Internationals & prejudice

When Dutch 'directness' hurts

International students face everyday exclusion and indirect discrimination from their Dutch peers. And the Dutch don’t even know they’re doing it. ‘They think they are being direct, but actually it is just rude.’
By Megan Embry

This is the first of a two-part series exploring subtle prejudice among students and staff at the RUG. Go to part 2

Alejandra Hernandez is an ambitious PhD student. She is also Mexican, and her colleagues often remind her of that. ‘I think sometimes Dutch people have a very difficult sense of humour’, says Hernandez. ‘The first time they called me “Consuela” I laughed. But the tenth time?’, she sighs.

‘Consuela’ is a Mexican character in the American TV show Family Guy. In one episode she appears on a game show called Are You Smarter Than a Hispanic Maid? It is not a flattering stereotype.

‘Why act like my people can only serve in that kind of work?’, she wonders. ‘And being a cleaning lady is a super honest job! But there are also engineers and Nobel Prize winners in Mexico. And I have exactly the same job my colleagues do: so why do these comments come up all the time? They think they are being direct, but actually it is just rude.’

Her experience is one of many. The UKrant did a survey of over 300 international students. In the last three months, more than 42 percent of respondents have been on the receiving end of jokes or comments by RUG students or staff that negatively stereotype their nationality or culture. And 13.6 percent of respondents say they have heard blatantly racist comments from RUG students or staff during that time.

Just not funny

International students agree: the jokes aren’t funny.

Do you know what we think about people who come from your country?

Maria Kovacevic is from Montenegro. She says she lost count of the inappropriate comments she heard while pursuing her PhD in physics at the RUG. ‘One student said to me, “Oh you are from Montenegro. Do you know what we think about people who come from your country? Well, you don’t want to know what we think”.’

She and her international friends would compare notes at the end of the day. The fact that she wasn’t alone was hardly comforting. ‘I would think: this is totally wrong. What kind of society is this? I came to the Netherlands because I thought it was a country of freedom and openness’, she says. ‘And maybe as long as you are Dutch you won’t be judged. But if you appear to be someone with some other nationality, it’s problematic.’

Violeta Stojanovska is a Phd student from Macedonia. She doesn’t know what’s worse: being the butt of a joke, or feeling complicit when a joke is made about someone else. She recalls a particularly painful example. ‘The first year of my PhD I was in a room full of Dutch students and a Chinese student came in to talk. As soon as she left, everyone burst out laughing, mocking the way she talked and behaved. They have a Dutch word for it – ‘kruiperig’ – for when you are a very low person. I was shocked. These people are training to be doctors! And I felt timid and afraid to say anything because I was the only person in the room who was not Dutch. I thought: do you do that when I leave the room?’

How did we get here?

In the 1990’s, Tom Pettigrew (an American social psychologist working out of the University of Amsterdam) developed a metric to measure ‘subtle’ and ‘blatant’ prejudice. His team found that Holland is full of subtle prejudice.

I truly think the Dutch are just more naïve about the ways they are racist

This came as a big surprise to a nation that sees itself as one of the most tolerant in the world, says RUG social psychologist Ernestine Gordijn. But people generally don’t know that they are prejudiced. ‘And in the Netherlands people think they are open and direct but are often not aware of their prejudices. I wouldn’t say the Dutch are more racist than anyone else; I truly think they are just more naïve about the ways they are racist.’

Ludo Aerts is a Dutch student who has studied history and religious studies. He thinks recent history plays a big role in the way many of the Dutch see the world and themselves: ‘In the late 1980’s we were doing so well economically and socially that we developed a dominant idea of ourselves as a guiding nation, an exemplary nation. It’s part of the national story that we tell ourselves, and it grounds this assumption that implicit racism and implicit xenophobia is not a problem.’

FEB economist Swarnodeep Homroy sees this kind of thinking in his own research all the time: people condone their micro-behavior by identifying instead with the macro-behavior of their group. Individuals can dismiss personally prejudiced behaviours by viewing their actions in light of the larger Dutch stereotype: ‘tolerant’.

Not just the Dutch

Readers might object: this isn’t just a Dutch problem. And that’s true, says Gordijn. ‘Everybody stereotypes – we categorise everything we see, including people. But the problem is that stereotypes are simplistic and often wrong; and stereotypes about minority groups are usually negative.’

International students say their Dutch peers defend negative stereotypes as a way of being ‘direct’. ‘But I even doubt whether that’s right’, says Gordijn. ‘It’s just that negative stereotypes make us feel good about ourselves. That’s basic social psychology. So if Belgians are dumb, then we are smart; if Germans are cold, then we are warm.’

It’s your  fault if you don’t think it’s funny

And the fact is that expressions of subtle prejudice are usually indirect. Jokes are a convenient way of expressing negative value judgements, because the joke-teller isn’t accountable for the effect of the joke.

‘It’s your fault if you don’t think it’s funny’, says recent RUG graduate, Paolo Petrocchi. Petrocchi is from Aruba, so he’s technically Dutch. But he often hears comments that remind him of his outsider status. ‘There is a hidden layer of intolerance or racism behind them. And because everything here falls under the umbrella of “tolerance” they think you should also be tolerant of their jokes.’

No harm intended

According to the UK survey, only 8.3 percent of respondents think these comments are meant to be hurtful. 30 percent aren’t sure what motivates the jokes, and 61 percent say they know their peers are just trying to be funny.

But Homroy doesn’t think any of that matters. ‘It’s how your words are received that matters.’ And over 30 percent of respondents say the jokes are, in fact, upsetting. A bad sense of humour hardly justifies hurting other people, Homroy says. His research focuses on gender discrimination, but he thinks gender bias and culture bias play out in similar ways and with similar consequences. Discrimination is not always intentional and bias is not always conscious. ‘But it can still inflict a kind of harm.’

When you’re in a majority position you probably won’t notice how often you stereotype others, says Gordijn. So she simply lets majority groups know how minorities see them. ‘They are always surprised. They don’t ever have to think about it because they set the norms.’ On the other hand, minorities anticipate being unfairly stereotyped at any moment. That psychological burden ‘can make you insecure, or angry, or feel like you need to actively dismantle negative stereotypes by acting differently.’

What do they think of me? That I am some kind of criminal?

Kovacevic has firsthand experience of this phenomenon. ‘Students would joke that people from ex-Yugoslav countries come to the Netherlands just to steal’, she says. ‘The result is that international students end up asking themselves: what do they think of me? That I am some kind of criminal?’

But just try to see the minority perspective, Gordijn advises. And that should be easy, because minority status is not static. Dutch students report their own experiences of exclusion while abroad or in international working groups. ‘Diversity is often a solution for subtle prejudice’, Gordijn says. ‘And if we really want to be an international university, we should stop using mental shortcuts when we interact with each other.’

International students: speak up

Alejandra Hernandez hopes to spend the rest of her life in the Netherlands. Like most of the students who contributed to this article, she doesn’t want to complain. But Homroy is optimistic that internationals can dismantle subtle prejudice if they just say something. ‘People from other countries can have a psychological disadvantage: if I always feel like I am a minority, I keep my head down. I stay out of the way. I don’t complain. But it’s good to normalize your presence by using your voice.’

International students are using their voices. Click through the slideshow below to read their first-hand accounts of subtle (and sometimes blatant) prejudice in Groningen and at the RUG. (Some submissions edited for brevity.)


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