Flavia Dzodan is a writer living in the Netherlands. She covers issues surrounding race, gender and immigration, as well as European Union governance and policy. She can be found on Twitter at@redlightvoices.
When people think of the Netherlands, a few stereotypes come to mind: Amsterdam’s canals, tulips, relaxed policies around soft drugs and sex work, euthanasia and, of course, the much-touted Dutch tolerance. Dutch politicians and opinion-makers frequently refer to the Netherlands as a “gidsland” or “guide country,” a concept loosely translated as “a nation leading by example.” The city of Amsterdam bases its tourism marketing on these values, especially in regard to acceptance of sexual and ethnic diversity. In the weeks leading to the March general elections, much was said about the populism and anti-immigrant rhetoric of far-right politician Geert Wilders. But when he took second place in the election results (still managing to capture a very sizable portion of the electorate), international media focused on the fact that, seemingly, liberal values had prevailed in the Netherlands once again.
To the outside world, the Netherlands is a rich and diverse country, embracing values of equality and acceptance of differences, even if some cracks are visible every year during the heated discussions about blackface and Zwarte Piet. However, the inside reality is quite different. Because Dutch is a relatively obscure language for most of the outside world, much of what is reported in the international media about the Netherlands misses the daily grievances experienced by minorities. The latest scandal to shake up the Dutch media landscape is no exception.
It all started a few weeks ago when Rosanne Hertzberger, a white columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC, pointed out ingrained and violent misogyny against women on the shock blog Geenstijl (No Style), which is owned by the biggest media company in the Netherlands, Telegraaf Media Groep. Geenstijl is described as a mixture of 4chan, right-wing agitation and racist provocations. It is extremely popular among younger white men who share a disdain for “political correctness” and an affinity for racial and sexist bigotry. The blog’s political influence cannot be easily dismissed: It was behind the initiative that resulted in a referendum for the European Union’s treaty with Ukraine and eventually spun off into an official political party that presented candidates in the most recent Dutch elections. Hertzberger’s column was followed by another piece at de Volkskrant, calling for an advertising boycott on the basis that the blog incites violence against women.
Soon after, 100 prominent and mostly white women, co-signed a letter asking corporations not to advertise in Geenstijl due to the constant rape fantasies being doled out on women journalists who expressed opinions contrary to the shock blog’s views. In turn, the employees of the blog’s parent company reacted with an appropriate meltdown: They cried censorship and claimed that they were victims of media silencing, saying that the women in question were trying to bankrupt a powerful media business with their “hysterical” denunciations of sexual violence and misogyny.
On an almost daily basis, these same Dutch media corporations use harmful language to discuss people of color, migrants, asylum-seekers and anyone who actively advocates for these groups under the pretense of “freedom of speech,” yet barely an eyebrow is lifted. But now that Dutch white women have been victimized all of a sudden Geenstijl has “crossed a line” and is deserving of an advertising boycott.
In 2015, the NRC used the N-word in a headline to refer to Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the outside world got a taste of the way that Dutch media refers to black people in the country. Geenstilj, now under fire for its treatment of white women, has for years mounted hate campaigns against non-white activists, journalists and pretty much anyone who is at odds with its right-wing ideologies. Last year, when Geenstijl viciously attacked journalist Seada Nourhussen, demanding she lose her job at a competing publication, no calls for an advertising boycott were made. When activist and teacher Arzu Aslan was subjected to racist attacks and demands for her firing, there was hardly any outcry from mainstream media. In both cases, misogyny and violent sexual threats were deployed as well. When employees of Telegraaf Media Groep harassed Quinsy Gario in his home, in an attempt to further demonize him as an “angry black man,” there was little outrage.
That almost none of these instances of racial and/or sexist attacks on Dutch people of color ever make international headlines shows how, after decades of promoting tolerance as a marketing tool, the Netherlands has still managed to hide aspects of its culture from outside scrutiny. Behind this facade of tolerance and conviviality, Dutch media acts as a disciplining mechanism to quiet dissenters and those who challenge the hegemony of the dominant culture. When the same sexist media attacks targeting white women are deployed against Dutch black women, women of color or their allies, barely a peep is heard from the media establishment. Maybe, in the Netherlands, solidarity is only for white women, after all.