Since the killing of Black American George Floyd, the world has seen a wave of protests against institutional racism. Hilde Beune reflects on the Dutch position in this debate. The Netherlands is often praised for their ‘multicultural society’, but to what extent does it embrace cultural plurality within it’s borders?

Author: Hilde Beune

Banners emboldened with exclamations to ‘’stop racism’’, for ‘’black justice’’ and speaking against racial boundaries because ‘’both our blood is red’’ is the language formed around the Black Lives Matter movement. It demonstrates the subtleties of inequality still existing, contrary to the supposed equality that many Dutch people perceive, often shrouded behind institutionalism. Fundamentally, these protests call out the wide inequalities supported by institutional racism globally. Alongside the debate on racism, these protests ignite a long-existing discussion in the Netherlands: the multiculturalism debate which asks the question if people of different backgrounds and with different cultures could really live together peacefully when institutional racism and inequality persists.

The Van Dale Dictionary of the Dutch Language defines a ‘multicultural society’ as a society in which people of different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds live together in a demarcated area. Above all, ‘multiculturalism’ denotes the idea that people are equal despite their differences and that all people have an equal position in society. Queen Máxima of the Netherlands said in a speech in 2007 that there is no single Dutch person who can represent all Dutch people, the country is too versatile to be described in one stereotype. Her speech received a lot of negative responses. But if we consider our society to be multicultural with all the ethnic, religious and cultural differences among people, then Maxima’s statement should be valid. However, many people areclearly still holding on to a certain ‘Dutch’ identity.The Black Lives Matter movement proves the existence of Dutch people who feel racial differences negatively determine how they are treated or perceived. The ‘failure of the multicultural society’ has been a long-standing discussion. In 2010 the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel argued on the failure of multiculturalism in Germany, a discussion arising in the Netherlands from time to time within public spaces and political circles. Certainly, the Netherlands presents diversity with its international community having varied backgrounds and could hence be regarded as multicultural to this extent. But even though people from different backgrounds have a Dutch passport, non-white Dutch people are still often regarded as ‘foreign’ or ‘immigrants’. This deviation between immigrants and the native Dutch is just one example that proves the inequality and unjustified inferiority of black Dutch people.

In the Netherlands, just as in other places, many people with different ethnic, cultural and religious identities often live in mixed neighborhoods. In the process of identification we search for similarities in others. By identifying ourselves we also distance ourselves from the ones that are ‘different’ from us. We put different labels on people and create different groups. Both consciously and unconsciously we reckon differences and act upon them. The white Dutch citizens don’t recognize themselves in black Dutch citizens and vice versa. Because of recognizing these differences we consider ourselves diverse. Yet recognizing differences does not mean that there is equality of all the different groups. As such, diversity is not the same as multiculturalism.

Moreover, we also ascribe different values to the different labels, not only for ourselves and our group but also for the people in other groups. Due to these different evaluations there is a certain hierarchy by which we legitimate approaching and treating certain people differently. To overcome this problem we firstly must reckon diversity as part of our society and thus acknowledge that our society includes both white and black Dutch citizens. Only when everyone, regardless of skin color, religion or ethnic background, is recognized as Dutch and with that is treated equal to white Dutch people, we are and will be a true multicultural society.