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Hij Was Maar Een Neger (He Was Just A Negro)

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

In the Netherlands, the acknowledgment of the historical facts of slavery is rare. Instead, one is met frequently with a blank stare and a claim that it is other countries that have faltered, not the Netherlands. Also, there is the popular practice of offering the testimonies of seemingly 'better' colonial lands like the apparently happy-go-lucky Surinam and Dutch Antilles people to claim that nothing in the Dutch culture is offensive to black people.

In any case, any foreigner living in the Netherlands will know this is not the place for immigrant grievances to be voiced. instead of being heard, one is often told to go back where they came from and slapped with statistics of how awful their own country of origin is in comparison to the Netherlands. The message from most Dutch people has been: "You should be glad we let you in!" and "You're lucky to even be here!"

But living with the Dutch becomes especially hard during the festive season. While they revel in their seemingly perfect world, I am faced every day with the excruciating figure of Zwarte Piet. The blackface character is plastered everywhere from supermarkets to adverts and even the cinema. The famous Dutch icon is a supposedly harmless tradition. With deep roots in slavery, it often results in being teased by Dutch children for my resemblance to the thing.

The surreptitiously bigoted ambiance continues to compress my enduring will. It has been so damaging to my spirit that I have even sought professional help and even my therapist met my anguish with a marked level of nonchalance. My classmates, my partner, and even many black friends seem perplexed that I should be so vexed. "Why must you complain? You’re an African in the West. You should be satisfied that you made it here."

Contrary to the advice of many well-meaning Netherlanders, I continue involuntarily to take offense. But I take comfort in the fact that as soon as I graduate, I will do exactly as they have suggested and go back where I came from. I may not understand why the Dutch think I should be so grateful to be in their presence, but I know humanity. I know I am human and I deserve to be treated as such, no matter where I am from and no matter what I look like.

The only thing I really have is my instinct. And the terrible feeling that stirs in me when I see people unashamedly make fun of and enjoy a history they refuse to acknowledge is more dependable than their word that they really have done nothing wrong and that I am the crazy one. Well ... I am crazy. That's true. But that doesn't change the fact that what they are doing is wrong.


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