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What’s in a Name: The Classification of Non-Native Dutch People


“According to data of the Central Bureau of Statistics, there are around three million  [allochtonen] in the Netherlands, which is 19% of the total population of 16.1 million inhabitants.”

Is a person living in the Netherlands all his life but born in Germany considered an allochtoon? What about a person from the Dutch Antilles or Sudan? In Dutch society not every non-native Dutch person is considered to be an allochtoon. In this paper we will attempt to define and analyze the untranslatable Dutch term allochtoon as well as reveal its implications for integration and diversity in Dutch society by addressing this question: Can an allochtoon ever be fully accepted in Dutch society? 

Background of Dutch Immigration

Prior to 1960, the Netherlands experienced sizable migration. This changed after 1960 when immigration became more important than emigration. The immigrants arrived in different periods, and the motivations and reasons for their migration to the Netherlands have varied considerably. 

The first to arrive were repatriates from the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) and New Guinea between 1940 and 1950 as a consequence of decolonization. The majority of mixed Indonesian-Dutch descent was entitled to settle in the Netherlands on the basis of their Dutch citizenship. In general, they were well educated and strongly oriented towards the Netherlands. By the mid-1950s the postwar reconstruction efforts had begun to lead to sectoral labor shortages. During the 1960s, Turks and Moroccans came to Holland as guest workers to fill the labor shortage. From 1975 onwards Moroccan and Turkish guest workers brought their families to the Netherlands, making it clear that their stay was permanent. The next newcomers in the Netherlands were the Surinamese in 1975, followed by people from the Dutch Antilles.

Thus, despite the fact that the Netherlands has not regarded itself as an immigration country, many immigrants have in fact settled in the country over the last few decades.

Fifty years of immigration to the Netherlands has changed the ethnic landscape from one of homogeneity to heterogeneity. Such a dramatic shift forced the Dutch to confront the problem of how to differentiate native white Dutch from others referred to as buitenlanders and vreemdelingen, literally meaning “foreigners.”  The first term adopted was “ethnic minority,” which was not accepted because the word “minority” was seen as dehumanizing and gave the sense that these “other” people were seen as somehow “less than” native white Dutch.  The second term was “immigrant” or “migrant,” which suggested constant movement and not settlement within Holland.  The third and current term is “allochtoon.”

The need for the categorization of people from various backgrounds may stem from the historical idea of pillarization in the Netherlands. Historian and Professor Dienke Hondius explains that Dutch society was based upon the idea of pillarization; religious or ideological groups had their own institutions and were closed communities. Pillarization was a means of emancipation because religious groups became equal partners and had equal opportunities in Dutch society. Because of its success, this system maintained itself.  This fact remains: Historically, the Dutch response to cultural and religious difference was pillarization.

In short, the way the Dutch deal with difference is by separation. They have now attempted to do the same thing in relation to non-native Dutch by classifying them with another name. These types of solutions only serve to create an  “us versus them” mentality.  

Allochtoon: Official and Societal Definitions  

There is much confusion concerning the translation of the word “allochtoon.” The term “allochtoon” is unique to the Netherlands and thus lacks an equivalent in English. The term is from Greek origin and implies the division of “them and us.” Often times, literature concerning this issue applies the term “immigrant” to mean the literal English translation as well as the term “allochtoon,” thus limiting the ability of non-Dutch speakers to grasp both the uniqueness and the complexity of the term. 

Allochtoon, as defined in Kramer’s New Dutch Dictionary as an adjective, is “came from elsewhere,” while the word autochtoon, which is also has a Greek origin, is “pure, indigenous; came from the land.” In our research of this term, we have found that the use of the word allochtoon (allochtonen, plural) has two different connotations when used by the government and in a social context.  

According to Dr. C.E.S. Choenni, researcher at the Dutch Ministry of Justice, “allochtoon” is used by the Dutch government to “differentiate native white Dutch from others” living in the Netherlands.  It is also a “statistical designator” used to measure the participation and integration of allochtonen.  The government defines “allochtonen” as persons with one or both parents born outside of the Netherlands. The term allochtoon is officially applied to both first and second-generation persons with such a background.  The application of the term for two generations is rooted in the belief that the process of acculturation spans two generations, with the presumption that by the third generation, one is fully integrated into Dutch culture and society. From a governmental standpoint Mr. Choenni asserts that, “allochtoon is an important word for policy making.”  As a statistical designator, for example, the term can show discrimination against groups within the labor and housing markets.

On a social level, “allochtoon” is applied on a racial/ethnic basis and to those groups in Dutch society that are considered troublesome and less integrated.  The groups included in this category are Antilleans, Moroccans, and Turks.  It is important to note that the stratification of allochtoon peoples in Dutch society establishes a stigma attached to the use of the term on a social level. On a social level, Dr. Choenni observes that several distinctions are made between individual allochtonen.  The first distinct consists of western allochtonen, meaning people from the western world  (i.e., Western Europe, USA, Japan, and Indonesia). Here, Dr. Choenni notes that the special relationship between Holland and Indonesia enabled Indonesians to successfully integrate into Dutch society, and on this basis Indonesia is considered a part of the Western world. Further, Indonesians have established themselves as a group fully acculturated and contributing positively to society, thus making them an exception to the societal application of the term “allochtoon.”

On a broader level, one could relate the terms “western” and “non-western” on a racial/ethnic basis, further substantiating the societal use of “allochtoon” to draw attention to one’s race or ethnicity, with an implication of the racial/ethnic superiority of native Dutch. One article that makes such an assertion is “Box 1- Coloured Netherlands: ethnic cultural minorities,” by Ben de Pater, in the book Dutch Windows, Cultural Geographical Essays on the Netherlands. De Pater attempts to draw a distinction between allochtonen based on nationality but reveals an underlying prejudice: “It is sensible for researchers who want to ascertain the number of ‘real foreigners’ and their impact on Dutch culture to restrict themselves to the number of foreigners from countries with a non-western culture.” By defining real foreigners as those from non-western countries, the implication is that persons from such countries are difficult to integrate due to their cultural norms.  This is a dangerous message, implying as it does an assumption that western standards should be the point of comparison.  

Being an Allochtoon: As Experienced by Three Non-Native Dutch 

We chose interviewees who are from different subcategories of the term “allochtonen” to illustrate how individuals within this group experience Dutch society differently. Mostafa Hilali, who was born in Morocco and has lived in Holland since he was four years old, serves in the Royal Dutch Army as a first Lieutenant. Denise Arnout, a dentist in Amsterdam who was born in Holland, is half Italian/half Indonesian.  (Both of her parents were born outside of Holland.) Carolyn Nelson, an American, has lived in Holland for seventeen years and is a teacher. Despite their various backgrounds and their experiences in Dutch society, the goal of our interviews was to examine how each is perceived in Dutch society as allochtonen.

When asked if they consider themselves allochtonen, both Mostafa and Carolyn said yes, while Denise said no.  The variance in the answers can be attributed to two things: race/ethnicity and integration. In terms of race/ethnicity, it is interesting to see that Denise does not consider herself allochtoon while Mostafa does, since both are people of color. This difference in perception can be explained by the divide between western and non-western allochtonen as well as various levels of integration experienced by Indonesians and Moroccans as mentioned in the previous section. Additionally, Moroccans at present are considered a troublesome sub-group of allochtonen, poorly integrated. Carolyn specified that she considers allochtoon to mean “other,” and Mostafa concurred, adding to the definition “everything that is not white, blue-eyed, and native.”

In reference to the Dutch desire for allochtoon to integrate, our interviewees again differed in their responses: Carolyn says, “Being allochtoon is not just an identity, but an ongoing process; it’s fluid and creates an ‘it’s on them’ attitude. [That is, assimilation or integration is the responsibility of the allochtoon.] And because of such stigmatization, the Dutch do not realize how much they discriminate.” Denise states, “I think in Dutch society you can integrate from 0% to 100%, even when Turkish or Moroccan. Learn the language, get an education, a job and build social relationships. My mom came to Holland at 19 years old. She has her PhD. in psychology, etc. Dad, same story, dentist. We have a society in which it is not too hard to integrate. It would be harder for me to move to Saudi Arabia and try to integrate there.” Samira Abbos, journalist, columnist, and television producer of Moroccan descent, states, “Moroccans are in the process of getting very integrated because of their will to participate in Dutch society.” She says that they have come to the point at which they want to claim their positions in the public domain. There are increasing numbers of Moroccan artists, writers, and politicians who have moved into the Dutch status quo.

Mostafa seemingly agrees with both, but he points out the level at which integration becomes difficult for some groups: “For Dutch it’s a practical thing. Chinese and Turks are not a big problem, but with Moroccans the problem is that these people are taking part in Dutch society on a higher level. Moroccans are bothersome. If we want to work the bad jobs, no problem, if we want to be on the board, then we are challenging them. If you want to create your own community, no problem—but if you do want to integrate, then it’s a problem.  I don’t want to be shut out. I have a right to be in the club; it’s a principle.” Carolyn echoes the same sentiment: “You just don’t get in. Europeans [in general] have this idea of difference based on nationalism. This is fundamental to European attitudes.  There is a psychology of non-contact.  They have a heavy group mentality.”

The idea of the nation-state in Europe offers an additional explanation of such a mentality. Rinus Penninx asserts in his article ‘Immigration, Minorities Policy, and Multiculturalism in Dutch Society Since 1960,’ that “the emergence of the ideology of the nation-state in western Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries [implied] the unity of a people having a common ancestry and [ideally] a common language, culture and religion, and living in a certain territory.” The author further states that such attributes of the nation-state still apply to the Netherlands in terms of unity and homogeneity. 

There seems to be a contradiction on the issue of integration as highlighted by our interviewees.  According to Dr. Choenni, the government has implemented a new integration plan based on three points:

(1) An increased importance of culture and religion (especially concerning Muslims). 

(2) Newcomers to the Netherlands must exhibit basic norms of Dutch society such as being non- homophobic, upholding women’s rights, and respecting freedom of speech.

(3) People must take responsibility for their own integration, with special attention given to learning the Dutch language.

A comparison between Mostafa and Samira’s comments concerning Moroccan activities in Dutch society suggests that Moroccans have attempted to integrate (especially on points two and three) but are still considered troublesome, whereas the Chinese are less stigmatized. The difference between the groups is their active participation within Dutch society. Chinese are highly involved, but within their own separate communities that rarely mix with the mainstream—yet they are considered integrated. The message sent is a contradictory one: On one hand, governmental rhetoric appears aimed towards full integration and participation within Dutch society. Yet in actual practice, those that attempt to participate fully are seen as threatening and problematic, while those that participate less in Dutch society and keep to themselves are not considered to have difficulties with integration. 

In respect to most western allochtonen, the problem that they are confronted with is not necessarily one of culture and/ or ethnicity, but one of language.  Carolyn, an American, visually conforms to the native Dutch aesthetic with her blond hair and blue eyes.  It is only her speech that reveals her “allochtoonness” due to the American accent when speaking Dutch. She states, “Language is power.  It gives access to intimacy within public spaces. [If you don’t speak perfect Dutch] you automatically see yourself as less integrated—you’re a construction instead of a person.”  

Gaining Acceptance as an Allochtoon: Is it Possible?

An allochtoon can ostensibly gain acceptance through striving for goals measured against those of his Dutch counterpart.  In short, what is deemed successful for and by a Dutch person must be the goals of the allochtoon if s/he is to be accepted into Dutch society.  According to scholar and professor in transnationalism at the University of Tilburg Ruben Gowricharn, such a definition of success and acceptance “is very Euro-centric because you must live up to their standards. When an allochtoon becomes polished in Dutch culture, in their mentality and behavior, then they become attractive and thus accepted.”

Dr. Hondius, a historian linked to the University of Rotterdam who is now doing research on race in the Netherlands, suggests that integration of allochtoon people is based on conditional acceptance. The reputation of certain groups is an ever-changing process dependent on variables such as integration, positive or negative participation in Dutch society. Hondius notes that, “the allochtonen category is an undefined mix of ‘others’ seen as more or less problematic. Over the last two years, I have noticed that the Surinamese are no longer mentioned in the category of allochtonen. It is not that they are explicitly accepted in to Dutch society, but more they are absent from the problematic category. Allochtonen has both a racial implication and one that suggests negative contribution in the society, i.e., criminality.” In short, a particular group’s perceived reputation in Dutch society affects its level of acceptance. 

Many of our interviewees assert that there will always be the assumption that someone is not completely Dutch because of his status as an allochtoon.  The question is this: When will one’s ethnic or cultural background cease to be a variable in measuring “Dutchness”?  There is a sense amongst many interviewees that one’s character is judged according to cultural background instead of by the individual’s behavior.  This is a direct consequence of the use of the term allochtoon, which serves to place people within strict boxes that diminish the possibilities of being judged as an individual and not by the groups with whom they are associated. 

Language and Terminology: Weapon of Separation, Tool for Integration

Language is a powerful tool that can provoke separation as well as unity.  The word allochtoon, as used on a social level, highlights difference in a negative manner, and it therefore contradicts Dutch rhetoric of integration.  If specific groups are labeled as outsiders, true integration can never occur.  The term “allochtoon” in everyday use undermines one’s claim to true Dutch citizenship and social integration, which not only entails possessing a Dutch passport but also the ideology of equality: understanding that allochtonen and autochtonen are not measured and treated differently. Without such equity, the issue of one group rightfully belonging to the society more fully than another group will continue to act as confirmation of the rift between Dutch rhetoric on integration and actual reality.  Regardless of the level of success an allochtoon may achieve, she will fail to be considered Dutch as long as the term allochtoon is in use as a device that creates, highlights, and perpetuates difference.

The United States does not have a word such as allochtoon to differentiate between its citizenry in a manner that stresses one person’s entitlement to American society over another’s. Instead, politically correct terminology recognizes one’s ethnic background and his “American-ness” (i.e., African-American, Latino-American, Asian-American, etc).  Each of these recognizes the specific cultural and ethnic background of any given U.S. citizen, but the terms still maintain a commonality based on U.S. citizenship and therefore equal claim to the rights and responsibilities of the United States.

This concept does not exist in Dutch society. One cannot be both and Turkish and Dutch while in the U.S. it is possible. One must acknowledge that historical differences in immigration between the United States and Holland. The former is a nation founded and populated by immigrants while the latter is not. Nonetheless, the terminology that a country chooses to adopt plays an important role in the treatment of peoples within its borders.

The term allochtoon is applied on a societal level in a discriminatory or stigmatic manner, but such application of the term and the underlying root, motivation, and implications of such an application are rarely discussed. The governmental definition of the term allochtoon groups people from various national, cultural and ethnic backgrounds into one large category, thus failing to capture the range and variety of subcategories within the term itself.

Both Drs. Choenni and Hondius point to social developments in Dutch society as contributors to solutions to the problems that arise from the “allochtoon” issue.  There are differences between how younger and older generations view non-native Dutch. The younger generations accept diversity because to them it is not a new phenomenon. Additionally, mixed (inter-racial) marriages have also increased.

Mariette Hermans, chairwoman of e-quality, a think tank on gender and ethnicity issues, offers more practical solutions. She states that policy makers should ask themselves who their target groups are, keeping in mind their identity and frame of reference, but also stresses the importance of factors such as age, ethnicity and gender. She stresses increased specificity in identifying one’s racial or ethnic background.  The terminology used to address people must be more diverse and nuanced. Instead of writing about allochtonen and autochtonen, you must write about Turkish, Surinamese, Moroccan and Antillean allochtonen, and also point out the importance of gender. Such changes serve to both prevent and overcome the “us versus them” mentality that currently pervades Dutch policies and society.  

On a social level, Carolyn stresses, “[Dutch] cultural arrogance doesn’t solve the problem; they are hypocritical.  It’s time to talk about what people have in common.” 





Hilali, Lt. Mostafa, 22 June, 2004.

Hondius, prof. dr. Dienke, 24 June 2004.

Choenni, dr. Chan, 25 June, 2004.

Gowricharn, prof.dr. Ruben  25 June, 2004.

Arnout, drs. Denise, 25 June, 2004.

Nelson, Carolyn, 26 June, 2004.

Abbos, Samira,  26 June, 2004.




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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2004


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