More than half of all immigrants think the government should stop registering ethnic origins, though only a third of native Dutch people share this view. This was revealed by a survey sociologists Jaco Dagevos and Arjen Leerkes held last month on

In March the Dutch Lower House carried a motion asking the government to “review the formal terms Western and non-Western allochtoon and autochtoon”. Even before the decision of Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) on 1 November to stop using these terms, Dagevos and Leerkes had launched the survey to find out what aspects of the formal terms should be reviewed.

Three options

“The Lower House’s motion was quite public and, in my opinion, the WRR ought not to decide on this alone, but we should find out what our society actually wants too,” explains Leerkes. “Especially as there are different options for the review.” Dagevos and Leerkes discovered three different options: stop the registration of ethnic origins, continue to register ethnic origins but use different terms, or continue to use the terms allochtoon and autochtoon, but in a new way. “We wanted to get an idea of people’s preferences and the differences between groups, but without revisiting the old discussion,” Leerkes continues. “That’s why the outcome mainly shows the people who want something to change.”

Different views

The survey revealed that 42 percent of the respondents wanted to stop the registration of ethnic origins, while 58 percent of them thought the government should continue to register them. However, nearly a third (31 percent) thought other terms should be used for registering origins. The remaining 27 percent wanted the terms allochtoon and autochtoon to be applied differently. “It shows that a majority want the government to continue the origins registration, but there are differences of opinion as to how this should be done,” Leerkes explains. “The solution offered by the CBS and WRR is to continue the registration, but to stop using the terms allochtoon and autochtoon, which is only supported by 31 percent of the respondents.”

“Immigrants” would like to see an end to the registration

The differences between the groups with different ethnic origins are striking. Two thirds of the “native Dutch” respondents think the registration should be continued, in contrast with 58 percent of respondents from “immigrant” groups, who want the government to stop registering ethnic origins.

Which is quite logical, according to Leerkes: “I think ‘immigrants’ are on the receiving end of being labelled, which is partly to do with the context: allochtoon has acquired negative connotations.”

In addition, the definition of allochtoon encourages exclusion. “It’s strange that we distinguish between citizens who are born and bred in the Netherlands by using terms like ‘second and third-generation’ allochtoon. Moreover, the definition applies what we sociologists call the ‘one-drop’ rule: you are regarded as an immigrant/allochtoon even if only one of your parents were born abroad. The term comes from America and has almost racist origins. It implies that you should, as it were, be pure, that you should have two Dutch parents to be true native Dutch.”

Distinguished by native country

If it were up to Leerkes, the terms allochtoon and autochtoon would not be used any more. He is calling for a system in which people are distinguished by their native countries. “Everyone who is born in the Netherlands belongs to the same category. For instance, you could use the terms ‘native-born’ and ‘foreign-born’ and then make distinctions within those two categories, according to someone’s origins. That would be much more neutral and is more in keeping with the multi-ethnic society we have in the Netherlands.”

Leerkes doesn’t think that the registration of ethnic origins should be dismissed entirely, as there is plenty we can learn from it. “Because we register ethnic origins, we know, for example that native-born girls from a Moroccan background are doing better in school than native-born boys from a Moroccan background. Besides, the registration of ethnic origins could be used to control inequality and exclusion.”

More than 400 people took part in the survey. However, the group questioned by the survey is not representative: highly educated people are overrepresented while young people and pensioners are underrepresented.