When Tiara Almeira, the chair of the society of Indonesian students PPI Rotterdam and Management of International Social Challenges (MISOC) student, came to the Netherlands to get a degree, she heard about the golden carriage in which the Dutch Royal Family is transported on Prinsjesdag, the day in September when the Dutch king delivers his annual address to the States General. The whole thing made her a little uncomfortable, as one of the paintings decorating the carriage depicts the inhabitants of the then Dutch Indies (present-day Indonesia) paying tribute to a white ruler. And this is not the only symbol of its kind to be found in the Netherlands. “Dutch people consider themselves to be highly tolerant, and in my experience, they generally are,” says Tiara. “But as a result, they are sometimes blind to their own racist prejudice. If more attention were paid to colonial symbolism at Dutch schools, they might be better able to understand why these things make me uncomfortable.”

Colonial monuments

Sheetal Nicolaas, the chair of the Erasmus Multicultural Associations (EMA), agrees with Tiara. “Racist comments or behaviour is often caused by ignorance. If people knew more about the Netherlands’ slavery past, they wouldn’t be so surprised if they heard, say, a Surinamese person speak Dutch.”

Sheetal considers the act of erecting a monument or naming a street or institute after a person a token of society’s appreciation. “However, with some of these people, we should ask ourselves if we really want to show them this level of appreciation. Some people are afraid that the removal of a statue or name means that all the history associated with it will be swept under the rug. However, the removal of an object like that does not equal the deletion of history. We will still educate the public about these people, but we will no longer give them any recognition for their gruesome acts. We will shift the emphasis.”

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“I think Dutch politicians are very slow to accept historical expertise on slavery,” says Izzy Wu Ramos, a third-year International Bachelor Arts and Culture Studies (IBACS) student and a member of the Association of Students of African Heritage.

Izzy considers the statue removals of 2020 a response to the systematic effacement of particular groups. “It’s clear that people are fed up with being ignored,” she explains. “People such as Piet Hein and Jan Pieterszoon Coen were put on a pedestal for years, even though as far as they were concerned, anyone who wasn’t white could spare a limb that could be placed into a cabinet of curiosities, so to speak.”

Izzy feels that the curriculum of her own degree programme is too Eurocentric for a degree programme that is supposed to be international. “I think we need to redefine the concept of Eurocentrism. The arrival of migrants in Europe has contributed to the birth of a hybrid culture in several multicultural cities. One might wonder if African diaspora narratives in Europe and other such things might also be included in this hypothetical new form of Eurocentrism. It’s definitely an interesting subject for Erasmus University to conduct some research on.”

Raising awareness

For his part, Hans Soetermeer, a second-year history student, has also noticed that his degree programme is subject to a dominant Western perspective. “They do admit that the things we learn were written from a Eurocentric point of view and that it’s problematic to consider things from this point of view only. But in actual practice, that’s exactly what happens.” He has recently seen an increase in the amount of attention paid to other perspectives on history. “Obviously, I myself analyse the world from my own social context, which is that of a white Dutchman, so it’s crucial that we be aware that there are many other points of view, as well. The university could play a significant part in the creation of this awareness.”

Hans emphasises that it’s vital that we listen to each other and be empathic. Just levelling accusations at each other will only widen the gap between groups.

“It would be great if we could create some kind of unity on the first of July,” says Sheetal. “I’d love for Keti Koti to be viewed not just as a festive occasion for Surinamese or Antillian people, but for the abolition of slavery to be celebrated by all people living in the Netherlands.”