It’s half past six in the evening and we’re having dinner. Suddenly our pager buzzes. Mr. Lopez is calling. “Oh, he must have finished atomising,” says one of the nurses. “He was being quite difficult about that today,” she goes on to say. “Why?” asks a colleague. “Yeah, he insisted on having a nebuliser mask like the one he used yesterday, but we were actually planning to stop using those now.” I only half follow the conversation, as I’m busy with my satay and fries and simultaneously trying to work out on a sheet of paper how on earth I’m going to successfully manage to pass eight exams in the next three months.

“Oh, what did you do next then?” asks another nurse sitting across from me. “Well, I just said that we weren’t going to do that anymore and that he could hold the nebuliser in his hands perfectly well himself,” she replies. “Yes, exactly, well done you. He’s from Curaçao, eh. Liever lui dan moe. Rather be lazy than tired.”

And then I stop. I put down my piece of paper and look at everyone else sitting around the table.

For a moment, I think a Chinese colleague sitting next to me also looks a bit put off, but I can’t be sure. Should I say something about this or just ask?  Do I really have to be the one who ruins the atmosphere for the rest of the evening? I can already see myself saying: “Oh, what do you mean by that?” in the most gentle and friendly way I can imagine. But I can’t get myself to do it and the others at the table don’t seem to have been affected at all by what has just been said. The conversation has already turned to something else.

I’ve basically enjoyed working with everyone, just like every other shift. Yet that particular sentence sticks in my head throughout the rest of the shift. I’m constantly thinking I really should say something about it. It’s not even really about racism. Or maybe it is. From time to time I’ve heard fellow students of colour comment on all kinds of patients and their families, but how can anyone make such a derogatory remark so offhandedly? Rather be lazy than tired.

A more honest comparison in my view would be: rather no slavery than actual slavery. Rather no post-colonial depression than any at all. Rather one’s own country than someone else’s holiday resort. Rather a government of your own instead of some strange white king on the other side of the world.

I grew up in a country that is still struggling with the consequences of hundreds of years of oppression, extortion, slavery, colonialism, ethnic divisions and so on that are a direct result of the actions of the country where I have been living for several years now. One thing has become clear to me from all this: In general, the Dutch (though fortunately there are some exceptions, too) enjoy a kind of collective and selective amnesia about their role in world history and the ensuing consequences. Not apartheid in South Africa, not the looting of West Africa, not slavery in America, not the opium epidemic or genocide in Indonesia, not the displacement of Moluccans, not the post-colonial demise of Surinam and certainly not the incomprehensible poverty in the Antilles is in any way the fault of, or at the very least, the upshot of any Dutch deeds.

No, the wealth in the Netherlands was obtained by an orange royal house that enriched its people with heroic deeds and merchant ships that were able to provide the world with products in a fair and honest manner. The Netherlands’ innovative and progressive attitude towards gay marriage, for example, is a shining example of how little something like discrimination, let alone racism, could ever apply to it!

Luckily, I have also met some Dutch people, especially younger ones, who are very aware of the past and the impact that it has had and continues to have on various groups of people in the world.  This offers me hope that more and more people will come to understand that although the present generation of Dutch people are not themselves guilty of the atrocities of the past, they do nevertheless retain the privilege of unconsciously and guilelessly profiting from them.

In turn, the descendants of those oppressed are left with the all-too-often unseen consequences of hundreds of years of imperialism. Even among Surinamese and Antilleans and all other (former) subjects of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the majority of people are frequently unaware of the lingering consequences that this painful past has on the economy, public life and even the emotional experiences of us, their descendants.

By around ten o’clock in the evening I’ve finished all my duties and sit down behind a computer for a while to try to do some homework. But in reality, I keep on going back and forth in my head, thinking about what I should say, what I should ask. The only thing in the Netherlands that’s worse than the non-existence of racism is accusing someone of racism. The mere idea that you think someone else is being racist or is even discriminating against someone on ethnic grounds seems to be such a huge taboo that most of the students of colour who I know don’t dare address it.

It’s time for me to go home. “Have a nice evening everyone!” I can’t bring myself to mention the incident from earlier on. As I walk down the hallway of the nursing wards, I realise that I’ll be awake all night. I’m going to feel so stupid if I don’t at least ask what my colleague meant. I walk back, with a bit more resolve now.

The nurse I need to talk to has just finished her paperwork and is chatting with a colleague. “Hey, can I speak to you for a sec?” I ask.  Sure, go ahead. “When we were having dinner together a few hours ago, you said something that caught my attention.”  She looks at me and it feels as if she already knows what I want to talk about. “You said that patient was from Curaçao, so he’d rather be lazy than tired. That sounded a bit weird to me. Why would you say something like that?” She kind of smiles, hesitates slightly and then says: “He really does come from Curaçao and he really is that type, you know what I mean.” I gave her a quizzical look. “What do you mean?” “Well … Someone who likes to stare at your butt or make inappropriate remarks,” she says with the same smile on her face. “Oh, that is pretty bad.”

I pause for a moment. “Still, I don’t understand that kind of generalisation. Are you saying he’s like that because he’s from Curaçao? Surely just because someone doesn’t know how to behave doesn’t mean you can jump to conclusions like that?” “Well, it’s kind of their culture, isn’t it?” It’s not even really about racism. Or maybe it is.

It is their culture. What on earth is she talking about now? Right at that moment, I don’t know whether to get angry or to try and explain that she’s got it wrong. Or if I should even take pity on her for her narrow-mindedness. Seen the other way around, does it mean that all Dutch people swear at black people because a bunch of hooligans have made that kind of behaviour their lifestyle? Or are all of those older Dutch men who go on holidays to developing countries paedophiles as well?

“Well, I don’t know if that’s true, but in any case, I didn’t think that comment was really appropriate,” I say.
“Yeah, well, maybe that probably had something to do with my frustration with the patient. I guess that’s where it came from.”
“OK, I can maybe understand that. But I still think it’s really wrong. ‘Rather be lazy than tired’ – that sounds so offensive.”
“Okay, I get that.”
“Good, I’m glad we at least talked about this. I think we understand each other a bit.”
“Yeah, I think so, too.”

I would have liked her to go so far as to apologise or say she wouldn’t do it again, but we didn’t get that far, and I had neither the time nor the inclination to do that. I don’t know that man, I’m not from Curaçao and she didn’t insult me, but she reduced an entire population to a single sentence and her colleagues didn’t seem to take any notice. What would she or our other colleagues say about Surinamese people when I’m not there?  “Because they certainly should not make the mistake of saying something offensive about Surinamese when I’m around!” I acknowledged to myself later on. We’d be sure to get into an argument then; I’d report them for racism and then they’d have to make an effort to resolve things or try and explain to me how racism doesn’t exist at our workplace.

Ah…these are angry thoughts. The truth is, I don’t want to report any incidents of racism at all. Just as I didn’t want to have a difficult conversation with my colleague about such an awful remark. I simply don’t want anyone to say or think these kinds of things. And even if someone does have such loathsome thoughts or genuinely believes that they are right, that doesn’t mean that anyone at work has to be a party to that. A modicum of mutual respect would go a long way.

My shifts at Erasmus MC are usually very enjoyable. Tonight, it was just a bit different than what I would have liked, but I’ll be here tomorrow morning and then we’ll just start all over again.

Ferayed Hok is a medical student at Erasmus MC and a freelancer at Erasmus Magazine.

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