Justitia Vincit Omnia

 “All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race, or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.” – Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution

Last year three criminologists of Leiden University conducted a study in which they found that people who “look Dutch” have the least chance to be sentenced to imprisonment by sub-district judges. Moreover, “Dutch-looking” people receive on the whole a lesser sentence, quite often a fine or community service. In response to the Leiden study Rivke Jaffe wrote a column entitled Is There Such a Thing as a Non-Dutch Appearance?, which was published in the Leiden university weekly Mare. She writes,

“The Leiden study was conducted based on the observations of students who used a standardized checklist. Upon inquiry I learned that the variable “non-Dutch appearance” was based on a combination of the subjective assessment of the observer, and the registration of the place of birth of the suspect. If ambiguities arose, then the observers simply left this attribute open. If there were any uncertainty whether the appearance of the accused was Dutch, or not, then the case would not be included in the analysis. This only occurred in ten of the 541 cases, so the observers felt pretty confident about their ability to distinguish between a Dutch and non-Dutch appearance.”

Implicit bias not only affects individuals but compromises the whole justice system. In a recent  research by Eva Jaspers on what students of the Nijmegen university think about Allochtonen one of the findings was that philosophy and social science majors were more welcoming towards Allochtonen than students who studied medicine and law. This may have severe implications. Studies have shown that implicit attitudes about race may exacerbate racial health care disparities. Interestingly, among the student population it seemed that men objected more so than women to having ethnic minorities in the student population, or simply around. Hans Siebers has detailed how a migrant-hostile discourse, which has come to dominate Dutch politics, has negatively impacted general attitudes towards ethnic minorities, and has led to “conflicts and tensions at the workplace.” These conflicts and tensions, however, are not confined solely to the workplace.

Last year, a minor of Dutch-Turkish descent  petitioned a court in Maastricht to change his “Turkish sounding” first name, due to the fact that his name elicited negative reactions (for a discussion of the politics of naming check out Let’s Talk About Names: Ali, hooks, Lee Boggs on Racialicious). The court ruled that even though it shouldn’t be a problem within a multicultural society that someone with a “Turkish sounding” first name is associated with a particular group, the party involved proved that his Turkish name is causing him so much trouble and inconvenience that the court determined that there is sufficient ground for a name change. In his ruling the judge stated,

“The father of [the minor] has both the Dutch and Turkish nationality. However, his roots lie in Turkey. [the minor], however, the offspring of a Turkish father and a Dutch mother, was born in the Netherlands, raised in the Netherlands, and has an almost typical Dutch appearance and feels much more Dutch than Turkish.” [emphases mine]

Both cases raise a question that immigration has made very pertinent: what does it mean to “look Dutch”? Clearly, having a Dutch appearance affords one privileges. In both the Leiden study and the court ruling a casual conflation of White and Dutch occurs, which discursively couples Whiteness with Dutch nationality and makes “Dutch” a marker borne on the surface of the body. White Autochtoon Dutchness becomes, following Cheryl Harris, a trait that can be possessed, and its possessor can, apparently, be singled out visually.  (Read also: Flagging the skin: Corporeal Nationalism and the Properties of Belonging)

The aforementioned cases show that racial taxonomy still matters. Moreover, the fact that even (sub-district) judges adhere to the belief that there is such a thing as a “Dutch appearance” certainly puts the notion of “objectieve rechtvaardiging” (objective justification) on shaky grounds. Objective justification basically means that in certain cases it is allowed to make demands regarding the clothing, appearance, and behaviour of applicants. However, these requirements have to be “functional” and must not result in discrimination. To clarify this term Wervingenselectiegids.nl offers a case study on their website:

“A Surinamese man with frizzy hair was sent home by a catering organization, due to his hairstyle. The Commission determined that this is indirect discrimination on grounds of race, since the young man’s hair texture determines to a great extent how he wears his hair. The catering organization was wrong to send the young man home because of his hairstyle. However, the catering organization is allowed to demand that the young man makes his hair look well-groomed [sic.].” [My translation]

The question is: well-groomed according to whose standards?


It’s apparent that the individuals who drew up this ruling “do not have to worry about where they are located in ongoing, harmful group relations.” Further, the active neglect of the hierarchical relationship between Autochtoon and Allochtoon camouflages how much of the knowledge production on racism and discrimination is in the hands of White Autochtoon Dutch people. Philomena Essed and Kwame Nimako address this state of affairs in the essay Designs and (Co)Incidents. Essed and Nimako expose not only the ideological underpinnings of most research on minorities in the Netherlands, but also the tangled relationship between policy makers and the academics who conduct research on minorities. “Public and civil servants in charge of advising the government about minority policy,” they write, “become academic researchers in charge of conducting policy research while subsequently joining the pool of government advisors located at the various Dutch universities.” This closed networked system compromises the already shaky notion of objectivity.

The myth of impartiality, as Jennifer Nielsen so poignantly writes in There’s always an easy out: how ‘innocence’ and ‘probability’ whitewash race discrimination, “functions as [the tribunals’] claim to be ‘innocent’ and ‘distant’ from the condition of whiteness, so that they need not acknowledge that they are implicated within it.” What often passes for impartiality, or objectivity, is a construction of discourses and actions that frame the White Autochtoon Dutch positionality as predominantly neutral, if not positive. What’s more, the discursive strategy of positioning non-Whites, non-Autochtonen, non-Dutch as the Other hides, naturalizes, mystifies, and, in the end, protects White Autochtoon Dutchness by upholding its location as the definitional centre from which bodies are theorized—a process which reinforces racism.

The ruling of the Human Rights Commission in the Netherlands in a case against a fitness studio further exposes how salient the idea of race is to the construction of an Autochtoon Dutch identity. The fitness studio stated in their house rules that Dutch had to be used at all times, and the Commission ruled that the studio discriminated unlawfully on the basis of race—even though the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of nationality. By grounding the ruling in race the Commission suggests a straightforward correlation between race and not speaking Dutch.

Based on the previous examples it’s safe to say that the judicial system in the Netherlands functionally endorses White Autochtoon Dutchness as the organizing principle of national identity and belonging. And as a result anyone who is either non-White, non-Autochtoon, or non-Dutch is rendered visible in much the same way. Dienke Hondius asserts that, “there is a stubborn tendency among Dutch researchers and politicians to merge every “other” group together as one: allochtonen (those who are born outside “this country”) or migranten (those who have come “here” from “elsewhere”).” Racism in the Netherlands is not only an expression of White supremacy, but also of Dutch supremacy.

The politics of ethno-nationalism are strongest on a state level. Hans Siebers and Paul Mutsaers write that “the Dutch government wants to make social rights dependent on ethnicity, enforces assimilation programmes upon migrants, violates human rights on a large scale and applauds detention camps, the ‘warehousing’ of refugees in border zones of war, and quota policing of illegal foreigners.” White Autochtoon Dutchness continuously affects, often negatively, the lives and livelihoods of those who are considered “foreign.”

Level-headedness, however, can never substitute for a critical race praxis. “Equal protection by the law” does not imply equal treatment by the law. The whole premise of the Dutch “anti-discrimination” act is faulty since it presupposes that we all inhabit the same zero point in society. Difference is not articulated in the form it is experienced. “To be affected by something,” as Sara Ahmed notes, “is to evaluate that thing.” The thing being evaluated is discrimination, not the thing which enables discrimination to be enacted upon certain bodies.


5 thoughts on “Justitia Vincit Omnia

  1. There were 47 or 57 non dutch looking and non dutch speaking in that study totally
    They didn’t show how they were distributed over the like 10 or differnt crimes.Becuase then it get’s laugable already and if you then also have to control for that handfull persons a group to what answers he gived relatively too dutch looking persons ( % psychopathic answers), do you then get even 1 person to compare lol.

    MMM I think why they didn’t show how they did in the table of the study…

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