Pen Pals

The Outsider Within: Growing up Black in Europe

by Emma Lee Amponsah, The Netherlands

I was asked to explain what it is like to be Black in Europe. I was eager to do so, because it is important to critically approach race and whiteness in Western Europe, not only to deconstruct the European ‘myth of racial purity’ and Europe as ‘homogeneously white’, but also to realize that ‘the concept of race has its origins in Europe and has been one of its main export products’ (Wekker, 2016, p. 4). Before sharing my personal experiences, I will first draw in idea of who the Dutch actually are.

So, the Dutch are citizens of The Netherlands, which is a small western European country. Two of the main provinces are North- and South-Holland, of which the latter holds the famous capital Amsterdam. ‘The Netherlands is a nation of (descendants of) migrants’ (Wekker, 2016, p. 6), but it was only after the wave of post-war immigrants, who were no longer almost exclusively ‘white’, Christian and European (Phalet et.al., 2003, p. 2), that definitions had to distinguish whites from others. Until recently ‘native’ whites and white-passing immigrants were called ‘autochtones’, while immigrants with a non-white background are called ‘allochtonous’ up until the fourth generation. If they still had not managed to become white in complexion by then, they were likely to remain ‘allochtonous’ (Wekker, 2016, p. 23). The three main groups of immigrants in the Netherlands since the 1960’s are those from former colonies, labour migrants and refugees (Bagley, 1971). As for former Dutch colonies such as Suriname, Dutch cultural values and Westernised Christianity were already internalised by colonial pressure. In Suriname, Dutch is still a national and formal language (Ogle, 2011, p. 16). This did not only cause native language to be seen as inferior, but also led to hierarchies in cultures, whereby (Dutch-influenced) educated often light-skinned through mixed intimacies – individuals took higher social and economic positions than those who held on to native or African cultures and language (Ogle, 2011. p. 17). Thus, it is not surprising that individuals would be eager to assimilate to Dutch culture as much as possible to be considered respectable, and less ‘Black’. Those who were not willing or able to assimilate were segregated (Essed, 1994). They believe themselves to be colour-blind. It is such a characteristic trait that it is actually embedded in the Dutch cultural archive which Wekker (2016) and Said (1993) explain as a collective memory that is culturally organised and historically defined. Colour-blindness is reflected, for example, in the Dutch language, which does not allow white people to be racialised. In Dutch, white people are called blank (‘without colour’, ‘empty’, ‘unblemished’, and ‘virginal’), referring to an ideal of being. However, non-whites are called ‘black’, ‘brown’ or even ‘Negro’. The Dutch cultural archive thus offers its (white) population a just, ethical and colour-blind self-representation, which supposedly also forms the guiding light to other peoples and nations (Wekker, 2016).

I was born in an interracial family, but was mainly raised by my white mom, as my parents got divorced. We had dinner at 18:00h, we usually had mashed potatoes, cooked vegetables and meat (a veggie burger since I became vegetarian at the age of nine). Dutch food is actually not so bad. It still warms my heart whenever I visit my mother around around 5 and all houses have the same smell coming from their similarly decorated kitchen windows. Apart from potatoes, the Dutch love food from their former colonies. But somehow they always have a tendency to screw things up. They would use their creativity to ‘spice things up’ but would then forget the spice. They would replace yam or cassava with potatoes, or yardlong beans with green beans. Roti with Mexican wraps, or worse, rice! And then they would still call it Roti! (which is a Surinamese dish). I have to admit that my mom makes one of the best Roti, ‘cause of course: ‘not all white people…’.

I grew up Dutch. I was raised to speak Dutch, act Dutch, eat Dutch, think Dutch. I know the Dutch throughout. Yet I was never actually Dutch. I was the outsider within. No matter how colour-blind the Dutch are: Blacks can never be Dutch. Whereas the United States have a strange obsession with black man, the Dutch have an obsession with black women: They love them. I recently saw a TV commercial about pudding whereby a dull white man tried a particular type of chocolate pudding and loved it so much since it gave him fantasies about sexy black women. In secondary school I was approached by a white teacher who thought I looked like Boris Becker’s  ex-wife. You know, that ugly German tennis player. “She is very beautiful” he added, as I was not sure how to take it. He suggested that I should call him and ask him out, since he was very rich. He then pretended to be me on the phone and put on a sensual voice saying “Boris, it’s me, Emma Lee”. I felt weird, but couldn’t really place the situation. So I just laughed out loud. Another teacher, a history substitute, asked me what I wanted to do after secondary school. At the time I was really into languages, so I told him I wanted to travel and learn languages. One of them was Afrikaans, which I wanted to teach in South-Africa while learning Xhosa and Zulu. “Do you think they want to learn Afrikaans from you?” he asked me aggressively, “a black woman, I mean”.  I was puzzled, but figured it wasn’t a good idea to even visit South-Africa at all… ever. I now know that Afrikaans is not only spoken by whites, but I’m over it. But at the time, I started to realize that “the sky is the limit” didn’t apply on me because of my skin colour.

Whenever you meet a Dutch person – and I am sure you have, since they go literally everywhere on vacation – they would be eager to tell you about how liberal their country is. You name it, they have it: legalized soft drugs, legal prostitution, gay rights… They might even tell you that health care and studying are free. Don’t believe them, the Dutch tend to romanticize their reality. They never colonized, slavery was not that bad, and Black Pete has nothing to do with their biased views on black people. Black Pete is black because he went through the chimney, yet he also has an afro, golden earrings, big red lips, a servant suit and a Surinamese accent. Most importantly: The Netherlands do not know racism. They are great at rhetoric:  immigrants (as in non-whites whether born in the Netherlands or not) take our jobs, yet they are too lazy to work and live on welfare. Police brutality doesn’t exist in the Netherlands, only in the USA. Yet, several black men have been killed by the police over the past two years. Immigrants are supposed to participate in society, but when they suggest to make society more inclusive and peaceful, they should go back to their own country. I was often told to go back to my own country, which was an African country I had never been to until my late teenage years. These tiring paradoxes didn’t work for me, so I decided to leave the Netherlands.

According to Dutch society, I am Black, until I define myself Black, then I’m white. I mean, part white, a little mulatto (“halfbloedje”), which the Dutch are keen on. If I do not define myself part white, I am denying my white roots. If I point out racism, I’m causing polarization which would make me racist. It is complicated.  The problem with the Netherlands, Europe, and the western world in general, is their binary oppositional thinking. They think in boxes: good vs bad, man vs woman, black vs white. Reality is that nothing in this world is either this or that, neither I am. I am a Dutch-Ghanaian woman in Europe and even though I am tired of whiteness and sometimes wish I wasn’t part white, I refuse to choose to be either this or that. I am me. Perhaps, one day, I will return to that crazy little country. When the Dutch get over themselves.

Resources

Bagley, C. (1971). ‘Immigrant minorities in the Netherlands: Integration and Assimilation’ In: The

Essed, P. (1994), Diversiteit. Amsterdam: Ambo/Baarn.

Nederveen Pieterse, J. (1990), Wit over zwart. Beelden van Afrika en zwarten in de westerse

populaire cultuur. Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen, Stichting Cosmic Illusion Productions

& Novib: Amsterdam & Den Haag.

Ogle, J. (2011): ‘The continuously changing self: The story of surinamese creole migration to the

Netherlands’ In: Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. Paper 1152.

Said, E. (1993), Culture and imperialism. Vintage: London.

Wekker, G.D. (2016), White innocence. Paradoxes of colonialism and race. Durham/London: Duke

University Press.

University Amsterdam and holds a MA in gender and diversity studies. She is a social activist, speaker, writer and initiator of Black Speaks Back which is a video platform that aims to empower youngsters of the African diaspora in Belgium and the Netherlands through the deconstruction of stereotypes. She was also actively involved in the organization of a conference surrounding Eurocentrism, hence challenging her former university to rethink their position in the current academic debates surrounding history and other disciplines within the Humanities Department.

 This piece contains paragraphs from her academic article “Mixed Couples, Mixed Feelings – Feelings of white supremacy and black inferiority amongst black-white couples in Belgium and the Netherlands”.

 

 

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