[Column] Is the Netherlands racist?

What does the life of a person of colour in the Netherlands look like? Our columnist Vishal Onkhar writes about his experiences with everyday racism.

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

In light of the recent protests worldwide regarding systemic racism, I’d like to draw your attention to my experiences as an Indian man in the Netherlands. I suspect that my circumstances resonate with those of fellow Indians and members of other ethnic minorities, and that my feelings on this social issue echo their own. But let me start off by saying that I am of the opinion that racism in the USA and racism in the Netherlands are two wholly different beasts. The Dutch pride themselves on how tolerant and open-minded they are, and for good reason – I must admit I had to rack my brains to recollect specific incidents of racism I have faced. Perhaps these will open a window into the life of a person of colour in the Netherlands today.

  • One of the first encounters that comes to mind was some months ago when I was buying lunch from a stall at TU Delft. I was the only customer in sight and had struck up a conversation with the lady attending the kiosk as I waited for my meal. A few minutes in, she remarked, “You’re quite fair-skinned for an Indian. That’s not normal, is it? It must be because you’ve been in the Netherlands for a while already – that’s a good thing”. Her comment caught me off guard and I flashed her a wry smile before walking off with my food, puzzled over what had just transpired.

  • Another incident that stands out was about a year ago when I was on my way to visit the Kunstmuseum [previously Gemeentemuseum, red.] in the Hague for an exhibition. I had gotten a little lost and Google Maps was being uncooperative, so I decided to ask directions from a couple that was walking nearby. As I approached and said, “Hi, excuse me …”, I was rudely cut off by the man who replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money to give you”, as he tried to usher his partner past me. I stopped short and repeated, “Excuse me?”, more indignantly this time. The couple’s faces flushed with embarrassment as they realised their mistake, after which they heard me out and pointed me in the right direction.

  • Yet another episode occurred recently when I was at a bar in Delft with a female friend. I was rather conscious of being the only person of colour in the room since we drew some stares. As we ordered drinks at the counter, a male customer sitting next to us took one look at me and the NASA t-shirt I was wearing and said to my friend with a laugh, “Be careful, if he says he’ll take you for a ‘ride on his spaceship’, you might just go missing and never be found again”. Luckily, my friend and I found seats far away from that man.

In all of the above situations, I didn’t expect to hear an apology and unsurprisingly, none was extended. Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not particularly prickly by nature. I don’t bat an eye when it’s banter amongst friends, but racist comments from strangers are irksome because you know this wouldn’t have happened if you were white.

I find that I have to work extra hard to overcome the negative stereotypes associated with my race and nationality

And such things are just the tip of the iceberg. Experiences such as going through airport security are rather stressful as a person of colour. I find myself arriving at the airport three to four hours before my scheduled departure just in case I am stopped for an additional search or in the event that I run into problems at passport control or immigration. This foresight has even saved my skin on one occasion. Similarly, I wouldn’t dream of catching a flight without grooming myself and dressing well, for fear of being racially profiled.

Dating in the Netherlands is another uphill task. I find that I have to work extra hard to overcome the negative stereotypes associated with my race and nationality. A few of my Dutch friends who are second-generation immigrants (of Turkish, Moroccan, and Afghan descent), say they run into similar problems. A handful even claim they face discrimination when seeking employment – with some going so far as to change their names to make them sound more ‘white’, thereby boosting their chances of landing a job. And then there’s the whole discussion surrounding Black Pete, which I shall leave aside for brevity’s sake.

So, are these merely isolated incidents and nothing more, or the remnants of outdated beliefs that leave subtle traces everywhere in our society? With a heavy heart, I realise I cannot say it is the former without sounding insincere. While the Netherlands is certainly ahead of the curve in eradicating racism, in the words of the eminent Robert Frost, there are still “miles to go before we sleep”.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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