What It's Like to Be Black In: Amsterdam

A Philly native appreciates the laidback lifestyle and work and home balance offered in The Netherlands, but living in her dream city means navigating the realities of European racism. 

Posted: 04/23/2012 03:24 PM EDT

For Philadelphia native Dana Saxon, her love affair with the city of Amsterdam happened at first sight.

 

“I was there for a layover for just a few hours and I fell in love with the city. I stepped off the train and just felt like, ‘I could totally see myself living here,’” she said.

 

So, after growing frustrated with both her nonprofit job and New York City, Saxon, 33, decided to go back to school to get a master’s in sociology. And when it was time to choose a school, she followed the feelings she had on that layover in 2008 and chose to study at University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands.

 

Although Saxon says she will forever have love for Amsterdam, her idyllic dream life abroad has not come without some hiccups. Issues of race, she says, have consumed much of her time in the country, and although she is a self-proclaimed “race-obsessed” person, the Dutch don’t seem to make it any easier for Dana to let down her guard.

 

“Race comes up for me all the time,” Saxon said. “In the Netherlands they say, ‘There’s no such thing as race here. We don't make those types of distinctions. If you see what you call racism, that's your issue.’”

 

The message that, as a society, the Dutch do not “see” race is a common narrative in many of the more liberal European countries. However, as Saxon suggests and as many Black people from nations in Africa and the Caribbean who have immigrated to The Netherlands can attest, the Dutch refusal to recognize race issues hardly mean they do not exist.

 

This December, Saxon was most shocked by the country’s handling of race when she encountered the beloved Black Pete (known as Zwarte Piet in Dutch), a fictional blackface character that is known as a helper of Sinterklaas, a skinnier version of Santa Claus, and who is celebrated with parades and public adulation ahead of the traditional Christmas holiday.

 

Although Sinterklaas is the namesake of the celebratory time, Black Pete is the star of the show. Saxon says that in addition to the huge parade held in his honor every year when residents dress in blackface, images of Black Pete flood the city of Amsterdam around Sinterklaas time and can be found on everything from food packaging to billboards.

 

“It was everywhere. You couldn’t walk two feet without seeing it … it felt intolerable,” Saxon said about constantly being confronted with the character.

 

Saxon said the Dutch public refuses to accept that blackface is derogatory. 

 

“Its not just the tradition, I think that the tradition is more of a reflection of the mindset of Dutch people. [They feel] it’s their right to make fun of whoever they want,” Saxon said. “[Like], ‘We're Dutch, this is our country, we can do whatever we want.’”

This past year, Saxon cooperated with other members of Amsterdam’s Black community and worked to raise awareness about how the tradition offends Blacks in the Netherlands. She was also in Amsterdam for the Jackie magazine controversy, when the Dutch glossy published an article calling Rihanna a “N----aB---h.”

Although the magazine apologized for the gaffe, she said the response from the Dutch public was the same as always regarding racial issues.

“‘You guys are being too sensitive,’” she said, mocking the sentiment that Dutch people displayed following the fallout. “‘N---a seems to be used so causally, we thought we could use it. We're not being racist.’”

Ignorance aside, Saxon says the country’s lifestyle is why she plans to make the country her permanent home.

“I love the lifestyle. Its far more laid back, and they really value the balance between work and life,” she said.  “They have ample vacation time and maternity leave. Everyone has healthcare … Things like that make it feel like it’s easier to live there.”

And despite the blackface holidays and the unwillingness to acknowledge racism, Saxon says she feels more optimistic about race relations in The Netherlands than in the U.S.

“I feel more hopeful there,” she said. “Dutch people need to just make some significant changes in their practices that will make life more tolerable there for Black people.”

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(Photo: Dana Saxon)

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