One of the weirdest set of descriptions one finds when arriving in the Netherlands is allochtoon and autochtoon. These terms were used officially until November 2016 by the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) and the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). Loosely translated as “coming from another soil” versus “coming from this soil”, the category of allochtoon is sometimes further split into western and non-western. It seems to clash with the Dutch stated value of tolerance, by marking out some as almost fake Dutch.
It makes sense though, in a country that up until relatively recently followed an ideal of pillarisation. This posed that the Netherlands was built on a variety of pillars (Protestant, Catholic, Socialist), and each pillar had its own self-contained world of schools, universities, newspapers, and political parties. In general the Netherlands was primarily a mosaic model, rather than a melting pot.
Allochtoon as a word is fascinating because it reveals the inherent structure that you can find in most countries – where those who do not look like the majority are not perceived as true citizens in a lot of ways. These categories effectively serve to render non-white Dutch as never fully becoming Dutch, regardless of if they were born and socialised in the country.
It has been a week since the Dutch elections, and as it stands Rutte’s VVD will continue to lead in coalition, likely with D66, CDA, and an undetermined fourth party. In international media there has been much celebration over the fact that Geert Wilders’ PVV only became the second largest party, which is taken as proof that a populist ethnonationalist-tinged wave in Europe may be over.
Yet the celebrations mask the real threat that was always posed by the election; VVD victory. Or more specifically VVD victory when Rutte has specifically tapped into Wilders’ and others’ ideas of allochtoon with the VVD’s election campaign. The slogan became “Act normal” – normal being like native Dutch – with the implied “or go home” made explicit in his letter to voters. One of the most intriguing parts of the letter was the inclusion of calling ordinary Dutch racist in the list of undesirable behaviour, as if racism could not be a genuine concern within the wider society.
Wilders may have come second but, as I mentioned in my last post, the issue with those like him is that he succeeds in dragging the fight around cultural matters to more far-right perspective. Ethnic identities become subtle indicators of whether or not someone is worthy of being in a country automatically, or has to prove themselves. And more damningly some have and will continue to vote for policies which reinforce this.
One of the VVD’s campaign ads featured the term kopvodden, an insulting slur for hijab, as one of the aspects of a non-VVD voter. According to this ad VVD voters also do not put their “head in the sand” (one presumes about these cultural matters) but rather “use their heads”. Though the VVD website seeks to clarify that its use of kopvodden is merely about people who say the term, without the page of information next to it the advert does not come across as such. It instead seemed to be a straightforward dogwhistle campaign that plays on fears around immigration and Islam, whilst having enough leeway to distance themselves from explicit racism.
The Netherlands, much like the UK, poses itself as founded on values of tolerance whilst not engaging as much with how that it supposed to fit with its history as a former empire. The recent elections help with the movement away from dealing with that complexity and reevaluating notions of Dutchness, towards more simplistic narratives which propose that the real Dutch are under threat from outsiders.
How we in Europe can reconcile notions of citizenship with our values at the time when seeming to do so leads to lose of political power may appear difficult, especially when there are genuine cultural conflicts that do sometimes arise. But through acknowledging that these values – tolerance, respect, freedom – must be new in light of the gravity of empire, then we become freed to tackle exclusionary structures which were built up at the same time. Though history is important, demonstrating the possibility of reinvention is more important when you want to make a country that does not see citizens from other origins as permanent impostors.