Opinion: Diversity

POSTED: 03/5/14 10:30 AM

The tendency to judge a book by its cover is a flaw in the human psyche. For example, an American state trooper who spots a large, brand new SUV – preferably black – with heavily tinted windows, a black driver and out of state license plates will almost automatically conclude: drug dealer.

We have witnessed such a videotaped incident some years ago, whereby the state trooper stopped that SUV and gave its driver an extremely rude treatment. The man turned out to be an out of state high-ranking police officer.

The way some Dutch people still think about Germans is no different from the way some Belgians think about the Dutch, or the way the British think about the French. They are all prejudiced of course. Some Dutch people still gripe about the Second World War – as if it happened yesterday – and they never miss an opportunity to express that underbelly feeling.

When the world championship soccer took place in Germany in 2006, a producer of supporters-gear offered orange-colored helmets of the model German soldiers wore during the Second World War The soccer association banned the helmets, saying they were “extremely offensive.”

Most Belgians think that Dutch people are lousy drivers, because they drive so slowly when they take in the landscape south of the border. On the other hand, the Dutch think all Belgians are stupid, a notion that has triggered a tsunami of jokes. Like this one. How do you drive a Belgian crazy? By putting him in a round room, saying there is a bag of French fries in the corner.”

The British and the French, the English and the Irish (and the Scottish, for that matter), the Americans and the Mexicans, they all have these feelings based on prejudice. Those feelings usually disappear as soon as, say, a Dutchman meets a real life German, or a real life Belgian. That is when they discover that we are all human and that nationality does not really matter. Some of these encounters even end in marriage, for better and for worse.

The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis portrayed prejudice excellently in his classic Zorba the Greek. Zorba has a rather violent past with habits we would frown upon these days. He would go into villages and kill Turks and Bulgarians – anybody who was not Greek. Until one day he came to his senses and realized that there are only two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.

From nationality it is a small step to race. That’s a slippery field of course, but the basic ingredients are the same and they are mostly based on prejudice. To follow Zorba’s line of thinking: there are good white people and bad white people. There are lazy blacks and blacks that are extremely industrious. There are weird Chinese and there are brilliant Chinese. And so on.

While many people recognize this, even more people tend to stick to their prejudiced feelings. So they stay away from, say, the Chinese, or the blacks, or the white folks. A Dutch proverb applies here: Onbekend Maakt Onbemind (Unknown, unloved).

An international group of researchers led by Oxford-professor psychology Miles Hewstone looked into this phenomenon on the level of neighborhoods. They found that the reverse of the above mentioned proverb is also true. Hewstone c.s. discovered the existence of passive tolerance.

What’s that?

According to the researchers natives who live in multicultural neighborhoods where they do not have contacts with other ethnic groups develop after some time fewer racist ideas. Just witnessing positive mixed contacts of their neighbors, leads to increased tolerance among natives, the researchers found.

The 9-year study was done between 2002 and 2011 in Great Britain, Germany, the United States and South Africa. The results have been welcomed by researchers in the Netherlands. Jan Rath, a professor in urban sociology at the University of Amsterdam thinks that the results apply to the Netherlands as well. And if they apply there, why would they not be valid in St. Maarten as well?

Rath concedes that there are of course people in mixed neighborhoods who see their prejudices confirmed every day. “But you also see Dutch couples that adopt complete Moroccan families, that take their children along to the library and that even join them for vacations to Morocco. The majority of residents in mixed neighborhoods are simply neutral. That’s fine. I do not feel the need either to drink coffee with my neighbors every day.”

Rath had some hands-on experience growing up in the Afrikaanderwijk in Rotterdam where the first racial riots erupted in the seventies of last century. And what was the reason for those riots? The neighborhood was “invaded” by 5 percent foreigners. “Go figure,” says Rath. If you have a neighborhood with 20 percent immigrants these days, people consider it to be reasonable white.”

The study shows that there is no reason to fear diversity. “It nuances populist positions that Dutch politicians do not shy away from either.”

On a day when the Dutch Second Chamber debates the Bosman Law, that is an interesting thought.


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