‘Jokes about origins aren’t all that innocent’

The UK set out a questionnaire among more than three hundred international students, and the results don’t lie: almost half of them – 42 percent – has heard negative jokes or remarks from students, employees or colleagues in the past three months. 13.6 percent says they’ve been addressed in an openly racist way.

Thirty percent of the respondents says the jokes are unpleasant, even if most respondents think Dutch people are trying to be funny instead of mean. Only 8.3 percent of respondents thinks the remarks are meant to be cruel.

TU Eindhoven is considering pressing charges
The comments below the article show not everyone thinks the complaints are justified. “Who’s supposed to be adapting to whom”, one reader wonders. Another notes: “Most jokes from the Dutch are based on facts and some are based on movies or stereotypes, but the Dutch also recognize their own country as being a wood clumps, windmills, milk maiden, weed filled country.”

The same thing happens regularly outside of Groningen, of course. In Eindhoven, students at one faculty made a closed WhatsApp group, used to make jokes about others, according to Eindhoven’s diversity officer and professor of psychology Evangelia Demerouti. “We’re telling students now that this is really unacceptable, and that it needs to stop. The university is considering pressing charges if it doesn’t stop soon.”

Demerouti is Greek, so she’s very familiar with jokes about her origins. About loaning money, for instance. “Jokes are never going to be funny to everyone, especially if they’re consistently made with the purpose of excluding people,” Demerouti says. “You laugh once, maybe twice, and then it’s enough.”

Jokes are killing the Netherlands’ image of tolerance
The professor says she has to work twice as hard to prove herself. People are still more reluctant to come to her for collaborations, she says, “because we don’t have a shared past”. Thankfully, it’s becoming more open for discussion, she says. “What we want is an environment in which everyone feels well. I don’t need to eat bitterballen to belong here, but I do need to be able to excel and to be able to develop my work.”

Rosalba Icaza Garza, assistant professor in social sciences at Erasmus University Rotterdam, is specialized in diversity, and knows the problems of common racist jokes. “Those jokes aren’t exclusively made in the Netherlands,” she says. “I’ve taught in six different classes, and it happens everywhere. But the Netherlands has a global reputation of being tolerant. So when you first hear Dutch people make these kinds of jokes, you’re extra shocked. That reputation is instantly ruined.”

The problem, she says, isn’t naiveté or rudeness, but a lack of skills. You should be able to just be quiet and listen to someone with a different background, she thinks, instead of immediately making jokes based on harmful, racist stereotypes. “In any conversation, ‘being quiet for a while’ isn’t the same as ‘not participating’.”

Jokes show a lack of empathy
She herself is from Mexico, and thanks to series like Narcos, faced all sorts of jokes about drugs. “And because I’m a Latin-American woman, they also asked how many lovers I’ve already collected here.” Jokes like that make it harder to form a meaningful bond with someone, she explains.

Of course you can say something and then take it back later, says Margreet van der Burg, senior university lecturer in gender studies at the rather international Wageningen University. In a group of students, she herself had once asked a black student: how is that done in your country? “But it turned out, that student was from Rotterdam. I apologized for it, and it’s never going to happen again.”

You need to learn to empathize with others, she advises. “We teach students in gender studies this. Privileged groups think that their jokes are funny, and harmless, because they don’t really mean them, do they? But they show a clear lack of empathy.”

Translation: Indra Spronk