By Nanke Franks
Moving to a new country can be an overwhelming experience – one that often involves learning a new language and cultural values. Once you’re able to get a grasp of what people are saying, the process of understanding the cultural identity of a country becomes a much less daunting task. At least, this is what I have felt whilst adjusting to life in The Netherlands.
I first experienced living in The Netherlands when I was 19, living in a small southern city, and now, two years down the line, I live in The Hague, The Netherland’s third largest city.
Through learning the Dutch language, I’ve come to realise that certain culturally resonant elements form a significant part of The Netherlands’ sense of national identity. Tolerance forms a major part of Dutch mentality, but at the same time so does traditionalism. At times, these two elements can seem a bit contradictory. A typical example of this would be the arrival of Sinterklaas (The Netherland’s answer to Father Christmas). Sinterklaas arrives on a boat from Spain, along with his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Black Peter is typically portrayed by a white person, who dons a curly black wig and paints their face black. Needless to say, the very character of Black Peter is extremely controversial. However, the primarily reason for why this figures remains ever present every December is one of tradition. Black Peter is a deeply engrained figure in Dutch traditionalism – pretty much every Dutch person has fond childhood memories of this character. Herein lies the problem with ‘tradition’ – when a particular experience becomes commonplace, it equally becomes increasingly difficult to see the flaws of it.
This issue seems particularly apparent when I consider a product that is referred to in Belgium as a ‘negerinnentet’ (also known as a ‘negerzoen’ in The Netherlands). For a number of years, there’s been a debate about this product’s name and whether it should be changed. The Flemish name translates as ‘female-negro’s tit’; similarly, the Dutch version translates as ‘negro’s kiss’ – while there is no explicit suggestion of gender, it seems likely that it shares the female association that the Flemish name possesses. I imagine that upon reading such translations, you’re probably questioning why a debate is even required – the name is clearly deeply offensive to black women. It is, again, a problem of tradition. ‘Neger’ is not considered an outright offensive word in The Netherlands as it is considered to be descriptive as opposed to insulting. Thus, a word like ‘negerzoen’ does not sound intensely degrading to Dutch ears, and, as a result, some people think that to change this traditional name is political correctness gone mad. However, people who adamantly hold such a stance should, in my opinion, really consider the historical roots and connotations of such words. What is disturbing about both names is that they seem reflective of a time in European history when black women were objectified as exotic novelties and viewed in a highly sexualised manner. Think about it: why do the names refer to a kiss or a breast? It’s a product that has been around since the 1800s – a period during which the European view of black people was of low regard. When you contemplate these aspects of the two names, how can these words be anything but degrading?
Tradition and privilege, however, seemingly make people blind to this perspective. Although in this post I have written specifically about an issue that exists in the Dutch language, by no means do I mean to suggest that it is only within this culture and language should the role and significance of traditionalism be considered – rather, it is a matter that should be debated globally. It is all too easy to simply say ‘this is our tradition and no offence is intended by it’ – to brand something as ‘tradition’ should not be considered a method of granting it acceptability. Furthermore, ‘traditions’ should always be subject to review – the moment society becomes complacent about this is the moment that social changes will come to a complete standstill.