Protesters holding signs in Civil Rights March
Protesters holding signs in Civil Rights March

Mapping Transatlantic Routes of Identity

The Netherlands and the Uses of American Reference Culture for 20th Century Discourses on Race and (anti-)Racism

Since 2013, Black Lives Matter protests have rocked cities across North America and Europe, including in the Netherlands. U.S.-derived terms such as institutional racism, White privilege and blackface had already been adapted to national debates, for instance in relation to discrimination in housing, education, employment, and governmental oversight (such as during the recent major fiscal scandal known as the toeslagenaffaire) and to the appearance of ‘Black Pete’ (zwarte piet). Some Dutch people welcome the inspiration, knowledge, and visibility that the global movement for Black Lives has offered; others argue that it represents an undesirable import of ‘divisive American identity politics.’

The contemporary example of Black Lives Matter is by no means unique. It is part of a long history of Dutch fascination for and engagement with African American history and culture, American racism as well as the Black American freedom struggle against it. The civil rights movement, Black Power, and Black feminism have inspired Dutch debates about racism for decades. However, Dutch receptions of U.S. culture have always been conflicted: ranging from admiration for American innovations to anxiety about a supposed loss of national identity. This is reflected in Dutch discourses on race as well.

The project Transatlantic Routes of Identities focuses on investigating the complex ways in which Dutch discussions about racism and emancipation have evolved in relation to America since the 1900s. Applying a combination of Digital Humanities tools like text-mining and more traditional close reading methods, the current major aim of the project is to map the prevalence and impact of race-related concepts that originated in the United States in a very large corpus of Dutch newspapers and magazines. By doing so, we seek to develop new insights into the processes by which and networks through which international racial discourse is selectively appropriated in and transferred to local contexts.​