From the 1960s until present time, The Netherlands have been proud of their proverbial tolerance towards unconventional living styles. Outsiders may even think that just about anything is allowed in The Netherlands, oftentimes even by law: abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, legalized drugs and the existence of a political party protecting the rights of pedophiles. The first article of the Dutch constitution prescribes that all inhabitants of The Netherlands, when faced with the same circumstances, have right to equal treatment. The same article explicitly prohibits `discrimination based on religion, convictions, political orientation, race, gender, or whatever other difference may apply`. But how tolerant are Dutch people in everyday life?
Jeroen (28, photo) has a mixed Surinam/Indonesian background, but was born in The Netherlands. He thinks of himself as a Dutchman, but his looks make many of his compatriots see him as an immigrant. In spite of that, he thinks Rotterdam is quite a nice example of how multiculturalism can be seen as an asset. `We have many different cultural activities, theatres, restaurants. Many foreigners found their own shops, whether by choice or by necessity. `Kebab shops, butchers, call shops ? but they don`t employ Dutch people, so the integration is limited to supplier-customer relations. But anyway, it`s great to have so much variety on such a small surface.`
..sees himself as Dutch, but is often seen by others as an immigrant
Not all people are as positive about the Dutch melting pot. Ashwien (29) thinks Dutch people are in general quite tolerant, but he is quick to specify that many of them suffer from a severe Nimby syndrome: not in my back yard. `Many conventions have been legally arranged and do not bother anybody as long as they are not concerned. Somebody unknown can be homosexual, but things change if the person in question is friend, relative or even somebody in a public function. That`s when people start to have a negative and closed-minded attitude. Dutch tolerance is a good excuse for people to leave others alone and to make no effort of getting to know the unusual`, Ashwien says.
`Another example is the low number of non-Western foreigners in the higher echelons of business life. Many companies keep old-boys networks alive and are therefore hardly accessible to non-native Dutch, women or people who do not belong to the mainstream. Many companies are very homogeneous, but company leaders are slowly starting to see the advantage of diversity. State authorities have been pioneering a multicultural workforce model, with the ideal of forming a fair representation of the country`s population.`
Susanne (28) confesses she was surprised when a non-Dutch lecturer once appeared in university: `I was shocked by how just that surprised me. In a way it makes sense, because many nationalities have not been present for a long enough time to make it through the `higher ranges` of the social ladder, especially immigrants from Morocco and Turkey.`
`Some right-wing politicians are also stirring up the debate. They do have a right in putting issues in the agenda that others do not want to touch upon. Not every problem should be covered with gentle love, which has been the usual way for the last 20 years. Some however misuse their freedom of speech by doing little less than provoking others and adding fuel to the flames. More for their own good than to the benefit of the country.`
Susanne continues by telling that many Dutch people have grown Islamofoob, a tendency that is partly due to 9/11 and partly to events in The Netherlands itself. `When Islam-critic Theo van Gogh got killed by a Morrocan youngster with religious motives, people started to fear what they called `the intolerant nature` of the Islam religion. Theo van Gogh was never very popular, but, in the way some people see it, proved he was right by getting killed for speaking up. The murder gave rise to riots shortly after, and a feeling of national insecurity ever since.`
Farid (24) from Morocco thinks that politicians can be partly held responsible for what is slowing even turning into general xenophobia. `It`s an educational problem. Dutch parents want to send their kids to Dutch schools, so they don`t grow up with foreigners: soort zoekt soort, birds of a feather flock together. The whole discussion about black schools and white schools, or black and white neighbourhoods simply doesn`t make sense. It`s not even something that relates to skin colour. There should be as much of a mix as possible so people get used to the differences.`
Farid dislikes how Dutch people, `or Cheese Heads as we some times call them`, think of us Morrocans as lazy thieves and dealers. We work hard and are alright with taking risks, but Dutch employers are not eager to take us on and Dutch people in general prefer to stick to their stereotypes than to verify them.`
Roy (24) thinks that Dutch tolerance misses out on one important element: acceptation. `The Dutch like to think in fixed mindsets. They like to organise reality and isolate things that san possibly scare them. But I do think that our country is collectively scared, in a way that is starting to resemble the situation in the United States. Immigrants have much more difficulty finding a job, sometimes because of something simple as their family name.`, he says.
Apart from that, the Dutch down-to-earth way of thinking is not always well-understood by non-natives. Neither is their tendency to joke about sensitive subjects, which many non-natives quickly see as an offence. The Dutch proverb `to march like an elephant through a cupboard full of china` seems to be more true when linked to themselves rather than to anybody else.
Natascha (18), mixed Italian-German, can count on sympathy from Dutch people as long as she doesn`t say she`s German. `They can`t hear it from my accent, but when I tell them, they are quick to call Sieg heil or make corresponding gestures. I`ve been living in The Netherlands for 10 years now, and nothing about that has really changed. It`s due to the Second World War, but all of that happened before I was even born. I do think the Dutch have to right to ask newcomers to learn Dutch. If I can learn it, others should be able to learn it as well.`
Stefano (20) thinks the Dutch do not sufficiently care about social structures: `They don`t know what hierarchy is, they don`t know what it is to listen to experienced people and they have very little family values. In Surinam, where my roots are, people don`t make appointments, they just go see each others. When you`re a child, you call your parents` uncle or aunt. People sacrifice their own little freedoms to comply with what their family thinks is good for them. They are much closer to their relatives that the Dutch are. Dutch children are often left to re-invent the wheel, while the elderly are left alone instead of serving as sources of wisdom and authority. `
Stefano explains that many children in mixed families have difficulties determining which culture to adhere to. `I could easily be accused by my Surinam family to be too distant, while my Dutch friends could think I`m too disorganised and care too much about my family member`s opinion.`
The opinions about what is and is not allowed, or should and should not be tolerated, run far apart. Sabri (30) from Turkey thinks that The Netherlands is way too tolerant. `There are plenty of things that are allowed here, and would be impossible in Turkey. That confuses people, especially young ones living inbetween national cultures.` Kees (26) thinks that The Netherlands should not refer to tolerance in the home countries of immigrants, before deciding how much freedom is allowed: `Political ideas to label some groups of immigrants as `bad people` do not belong to this era. It`s incredible how some people are unable to learn from the past.`
Tolerance in The Netherlands: an ever-developing story that`s certainly worth keeping an eye on.
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