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When the Side Wings Take Center Stage

An Essay on Structural Racism in the Netherlands

by Eline de Jong

In December 2016, Dutch filmmaker Sunny Bergman presented her documentary Wit is ook een Kleur (The Color White). In the documentary, she asks her audience, her interviewees, and also herself: what does it mean to be white?

How does whiteness manifest itself in society and how does its seeming neutrality and invisibleness relate to structural racism? She investigates how and why topics such as white privilege and racism make white people feel uncomfortable and even aggressive. In 50 minutes, Bergman is able to bring to light several issues concerning racism in Dutch society that are rooted in a 400-year history of colonialism and slavery. But this connection between slavery and racism is far from being acknowledged by most people, let alone accepted. Slavery is considered as something from the past, an unfortunate product of its time, especially in the Dutch national narrative about the colonial era that is so focused on stories about successful trading and naval victories. But, as Bergman and numerous others show, there is an alternative way of looking at this narrative. What can a critical enquiry into our colonial legacy tell us about structural racism in the Netherlands?

Michiel de Ruyter, geschilderd door Ferdinand Bol in 1667 (Mauritshuis, Den Haag)

National Heroes and Traditions

In one of the scenes of her documentary, Bergman visits the Mauritshuis in The Hague together with Dr Valika Smeulders. In the presence of the museum’s director, Dr Emilie Gordenker, Bergman and Smeulders discuss a portrait of Michiel de Ruyter, the famous admiral who is renowned for his glorious battles and his contribution to the wealth of the Dutch republic. The museum audio guide has nothing but praise for this national hero. As Professor Smeulders points out, this heroic narrative completely leaves out de Ruyter’s involvement in the Dutch slave trade. In response to this criticism, Professor Gordenker defends the museum by explaining that this specific artwork of de Ruyter was created for his victory against the English and is therefore further removed from his less than ‘admirable’ past (36:08-36:52). While the Mauritshuis is currently in a process of evaluating its history in relation to slavery as the result of a growing wave of criticism (Broos 2018), it becomes evident from Gordenker’s statements that the positive image of De Ruyter is still being justified and legitimized, despite his unquestionable part in the slave trade. The scene paints a clear picture of cognitive dissonance, a term coined by Frantz Fanon and discussed by Mitchell Esajas in his lecture on November 30, 2017: the uncomfortable tension that is created when a person is confronted with an idea that runs counter to a core belief they hold. A heroic narrative about Michiel de Ruyter has proudly been told for hundreds of years and fits better within the Dutch national narrative, and therefore it must be sustained.

Zwarte Pieten bij de Sinterklaasintocht, november 2017, op Aruba. Foto © Jerzy KochThe same principle is at work in the discussion about Black Pete. As Wekker concludes in White Innocence (2016), the main argument that Black Pete supporters use in their defense of the figure is centered on the idea that “this is our culture, our tradition” (148). In other words, because Black Pete is part of a national tradition, he needs to be defended and preserved. Anyone who questions this is considered to be attacking Dutch culture unjustly. As Wekker argues, “persistently, an innocent, fragile, emancipated white Dutch self is constructed” (15). In this construction, there is no place for racism, as “the Netherlands is and always has been color-blind and antiracist” (Wekker 1). Therefore Black Pete cannot be racist either. Even the tracing of his origins as a figure that was created during the colonial period, or the questioning of his demeanor (frizzy hair, red lips, golden earrings and of course his black skin) cannot convince his supporters otherwise. The discussion poignantly foregrounds the difficulty of breaking with beliefs as shaped by a country’s national narrative. The answer as to how such racialized core beliefs have come to form the way of thinking in Dutch society nowadays can be found in the evolvement of different forms of racism throughout history. From the legitimizing of the slave trade on the basis of theological arguments through philosophical and biological racism during the Enlightenment when the racial ‘other’ was constructed as inferior by nature, Western society has moved to a system of institutional, cultural and everyday racism, the latter of which is illustrated by countless examples, Black Pete being just one (Esajas 2017).

Silenced Narratives

The scene about the portrait of Michiel de Ruyter in Wit is ook een Kleur also illustrates another element that is related to structural racism in the Netherlands: the invisibility of slavery, created by institutions such as museums (Modest 2017). Indeed, slavery is mainly thought of as being a product of colonialism and enslaved people are usually referred to in numbers – contributing to their continued dehumanization. This process starts in early education: as Weiner argues, “Dutch primary school history textbooks […] feature a Eurocentric master narrative reflective of racial neoliberalism and contributing to the Netherlands’ social forgetting of slavery and scientific colonialism” (Weiner 2014: 344). By disconnecting the history of slavery from modern day racism and minimizing the role of the Dutch in the slave trade, a problematic and distorted image is created that makes it hard to relate contemporary socioeconomic inequalities experienced by ethnic minorities in the Netherlands to a history of colonialism and slavery (Weiner 2014: 344). This phenomenon is visible in museums as well, with the portrait of de Ruyter being but one of numerous examples. It stems from the fact that the Dutch do not want to see the negative side of their ‘Golden Age’ (Von der Dunk 2016). Indeed, as Professor Wayne Modest argued in his lecture on December 7, 2017, the Golden Age cannot be thought together with slavery: the two are incompatible because the former enjoys a practically holy status as being the foundation for Dutch prosperity.
Fortunately, attempts at ‘rewriting’ history are being made. As Professor Modest notes, this requires an investment in an archive of imagination; we understand the idea of slavery only through shackles, but there is a whole other story about slavery that can be told. The Great Blacks in the Wax Museum in Baltimore, for example, tries to tell such a story as it “deals in emotion, […], dynamic essentialism [and] symbolic extremity” (Wood 2008: 154). In doing so, it provides a way for rethinking the historical archive. A Dutch example of this is The Black Archives, an initiative by the New Urban Collective, which attempts to tell the untold stories of key black figures in history. Through this ‘decolonization of knowledge’, The Black Archives prove that history is a social construct (Esajas 2017), and that including stories told from a different perspective in our historical archive can fundamentally change the way we look at the past and, consequently, the present as well.


The Great Blacks, in the Wax Museum, Baltimore

White Deadlock?

As Bergman concludes in her documentary, racism is an issue of white people (44:04-44:08). I agree with her in the sense that white people enjoy an overlooked position of privilege and that without actively trying to change the way structural racism functions in our society, we are passively contributing to its continuation. So the question arising from this observation is then: how can white people contribute to ending structural racism? As Anousha Nzume writes in Hallo Witte Mensen (Hello White People), a white bondgenoot (ally) is someone who uses his or her privileged position to create room for the needs of people of color, who shares space and power and who does not take a central position (2017: 84). While I appreciate her notion of ‘alliance’, I take issue with her idea of centrality. As Professor Modest marked in his lecture, everyone who enters into the discussion comes with a different, personal perspective. This means that any perspective, be that of a white or a black person, can be central to the narrative.
Likewise, while I stand in the affirmative with Bergman’s observation regarding the aggression that many white people display when it comes to racism, what often strikes me in the debate on white people’s active involvement in changing the perspective on our colonial legacy is a wave of hostility coming from many people of color. Even in the University, a place I regard as a safe space for expressing substantiated opinions, I am sometimes met with resistance and animosity when expressing my thoughts on this matter. But I am conscious of the stakes of my claim. Even as I am writing this, I am aware of the sensitivity of the subject and the limitations of my own position: “who am I to have an opinion on a group that has been systematically oppressed by white people like me for centuries”, “this is my white privilege speaking”, but that is not why I am ending on this note. It is because it is my sincere hope that white people will not face a deadlock when it comes to ending structural racism. It is because I believe that to imagine a world no longer divided along racial lines is to envision a true alliance between black and white. It is because I want to believe that after centuries of systematic oppression, white people can actually do something to counter the narrative and help bring the stories from the side wings to center stage. In the words of Professor Modest, it is about taking your guilt and shame and mobilizing them into responsibility.

Works Cited

Broos, Julia. “Mauritshuis doet onderzoek naar slavernijverleden.”, Algemeen Dagblad, 17 Jan. 2018, Accessed on 17 Jan. 2018.
Dunk, von der Thomas. “We willen keerzijde Gouden Eeuw niet zien: Historische Taboes.”, de Volkskrant, 7 June 2016, Accessed on 18 Jan. 2018.
Esajas, Mitchell. “Traces of Slavery in the Modern Dutch Society.” 30 Nov. 2017. Side Wings of Slavery and Colonialism, University of Amsterdam. Lecture.
Modest, Wayne. “Slavery & Material Culture.” 7 Dec. 2017. Side Wings of Slavery and Colonialism, University of Amsterdam. Lecture.
Nzume, Anousha. Hallo Witte Mensen. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017.
Wekker, Gloria. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016.
Weiner, Melissa. “(E)racing Slavery: Racial Neoliberalism, Social Forgetting, and Scientific Colonialism in Dutch Primary School History Textbooks.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, vol. 15, no. 2, 2014, pp. 329-351.
Wit is ook een Kleur. Directed by Sunny Bergman. De Familie Film & TV and VPRO, 2016.
Wood, Marcus. “Atlantic Slavery and Traumatic Representation in Museums: The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum as a Test Case.” Slavery & Abolition, vol. 29, no. 2, 2008, pp. 151-171.


[Dit is deel 2 in de reeks papers Side Wings of Slavery & Colonialism; zie ook deel 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 en 8.]

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