Recently, the parliament debated on whether or not to apologise for the Netherlands history concerning slavery. Politicians have already expressed ‘deep regret and contrition’ in the past but never went so far as to apologise. I thought this rather odd and wonder what meaning an apology for acts of the past may hold today.
Prime-minister Rutte stated that there certainly is racism in the Netherlands. Still, he is reluctant to categorise people as racist and wants to avoid making people feel that way. Thus, he thinks that apologising for slavery, which was abolished almost 160 years ago, will only serve to polarise society further. You might wonder if there is anything that could not polarise people these days, but that’s a different issue.
Making 2023 an official year of remembrance for slavery (exactly 160 years after it was abolished) has been suggested. Apologising for something that occurred in the past may be seen as non-sensical, as what was done, can not be undone. Thus, it is easy political appeasement for past mistakes.
Still, I feel that apologising could serve a purpose in the current debate. Apologising shows judgement. Saying you regret that slavery existed, changes nothing about history, but it does show that from a contemporary perspective, these acts are condemned. It calls for critical reflection and consideration of the present. Because, how can our white members of parliament know whether racism exists? How can they judge whether apologies can contribute to acknowledging how racism is experienced?
During the debate, a white, male politician stated that ‘we really don’t have a problem’ and that a European study shows that the Netherlands is leading in acceptance of people of a different ethnic background. Asking people whether they are racist, rather than asking people whether they experience racism, does not seem the correct take on this issue. The fact that many people claim they accept diversity conveys as little about reality as our constitution stating we are all equal.
First of all, we are to assume there is, indeed, a problem. Racism is rooted in many parts of society and is often subconscious. You need not be a self-proclaimed racist to contribute to racist structures within our society. Ask, listen to the stories, be critical of yourself and society, as the opposition suggested during the debate. Politicians should not blindly follow the path of least resistance by omitting an apology, recognising the past and reflecting on the present. Seize this opportunity, now that the current events provide an excellent incentive for a new debate. As of yet, we are waiting for that particular debate until 2023.