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Black lives matter: ‘Why the American protests have resonated in the Netherlands’

The death of George Floyd at the hands of the police may have sparked the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and here in the Netherlands, but they are about more than that alone. We asked Karwan Fatah-Black, a historian who specialises in the Dutch colonial history, for his analysis. ‘We find it easier to take to the streets to protest something overseas than Zwarte Piet.’

‘The protests are a continuation of the social battle that has been waged since slavery by the Afro-Atlantic diaspora – the people whose ancestors were the victims of the transatlantic slave trade. They have been fighting a long battle to shake off the associated stigmatisation,’ says Karwan Fatah-Black. In societies in all these regions, two problems have emerged since the abolition of slavery and they persist to this day. ‘First, a white political identity has been constructed. White people are persuaded to believe they share a destiny and are the bearers of civilisation and progress.’

Disadvantaged

The second problem, says Fatah-Black, is the disadvantaged position of the descendants of enslaved people and anyone who is racially associated to them, a position that spans many generations. They still have limited access to good education, health care, accommodation and social security, as the UN has concluded. ‘In the present conflict, it is these two problems that are being raised, with slogans about white privilege and how black lives matter.’

Dutch protests

In the US, thousands of people are taking to the streets every day, not just in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by the police. But there have also been large demonstrations in the Netherlands over the past few days: in Amsterdam, The Hague, Groningen and Rotterdam. ‘The US movement has struck a chord with various groups here in the Netherlands,’ Fatah-Black says. ‘The fate and fight of black Americans has had a special place in the hearts of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora for a long time already.’ 

‘The two sides of racialisation, white overconfidence and black disadvantage can also be seen here in the Netherlands.’

Indirect discussion of racism

What is more, we in the Netherlands – and Europe – still feel a great affinity to all that happens in the US. ‘From left to right, for all sides of the political spectrum, the US remains a reference point when it comes to the fight for freedom and equality. I’ve lost count of the number of Dutch MPs quoting Martin Luther King over the past few days.’ The strength of the American protests is also inspiring, says Fatah-Black. ‘And it’s easier to talk about racism indirectly. We find it easier to take to the streets to protest something overseas than Zwarte Piet.’

Division in the Netherlands too

There are definitely parallels between the situation in the US and the Netherlands. ‘Just like in the US, there are rarely criminal prosecutions after police violence here. And new legislation threatens to make that even more difficult.’ But that’s not what the Dutch protests are about, says Fatah-Black. ‘The two sides of racialisation, white overconfidence and black disadvantage can also be seen here. And if you see how young the demonstrators are, you can conclude that the present adult generation, the millennials, have been unable to solve this problem. The next generation has joined in and is stoking the flames of the protests. They will no longer tolerate the situation.’

Editor: Marieke Epping

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