Dutch Perception and Identity: Who is Dutch?

By: Jackie Gase

Drawing from all types of scholarship, anthropology, photography, and journalism, there was a collective effort from all the readings this week to respond to the questions of who is Dutch, what makes a person Dutch, and how do the Dutch perceive their own environment. Focusing on three seemingly disparate but interrelated works, we can see how the different subjects all relay a sense of Dutch perception and identity.

First, looking at an anthropological framework, Emily Raboteau in her article Who is Zwarte Piet?, analyzes the Dutch response to a racist tradition of the Sinterklaas parade. Unlike most scholarly articles that step back from the subject to give an objective response, Raboteau immersed herself into the environment and experience she was analyzing. Her essay follows her own observations and examination of the Sinterklaas parade mixed with interviews from the local population. While such a subjective approach may seem to turn out a biased piece, an anthropological approach allows the researcher to dig deep into the attitudes and perceptions of the local population. Right away, Raboteau establishes that she finds the tradition of Zwarte Piet to be racist because of her own perceptions and preconceptions brought from her own culture. But while she has an opinion, and acknowledges her predispositions, Raboteau’s framework, while not completely factual, brings valuable insight from a culture. One can only learn so much from books or images, an anthropological framework provides what the public is actually feeling, a human element that is usually ignored. Raboteau was able to understand what Dutch see when they look at Zwarte Piet.

While Raboteau sees a racist caricature when looking at Zwarte Piet, the locals see Zwarte Piet as a jolly tradition, one that brings up feelings of nostalgia and happiness, “a source of fun” (Raboteau 144). A scene at the parade described by Raboteau confirms the joyfulness associated with Zwarte Piet. Raboteau noticed a ten or eleven-year-old girl standing in the crowd. She had a cochlear implant, and was shouting Piet’s name with deafness in her voice. Raboteau saw the joy on the child’s face and the mother who was equally as happy for her child’s delight (Raboteau 150).  Through this experience, Raboteau understood that what the Dutch see when they look at Zwarte Piet is something completely different than how she viewed him. The thought of Zwarte Piet being a racist character never crossed their mind, Zwarte Piet was an emblem of love. Through Raboteau’s own observations, she realized that the Dutch are not innately racist, but it is their lack of knowledge of the past of the Dutch role in slavery that perpetuates apathy toward prejudice and racism (155).

The Dutch carry this mindset that they are a tolerant and diverse group of people based on their history of lenient borders. However, the Dutch only look at the positive of their history, not the negative. So, while the white population of the Dutch believe that being Dutch means diversity and tolerance, people of color do not feel as though they are accepted by Dutch society because of these underlying racist connotations as evident by the backlash toward Zwarte Piet by black activists, most notably Quinsy Gario.

Similarly, Hester Dibbits and his article Moroccan Dutch Boys and the Authentication of Clothing Styles recounts the Dutch perception toward migrants, and likewise the migrant response to who they are within a Dutch society. While a lot of migrant youths were born in the Netherlands, they find it hard to associate with being Dutch. In the article, a conversation copied between a group of friends illustrates that Moroccan youth can wear ‘black’ clothing but Dutch people who do so are not authentic. So, it is evident that the boys do not regard themselves as Dutch, and look at native Dutch people as outsiders (Dibbets 20-21). Their distinct clothing styles reflects this desire to identify with a particular ethnic group over a Dutch identity.

Moroccan Dutch youth have three distinct clothing styles that indicate their authentic identity to a Moroccan/Surinamese background. Baggy streetwear is a type of clothing that identifies ‘problem’ youths. The style originated from appropriating an Afro-American culture of hip hop and rap music. Also, the style symbolizes roughness and masculine labor (Dibbets 16-18). Another distinct clothing style is expensive Italian labels. These clothes indicate an active participant in the Dutch society, meaning they attend school and have jobs. Futhermore, this clothing style is usually associated with a feminine quality, thus many people call them homosexuals (Dibbets 23). While these clothing styles are almost exact opposite from each other, they both identify with the same ethnicity. The youths want to be categorized and labelled as different from a Dutch identity. The desire to authentic a particular cultural and ethnic identity through clothing may have originated or intensified because of the Dutch perception of migrants, and their racial prejudices which is noted above by Raboteau.

Ian Buruma’s book Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance speaks to the lack of universal acceptance of migrants into Dutch society. Many migrants were received into the Dutch sphere through Dutch colonialism and temporary labor for the nation (Buruma 20-21). Buruma explains that some immigrants manage to make their way in Dutch society by good fortune and intelligence, while others who find their ambitions blocked because of their inability to fit in with the mainstream of Dutch life turn to gangs and petty crime (22). Thus, many of these immigrants which feel excluded from Dutch society are unsure of where they belong. So, while many Dutch people have this perception of the Dutch environment as being hospitable and multicultural, those diverse groups feel isolated from the mainstream Dutch culture and identity. Unable to belong as Dutch in a Dutch society, these youths use clothing to create and feel a sense of belonging.

Accordingly, I think the studies this week show that Dutch identity is comprised of smaller groups of people who identify among themselves. This is to say that there is no one Dutch identity. As an outsider looking in, we see what the Dutch want us to see, how they want to be perceived to other nations. This is a multicultural, accommodating, hospitable, honorable, group of people. Seeing from the outside, Dutch identity is one thing, and everyone in the country is a part of that one identity. However, when you are looking from the inside you see that the Dutch encompass vast groups of people who do not identify with other groups of people, and who purposely emphasize their own distinct identity through behavior, clothing, etc. As we see above, the black population stresses their identity through their rejection of the Zwarte Piet tradition and other racializing components in Dutch history. Migrants, specifically Moroccan Dutch youths, identify through their clothing styles of baggy streetwear, Italian labels, and traditional clothing. The other readings similarly deal with subjects who generate their own group identity.

David Winner in his book The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer has a chapter discussing why Ajax soccer fans identify as Jewish. While a lot of these fans aren’t actually Jewish, during games they can be seen wearing T-shirts with the Star of David, waving Israeli flags, and chanting, “Jews! Jews! We are super-Jews” (Winner 211)! Winner states that there has been a strong Jewish presence in the Netherlands for centuries, and more importantly, there was a strong Jewish influence in Amsterdam’s football. There were many Jewish players, referees, and supporters that while the club itself was not Jewish, it became immersed into the Jewish culture (Winner 212). Then the war came and around seventy-nine percent of the Netherlands Jewish population was killed. Winner states that perhaps it is because of this history that started with a large Jewish influence and was interrupted by a horrific holocaust against that main influence, that the Ajax fans adopted ‘Jewishness’ to enact a solidarity with the city’s ‘missing’ Jews that were once a major part of the Ajax club (219). In any case, Ajax fans have taken on a Jewish identity through chants, flags, and items of clothing to differentiate themselves from other soccer club identities.

In conclusion, it’s clear that there are many identities in the Netherlands that are a part of a Dutch identity. While some groups feel that they do not belong, they do, just not in the mainstream Dutch identity they are accustomed to. They are one of many smaller identifying groups within a larger sphere of Dutch identity. So, while to an outsider’s perspective the Dutch have a singular identity, it is actually a charade that homogenizes the entire population. When you look in deeper, you can see how the outward appearance of Dutch identity is a façade and that the Dutch don’t have a singular identity but many.


Buruma, Ian. Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Dibbits, Hester. “Moroccan Dutch Boys and the Authentication of Clothing Styles.” In Reframing Dutch Culture: Between Otherness and Authenticity. Edited by Peter Jan Margry and Herman Roodenburg. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2007.

“Dutch ID card.” IAI Industrial Systems, http://www.iai.nl/case/dutch-passports-id-cards/. (Featured Image)

Raboteau, Emily. “Who is Zwarte Piet?” Virginia Quarterly Review, 2014.

Winner, David. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. New York: Overlook Press, 2000.


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