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The Dutch Know Best? Paternalism in the Netherlands Past and Present


She is called a murderer, among other names, on this day.  July 1, 2005, marks the national commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands.  The cabinet has sent Rita Verdonk, Minister of Immigration and Integration as the government’s representative.  Those present make it impossible to hear her speech, shouting and cursing loudly.  What is the reason for this hatred?  Verdonk is known for her hardliner policies on integration and often less than tactful attitudes towards immigrants and minorities, as well as for a rigid policy on asylum seekers.  Aspha Bijnaar, a senior researcher at the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNSEE), personally finds it hard to understand why the Dutch government decided to send her. “The relations in this country between several groups are already very tense.  To be honest, I think that you can consider this as yet another expression of looking down upon the Surinam and Antillean community.  It seems to me that they don’t care about our feelings or that it’s just not that important.” This is not NiNSEE’s official stance, however.  The organization extended an invitation to the government, who then freely decided whom to send as their representative.   

The controversy surrounding Verdonk’s visit reflects a complex historical relationship between the Dutch and racial minorities.  The decision to send Mrs. Verdonk seems to betray an attitude of superiority and implicit racial insensitivity, if not paternalism.  In this paper we seek to understand various ways in which this attitude has operated when the Dutch have dealings with minorities.  Specifically, how does the concept of paternalism apply to majority/minority relationships in the Netherlands?  

Mary Jackman, in her book With Velvet Gloves, defines paternalism as “the sense of apparent concern by the dominator for the welfare of the subordinate, though always employed in ways that preserve the fundamental exploitation of the latter by the former.”  Clearly such a definition of paternalism would seem to implicate all asymmetrical power relationships, from government aid to altruistic assistance.  But on closer analysis, we believe that only those relationships with underlying assumptions of fundamental inequality are paternalistic.  Perhaps the best example is the racial attitudes underlying slavery and discrimination.    

How exactly has this expressed itself throughout Dutch history?  Can we still find implicit structures of racial and cultural superiority/inferiority?

Paternalism in Slavery and Colonization

The history of Dutch paternalism begins with the curiosity of 16th century traders and explorers as they encountered different and, to them, new and strange races. According to Dienke Hondius, professor at the Free University (Vrije Universiteit) in Amsterdam and currently writing a book on the history of racism, white superiority was implicit in the very mobility of the Europeans: “They were the ones controlling/initiating the encounter. Only with the advent of the lucrative slave trade in the 18th century did race assume a decisive role in the discourse on human hierarchy.” 

Dienke explains that new ‘racial sciences’ sought to locate and define the ‘essential differences’ between humans. ‘Inferior’ races were either treated as inhuman, a process of bestialization, or as intellectually inferior children, so-called infantilization. The latter was dominant in the era of slavery, lending credence to the explicitly paternalistic justification for the trade and keeping of black slaves.  With this racially-charged background, paternalism reached its zenith during the height of colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries.

According to Professor Alex van Stripriaan, a historian of Caribbean slavery and colonialism at Erasmus University, Dutch “colonialism equals paternalism.” Enlightening the backward, civilizing the savage, and Christianizing the pagan were the benevolent goals of European mercantilism-cum-colonization. These paternalistic justifications clearly stemmed from a de facto rationale of white/European superiority and other race/culture inferiority. In effect, colonization enshrined paternalism, no matter how ‘benevolent,’ in an economy of dominance, exploitation and control. 

Despite the formal independence of most colonies by 1960, paternalistic attitudes were still expressed by the Dutch in new structures of racial and cultural superiority.  New modes of dominance, with the implicit rationale that ‘we’, the white Dutch, know what is best for ‘them’, former colonies and colonial immigrants came into being.  For example, the official ‘assimilation and resocialization’ policies regarding the large-scale immigration of Indonesian Dutch, included giving “civilization lessons” which provided courses on peeling potatoes and keeping house, among others. 

Economic Paternalism

Does development aid constitute a kind of postcolonial paternalism?  Or does giving money entitle the giver to make claims on the receiver?  Again, the test should lie in looking for implicit racial assumptions and a ‘we know best’ attitude coming from the aid-originating country.  

The recently published report, “A Burdened Relationship: 25 years of development aid between the Netherlands and Surinam,” claims that since Surinam’s ‘independence,’ the Netherlands has nevertheless retained asymmetrical power over the affairs of the country, demanding its own standards of good governance in exchange for aid.  In the report, the cooperation between the former colony and the former mother country is characterized as rife with “distrust, irritation and tumultuous relations.”  

Regarding the Antilles, the relationship is also quite unequal.  It is estimated that US $145-165 million in aid is given annually by the Dutch government to the Antilles and Aruba, both supposedly autonomous and equal members in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. But, as Rosemarijn Hoefte explains, this money definitely has strings attached. 

“While this is a critical sum to the Antilles, the main issue for The Hague is one of control, rather than the amount of money per se…there is a strong desire to set the Caribbean house in order and keep it that way. Being part of the Kingdom means following the rules of the Kingdom.” It would seem, then, that among ‘equals’, the metropole of the Netherlands nonetheless sets the agenda and definition of good governance for the periphery. 

It would seem, then, that with money comes the right to assume a superior, paternalistic attitude of control.  But the issue is undoubtedly complex; giving aid necessarily allows the giver to express concern over stewardship.  However, there is a fine line between this legitimate concern and the assumption that the beneficiary will not make the right choices, thus preserving the inequality in the relationship.

More recently, the charge of economic paternalism can also be leveled against the domestic demand for strict economic integration of immigrants and minorities.    

“The old policy of ‘integration while keeping your own identity’ was far too soft and without engagement or responsibility of individuals,” says Isabel Costa, a representative for Minister of Integration Verdonk and intermediary of LOM, a platform which consists of minority organisations, “people could easily abuse it.”  

According to Costa, the most important thing is that immigrants start working in the labor market as soon as they have completed their integration courses. “Immigrants should not be a burden for Dutch society or for the government,” she says, “rather, it has to be prevented that they become a burden weighing heavily on the shoulders of our social welfare system. That's why integration is an obligation and the policy has become stricter under Verdonk.”

As with development aid, the Dutch government in domestic affairs certainly has a right to discourage welfare slackers.  But we are suspicious of the attitude which automatically views immigrants and minorities as lazy and needing to be dealt with harshly, creating a rather hostile tension between ethnic groups and again asserting the superiority of the majority ‘host’ society.       

Cultural Paternalism

Mainly as a consequence of its revulsion towards the Nazi regime and apartheid South Africa, Dutch society cultivated an extreme anti-racist norm beginning in the 1960s and ‘70s. This was expressed in proclamations about a ‘multicultural’ society and in politically-correct language. Dutch ‘benevolence’ expressed itself in the form of acceptance, tolerance and talk about the equality of cultures, as well as accommodation towards immigrants in the form of subsidies.  This attitude was maintained primarily because the immigrant workers from Turkey and Morocco were expected to return to their original homes.

Is it possible that paternalistic attitudes were prevalent even in this ‘egalitarian’ multicultural society?  As Dienke Hondius puts it, “the prevailing emphasis on ‘anti-racism’ actually acted as a form of denial; a norm that senses a problem, but at the same time refuses to go into it.”  Thus, even underlying the Dutch emphasis on multiculturalism and tolerance operated a clear hierarchy of who was tolerating and who were the tolerated, so to speak. With subsidies and access to the public welfare system came an expectation of gratitude and conformity, ‘following the rules of the Kingdom,’ to draw an analogy with postcolonial development aid. Those rules happened to be those of the white Dutch majority; minorities were ‘allowed’ insofar as they assimilated and behaved in ways the white Dutch society approved of.  But the rise of visible differences seems to have changed this.       

The ‘live and let live’ days of multiculturalism and the politically-correct wariness of using racially-charged language has given way to real concern about radicalism.  Outcries over the treatment of certain groups of Muslim and other minority women, concern over religious radicalism especially in Islam and a willingness to distinguish between ‘us,’ white Dutch, and ‘them,’ so-called allochtonen (all others) have become the realities of a ‘diverse’ society. 

Given the popularity, and subsequent murder, of the populist conservative Pim Fortuyn, who called for the closing of the country's borders to all immigrants and who described Islam as a ‘backward’ religion, it would seem that the discriminatory basis of paternalism has been revealed.  Fortuyn’s anti-Islamic populism is en vogue, with MPs such as Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim herself, claiming that Islam is a major obstacle to modernization and integration.  

Interestingly enough, increased emphasis on minority integration has also raised questions about Dutch identity itself.  For Costa and the LOM, successful integration means that immigrants must speak the Dutch language, have knowledge of Dutch society, institutions and politics and that they are familiar with Dutch laws and regulations.  But integration becomes less clear when they are also supposed to know “Dutch norms and values.” Costa admits that this sounds very vague, “Actually, we don’t know what it means exactly either.  When we ask Minister Verdonk about these things, we also get very vague answers…but I think it concerns mainly the unspoken things, the way we treat each other.”  

The Dutch majority apparently find the need to define themselves over against those they are trying to integrate.  At the same time, a positive Dutch identity is necessary to the task of integration itself, as a paternalistic end vision for those who are being ‘Dutchicized’ and for those oppressed individuals who need to be ‘emancipated’.  As James C. Scott puts it, “most ruling groups take great pains to foster a public image of cohesion and shared belief,” in order to consolidate societal control and enforce dominant norms. 

We thus can trace a trend of two extremes of postcolonial ‘neo’ paternalism in the Netherlands.  On one side we still see an emphasis on anti-racism and a society that aims at multiculturalism and mutual tolerance, even though it has become a bit ‘old-fashioned’.  But as we noted earlier, anti-racist multiculturalism is anything but neutral.  It has expectations from those upon whom it benevolently bestows ‘equality;’ it claims to celebrate differences, but most often ignores or denies them, allowing real racial and cultural tensions to fester underneath.  This, in turn, leads to paternalism’s antagonistic turn, when differences in race, culture and religion pose real or imaginary threats to the superiority and control of the ‘host’, and the norms and values of the majority must assert themselves over against ‘inferior’ and ‘backward’ expressions of identity.  The racial tensions which were denied during multiculturalism arise with force, and paternalism demands strict integration and conformity.

A Tale of Two Cities (and Two Paternalisms)

These extremes of paternalism are exemplified by the differing approaches of Amsterdam and Rotterdam towards integration.  

In an immediate reaction to the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November, 2004, Amsterdam started the campaign We Amsterdammers. With this action plan, the city wants to fight not only radicalism and terrorism but also to prevent polarization and conflict. We Amsterdammers thus seeks to focus on `positive forces' and to create respect for all cultures, races and religions. 

Jeroen de Lange, who works for this campaign on behalf of the city council, explains Amsterdam's approach to integration as `winning hearts and minds'.  By normalizing radical elements therein, de Lange hopes to create social capital which both bonds, within groups themselves, and bridges, between different identity groups. 

Examples of proposed practical projects include information and education about radicalism, resources for combating discrimination and public debates.  Most remarkable among the initiatives is the founding of a central ‘radicalism’ registry.   

De Lange’s emphasis on “normalization” strikes us as quite paternalistic.  Who defines the norm?  As with any emphasis on tolerance and multicultural respect, the values of the secular majority will inevitably dictate to those who are too ‘backward’ to come to the same conclusions.  The result, again, is a denial of real racial and cultural difference which certainly has the potential to mitigate real irritation.

Not surprisingly, the Amsterdam campaign has been criticized by Rotterdam as “politically-correct softness,” according to De Lange.  Indeed, the policy of Rotterdam is moving in a totally opposite direction.  In the words of Wim Vleugels, program coordinator for integration at the city council, integration policy in Rotterdam has obtained a more “oppressive character; a `do this, do that' mentality.”

This change coincides with the rise of the `Leefbaar Rotterdam' party, that of the late politician Pim Fortuyn, which currently claims one-third of the aldermen seats.  The integration action plan of the council, called Rotterdam Push On, is more in line with the integration policy on a national level. 

Recently, the city council passed a new compulsory law for integration courses.  Beginning next year, immigrants not only have to learn the Dutch language, but also must be familiar with Dutch history, law, values, norms and behavior.  Joining Leefbaar, other parties like the Christian Democrats are also pushing for `Dutch traditions' to be enforced, such as shaking hands as the ‘proper’ greeting, or speaking only Dutch in mosques and on the streets.  In an effort to combat residential segregation, the council passed a proposal to allow only those who earn 120% minimum wage to move into ‘black’ areas.

Another demand is the active participation of immigrants in civil society; for instance in sports clubs, politics, neighborhood organizations and schools. The city council of Rotterdam made a comprehensive recommendation on the active citizenship of immigrants.  Ironically, the report was soon put aside when research from COS showed that immigrants are actually more participatory than their Dutch counterparts.            

Despite `Amsterdam-like' initiatives such as public `Islam debates,' Vleugels claims that the atmosphere in Rotterdam is very unfriendly towards immigrants, especially Muslims, “The new trend seems to be Islamophobia.”  


Can integration ever exist without paternalistic attitudes?  What about development aid or even altruistic giving?  We conclude that asymmetrical relationships are paternalistic only when they are motivated by attitudes of superiority and assumptions of inferiority or backwardness.   Thus, overcoming paternalism in any relationship can only occur when respect for equality and self-determination is primary.

Unfortunately, much in Dutch historical and contemporary majority/minority relationships can be charged with paternalism.  As Dr. van Stipriaan puts it, “Absolutely there are still underlying racial sentiments present.  Our whole Dutch society is literally saturated with feelings of ‘white’ superiority.  These images of black people as ‘lesser’ are so deeply internalized in our language and culture that we don’t even recognize them as such anymore.”  Van Stipriaan emphasizes that there are many other countries that deal with the same problem, “but the Netherlands seem to be the only society who actively pride themselves as being tolerant of and welcoming to strangers.”  Apparently not anymore:  A recent poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that 51% of those in the Netherlands have an unfavorable view of Muslims, a higher percentage than in any other Western country.  

Challenging paternalistic attitudes is undoubtedly difficult, especially since such attitudes may pervade any encounter between different races and cultures and since all attempts at regulating the encounter—between old Dutch and ‘new Dutch’, allochtonen and autochtonen, black and white, foreigners and hosts—have the potential for abuse of power and construction of hierarchies.  But what is perhaps most troubling about paternalism is the underlying assumption that the identity of the paternalizers, in this case white, modern secular Dutch, is something static that ought not be changed or touched by the ‘non-Dutch.’  This critical ‘line in the sand’ ignores the fact that Dutch society has long been shaped by its immigrants, and that any identity formation is a two-way affair.

On a practical level, it seems as if paternalistic attitudes may be minimized if groups calling for ‘emancipation’ and ‘integration’ actually find a common good to work towards with those they are seeking to help.  For example, if the abuse of women in certain Islamic sectors is really a concern, then why not become acquainted with different forms of Islam and consult with other Muslim women who are working towards the same goal?  

Also, since paternalism only operates in a system of polarized identities, i.e. ‘us’ and ‘them’, steps should be taken to stop de facto racial distinctions. For example, the Ministry of Immigration and Integration currently registers immigrants up to the third generation, facilitating the rise of the term allochtonen to refer to the ‘non-Dutch’. Why not stop registering after the first generation and evade the possibility of official stereotyping? 

Finally, if Dutch society truly prizes itself on tolerance and diversity, then it somehow must come to terms with real difference in its midst without feeling the need to ‘integrate’ or ‘mold’ such difference.  Can the traditional Dutch respect for self-determination accept even those who look quite ‘non-Dutch’, be it religious extremists or those who wear headscarves or communities that want to preserve their own language and customs?  Can Dutch society itself accept the fact that it may very well look different in a decade or two, with ‘Dutch identity’ no longer split between ‘white’ and ‘black’? 

In the end, not only the would-be paternalizers but also the would-be paternalized must overcome paternalism.  Prem Radhakishun, a controversial but respected Dutch minority voice, claims that individuals cannot allow themselves to be categorized, “You must not be defined by how you are perceived.  Rather, you are responsible for your own identity.”  




Dienke Hondius, “Become Like Us: The Dutch and Racism.” www.opendemocracy.org, 2003 

James C. Scott, “Prestige as the Public Discourse of Domination,” in Cultural Critique. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Mary R. Jackman, The Velvet Glove: Paternalism and Conflict in Gender, Class, and Race Relations.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

Renate Ammerlaan, 'Al was zijn huid zwart, teergevoelig was zijn hart;

beeldvorming over zwarten en slavernij in kinderboeken 1807-1863', OSO

Magazine for Surinamistiek 2005.

Reader geschiedenis van ras and racism EUR

Rosemarijn Hoefte, “Thrust Together: The Netherlands Relationship with its Caribbean Partners.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 1996.


Alex van Stipriaan Luiscius (EUR)

Aspha Bijnaar (NiNSEE)

Dienke Hondius (EUR+VU)

Isabel Costa (LOM)

Prem Radhakishun

Stefan Kok (Dutch Refugee Council)












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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2005


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