the history and facts behind their current observations, others combine scholarly information with personal reflection from interviews, and in the case of Arnold Karskens article, he writes what he sees in a detailed first person narrative introductory style inviting the reader to come up with their own conclusions about the observations.

I think in taking an anthropological approach to interpreting current Dutch identity, and for any culture for that matter,  it is important to include yourself in the narrative. In all of the essays, the author interacts with the subject he/she is analyzing and tries to understand the culture through immersion instead of through an objective eye. For example, Emily Raboteau illustrated her experience in the Sinterklaas parade and her own feelings toward Zwarte Piet in her article Who is Zwarte Piet? Straight off the bat, Raboteau establishes that she finds the tradition of Zwarte Piet to be racist based on her own perceptions and preconceptions she brings from American culture. While she illustrates a long history of slavery and xenophobia that proves her point that Zwarte Piet is a discriminatory caricature of black society, she focuses on the why. Why does Dutch society not see what I see? Why do they respond to Zwarte Piet in such a positive light? How do they respond to their own history? Do they even know their own history?

So, the essay is balanced between a historical narrative and an opinion piece that uses a journalistic approach. The significance of all these pieces is that the author connects to the subjects on a personal level and creates a discourse that allows the reader to form their own opinions and respond in a critical manner. Much like how we saw museum spaces changing the grammar of an exhibit to create tension and encourage critical inquiry onto the subject of the exhibit, the author provides this same communicative format encouraging critical examination of the cultural climate.

Arnold Karskens piece One Way to Live: A Photographic Essay takes this observational anthropological approach to the extreme. His work is mostly photographs with a short introduction to the prostitutes he encountered. However, the introductory paragraphs are bursts of Karskens own succinct observations mixed with comments from the women. A photograph accompanies each paragraph and the reader is able to put a face to the words. Karskens essay really humanizes the way we approach culture. I wholeheartedly think that a ‘picture can speak louder than words.’ While the essay emphasizes the use of drugs, lack of hygiene and housing, and violence associated with prostitution in the Netherlands, the photographs prevent the reader from homogenizing. Each prostitute looks different, has a different style, presents herself differently. While they can be identified by their career and drug use, you can see the differences between each women.

While I think these analyses of looking at identity through clothing, body, and behavior can provide interesting scholarship, there are certain limitations. Anthropologists and archaeologists have an ongoing fight over their approaches to culture. While archaeologists make conclusions based on factual physical evidence, anthropologists make conclusions based on observations and interactions. This can yield a generalization of a group of people if you are not careful. Furthermore, the eye isn’t trustworthy and neither is a person’s word. I struggle with this divide between fact and hard science versus observation and psychology.

To answer the final question, I think all these essays brought up migration and immigration with regard to a Dutch identity and prejudice. In every article at some point a person from a different ethnic background stated that even though they are Dutch citizens they don’t feel like they belong in the society because of the prejudice from the majority population. There is a certain way to dress and act in the Netherlands and if you don’t fit this mold you are categorized into a group that they can identify you with. I think this all comes back to the ignorance of the past because the current societal ethnic categorization stems from a history of colonization and slavery that the Dutch have not confronted and changed.

Photograph: Vanderhoek, Auke. “Zwarte Piet is Racisme.” Zwarte Piet is Racisme Tumblr, Netherlands, 2011,


5 thoughts on “Anthropological Approaches to Identity in the Netherlands

  1. Nice way to play these different forms of shame off each other. I think you’re onto something here–that admitting that something can be racist even when you didn’t perceive it to be and didn’t intend it to be can be very difficult, even painful. And the larger point that many people *don’t* perceive Zwarte Piet to be racist may be an even more powerful indictment of the pernisciousness of racism–that it passes for normalcy. How do you think you might further use Buruma’s context and ideas (claims) to think more about the anthropological approaches to people’s use of clothing to signal values and meanings in the public sphere?


  2. Ian Buruma’s book Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance really flushes out some of discussion about immigration, and immigrant culture in the Netherlands from the other articles. Buruma discusses the politics of the Netherlands, and a key factor of debate, tolerance and acceptance of immigrant multicultural groups. One aspect of his book that I found relatable to the other essays was his analysis of various political groups arguing about what is and is not racist. Buruma states that because of shame for their lack of help toward Jewish residents in the Holocaust, people are cautious to discuss immigration because they risk being called a racist. When people like Pim Fortuyn made bad remarks about Islam, many people would compare this remarks to anti-semitism and Nazism. Thus, the Netherlands has an established multicultural ideal that warns against betraying a religious minority because they could be compared to the Nazi party.

    While I believe this comparison is far-fetched, it shows the popular unease toward dealing with immigrant groups. The Dutch seem afraid to be called racist or appear racist because they have this history of being religiously tolerant and open to immigration. As noted by Buruma, to alienate foreign communities would undermine the cohesion of Dutch society that is illustrated by the polder model: compromise and negotiation.

    Comparing this ideology to Raboteau’s essay, I think this may explain the resistance from the Dutch population to recognize any racist connotations behind Zwarte Piet. While Raboteau argues that the Dutch need to feel shame for their participation in slavery in order to create change with the character of Zwarte Piet, I think that it is because of a different type of shame that they feel Zwarte Piet isn’t racist. As noted above, the Dutch are afraid of appearing racist because of their lack of response to help the Jews in the Holocaust. They still feel shame for this event and so will disagree that certain traditions are racist because they are trying to differentiate themselves from their Nazi past. To accept that Zwarte Piet is a racist figure would mean to accept that their racial prejudice spans beyond the Holocaust. This would affect the good appearance and honorable nature that they disseminate to the world.

    Now that certain people like Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh argue that Dutch society is too politically correct and that to not agree with immigration is not racist, it furthers these ideas that characters like Zwarte Piet aren’t racist, to consider them to be is just being too politically correct. What do y’all think?


  3. I agree that this article was able to humanize culture in a unique way. I also agree that this method has its limitations. What does leaving the reader to make judgements about images do to comprehension and synthesis of information? The images may prevent the viewer from homogenizing, but what about human nature? I think that it is hard to say what method would be better, but I agree that the overall humanization is a benefit for the reader.


  4. I really like the point there about “taking an anthropological point [by? and?] “includ[ing] yourself in the narrative.” And that’s not an oxymoron, right? Anthropologists often put themselves in the narrative–how do they maintain a scholarly approach, then? What status do their personal impressions have–as evidence? as claim? We can take this conversation back to Berger if you like–some found his style approachable, but others thought it undermined or downplayed his research-based contextual/historicist approach to interpreting paintings.

    But to the larger point, you illustrate well the value of this–by both observing what others see/value and by contrasting those with your own observations/values, you can see something new.


  5. Your distinction between archaeologists and anthropologists is very helpful when considering how to approach the different articles from this week.
    I agree with you, I think including your point of view as an author in the narrative when taking an anthropological approach to interpreting culture. Sometimes the authors personal perspective better conveys the point to the reader than any statistics from research can. Emily Raboteau, in her essay “Who is Zwarte Piet?” offers a conversation she had with her friend, Jong Loy, as an example of how the character Zwarte Piet is fostering racism in younger generations. By reading about Loy’s experience in a grocery store and how some young white children believe all black people are Zwarte Piet is troubling, and speaks not only to the intense impact this character has on the children but also the lack of education about the country’s colonial past.
    The parallel you drew between museum spaces effecting the grammar of an exhibit and a communicative format encouraging critical examination is very interesting and I am looking forward to see how you expand this parallel to the other articles.


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