It was a bumpy ride.
Here’s the deal. We’re barreling through Europe on a train with no way to get off. So I’m not going to make this easy for you. Discomfort can be productive. And before we begin, let me make one thing clear: I had a great time.
I’m aboard the Europe Endless Express surrounded by prominent thinkers, poets, writers, musicians, and theater people. At least, that was the PR blurb a friend used to persuade me to join her. The less exalted interpretation of the trip? An excuse to spend three days getting completely hammered.
The whole time I’m on the train, I see virtually no people of color. There are those two Turkish Germans who are there to clean the bathrooms. They lug their trash bags up and down the aisles, grumbling occasionally about how filthy the passengers are – the white cultural elite.
The people sharing my sleeping compartment are all white, Dutch, and middle-aged: a retired professor, the former manager of a rehab facility, a consultant who’d lived in Kenya for many years, someone who worked at a bank, and someone who used to work in publishing. I was born and raised in the Netherlands, so being surrounded by white, middle-aged Dutch people is nothing new. But my presence on the train is apparently a novelty for at least one of my fellow passengers.
On our first evening aboard, Dutch television presenter Teun van de Keuken hosts a European Quiz. A photo of Jean-Claude Juncker appears on the screen and Van de Keuken asks us to identify him. Later, we’re asked to name the six countries that founded the European Coal and Steel Community. I answer occasionally, gaze outside, sip my drink, then call out another answer to my teammates.
The woman seated next to me, who also has a bunk in my sleeping compartment, suddenly pokes me in the ribs.
“Hey, are you familiar with European history?”
“But where are you from, then? Were you born here?”
So I’m the foreigner again, I think to myself. But I put on my game face and play along.
“Yes, ma’am,” I respond, the model citizen. “I teach a college class on International Governance, which is all about the European Union.”
“Well, I couldn’t have known that,” she replies rather huffily. “But where are you from, then? Were you born here?”
“Yes, I was born in the Netherlands,” I respond dutifully. The conversation continues on in this vein for a while, with her quizzing me about where I really come from.
Two days pass, with no showers and little sleep. We haven’t eaten well and have all had far too much to drink. We shuffle through the train like a bunch of foul-smelling zombies. Only three hours to go until Amsterdam.
Then someone says, “Another compartment is discussing whether they know any PVV supporters personally. I told them I don’t, actually. Do you guys know any?”
I stare determinedly out of the window.
The middle-aged woman, the one from the quiz, is sitting next to me. She’s going on about multiculturalism. The Dutch holiday celebrations involving Zwarte Piet are such a lovely tradition, she muses. She describes how she moved from Amsterdam to the eastern part of the country a few years ago to escape the loud, foreign music blaring from her neighbors’ windows. She no longer felt at home in her own neighborhood.
Then she turns to me: “I’m afraid I may have been a bit tactless that first evening.”
“‘Tactless’ is something of an understatement, ma’am.”
“Look, I don’t want you making me out to be something I’m not. You mustn’t pigeonhole me,” she says, wagging her finger at me.
“Me, pigeonhole you? You’re the one who asked if I’m familiar with European history and then wanted to know whether I was really born here.”
“But you mustn’t pigeonhole me. There has to be some kind of leeway for people to discuss things openly without having to walk on eggshells. How else can we learn?”
“Some kind of leeway? Words have consequences; we’re responsible for what we say. Words can be homophobic, or sexist, or racist. The things we say have the power to wound. What you want is to be able to speak without consequences, without considering the impact of your words on others. That kind of leeway doesn’t exist.”
The Spin Doctor enters the fray, assuring me that the woman hadn’t meant it like that at all. Another passenger – the Objective White Referee – asks why the woman felt the need to ask the question in the first place. We dissect the matter, peeling the layers back one by one. Our train compartment is a microcosm of the Netherlands.
“I meant well! I just wanted to make sure that this young man didn’t feel excluded, that he could join in the fun.”
But I’ve heard this all before, and after three days on a train with little sleep and no privacy, it’s more than I can bear. I say something about good intentions and where paved roads lead. I point at each person in the compartment in turn.
“Why would you assume that all of these people are familiar with European history, but not me?” I ask, irritated. “Surely their knowledge of European history also varies from person to person?”
Mr. Middle Ground has heard enough: “Well, to be honest, I might have made the same assumption. That we were all taught the same history in school, I mean.”
“Which ‘we’ are you referring to, exactly? I was born in the Netherlands, too. I went to school here, too. And even if I hadn’t been born here, do you really think that this is the only country where kids are taught European history?”
“But what else could I have done?” asks the woman. “How else was I supposed to start a conversation with you?”
“It’s not like I’m from another planet! You’ve been chatting with strangers on this train for the past three days. How am I any different?” I laugh. Whether from nerves, discomfort, or the surreal nature of our discussion, I’m not sure. The woman, now peeved, snaps at me to stop mocking her. She wags her finger at me once again. But I’ve had enough of the superiority, the good intentions, the conviction of the oh-so-perfect elite that they themselves could never be prejudiced or racist. I say that what I want is the leeway to laugh without worrying about her feelings.
Silence, longer this time.
“So… how about another round?” asks Mr. Can’t-we-all-just-get-along, clapping his hands together jovially.
While Mr. Consensus Politics goes to get drinks, I bring up the woman’s remarks about Zwarte Piet and her neighbors’ “loud, foreign music”. I tell her I have the feeling that she hasn’t spent much time talking with the children of immigrants, and that I find that astounding. Smiling, I tell her that she has failed to integrate into society. She laughs at that. I get the impression her brain is short-circuiting and about to explode.
“I just think that we should be able to speak our minds in this country, without worrying about being politically correct. We should be able to say that we want certain aspects of Dutch culture to stay as they are without immediately being accused of racism,” says the well-meaning woman.
“So you speak your mind, then say you can’t say anything anymore,” I find myself thinking. That’s the gist of the dominant politically correct discourse on political correctness here in the Netherlands.
But it’s elite racism to attribute racism only to right-wing PVV voters. It’s elite racism to pretend racism is something relegated to hate groups like the Soldiers of Odin. And it’s elite racism when media outlets around the world refer to the Soldiers of Odin euphemistically as a “neighborhood watch group”. This moral condemnation of the poorly educated white underclass gives a veneer of legitimacy to the more reasonable, but no less problematic views of the upper classes.
Through their daily interactions and public appearances, the Dutch cultural elite also perpetuate racial inequality. And while this process may be subconscious, unintentional, and difficult to pin down, their prejudices and the imagery they evoke are a product of existing, dominant cultural hierarchies. These prejudices lead to differentiation (were you born in the Netherlands?) and serve to preserve distinctions in status and prestige (do you really know about European history?). These prejudices uphold a system of dominance, leading to questions like: Can people of color really participate in a discussion of European history? Do they even belong here, with their loud, foreign music and their criticism of traditions like Zwarte Piet?
What I say is: “No one’s saying you’re racist.”
I think of the Dutch linguistics scholar Teun van Dijk, who has written extensively on the subject of elite racism. He argues that “the elite” play a crucial role in reproducing racial and cultural inequality due to their preferential access to and control over public discourse through mass media, the education system, and government. While the cultural elite – who are, of course, not a homogeneous group with a shared agenda – may not necessarily control financial capital, they do control symbolic capital, giving them significant influence over public opinion, over the ideas we take for granted, and over the manufacture of consensus. With my pieces for De Correspondent and my university teaching position, it’s only fair to note that I, too, have access to the symbolic capital of the cultural elite. But my role in challenging the status quo is minimal at best.
There are just too many of you, in society at large and in my train compartment.
The train arrives in Amsterdam. I pass the two Turkish Germans and greet them in Turkish. “Such filthy people!” one of them complains to me. “There was shit everywhere. Everywhere!”
The passengers wave goodbye to the train, many of them visibly moved. One of the Turkish Germans is explaining precisely how to go about scrubbing away the filth of the white, Dutch cultural elite, but I’ve heard enough. I spot the older woman standing up ahead and walk over to her.
This is a true story. We hug and she kisses me on the cheek. She asks for my number. I tell her she’s too old for me, and she laughs.
I write a monthly piece for De Correspondent on micro revolutions: times when I’ve encountered prejudice, racism, or discrimination and taken a stand.
—Translated from Dutch by Megan Hershey, Rufus Kain, and Erica Moore
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