Writing about Dutch Identity and their Multicultural Differences

By Jen Chiappone

Writers have their own approach to describe and analyse life. When the writing is not scholarly, it is often not taken seriously. However, these more informal approaches to studying people and culture can bring out topics that are often overlooked. This week I have looked into writers Hester Dibbits, Emily Raboteau, Herman Roodenburg, and Arnold Karskens who, while focusing on different aspects, study parts of Dutch’s cultural fashions that reflect on the wear’s lifestyles. In addition to this, the works of Ian Burma, David Winner, and Simon Kuper focus on the religious tolerance (or intolerance) of the Netherlands in association with football (soccer). Like Dutch architectural design and dress, football is a huge part of Dutch culture and identity. Looking at the everyday world and culture of the Dutch allows a person to see and understand more about who they are as a people, rather than the strict history and art of a museum. By reading works from different fields of study allows a reader to get a full story and understanding of the Netherlands.

In, “One Way to Live,” Arnold Karskens uses a photographic essay style with personal accounts to help his reader understand the life of a prostitute working in the Netherlands. This article was published in an anthropology journal. This article follows the anthropological idea of seeing and experiencing a culture. This article does just that. This up-close-and-personal account allows the reader to get a view of prostitution and drug use that is not found in other methods. It gives a glimpse into the lives of these women. While prostitution is regulated, legal, and safe for the women in certain parts of Amsterdam, it is not everywhere. With this style of writing, the reader starts to understand and feel for the women in the pictures. However, while there is an emotional understanding, there is some historical and overall context missing from this piece. A photographic essay does not give enough history about a subject or what is to be done about a problem, such as the drug use and trafficking of women. Without more context of the subject, a reader may be left not understanding what the essay was about.

Hester Dibbits’ “Moroccan Dutch Boys and the Authentication of Clothing Styles” discloses that her essay is exploratory and, unlike Karskens, does not rely on first hand accounts from Moroccan-Dutch youths. This was an important fact that may be impossible for the reader to forget. They may not take her seriously now knowing she is just writing from afar without any close experience with whom she is talking about. Is Dibbits just making assumptions? From where and how is she getting her information if she is not talking to those who are Moroccan-Dutch? Is she creditable from afar, without knowing the personal facts and motivations behind the Moroccan-Dutch boy’s change from baggy to streamlined Italian brand named clothing? This type of method limits the author from going into the topic deeper, which would come from personal accounts. With personal accounts, the author and (eventually) the reader will understand the emotion, meaning, and motive behind the act.

Both Herman Roodenburg and Emily Raboteau focus on first hand accounts as well as historical context for their essays on traditional Marken dress and the Zwarte Piet tradition, respectfully. Both of these authors used their own personal insight, historic research on background, and the emotion and traditional values experienced through interviews. Personally, I felt these essays had more well-rounded and thorough arguments than the other two.

Like in most countries, clothing in the Netherlands holds the identity of the wearer. When it comes to the families of Marken, dress is one of the most important things. Clothing is passed down through the generations and shows the families’ pride, status, and the importance of tradition and legacy. However, this elegant traditional Dutch dress has become almost obsolete over the last century. Many of the personal accounts told how the women felt out of place in the rest of the Netherlands in their traditional dress. With this type of historical plus personal approach, the reader gets a full understanding of the topic.

In her essay, “Who is Zwarte Piet?,” Emily Raboteau discusses her hatred, confusion, and eventual understanding of Zwarte Piet, a Dutch Christmas tradition involving blackface. This story of Zwarte Piet as St. Nicolas’ helper originates from the Middle Ages. Raboteau reflects on the use of slaves and Dutch colonialism and how Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is a stereotypical symbol of a black man. This story has turned into a tradition of dressing in blackface and jester costumes for St. Nicolas day celebrations. While Raboteau uses a similar style of writing to Roodenburg, Raboteau uses more extremes; showing a lot of personal emotion and confusion about this involuntarily racist tradition. In the other articles we do not see the author personally contributing to the topic, just telling the story. This both helps and hurts her argument. While the reader gets a relatable perspective to guide them to understanding of the tradition, it also blocks the reader from fully seeing it from a Dutch perspective. While this seems outrageous that it is still performed and celebrated today but, as Raboteau discovers, dressing in this manner isn’t meant to be offensive, its original meaning erased with time, but a joyous celebration of Christmas and Dutch culture. However, although it is in good fun and not meant to be racism, is it still racist? I think so. While many people find it racist, getting rid of the Zwarte Piet tradition would be devastating to the Dutch people.

Zwarte Piet

Moving away from how the general Dutch tradition is seen, we move on to football. Both Simon Kuper and David Winner’s books elaborate on the Post Holocaust Dutch world of intolerance by focusing on football culture and history. Both Kuper and Winner discussed the Jewish history of the Ajax Soccer club post war and their fan association with Jews. What really shocked me was the tolerance of the football chants and songs being allowed publically. Besides Ajax fans calling themselves “Jews,” opposing team’s fans (such as fans from Feyenoord club from Rotterdam) call out atrocities about Jews going to the gas chambers and other horrible chants associating with the Holocaust and the Nazi regime. This is not meant literally, meant just as against Ajax the team. In a way the two opposing teams are taking historical metaphors for their football rivalry.


Kuper mentions that not many were thoroughly taught about the Holocaust. With Jewish culture and history being in popular Dutch culture, the lost Jews of World War II are not forgotten and are revived in memory. While this kind of publicity sounds offensive, it brought the Holocaust and Jewish culture into the mainstream pop culture.  It was something being remembered and expressed. This reminds me of Zwarte Piet. While something seems horribly offensive and not right, it is a Dutch tradition that is part of their identity. While some of this hate speech is regulated, it is often not stopped because it is too widespread and not meant in a malicious way. Thinking back to Emily Raboteau’s article, although not meant to be racist, is Zwarte Piet still racist? To me, the answer is yes. The same can be said about the football chants. While this may not be meant as anti-Semitic, it still is. In addition, at what point do people forget it is a harmless football chant and start associating real Jews with these horrible chants? This, to me, seems like the biggest problem with these chants.

I enjoyed Kuper’s overall historical narrative more than Winner’s close soccer focus. To me, I felt a better combination with football, history, and culture in Kuper’s book than in Winners. An important point was when Winner wondered why the Dutch have chosen the Jews as their “mascot”? To Winner, it may be about the remorse for the horrors that occurred during World War II. They wanted to be remembered as anti-Nazi and as resistance fighters, fighting for their Jews. Ajax’s Jewish association may be “some unconscious act of post-Holocaust solidarity with the city’s murdered, missing Jews.” (Winner 219).

Tourism is an important aspect of Dutch culture and every day life and should not be ignored. In Marken, tourism grew and the traditional garments attracted tourists. Many Marken people felt they were just seen as a tourist attraction and retired their traditional attire. With this the traditional dress is becoming lost and the original families of Marken are moving away or dying out. In addition to Kuper and Winner’s arguments, they are both outsiders to being Dutch. Does this put a certain block on their connection to the culture they are invested in? Will they ever truly understand Dutch traditions or Dutch football clubs if they are not Dutch themselves? With this, does it allow the topics to be authentic if the writers themselves are not Dutch or fully understand the traditional and cultural aspect of these topics? This can be applied to Raboteau and Dibbits as well. They are “outsiders” and both admit they do not have a lot of first hand experience with their topics. Also, how does Arnold Karskens, being male and not a prostitute, fully understand and show the truths of these women in his photographic essay?

“City as Museum” means that an outsider can learn just as much (if not more) about a place and its people from settings such as a football stadium, the city streets, etc as they would in a museum. When learning about a culture, a museum is not confined to a gallery space. A culture is more about experience and understanding their traditions, more than black-and-white history. Everything from the arts, sports, architecture, canals/road construction, and traditions all create a city’s culture and meaning. An entire city, such as Amsterdam or Rotterdam, can be museums because every human interaction with a tradition or aspect of culture is special and tells a story of those people. For example, Amsterdam is quaint and gives off a different historical and traditional vibe than bustling, architectural Rotterdam. However different, they both express the Dutch traditions and culture. Culture and human experience cannot be found in the confines of a brick-and-mortar museum.

By reading unscholarly works, we get a true, in depth look into the different aspects that make up Dutch culture. While the author’s approaches vary, the reader is still left with a different perspective and experience than from scholarly works. It is about the human connection and the look into Dutch culture and tradition. To the Dutch, that means breaking away from their WWII and a strict, traditional past and moving forward with football, architecture, and a new sense of the past and their identity.





Dibbits, Hester. “Moroccan Dutch Boys and the Authentication of Clothing Styles” Reframing Dutch Culture. Pp. 11-34. Nd. Web.

Karskens, Arnold. “One Way to Live.” Critique of Anthropology, vol. 7, no. 3: pp. 69-79. Nd. Web.

Kuper, Simon. AJAX: The Dutch, The War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour. New York: Nation Books, 2012. Print.

Raboteau, Emily. “Who is Zwarte Piet?” VQR, winter 2014: pp. 142- 155. Web.

Roodenburg, Herman. “Their Own Heritage: Women Wearing Traditional Costumes in the Village of Marken.” Reframing Dutch Culture. Pp. 245-257. Nd. Web.

Winner, David. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. New York: The Overlook Press, 2008. Print.

All photographs from Google Images


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