Many people would describe the Dutch as a stubborn. Well, they are not wrong. It takes a stubborn group of people to live under constant flood risk and refuse to relocate. Interestingly and somewhat disappointingly, the Netherlands has approached its social issues and history in the same manner that it has approached its environmental issues.
The Netherlands is a country that would be uninhabitable without the environmental innovations of the Dutch. While the implementation of dikes, dams, canal, hydraulic pumps, and more are effective, they’re not exactly a permanent solution. These systems often have to upkept, upgraded, or replaced. This process costs the Netherlands time, manpower, and, most importantly, billions of dollars. A perfect example of this can be found in Understanding Water Governance from a Citizen Perspective as citizens refused to relocate from a polder at flood risk and attempted to find temporary solutions. It’s worth noting that the Room for River project at the Overdiep polder was only necessary because of previous temporary solutions (Roth). The optimal and permanent solution would be to relocate to areas that aren’t below sea level. However, stubbornness is too deeply engrained in Dutch culture to ever do that. The approach can best be described as repeatedly placing a band-aid over a deep wound.
Racism, classism, antisemitism, and other social issues have never been foreign to the Netherlands. Racially, the Dutch have a history antiblackness that started back in the 16th century. The country was one of the first and most involved European nations in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which displaced countless Africans (Blakely). In modern times and the present day, this racial history has translated to a wealth gap, police brutality, offensive festivals, and other plights for Black people (Evans). Despite the prevalence of racial issues throughout its history, the country has simply band-aided or deflected its racial issues over the last few centuries.
The perfect examples of the Netherlands’ band-aid treatment to racial issues are the story of “Zwart Piet”, also known as “Black Pete”, and the lack of education on race in schools. Every December, thousands of Dutch people put on black face paint, big red lipstick, and an afro. This is clearly blackface, the country resorted to changing the origin story of “Black Pete” so that the annual tradition of wearing black face paint and an afro wouldn’t be seen as a blackface. While the optimal solution would be to ban the holiday festival, the Dutch have instead opted to change Black Pete’s origin story. In the 1850s, Black Pete was originally depicted as an African Moor from Spain that acted as a servant to Saint Nicholas. Today, Black Pete’s story has changed to him being a white man covered in soot to nullify any accusations of blackface. Despite the change in origin story, there continues to be outrage amongst the Black community because the holiday still resembles blackface, which is discomforting (Evans).
In academia, the Dutch have simply decided not to teach racism. In an attempt to cover up its history instead of reconciling with it, the Dutch do not teach racism and related topics in school. A few years ago, ESPN’s The Undefeated publication highlighted this issue in an article called “The Netherlands might be tolerant, but racism exists for people of color.” During the article, a Black archivist states, “…in the Netherlands, we don’t speak about colonialism and the history of slavery and what the law was. So for me to start the black archives is also educate our own communities and the larger society about the Dutch past and colonial past and why our realities look like this. For example, progression and discrimination. … It’s also about addressing the issues and community building and understand life in the Black Netherlands and what it looks like.” The lack of education on these issues somewhat silences and muffles them in the short term, but as people gain more information through the Internet and other mediums, there will be continue to be outrage amongst younger generations (Evans).
During the 20th century, the Netherlands struggled with antisemitism after nearly 70% of Dutch Jews were murdered by Nazis. Monuments have been put up to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust, but many of these monuments are literally and figuratively hidden. Hiding monuments simply allows the Netherlands to hold off on facing its antisemitic history for now (Kuper).
Take the Hangar 24 memorial wall as an example. The wall is supposed to be a monument or memorial dedicated to the thousands of Jews that were taken from the Rotterdam area during the Holocaust. However, the wall is simple and plain with only a single plaque to identify it as a memorial. Kuper’s Ajax, the Dutch, the War describes the wall as “quite blank” and “almost discreet today as it was in 1942”. The chairman of Hangar 24 noted that few people in Rotterdam today know of that Jews once had a major presence in the city prior to the Holocaust (Kuper). Monuments like this speak to the Dutch agenda of covering up problems instead of fixing them. By covering up this essential part of history, Rotterdam can attempt to keep the city’s image and branding clean.
Because Rotterdam’s history with Holocaust is covered up, many citizens in the city don’t feel empathy and sadness for the victims of the genocide. The city’s football team, Feyenoord, is notorious for antisemitic chants. In 2019, fans began to chant “Jews burn best” during a soccer game against Ajax (Liphshiz). Kuper refers to these incidents as consequences of the Dutch, especially younger generations, not knowing their history due to it being hidden.
Century-old wounds can’t be healed through temporary solutions. The Dutch must begin to approach their social issue with direct action that changes the conversation on social issues for incoming generations. That include educating the youth on the Netherland’s actual history, banning racist holidays, and erecting visible monuments that can serve as a reminder of history. The temporary solution or band-aid approach that the Netherland uses for its environmental flood hazards will not work for racism, antimerism, and other issues. By covering up history and not directly addressing social issues, the issues will only become deeper for the next generations. A problem that isn’t solved today is simply a bigger problem for the next day.
References / Works Cited
Evans, Kelly. “The Netherlands Might Be Tolerant, but Racism Exists for People of Color.” The Undefeated, The Undefeated, 18 Aug. 2017, theundefeated.com/features/netherlands-might-be-tolerant-but-racism-exists-for-people-of-color/.
Roth, Dik & Winnubst, Madelinde. (2015). Understanding water governance from a citizen perspective Farmers’ dilemmas in a future retention area. International Journal of Water Governance. 2015. 1-30. 10.75.64/13-IJWG34.
Blakely, Allison. Blacks in the Dutch World: the Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society. Indiana University Press, 2001.
Kuper, Simon. Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe during the Second World War. Orion Books, 2011.
Liphshiz, Cnaan. “Dutch soccer fans chant ‘Jews burn best’ on Holocaust Remembrance Day.” The Times of Israel, The Times of Israel, 5 Feb. 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/dutch-soccer-fans-chant-jews-burn-best-on-holocaust-remembrance-day/