Know your Dutch history

It is important that the Netherlands' history of slavery gets anchored in Dutch history curriculums in the same way that the Second World War is.

Twenty years ago, Dutch scholar Dutch Teun van Dijk published the book Elite Discourse and Racism, in which he discusses the subtle ways that racial discrimination pervaded his society at the time. To van Dijk it appeared that, as pivotal socializing agents, Dutch families, schools, politicians, and media had a great deal of influence on how children came to perceive and interact with ‘other’ people, Dutch nationals and immigrants that were not white (many from the former colonies) and people from ‘The Third World’. In an attempt to illuminate these relationships a bit further, van Dijk decided to take a look at how Dutch school curricula dealt with these ‘others’. What emerged from the elaborate study of schoolbooks that followed was that the general portrayal of ‘The Third World’ as well as minorities of color in the country itself was rather incomplete.

Immigrants were discussed solely as an issue of integration and assimilation. Positive contributions by immigrants glared by their absence. Centuries of slavery in the former Dutch colonies did not take up all too many pages either.

On the topic of sub-Saharan Africa, van Dijk found that the continent was largely framed as one of poverty, victims, hopelessness and illiteracy (with creepy witch doctors) and juxtaposed against our own modern and wealthy society (with, you know, real doctors). The power dynamics and imperial histories that underpinned contemporary global inequality and poverty seemed of little interest. The global wealth pie, as Dutch history seemed to have it, just happened to have unequal chunks and taste(s) a bit richer in the West. Whoever sliced the sweet thing to our advantage, and with what instruments, failed to make it into the history books.

It wasn’t like Dutch imperial history was ignored altogether. But the ways in which the overseas adventures and ‘native encounters’ of the past were selected and represented were just a bit ominous. Though already pretty outdated and charged at the time, terms like “negroes,” “bushmen” and “natives” were pretty common in the curricula. Worse, some books presented the resistance of those who were enslaved or colonized even in negative, disapproving terms. After critically analyzing the types of histories teachers fed their classes, one of van Dijk’s conclusions was that “Dutch children are not trained to identify and challenge racist attitudes.”

Twenty years since the country may have introduced a New Canon of Dutch history (2006), young people can still order “Bush Negro” customs online (until Serginho Roosblad wrote about it), can read how to dress up like a “n****bitch” in fashion magazines (until the rest of the world said this was not OK) and rest assured that at least 18% of their population will defend their annual Blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet (and fiercely so).

If there is indeed a direct connection between schools’ history curricula on the one hand and race relations on the other, the question of how far schools and teachers have come in these past twenty years seems a compelling one to ask.

And so we did. We decided to direct it to Maria Reinders-Karg, who has worked as both a former school teacher as well as an education specialist at NiNsee (the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery History and its Legacy). In a creative and inventive response to the government’s severe funding cuts for NiNsee, Maria recently founded the educational organization MiraKa.

Particularly focused on primary and secondary schools, MiraKa offers class activities, lesson plans, and participatory workshops that deal with those pages of Dutch heritage that may not inspire the utmost of national pride but deserve to be part of class dialogues.

Not surprisingly given Maria’s background and expertise, slavery and colonialism (as well as contemporary slavery) are central themes in MiraKa’s work. This is because in the Netherlands, Maria says, the sense of resistance against this side of national history has indeed persisted. According to her: “It’s a process of acceptance, which we, as a country, are not yet ready for.” “For many school teachers,” Maria explains, “who haven’t been trained to tell these sensitive histories themselves, it remains a difficult story.” And although the new Canon of Dutch History offers a somewhat more balanced view of Dutch heritage, and at least pays some attention to slavery and resistance (in English, it looks like this), most people will have to either purchase this material themselves or go look for it online and in museums, as they are no basic staple in schools.

But the stories of how the Netherlands built itself, where its glorious international adventures have taken it throughout the centuries, and whom it oppressed, enslaved and brutalized in the process deserve to be part of the staple. According to Maria, “it is important that Dutch slavery history gets anchored in history curriculums the same way that the Second World War is,” so it will become a ‘shared’ history, carried by all. “In the Netherlands, we are all a product of this history,” she says. (Despite the fact that no other country handed over as many Jewish people as rapidly as the Netherlands, Dutch cooperation with the Nazis is often neglected in a simplified narrative of bad Germans versus good Dutch people.)

MiraKa is one of the organizations that constructively, positively and proactively works towards making this legacy a shared one. For more information about MiraKa’s activities, programs, readings, and heritage tours (for both children and adults), take a look at the website.

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