25 February 2008

Do labels matter?

Imagine my surprise and delight when I read a headline indicating that Justice Minister Hirsch Ballin wants to stop usage of the word allochtoon. That can only be matched by my amusement and dismay when the next set of headlines indicated that the VVD (Liberal Party) and PVV (Party for Freedom) are "annoyed" at Ballin's request. Apparently, they want him to stop "whining" because stick and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you. Let's call that a summary of their argument. Given that you may not share my obsession with Dutch immigration politics, allow me to explain a couple things.

The VVD is generally known in English as the Liberal Party, although their website indicates that they are the "People's Party for Freedom and Democracy)." They take a conservative stance on immigration. Former party member Rita Verdonk was the Minister for Immigration and Integration from 2003 until 2007. Other well known former party members include Ayaan Hirsi Ali (see my posts here and here) and Geert Wilders. All three have left the party. All three take even more conservative stances on immigration than VVD.

The PVV (information in English here) or Party for Freedom is Geert Wilders' new party. Formerly known as the Group Wilders, the party won nine seats in parliament in 2006, its first elections. The PVV's main position is that Muslims do not belong in the Netherlands. To that end, the party has made various proposals over the last year, including banning the Koran. They are often in the news thanks to Wilders' patent provocative style (and possibly also his hair). His latest plan is to release a short film about the Koran. No word yet on who will be broadcasting the film.

All of which allows me to get back to this allochtoon word. Basically, an allochtoon is someone who is not of Dutch decent, meaning not of Dutch blood. Citizenship is not the question, rather heritage. The British, French, Germans, Chinese, Americans, Turks, Belgians, Indians, you name it, if you are not of Dutch blood, you are an allochtoon. At least, that's the official definition. In practice, the word is used to refer to non-whites. It's a linguistic form of discrimination. All immigrants are allochtoon, even after they have citizenship. Furthermore, there are divisions into first and second generation allochtonen. It's a complex system and one that could stand with revising. I'm terribly disappointed to see that a serious comment has been reduced to petty "whining" by the PVV and VVD's responses. However, it does give you an idea of the level of the Dutch immigration debate these days.

I'll close with an adapted excerpt from my MA thesis - just because it goes into more detail about the terminology, in case you're interested.

Historian Ian Buruma describes the word “allochtoon” as “an ugly, and relatively new, bureaucratic term for people of alien, but more specifially non-European, origin” (Buruma 149). The Dutch-English van Dale dictionary translates “allochtoon” as either “immigrant” or “foreigner.” However, the Dutch translation of “immigrant” is “immigrant” and the Dutch word for “foreigner” is “buitenlander” or “vreemdeling.” There is no accurate translation for “allochtoon” in English. The opposite of allochtoon is autochtoon, which refers to what would be considered “real” Dutch, people born in the Netherlands to two Dutch parents. The word autochtoon should not be confused with citizenship because a Dutch citizen can be either allochtoon or autochtoon. In addition to being a specifically Dutch concept, allochtoon is a highly politicized term that perpetuates colonial-style classifications.

The Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS), Central Statistics Office, has developed a statistical definition for allochtoon. It has also devised several ways to differentiate between allochtoon groups. These definitions determine how the word allochtoon is used in official documents like the Dutch integration law. According to the CBS, an allochtoon is a person living in the Netherlands who has one or more parents who were born in a foreign country (Garssen, Nicolaas and Sprangers 96). Allochtonen can be categorized by a combination of two characteristics; country of origin and generation. First-generation allochtonen were born in a foreign country, their country of origin. Second-generation allochtonen have at least one parent who was born in a foreign country. For second-generation allochtonen, their country of origin is their mother’s birth country, unless she was born in the Netherlands, in which case the child’s country of origin is the father’s birth country. Like the colonial hierarchy used in the Dutch East Indies, this method looks first to mothers to determine the country of origin.

All allochtonen are also classified as either “western” or “non-western” based on their country of origin. Western allochtonen are those whose country of origin is in Europe, North America, Oceania, or is either Indonesia or Japan. Non-western allochtonen are those whose country of origin is in Africa, Latin America, Asia, or is Turkey. Indonesia and Japan are excluded from the category “non-western” because of their social and economic status (Garssen, Nicolaas and Sprangers 96). Indonesia has old colonial ties to the Netherlands and most Japanese immigrants are here temporarily for work. These categories are used for statistical purposes. However, the way they are defined, especially the fact that Indonesia and Japan are considered western and the ambiguity that makes North America western but Latin America non-western, leaving Mexico and Central America in-between, demonstrates that these categories are not actually geographic. On the contrary, this system of classification recalls Anne Stoler’s comments about racism based on external features and birthplace mistakenly taken as indicators of personal and cultural traits (Stoler 133-34). This system tends to emphasize difference over similarity and can contribute to statistical reporting that inflates the number of immigrants in the Netherlands. The intensive categorization of allochtonen reflects an affinity with the differentiation between colonists and inlanders used by the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies.

Buruma, Ian. Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. New York: The Penguin Press, 2006.

Garssen, Joop, Han Nicolaas, and Arno Sprangers. Demographie Van De Allochtonen in Nederland: Centraal Bureau voor de Statistik, 2005.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education of Desire. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995.


  1. personally the fact that i am (was) considered one but you not (mostly) always makes me smile. what i can't decide is if our backgrounds have more in common or more differences. luckily we can still play together either way!

  2. also, i just thought: the level of a person's education seems to add an (unofficial) level of classification. i got the impression that immigrants with higher education are less quickly allochtoon than immigrants without. a moroccan friend who moved to nl from london (and has a uni degree) dealt with the fallout from that continuously. people seemed to get upset with him for not fitting into a predefined box!


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