Are ‘mixed-race’ kids a new thing in the Netherlands?

The hype around 'mixed race' families ignore that it is not a new phenomenon, but been a central part of Dutch colonial history.

Image used in advertising campaigns for Credit: Harmen de Jong

In June 2014 cultural centre de Balie in Amsterdam will be hosting an event titled (In)visibly Mixed on “mixed race” families and relationships. By the way the Netherlands uncritically accepts this terminology, along with the assumption that certain people are “pure” and others are “mixed,” thereby reifying 19th century race theories. In any case, Loving Day takes the end of anti-miscegenation laws in America in 1967 as its starting point to celebrate the growing number of mixed couples and children in the Netherlands. Mixed children are a growing phenomenon in the Netherlands (up from 30% to 37% from 2007 in Amsterdam) but oddly, the program claims, this growth is not visible in Dutch policy or imaging of the Dutch identity.

Being designated as “mixed race” ourselves, we don’t deny that there’s a lot to talk about, but we were mildly surprised to see that this program completely ignores the historical and socio-economical context of mixed race identities within Dutch colonial history. We say mildly, because it wouldn’t be the first time the Dutch conveniently forgot about their colonial adventures. There were clear strategies to instill and secure Dutch “purity” and a cultural sense of belonging in both South Africa and Indonesia. But of course, there were those “Others” that produced in both former colonies. Indos (people of mixed Indonesian European descent) have existed within the former Dutch-East Indies (and thus the Netherlands) for over 300 years, and the same can be said about the coloured community in South Africa. Let’s not forget that there were and has been strong Dutch policy surrounding and creating these “mixed” identities beginning with the colonial period and existing well into the present.

The regulation of sexual relations was ingrained in the structure of the colonies and often also after periods of colonization. Many of us already know that in apartheid South Africa, sexual prohibitions were made very clear through the prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) and the Immorality Amendment Act (1950) that outlawed marriage and sex across the colour line. But back in the day, Dutch settlers eagerly married or fathered children with Khoisan women. As scholars such as Ann Stoler have pointed out (see here), the regulation of sexual relations was important to the development of the colonies itself. In South Africa we see that in the initial period of colonization “mixing” was tolerated and even condoned. Actually the sexual relations between European men and colonized women aided the long-term settlement of European men in the colonies. Again, as AIAC readers may know, “Coloured” South Africans descend from European settlers—as well as from Cape slaves, indigenous Khoisan population, and other black people; because of that, they are regarded as being “mixed race” and often seen as distinct from the historically dominant white minority and the African population. There is of course much more to say about the Coloured identity and its fluidity, but the influence of Dutch settlers cannot be denied.

In Indonesia, the VOC and Dutch colonial powers specifically created the Indos (or IndoEuropeans) as an acclimatized, cheap workforce that would be loyal to the Netherlands. Within the colony, Indos had special privileges above Indonesian natives and below Dutch colonials, which ultimately resulted in their expulsion from Indonesia once it gained its independence. Needless to say a people of mixed origin—who were brought up and told they were European and were above the local populace during colonial times, only to end up in Europe where they discovered that they were in fact not European—have some serious identity issues to work through. That is, before they completely disappear off the map of Dutch self-knowledge and history. As with silences inherent in other parts of Dutch history, the Indo, too, is expected to disappear from the present, now that colonial times have ended.

Obviously, South Africa and Indonesia weren’t the only colonial territories that the Dutch set foot on. There is a clear need for more research when it comes to similarities (as well as the differences) between the different colonies and the influence of the Dutch. In the same vein, current Dutch race and gender relations have been greatly shaped by colonial endeavors. It is odd enough that the Netherlands takes on the end of American anti-miscegenation laws as a means to celebrate people of mixed backgrounds within the Netherlands, but it becomes problematic when these issues are presented as something new and unpoliced, when the Dutch have had such strong colonial policies related to the creation of new ‘people’ for their own profit.

Furthermore, current Dutch policies banning and preventing new immigrants from bringing over spouses from their motherland will have an obvious effect on the increase in mixed race relationships and children in the Netherlands. Often the idealized idea of mixed race children with “cute light eyes and curly hair” dismisses the ambiguous feelings of cultural belonging that underlie mixed race identities. For instance, it is not uncommon for a white mother to be asked if she adopted her child. In addition, it is often not recognized how mixed race children are privileged over black children in the media and popular culture, which further enforces the idea that ‘lighter’ children have more status and privilege.

Too bad that Balie and programmers ignore these serious identity issues and prejudices faced by both mixed race couples and their offspring as well as Dutch colonial history and the role it has played in creating people like us. But as usual, the Dutch just like feeling good about themselves as liberal and tolerant—they are happy to “celebrate” but not deal with anything difficult.

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