Racism in a “Colorblind” Society – Why the Dutch Need to Address their Slave-Trading History

The Netherlands is renowned as one of the most liberal societies in the world. Its citizens enjoy a universal healthcare system that ranks third globally in avoiding preventable deaths. Anyone can get their illicit drugs – including heroin, cocaine, and MDMA – tested anonymously for its potency to ensure they do not overdose. Amsterdam is also famous for its red light district where women advertise themselves and their services to public facing streets. 

However, despite this liberal reputation as a nation of stroopwafel-eating, tulip-gardening, cycling coffee drinkers who live in windmills, the Netherlands has a dark history. During World War II and the Holocaust, Dutch authorities were largely compliant with their Nazi occupiers, resulting in the muders of 102,000 Jews. During the peak of the Dutch Republic, when Adam Smith estimated that the United Provinces were the wealthiest nation on Earth, the Dutch played a critical role in the slave trade. They shipped an estimated 550,000-600,000 people from their homes in Africa across the Atlantic to the New World, where they were sold as objects.

The difference between these two facets of Dutch history is that the Dutch have reckoned with the effects of their actions during the Holocaust; they have not reckoned with the legacy of the slave trade and the racism it left in its wake. To have a sustainable society where everyone can play a constructive role, the Dutch must come to terms with their history and the institutional racism that still exists.

Dutch Collaboration in the Holocaust

102,000 Dutch Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Among the murdered was 15-year old Anne Frank, who gained international fame for her diaries documenting life in hiding during the war. As New York Times book critic Meyer Levin wrote in 1952, “Anne Frank’s diary simply bubbles with amusement, love, discovery. It has its share of disgust, its moments of hatred, but it is so wondrously alive, so near that one feels overwhelmingly the universalities of human nature.” People read Anne’s diary as the tale of hope in the face of unbelievable despair. They see it as an example of the human ability to persevere through incredible hardship. But the ending of Anne’s real story does not strike the same tone as her diaries. In September 1944, Anne and her family were deported to Auschwitz after a neighbor was suspected of betraying them to Nazi authorities. In January 1945, believing her entire family had been murdered, Anne told her friend Hanneli Goslar that she had no more reason to live. Anne died in Auschwitz-Birkenau weeks later, confused and delirious from typhus-induced hallucinations. 

Anne’s story of betrayal is not an isolated one. Between the summer of 1942 and September 1944, 107,000 of the Netherlands’ 140,000 Jews were deported to extermination camps like Auschwitz and Sobibor. Only 5,000 of the deported survived, meaning less than 25% of Dutch Jews actually survived the Holocaust. This survival rate was significantly lower than it was for other Western European Jews: 98% of Danish Jews survived, 76% of French Jews survived, 73% of Belgian Jews survived, and even in Nazi Germany itself, 30% of Jews survived. The horrific efficiency with which Dutch Jews were murdered was made possible by the compliance of the Dutch with their Nazi occupiers, which included special “Jew-hunting units” comprised of Dutch people.

Since the end of WWII, however, the Dutch have reckoned with their role in enabling the attempted extermination of the Jewish people and the murders of tens of thousands of their own citizens. Museums like the Anne Frank House recognize and examine the reasons for Dutch cooperation in the Holocaust. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized for the cooperation of Dutch officials during the Holocaust. The city of Amsterdam memorializes its Jewish victims through Stumbling Stones embedded in front of the houses where they lived before they were deported and murdered. They serve as a daily reminder for the residents of Amsterdam of the actions of their ancestors.

Stumbling Stones or Stolpersteine are Holocaust memorial brass plaques placed in front of the victims last home, Kloveniersburgwal, Amsterdam.

This isn’t to say that all Dutch people are perfect in remembering their actions during the Holocaust. Anti-semitism continues to be a problem among certain facets of the Dutch population. As Simon Kuper details in his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War, fans of the Rotterdam soccer club Feyenoord frequently chant “Hamas, hamas, Jews to the gas,” when they play against their Amsterdam-based rivals Ajax because of Ajax’s historical Jewish connections. However, Dutch soccer hooligans are not representative of the broader population, as Kuper insinuates. Dutch soccer hooligans are comparable to American gangs: fans of rival clubs kill each other in drivebys, graffiti monuments in “enemy territory,” and engage in large-scale battles against one another. Concluding that the entire Dutch population is anti-semitic because soccer hooligans are is like concluding every American trafficks drugs because members of gangs do.

Dutch Involvement in the Slave Trade

The Dutch were also intimately involved with the Atlantic slave trade, shipping over half a million people from Africa to the New World. This had tremendous economic benefits for the Dutch – a 2019 London School of Economics study estimated that “slave-based economic activities contributed 5.2 percent to the gross domestic product of the Dutch Republic.” This percentage was higher in its wealthiest province Holland, where the slave trade composed 10.4 percent of GDP. For comparison, the entire retail industry contributed 5.5 percent to American GDP in 2018. 

As the Dutch involvement in the slave trade grew, the perception of Black people among white Dutch citizens deteriorated. From 1620 to 1660, before the Atlantic slave trade truly took off, Black people living in the Netherlands were generally treated and shown as equals in art. Rembrandt van Rijn painted portraits of Black neighbors wearing clothing typically reserved for the ultra-wealthy white merchants. But, according to Rembrandt House curator Stephanie Archangel, as Dutch grew more involved in the slave trade, Black people literally moved into the shadows of Dutch art. They became props for white merchants to flaunt their wealth, putting them on the same level as a pearl necklace or an intricate tapestry.

Hendrick Heerschop, Koning Caspar, 1654 or 1659. Credit: Berlijn, Staatliche Museen Preussischen Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie

This marginalization of Black people in Dutch popular culture continues to the present day. In Dutch memes, Black people are depicted being brutalized by their Dutch colonizers. Popular comic books in the Netherlands like Kuifje (known in America as Tintin), Asterix en Obelix, and Suske en Wiske all feature racist representations of Black people. And every December, as part of their Christmas celebrations, Dutch people don blackface to look like “Zwarte Piet” – the “helper” of the Dutch Santa Claus.

Frame from the Dutch comic Suske en Wiske. Translation: “That’s where that n****r actually starts swinging! He’s more civilized than I thought!”
Sinterklaas and his “Zwarte Pieten”

The recognition of institutional racism in the Netherlands is also lacking, which 78% of non-white Dutch citizens believe exists. Dutch police are responsible for killings similar to ones in the United States: Tommy Holten, a Black man from Zwolle, died in police custody an hour after his arrest in March 2020 where a policeman pressed his foot on Holten’s face and Mitch Henriquez, an Aruban man, died in 2015 after police used a “prolonged chokehold” on him. PM Rutte’s government was brought down in January 2021 when it was revealed his government had falsely accused thousands of predominantly minority families of child welfare fraud and demanded repayments, devastating those families financially. Despite this, Rutte’s party won a plurality in the parliamentary elections just two months later and Rutte is expected to maintain his role as PM.

Why Does This Matter?

To have a truly sustainable society, you must give each person an equal opportunity to reach their full potential. The institutional racism built into the Dutch system prevents that. As the tenth United Nations Sustainable Development Goal – Reduced Inequities – emphasizes, a society that does not address various disparities across its population will suffer as a result.

The first step to alleviating racial inequities is recognizing that those inequities exist – something the Dutch have not done. As Dutch Black historian Jennifer Tosch put it, the Dutch insist that they are a “colorblind society” where people “don’t see race.” But this “colorblindness” prevents them from seeing the clear disparities across racial lines. Once the Dutch begin to realize this, then they can begin fixing the issues. 

Progress on this front has been lacking. The Dutch government did not establish the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery until 2002. To its credit, the Institute recognizes that “transatlantic slavery and colonialism are an important part of Dutch history” and “the Afro-Caribbean communities in the Netherlands in particular are still experiencing the effects of the past, both in social positions in society and in how they are depicted by the Dutch media.” Despite the crucial work the Institute is doing in raising awareness of the Dutch involvement in the slave trade and its aftereffects, the Dutch government slashed their budget by 90% in 2012, nearly forcing them to close.

As long as these racial inequities are left unaddressed, the Dutch are not using the full potential of their society. The Dutch must reckon with their history and involvement in the slave trade in the same way they have recognized their role in the Holocaust.

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