Understanding autochtoon privilege

By Guest Contributor Flavia Tamara Dzodan, cross-posted from Red Light Politics

Here in The Netherlands, racial matters and subsequent discussions are framed very differently from those in North America. I suspect that due to the fact that The Netherlands has lacked an equivalent to the Civil Rights Movement, race issues are still stalled in a colonial phase where oppressive language and the relevant discourse have never been properly deconstructed and challenged (and hardly analyzed at all outside academic circles).

To give a bit of background, the Dutch state has a classification system for those of us who live here. This classification is not necessarily framed on ethnicity but on place of birth (both for the classified subject and her parents). The Dutch state uses a word appropriated from biology, “allochtoon” to refer to us. This term originally denotes any organism which is non native to a given ecosystem. They have, in turn, created a scale of “foreignness” in which a Native Dutch (known as “autochtoon” in Dutch state parlance) is at the top of the food chain, followed by “Western foreigners” (i.e. Americans and other Caucasian Europeans) and then at the bottom of the foreignness pyramid, “non-Western foreigners” (i.e. everyone who comes from a country classified as non Western or underdeveloped).

This foreignness is determined not only by the place where one was born but also by the place where one’s parents come from. So, someone could be born in The Netherlands, but still be classified as a non Western foreigner because one of her parents hails from such place. Because I am South American, I am one such “Non Western Foreigner”. My status as an ethnic foreigner is also made evident by the way I look (I am consistently addressed in Arabic or Turkish because of my completion).

The laws of the country are such that I am obliged to disclose my “Non Western foreigner” status in a multitude of ways: if I am to apply for a job, I am obliged to tell; if I am to take a language course, I am obliged to tell; my healthcare provider demands to know this and I am obliged to tell (supposedly for statistical purposes); education plans and programs are put in place specifically for people like me (and my children if I had any).

So today, I was trying to explain the concept of “White Privilege” to a Dutch person but half way through the discussion, realized that there is no such concept in The Netherlands. At least, the equivalent to such concept, “Autochtoon Privilege” (autochtoon bevoorrecht in Dutch, which are the terms I googled for) is not used at all in media or discussions on racial or ethnic matters. I googled the term, hoping to find a Dutch equivalent to Peggy McIntosh’s seminal “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, but after scouring the first one hundred or so results, I came to the conclusion that this framework doesn’t exist at all over here. In particular, I would like to address “Autochtoon Privilege” within these variables (quoted from McIntosh):

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.

In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made inconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of color.

I think that given the current government negotiations including the PVV (Geert Wilders party) and the talks on burqa bans, ethnic registrations for non Dutch, discussions to close Muslim schools, prevalent Islamophobia, etc, the concept of “Autochtoon Privilege” is fundamental to frame the discussions in the current political climate. In addition, mainstream media seems very keen on perpetuating the myth of “reverse racism” or “reverse discrimination” to point out the emotional reactions that some people within certain minority groups display towards what they perceive as “Dutch oppression.”

These myths of racism or discrimination supposedly perpetrated by the minority groups constantly targeted by the media as the “the reason for the downfall of Dutch culture” almost always go unchallenged. The popular discourse is such that it has been widely accepted by the local autoctonous population that they, too, are being victims of racism. The fact that “autochtoon privilege” or “white privilege” are not at all part of the narrative dissolve the fact that, in order for racism to happen, a combination of privilege + prejudice need to exist. Without this combination, all we have left is prejudice, which is indeed bad, but hardly oppressive or capable of affecting the policies and regulations of a country at all.

Inspired by “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” I have tried to put together a list to describe the myriad manners in which “Autochtoon Privilege” manifests:

  • Because I am an autochtoon, I am not obliged by law to attend an integration course to learn not only the language but the prevailing culture in a curriculum that enforces traditions and practices I am told I must embrace or else risk my legal status.
  • Because I am an autochtoon, my culture is always portrayed as “the proper one” in mainstream media
  • My religion is not being discussed as a breeding ground for terrorists and a destabilizing force in the country
  • My children will be accepted in any school of my choosing without being singled out as minorities that can potentially affect the school’s reputation in a negative way
  • My children’s school curriculum will not be “dumbed down” because the expectation is that they cannot make it to university *
  • My clothing will not be subject to legal debates, including the prohibition of my attire because it offends Dutch dominant culture
  • When I go to my healthcare provider, my complains will not be dismissed because it is assumed that I am ignorant about healthcare practices due to my cultural and ethnic background
  • If my language skills are poor, it will not lead to the assumption that it is because I come from a “backwards country” and as such, I am developmentally disabled.
  • Media representations of people like me are varied and nuanced. I have a number of role models to identify with.
  • My ethnic group will not be used as a caricature during the biggest national children’s festivity
  • I can speak in public and my statements will not be used against the entire ethnic group I belong to.
  • My religion will not be used negatively to further politicians careers
  • If I speak negatively about The Netherlands, I will not be called “unpatriotic” and my legal status will not be questioned or risked
  • If I make mistakes on my job, those mistakes will not be attributed to the poor working ethics of the minority group I belong to
  • If an employer does give me a job, they are not going to use my employment as a way to get tax breaks due to me being a minority
  • The foods I eat and prepare are never singled out as an oddity or a nuisance
  • The way in which my culture celebrates festivities and events will not lead to neighbors calling the police due to the perception that my celebrations are a public nuisance
  • When discussing youth related issues, my teenage children are not being used as an example of the need for specific laws to target the problems they create **
  • If I am in any way involved in politics, my ethnic background will not be used as proof of my incompetence or inability to be impartial to the needs of the country, nor will I be accused of being against the country’s best interest.
  • If I am a woman and decide to become a stay at home mother, I will not be used as proof that the totality of my gender within the minority I belong to is being oppressed.
  • If I am a woman, the way in which I choose to exercise my right to be sexually active will not be used as further proof that I am not liberated or emancipated
  • If I express unpopular opinions, I will not fear deportation

I see this list as a work in progress and I intend to expand on it and elaborate further. However, I also insist that it is crucial that we start to understand that there is no such a thing as “reverse racism” and that “Autochtoon Privilege” is a reality, even though one that is hardly questioned, if at all.

* Dutch school system is such that non Western children attend schools with curriculums that do not enforce the path towards University education, and, instead, are encouraged to go into vocational training education paths.

** Hangjongeren is a Dutch term that denotes “Youth hanging out” and special ordinances have been enacted in different municipalities to discourage these groups from forming. Since the groups are prevalently either Moroccan, Turkish, Surinam or Antillian, the laws have been passed to target the phenomenon described as “threatening and a nuisance to the public order”.