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broken chains & radical equality

Yesterday, in the pouring rain, in front of the slavery monument in Amsterdam, King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands apologised for the Dutch government’s and his ancestral royal family’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. That was enough for massive applause from those in attendance, but he continued,

Maar voor het overduidelijke gebrek aan handelen tegen deze misdaad tegen de menselijkheid, vraag ik vandaag, op deze dag dat we samen het Nederlands slavernijverleden herdenken, vergiffenis.
Moreover, for the undeniable lack of action against this crime against humanity, I ask, today, on the day that we commemorate together the Dutch slavery past, forgiveness.

Attendees cheered, and some cried. The speech was one of several events held Friday and Saturday throughout the country to mark the official end of slavery, the culmination of decades of work to force Dutch society to recognise slavery as part of their history. Government ministers and officials spoke throughout the country and in Curacao, St Eustatius, Saba, Aruba and Suriname, where the slaves were trafficked and forced to work.

procession through Arnhem
Keti Koti procession

I attended the commemoration in my city Arnhem. Sigrid Kaag, finance minister, broke down in tears as she described a slave named Anna, born in Suriname and sold to work as a servant in Arnhem. Separated from her family, she was brought to this city to work for wealthy aristocrats in Arnhem. Though slavery was illegal on Dutch soil, slaves were still trafficked here. All we know about Anna comes from the accountant’s receipts of her being bought and sold - how old she was, how much she was worth, who purchased her and when she was shipped off.

The minister, as she recounted this, broke down in tears. “How could we have done this? This inhumanity?”

When the mayor spoke, he brought it closer to home “Look around,” said the mayor. “We’re surrounded by beautiful parks and houses…built on the unpaid labour of thousands of slaves.”

Sigrid Kaag Keti Koti
Finance Minister Sigrid Kaag speaks at the ceremony

Slavery contributed five per cent of the Dutch national GDP in 1770; for the western Holland provinces, it was close to eleven per cent. The country’s largest bank and railway owe their existence to investments from slavery. As one historian put it, slavery was fundamental to every part of the Dutch economy.

Slavery’s legacy, the mayor said, can be seen in the lack of diversity in the workplace, in the jobs not given to people with certain names or skin colour (studies have proven that ethnic minorities based on their name and appearance are less likely to be given interviews for jobs), in housing and government policy, algorithms and technology.

He was obliquely referencing a scandal at the tax office.

A few years ago, the tax office admitted using ethnicity as part of its algorithm to determine who to target for auditing. Thousands of people and families were falsely charged with fraud, leading to many bankruptcies, parents losing custody of their children and deep depression. The government is still busy trying to make reparation.

Sonsbeek Park
Sonsbeek Park, via unsplash

But back to the King. I’m unaware of any other monarch who’s done this, nor of any other European country that’s put its past involvement in slavery so front and centre. The apology hit like an earthquake and immediately changed the scope of the conversation. He’s commissioned an independent investigation into how his ancestors profited from the slave trade, and the findings will be presented later this year or next.

This conversation has dramatically changed in the almost ten years I’ve lived here. It’s a testament to the work activists have done but also to something uniquely Dutch. Everyone here has a chance to speak; everyone is heard. You may not make change immediately, but if you continue to tell your story, people will listen. And in this small country, space is limited. We all have figure out how to live together.

Sylvana Simons, a former MTV VJ turned social justice activist, founded her own party and is now in the national parliament. Her party is called Bij1 (At 1), a reference Article 1 of the Dutch constitution:

Allen die zich in Nederland bevinden, worden in gelijke gevallen gelijk behandeld. Discriminatie wegens godsdienst, levensovertuiging, politieke gezindheid, ras, geslacht, handicap, seksuele gerichtheid of op welke grond dan ook, is niet toegestaan.
All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race, sex, disability, sexual orientation or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.

“Radical equality” is the party’s guiding principle. She has vigorously called out all forms of discrimination in parliament, forcing politicians into uncomfortable debates about privilege and policy they otherwise would’ve avoided. And for it, she has been repeatedly told “to go home” and been harassed and threatened online and in person. Yesterday was a victory for her and her ideals.

“Monuments are nice and necessary, but they don’t solve the problem. We need to look at all aspects of society and admit why some people are in the positions they’re in. Centuries of thinking of certain people as inferior and others as better have put us here….we haven’t recognised the full capacity and potential of people of colour. And that goes for all ages: a man who’s 75 and has lived his whole life under this system, or the person who’s 43 and working but not able to reach his full potential or the teenager who’s advised not to continue their education.” Linda Nooitmeer, director of the Dutch Slavery Historical Society

Sylvana Simons
Sylvana Simons

At the beginning of the commemoration ceremony, a Winti (an Afro-Surinamese religion) priestess blessed the space where the event was held. She thanked the ancestors for their battle, for their sacrifice. She prayed that people would listen to each other. That those who governed the country would receive wisdom, she prayed the country would find common ground and connection. She prayed that the Dutch would have the courage to call slavery what it was, to recognise that we (everyone, not just black people) still feel its effects today.

She also encouraged people not to blame each other for the past, “no one is to be personally attacked; you didn’t do this, others in the past bear the blame and the guilt…but we must talk about healing: spiritual, social, economic and all other forms.”

Her blessing ended with, “I hope that we can agree today, together, that we will make the Netherlands the best country in Europe for black, yellow and white people to live. That everyone who puts their foot on Dutch ground will experience justice, equality and love.”

I’m a Dutch citizen by choice. I learned the language, paid the fees, took the tests and swore an oath to the Kingdom. It’s a relationship often full of friction, but times like these remind me why I love this little country. It never ceases to amaze me. Radical equality is revolutionary and difficult to reach, but it’s not impossible. Slowly, step-by-step, I believe we’ll get there. Yesterday gave me hope.


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