Several institutes, initiatives and projects in Amsterdam have been working on issues and topics of diversity for a longer period. However, in stark contrast with cities such as New York, London and several other European capitals, Amsterdam has no real meeting spaces for conscious and explicit co-creation and the rethinking of contemporary narratives, infrastructures and future perspectives. Rethink therefore aims to establish such a venue by 2025 – the year in which Amsterdam celebrates its 750 years as a city.
What is being done already
Celebrating diversity: in the Netherlands, diversity-work often revolves around evoking empathy and connecting people and groups. Working on issues of diversity is often described as ‘celebrating diversity’. However, this way of framing diversity – as a separate sphere – is problematic. The concept of diversity only exists if there is an assumed neutral state, compared to which ‘others’ are ‘diverse’. In general, a dichotomy of approaches can be identified:
The diverse as physical, emotional, colourful, spontaneous, and ‘natural’
The diverse as mainstream white, intellectual, progressive, planned, and ‘in charge’
This dichotomy is comparable to the struggle towards gender equality. Women used to be celebrated within the framework of the household – cooking, nursing and caring for children. ‘Normal’ qualities outside of this sphere weren’t considered for women to be judged upon. A similar trend can be observed regarding ‘the other’. ‘The other’ is valued on the basis of his contribution on the (manual) labour market, and sometimes cultural and gastronomical offerings. Here examples include the presence of Polish workers and the embracing of Indonesian cuisine as part of Dutch heritage. Yet celebrating diversity in such an a-symmetrical, selective setting ends up preserving the undemocratic status quo, by which diversity does not permeate politics and education.
Countering racism: there is a lot being done on the issue racism, yet this work often deals with expressions of racism, rather than its structural presence. Countering racist expressions is important, but the underlying power structures and their gatekeepers are implicit and therefore take time to adjust. Often these power structures impact people with a certain racial background in invisible ways. For example, children with a non-white Dutch background in primary schools are relatively more frequently supported to choose a future in manual labour from an early age. Subsequently, the same trend occurs in high schools, universities and human resource management. Decision making, primarily dominated by a highly educated liberal elite, thereby unintentionally produces a segregated leadership. Yet, polarised societies are dangerous, and monocultures are subject to disintegrate. Culture, education and leadership need to properly reflect diverse in order to remain relevant and unprofitable to society as a whole. Rethink focuses on the revealing of ‘invisible’ infrastructures to leadership and subsequently the making accessible of these trajectories.
Dialogue: contemporary work with issues of diversity often seeks ‘dialogue’. Dialogue is a great tool when facilitated between equals, or when the powerful agree to listen to the less powerful. In case of the latter, change is left to the goodwill of the powerful, leaving the marginalised dependent on that goodwill. Yet power is not given out of good will. Policies of diversity thus need to encompass the facilitation of dialogue. Rather, diversity work needs to secure equal power sharing and democracy.
Empowerment: thus far the largest portion of significant work for change has been initiated by grassroots organisations and civil society engagement. The empowerment of the disenfranchised has resulted in the reclaiming of power and citizenship in some contexts. A consciousness among so-called ‘ethnic minority groups’ in the Netherlands erupted around the 1970s. From here, a number of emancipation movements were established. These movements have been opposed by (extreme) rightwing groupings, which fear the loss of ‘Dutch identity and culture. An example is the longstanding discussion, or even conflict, around ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete). This discussion is part of a larger trend, namely the systemic questioning of terms of ‘cultural heritage’, ‘us’, ‘them’ and most important, the challenging of those who have to power to define these terms. The bridging of different initiatives and movements is crucial in order to represent diversity in an optimal way. This is what Rethink aims to do.
What do we mean by terms such as ‘diversity’, ‘urbanity’ en ‘polarisation’?
Which marginalised groups are we considering?
What categories of do we juxtapose against The Netherlands and ‘Dutchness’?
Diversity: when speaking of diversity, we are mostly referring to cultural and ethnic diversity, yet we also address differences in gender, sexuality, religion and other marginalised identities.
Urbanity: globally, 60% of the cities that will exist in 2050, have not been built yet. This makes that contemporary sustainable and diverse cities, function as role models for future cities. Looking for structures and ways to reconcile a reality of diversity and sustainability, while ensuring social cohesion and economic development, is at the heart of urbanity according to Rethink.
Future: according to a CBS (Central Office for Statistics) report in 2014, one in five citizens in the Netherlands has roots from outside of the Netherlands. The percentage of children with a background from outside the Netherlands is relatively higher than that of adults, resulting in a Dutch future that will become more diverse. Despite having become mainstream in people’s everyday lives, diversity remains underrepresented in positions of power, narratives of Dutch identity and future perspectives. Rethink aims to normalise diversity in every layer of society and commands leadership and future perspectives to properly reflect diversity.
Polarisation: we live in a time in which societies, including the Netherlands, are increasingly polarized. In recent years, democratic freedoms and human rights have advanced in certain respects. However, progress has been uneven and inequalities within countries are growing and causing instability. Traditional structures of leadership and institutions are struggling to provide solutions to the global challenges – such as climate change, migration and overpopulation – and their legitimacy is constantly tested. Politics revolve around the naming of a critical subject, such as ‘the other’, ‘the refugee’ or ‘the Muslim’, around whom elections have started to revolve. Simultaneously, the polarity between old traditions and change in the Middle East caused the Arab Spring, while on the other hand creating fertile grounds for groupings like IS, both resulting in war and the mass movement of people. Even though people around the globe are coming up with alternatives to extremism in inventive ways, opportunities to develop new perspectives, ideas and models are threatened. Rethink contributes to the diversifying of leadership, thereby aiming to narrow the gaps between polarised communities. We do this in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, but also through collaborations on the European and global level.
Culture and politics: in today’s world, all cultural expressions are political, and all politics are cultural. This is especially true when dealing with ‘the other’ or questions of ‘diversity’. For example, the celebration of Sint Nicholas causes a certain tension throughout the Netherlands every year, while the Rijksmuseum dedicated a thematic exhibition to the issue of slavery only in 2017. Culture and art are embedded in power structures, and power structures embedded in culture and art. Culture is powerful; it has the capacity to initiate and support society change. Rethink is therefore a cultural foundation.
Multicultural vs. International: another important starting point of Rethink is the acknowledgment that the global is the local and vice versa. What has happened and is happening in Amsterdammers’ countries of origin affects Amsterdam – and therefore the Netherlands – directly. Likewise, the way Amsterdam perceives and deals with these ‘foreign’ cultures reflects global relations between the city and the rest of the world. Often international issues are seen as dynamic, while issues of multiculturality are considered problematic. Rethink tackles this tendency by connecting the ‘multicultural’ with the international.
Who is being marginalised? Looking at statistics and research in the Netherlands of today, three groups can be identified:
The first group is characterised by ‘color of skin’, the second by religion or cultural background and the third by a condition of migration, often caused by conflict. While there are individual role models that debunk stereotypes revolving around each group – such as Mayor Aboutaleb of Rotterdam – these groups lack a representative middle class with access to power. Because of this, Rethink focuses these categories, thereby considering intersectional identities within each group.
The relevant elements of identity in the work of Rethink are:
Official identity: people’s identity as registered in official documents, marking elements such as birth place, date of birth, current place of living and native language.
Personal affiliations and definitions: the way people define themselves varies in different context and is related to intersectional identities. The way we define ourselves: this changes in different places and situations. We can describe ourselves as ‘daughter’, ‘vegetarian’ and ‘musician’, but also ‘Muslim’, ‘Frisian’ or ‘Dutchman’.
Projected identities: this is related to how people’s surroundings see them. Many of the projected identities are derives from stereotypes and categories which revolve around fixed perceptions, such as ‘Muslim’, ‘black’ and ‘refugees’ which have become intertwined with connotations such as ‘exotic’, ‘scary’, ‘lazy’ and ‘intruder’. The way in which we perceive other people is often an invisible and unconscious process. Yet these assumptions impact the way we behave, for example when we take decisions regarding employment, housing, friendships and trust. Thus, this last category often contradicts the way individuals and groups perceive themselves. The debunking of projected identities is at the core of the work Rethink does.
In addition to mainstream Dutch ‘white’ culture, significant cultural groupings in the Netherlands – due to their part in Dutch history or large volume – can roughly be described as follows:
Groups as a result of a history of enslavement. Example: Surinamese communities
Groups as a result of a history of colonialism. Example: Indonesian communities
Groups as a result of labor migration. Example: Moroccan and Turkish communities
Groups as a result of the Second World War. Example: Jewish communities
Groups as a result of recent migration. Example: Syrian communities
Groups as a result of The War on Terror. Example: Muslim communities
Groups as a result of expat migration. Example: English-speaking communities
These groups have resulted from interactions between and an intertwining of the above-mentioned categories of identity. None of the groups enjoys internal coherence and different communities do not automatically share solidarity. Additionally, each group consists of subgroups and mixed groups. In the Moroccan community, for example, there’s a significant difference between Berber and Arabic communities. Similarly, within the Turkish community, there are groups who primarily identify as Kurdish, rather than Turkish. Syrian refugees often share the same language and practice the same religion as people with Moroccan heritage, yet these communities do not necessarily support and each with each other. In short, each community in Amsterdam lives a particular reality and has a different emotional and intellectual relationship to the place and culture they find themselves in. Every group therefore has a specific understanding of Amsterdam or the Netherlands and varying definitions of ‘us’, ‘them’, ‘future’ and ‘past’.