What was left of the image of the Netherlands as a tolerant, welcoming society was shaken the last few months by revelations of racist police, international criticism of Dutch immigration policies and discriminatory government proposals. But we are also seeing the first beginnings of a new movement against racism and discrimination, culminating with a demonstration on 22 March.
One very visible manifestation of racism in the Netherlands is of course Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV). Like most racists they reject the label 'racist', claiming that they are agitating against specific cultures, especially 'Islamic culture', not ‘races’. But they use 'culture' in the same a-historical, all-explaining way that old-fashioned biological racists used ‘race’.
But even outside of PVV, in mainstream Dutch society, racism is common and largely unacknowledged. The number of reported racist-related incidents has increased in recent years. According to the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, between 20 and 40 per cent of people of migrant origin experience discrimination when looking for work. Then there was news about police-racism, such as violence against migrants in The Hague. Amnesty International has even issued a report criticizing ethnic profiling by the Dutch police.
None of this happens in a vacuum. The current government has continued its harsh policies towards asylum-seekers and has made being undocumented a crime. To prove this 'crime', the police have been given a broader mandate to search the houses of suspects. Aliens who cannot prove their identity have fewer rights than criminal suspects. These policies signal to society that migrants, refugees, aliens, and other 'outsiders' are problems, and that they deserve have fewer rights.
But we are also seeing the beginnings of resistance against various forms of resistance and discrimination, outside the established organs. One important movement is that of undocumented refugees demanding a place to stay. Their struggle, which has been going on for many months, continues. Protests against 'Zwarte Piet', a racist caricature of a black man that forms part of the Sinterklaas festivities, were especially lively end last year.
The responses to such protests, often dismissive but also sometimes quite hostile, show how many white Dutch people, when confronted with criticisms of racist practices, respond by attacking the ones who raise this point - it is the critics, and not racism, that are the problem; they 'lack a sense of humor' or are 'blowing it of proportion'. The more sustained the criticism, the more hostile the response of many white Dutch people, infatuated with their own notion of being tolerant and good.
Many migrant organizations are depended on government funding and do not want to rock the boat – especially in times of austerity. Parties of the Left often pretend racism doesn't exist or even adopts part of the discourse of the new cultural racism. When confronted with proof of racism, they reduce it to an individual problem, to a lack of manners on behalf of the racist and, it's often implied, the ‘thin skin’ of the victim. What is avoided is recognition that racism is not an individual problem but a structural one of unequal power relations that are reinforced through countless bigger and smaller gestures.
The new anti-racist groups and activists need to link up and prepare for a long-term struggle. The demonstration of March 22 will be a good opportunity for this and a way to keep the discussion about racism going. Racism in all its forms functions as a lightning rod, diverting potential anger over economic recession and austerity. In turn, it creates new social-economic difficulties for the victims. For too long, racism has been painted as an individual problem. Racism is not uprooted by anti-racism alone - we need a movement that fights for fair work, equal treatment and collective rights.