Racism in the Dutch Labour Market

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

— Christopher Isherwood, “Berlin Diary” (1930) from Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

“The first thing you do is forget that I am Black… Second, you must never forget that I am Black.”


In The Wretched of the Earth Frantz Fanon astutely remarks that, “[F]or the colonized subject, objectivity is always directed against him [sic.].” Contrary to Christopher Isherwood’s captivating sentence, we are neither “passive,” nor do we record experiences mechanically. Feminist epistemologies have taught us that the situatedness of the recording, and thus knowing, subject needs to be accounted for. “Experiences, social practices, social values and the ways in which perception and knowledge production are socially organized,” Marcel Stoetzler and Nira Yuval-Davis write in Standpoint Theory, Situated Knowledge and the Situated Imagination, “have been seen as mediating and facilitating the transition and transformation of situatedness into knowledge.” Fanon knew how imperative it is to consider the perspective from which looking occurs.

Last month a news story circulated widely across Dutch media reported that “Antillean men are the least likely, of the major ethnic groups in the Netherlands, to be offered a job by the agency.” The detached and rehearsed (in November 2011 a similar finding circulated) way in which White Dutch media examined, and discussed, the issue prompted me to record and analyze how the dominant culture “looks at” and “talks about” institutionalized racism on the labour market (which was “big news” for about  a week), and the current (if not unchanging) social context, in which the discrediting, belittling, and exclusion of marginalized groups is the order of the day.

After I started working on this post I soon realized that most stories about the struggling non-Western Allochtoon on the labour market came with what Julian Murphet has called “prepackaged affects.” Bitter was repeatedly used by White Dutch media as a descriptive term to characterize people of colour emotionally. We were marked, apparently, by hostility and resentment.

I, then, decided to broaden my focus to include the circulation of not only stereotypes and prejudices, but also “ugly feelings” in the public sphere; that is, how government institutions, the labour market, the media, state policies and everyday talk “perform” the relationship between Autochtoon and non-Western Allochtoon and create “racialized affective infrastructures.” Some statements, like highway signs, direct the dominant culture to certain affective destinations/spaces assigned to ethnic minorities. There, we are found bitter, disgruntled, angry, full of resentment and animosity.

In the Netherlands, when it comes to “race talk,” there is a heavy emphasis on discourses of “innocence” (a cognitive distancing from “bad White people” who are the “true racists”) and “hope,” while discourses of complicity are ignored. Moreover, cognitive distancing coupled with the belief that only intentional acts motivated by racial animus constitute racism allows White Autochtoon Dutch people to think that structural racism is purely accidental. Although racial discrimination may not be an intended and deliberate goal of staff hiring policies and procedures, or the Dutch government for that matter, neither is it accidental. Staff hiring policies and procedures, and government policies, do not exist in a vacuum. They come from a culture and a set of social relations that make them seem natural, beneficial, necessary, and, perhaps, even inevitable.

If staff hiring policies are fair, and government policies are “race neutral,” if the system is meritocratic, as it is commonly believed, then how do we explain employment disparities? Any critique that focuses on affective economies and racism in the labour market cannot bypass looking at “diversity,” “equality,” “anti-discrimination,” “Whiteness,” “free-market capitalism,” and ultimately “democracy” itself.  This is the first part of a larger piece (I will be publishing it in sections, lest some complain about word count) that will touch on all those interrelated topics.

Racism in the Dutch Labour Market

UWV – De Arbeidsmarkt – Animatie

In 1986 R. Den Uyl, C. Choenni, and F. Bovenkerk, did a study on passive discrimination in employment agencies. They investigated whether job agencies honoured racist requests from employers. The results of the study, which was entitled Mag het ook een Buitenlander wezen?, showed that every single employment agency that was part of the study honoured racist requests from employers. In 2011 in an industry-wide investigation it came to light that 77 percent of the employment agencies honoured so-called ‘bad requests’ (they racially profiled applicants when asked). Last year, another such investigation had similar findings: employment agencies still discriminate. In the wake of last year’s report by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research the Federation of Private Employment Agencies promised several “preventive” measures. The Federation declared, in a bid to show its commitment to fighting racism, to draw, once again, the attention of its members to the existing Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice.

State Secretary Jetta Klijnsma said in reaction to the NISR report, according to Dutchnews.nl, that “it is ‘unacceptable’ and ‘not sensible’ to ignore potential talent.”Klijnsma summoned anyone who has faced employment discrimination to report it immediately to an anti-discrimination bureau in their municipality, or the Commission of Human Rights.

“It’s a very persistent phenomenon. Any form of employment discrimination is unacceptable and must be vigorously fought.” — Jetta Klijnsma

Notwithstanding countless legislative actions, reports unearthing racial bias on the labour market, and interventions by the Federation of Private Employment Agencies, racial discrimination continues to be “a very persistent phenomenon.” People of colour are still excluded, or disadvantaged, on the basis of irrelevant characteristics. Correspondingly, a headline on the website of De Volkskrant reads: “Allochtonen Don’t Feel Accepted.” In the article journalist Janny Groen, who co-authored Women Warriors for Allah: An Islamist Network in the Netherlands, reports that bitterness seeps through the interviews with “non-Western Dutch.”

One of the criticisms mentioned in De Volkskrant article is that society is obsessed with the differences between groups of people, and does not pay attention to the similarities. The desire to focus on similarities instead of differences is an understandable and commendable sentiment. However, we must be mindful of how “similarities” are constructed and used in the people making project. As Amade M’Charek notes in Technologies of Population: Forensic DNA Testing Practices and the Making of Differences and Similarities, “in order to produce differences (between individuals), geneticists need to presuppose similarities (within a population).”

Carlijne Vos exhorts companies in a Volkskrant op-ed to let go of their “ethnocentric reflex” and revise their hiring policies. She additionally states that,

“As long as non-Western Allochtonen do not have equal access to the labour market, feelings of exclusion are reinforced. This, in turn, inhibits participation and inclusion in society.

This vicious circle can only be broken when employers take responsibility by critically reviewing their hiring policies. They must be aware of the tendency to assess applicants through their own ‘white’ cultural lens.”

In a peculiar insight Anouar El Haji, PhD Candidate, and Mohamed Aadroun, lecturer in Business Administration, aver that “the racist employer does not exist,” and that the subordinate socio-economic position of Allochtonen is due to a “negative group image.” They also assert, in response to Carlijne Vos’ op-ed, that “[E]mployers do not discriminate due to a ‘white’ cultural lens, but because it is financially advantageous”—an assertion that makes racism seem in certain cases, based on statistically conclusive generalizations of a group, “reasonable.” El Haji and Aadroun, essentially, argue that non-Western Allochtonen have only themselves to blame. This argument echoes, perhaps unsurprisingly, the phrasing of the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, which has matter-of-factly observed in 2007 that “non-Western Allochtonen take an unfavourable position—relative to Autochtonen—on the labour market,” thus implying that it’s due to our own actions. El Haji and Aadroun end their write-up with a lovely piece of advice,

“Exhibiting decent behaviour, and giving it your all may not only reduce the risk of discrimination, but also indirectly contribute to a positive group image.” (My translation)

At any rate, the theory of statistical discrimination, which was championed by early days Law and Economics scholars and to which both authors and the NISR report now refer, has been challenged by both Law and Economics scholars as well as Critical Race Theorists. Richard H. McAdams amongst others has argued that economic models are too simplistic and extremely unrealistic. In the main, because they rely on idealistic assumptions about the behaviour of individuals, institutions, and markets, and do not account for how historically situated practices of racial discrimination are tied up with present practices on the labour market.

“Wij zijn nu eenmaal Hollanders en wij meenden dezelfde rechten te hebben als de blanken. Ziethier [sic.] het probleem.”

(“The simple fact is that we are Dutch, and we thought we had the same rights as whites. This here is the problem.” My translation)

Nederlanders die het moeilijk hebben
“A smile on his face… a heart full of bitterness.”












The above-mentioned quotation is taken from a feature entitled “Netherlanders who are struggling” (Nederlanders die het moeilijk hebben) which appeared in Het Leven no. 22 (Saturday 29 May 1937). The article touches on the experiences, and lives, of a group of Afro-Surinamese men, who came over from Suriname in the 1930s with hopes to make a living in the Netherlands as Jazz musicians and dancers in so-called Negro clubs. Instead, they saw their dreams dashed by the police, and massive discrimination. The police actively denied these men work permits, despite the fact that these were Dutch citizens. The institutional machinery found them undeserving and simply deprived them of a livelihood.

Likewise, the “negative group image” argument was levied against these men. This rhetorical manoeuvre placed the onus on the Afro-Surinamese to take action against the “chaff” that was causing this “negative group image.” The same social rhetoric is now being promulgated as regards structural discrimination in the labour market: if only they disciplined their own. As the case of these Afro-Surinamese men shows, the labour market, and by extension the workplace, has a long history of being an important space wherein “race,” and citizenship (thus belonging), is produced.

In the next section I’ll be looking at the racialization of citizenship.