The discomfort surrounding talks on historic and present-day racism in class

Image from a Dutch high school history book. Photo by author.

By Sientje Trip

When browsing through one of the history books of the high school I researched I came across some paragraphs on the Dutch colonial and concomitant slavery history, on the VOC and the WIC. It describes the so called triangle trade between Europe, Africa and The Americas and the way enslaved Africans were fitted with as many as possible in big ships with Dutch flags. Later on in my fieldwork, I asked one of the teachers at the high school if this slavery history can be hard to talk about. He laughed a bit before answering:

No, have you looked around at all here? Yes we have some Iraqi and because of the Hoogovens [a well-known steel factory in the area] we have some Turkish students, but not very many, almost no one from Surinam or anything like that. Most of the students do not feel that much of a connection to it.”

Apparently, the teacher assumes that only students of color ‘feel a connection’ to the topic of colonialism, and white students don’t. And when students seemingly don’t feel a connection to it, the topic of the Dutch colonial history is not important enough or too awkward to deeply or thoroughly talk about.

The importance of discussing these topics in school, in what way and how often, has been up for debate for a long time but recently became a greater part of public debate during the rise Black Lives Matter protest this year.

Discussing these ‘black pages’ of the Dutch history in school is important, as all parts of history have consequences on our society today. It is important to teach the next generation that colonialism and companies like the VOC and WIC did not only bring our country fame and wealth, but can also be seen as the basis on which present-day racism was established and rooted in our society. Acknowledgement of and reflection on this history in education can counter the myth of The Netherlands being a tolerant and, since the abolishment of slavery, post-racial society. Currently, this myth often creates discomfort amongst white Dutch people when discussing historic and present day racism. And that discomfort stands in the way of fighting racism.

Racism is often seen as something from the past, and digging it up and discussing it too much is perceived not to do much good, especially when connecting historic to present day racism. This discomfort around racism also exists in our educational system, where it is not yet discussed as often and thoroughly as it should be. Although the number of paragraphs on or connected to this topic are increasing in the schoolbooks and recently the first person of Surinamese descent, resistance fighter and writer Anton de Kom, was added to the mandatory curricula, this cannot automatically be seen as a direct increase in the time actually spent on it in class.

The fact that slavery is often a depreciated topic within the Dutch history education is based on a number of coinciding structural and cultural reasons. The sheer number of topics can make it hard for teachers to give all topics the time and attention they deserve. Unfortunately, the Dutch slavery history is often one of the topics that is chosen as one to go over swiftly as to make room for topics like the second world war.

That choice is connected to the earlier mentioned post-racial self-image among the Dutch. Race is perceived not to play a part anymore in society. This makes that present day racism is by the predominantly white citizens often seen as a non-issue. The fact that white students and teachers may see this topic as a non-issue can be seen as a manifestation of the white innocence or white privilege carried by white people in The Netherlands; they have the privilege of not having to deal with racism as it does not negatively affect one’s self, and therefore of not seeing it as an issue.

Yet another issue is the felt discomfort to discuss the topic. In my research, I found that the presence of a few non-white students in a predominantly white classroom can make the teacher hyperconscious. This hyperconsciousness reflected the idea that, as a ‘well-intentioned white person,’ one is often scared to offend when discussing matters of racism in the presence of people of color. The presence of this/these student(s) sheds light on the privilege of the teacher and the white students, and on the myth of the country’s post-racialness. It is this discomfort that can keeps the teacher from diving deeper into the topic; “What if I say something wrong and unintentionally hurt someone?”. However, as DiAngelo also discusses in her paper on white silence, this silence induced by discomfort takes away the opportunity to learn about one’s own thoughts and biases in a safe and open learning environment such as a classroom.

The current increase in public debate on the topic is a good start on tackling this discomfort and the myth of innocence that is connected to it. It hopefully helps expand the next generation’s awareness on the consequences that our history has on our present-day society.

Sientje Trip did a BA in Anthropology at VU and a MA Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam.

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