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Is Amsterdam Really as Tolerant as it Seems?

AFAR chose a destination at random and sent CNN political commentator Sally Kohn on 24 hours’ notice to a city renowned for its “coffee shops” but where tolerance has its limits.

“Did you know the coffee shops are technically illegal?”

I’m in Amsterdam sitting in a café—not a coffee shop, a very important difference, one quickly learns—having lunch with a friend of a friend. She points at a coffee shop across the street.

“Technically they can’t sell marijuana, but they’re allowed to anyway.” She shrugs. “It’s tolerated.”

The Dutch, I will be told repeatedly throughout my five days in Amsterdam, take great pride in being tolerant. Five minutes later, my very liberal and enlightened coffee date is verbally bashing Muslims.

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Brussels, Belgium
Photo by Flickr user George M. Groutas

When I first found out I was going to Amsterdam, I thought I had been there before, even though I hadn’t, because I’m not very good at geography, and I thought Amsterdam was in Belgium. It’s not. It’s in the Netherlands and, according to some hasty Internet research before my departure, is mostly known for two things—bicycles and cheese.

“There’s a whole town in the Netherlands called Gouda,” I told friends the evening before I left. “Maybe I’ll go there.” I read the Dutch pronounce it more like how-duh. I wondered how they pronounced it in Belgium.

A friend who had just visited Amsterdam offered a string of museum and restaurant recommendations, and then wrote, “Also, be ready to see lots of blackface, because Black Pete is one of their Christmas characters and he is everywhere. It’s very uncomfortable.” Come again?

I should say here that one of the reasons I was excited to be going to Amsterdam was that I remembered going to Brussels—in Belgium!—in college, during the same pre-Christmas window, and drowning in the awesomeness of the city’s Christmas market. OK, so Amsterdam isn’t in Belgium, but it must still have a Christmas market, right? Fried dough and hot beverages, here I come! Or not. The week before Christmas, flailing through Amsterdam on two wheels, I was the Jewish schmuck riding around waving and saying “Merry Christmas” to quizzical-looking Dutch folk. According to my guidebook, 60 percent of Amsterdam’s citizenry identifies as nonreligious, and apparently practitioners of Islam outnumber those of other faiths. In other words, no Christmas market.

This makes Zwarte Piet all the more shocking. In this Dutch tradition, a few weeks before Christmas, a Santa character visits kids all over the country, accompanied by a group of Black Petes—helpers portrayed by white people in blackface with kinky black wigs and bright red lips. Zwarte Piet has been around for more than a century but has become more and more controversial in recent years, inspiring protests and chants of “Zwarte Piet is racisme.”  Yet this supposedly very liberal and nonreligious country, with a deeply troubled history on race, continues to cling with a viselike grip to a holiday tradition of blackface minstrels. Why?

Back home, the United States was embroiled in a deep and sadly divisive debate about racial justice—prompted specifically by the multiple killings of unarmed young black men by police officers, and, more broadly, highlighting disparities of opportunity and basic dignity. I left my home in New York as the death of Eric Garner, and the subsequent failure to indict the officer whose choke hold caused his demise, sparked mass protests and demonstrations all over the city. What a relief, a white friend half guiltily suggested, to go to über-tolerant Amsterdam, where they’ve already solved “that stuff.”

Except for the blackface part.

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Noorderkerk
Photo by Flickr user Jan Kunst 

In the misty rain that fell during most of my December trip, I pedaled to Noorderkerk, a stunning, 17th-century octagonal church that I imagine now sees more congregants for its Saturday organic market and classical music concerts than for its Protestant worship services. I attached my bike to a guardrail along the Prinsengracht and, my hands slippery from the rain, almost lost my bike keys to the canal. I wondered if it was this rainy in Belgium.

At the market, I met up with another friend of a friend, a white Franco-American expat named Olivier. He bought me a glass of buttermilk, which was just as lumpy and sour as buttermilk always is, insisting that Dutch people drink it like soda pop. I find this very hard to believe. I choked down as much as I could manage before returning my glass either half full or half empty, depending on your perspective, to the less-than-impressed-looking farm woman working the dairy stand. In between bites of the fried herring and pea soup that I was also talked into, the expat tried to explain Zwarte Piet to me.

“Of course it’s racist to us,” Olivier said, since we were both Americans, “but it’s hard to label the Dutch racist, because they don’t have the same understanding of race.” In fact, he explained, many Dutch people think of racism as an American invention. During my trip, I did meet a few Amsterdammers who, when they were students, had learned about their country’s significant role in the slave trade—as the primary country shipping human beings from West Africa to Brazil, Suriname, Guyana, and several Spanish colonies—during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In all, this tiny country was responsible for an estimated 5 to 7 percent of the entire Atlantic slave trade. Yet some Dutch told me that this history is just not taught in the schools.

A few blocks away, Olivier showed me a playground where someone had spray-painted Zwarte Piet is racisme; someone else had crossed out the word racisme and written nice. As though niceness, the desire to be tolerant, could wash away history—or hurt—like so much rain.

Exploring Amsterdam, I did a bunch of touristy things I figured I should do. I went to the sleek and modern Stedelijk Museum and found a stand that sold oliebollen, the Dutch version of fried dough balls dusted with powered sugar, which tasted great even without a surrounding Christmas market. Still, while travel inherently offers an opportunity to step out of your usual routine and look at your life and home country differently, it’s not as though you become a different person on vacation. Inevitably, the good and bad parts of your core identity travel right along with you, like an invisible extra piece of luggage. In my case, I could not escape my identity as a columnist who views the world through a political lens. I got on social media and started reaching out to political activists in Amsterdam.

Conveniently, one of the country’s leading Muslim political figures, Tofik Dibi, was already following me on Twitter. I messaged him, and we arranged to meet for dinner.

I pedaled again in the drizzle to a massive parking garage, a tower of concrete perched on the edge of another canal, which struck me, not unlike the Noorderkerk, as a church for another religion not really practiced here. I locked my bike, carefully keeping the keys facing away from the canal this time, and slipped behind the parking deck ramp to Waterkant, a popular Surinamese restaurant, reportedly home to an especially bustling nightlife in the summertime. Inside, the decor was dangling strands of bright lights, tiny table tents with beer advertisements, and the kind of wooden crisscross siding you find on a deck—exactly what I imagined a beachside bar might be like on the northern coast of South America. Except, at least on the night I was there, the restaurant didn’t seem to have any waitstaff actually from Suriname, the former colony and hub of the Dutch slavery industry. The roti was scrumptious, nonetheless.

“Tolerance is the Netherlands’ main export,” Tofik told me, “but it’s an illusion. Or a delusion. The Netherlands is not actually that tolerant.” Tofik gave an example close to his experience—the rise of Islamophobia. In the Netherlands, it should be noted, Muslim fundamentalists are a small minority of the Muslim population—as they are, ahem, in most places. But after September 11th and the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh—a provocateur filmmaker whose anti-Islam film, Submission, made him infamous—all the country’s Muslims were under scrutiny, Tofik said. “Before September 11th, I wasn’t seen as Muslim, you know? But since then, I feel it’s all I’m seen as; as if I constantly need to prove I’m not plotting something.”

Tofik described feeling like a dark cloud of suspicion was always hovering above his head. No doubt the atrocious attacks in Paris, which happened after my trip, further darkened that cloud.

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De Kas Restaurant
Photo by Flickr user Jacob Bøtter 

The day after my dinner with Tofik, I rode my adorably civilized-looking Dutch bicycle about 30 minutes south of the center of town to a farm-to-table restaurant called De Kas, situated within a giant shimmering glass greenhouse in a field of tall, undulating grasses. It was a great bike ride, with the wind at my back. (Later, pedaling in the opposite direction with three courses and a glass of wine under my belt, it wasn’t so great.)

On the way to De Kas, I stopped in Oosterpark, near the heart of one of the city’s main immigrant neighborhoods, to see the nation’s slavery memorial. Bronze statues of tiny hunched and shackled figures seem to lean, with equal parts ache and yearning, forward—ultimately passing through a winged arch, with the bronze figures on the other side of the passage not only unshackled and upright but visibly, markedly taller and lankier. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a conscious choice, to represent the freed slaves not only as “standing tall” but also as more Dutch-like, approximating the supermodel-y blond men and women who all have perfect posture on their bikes and perfect legs to match.

On my way out of the park, I passed another monument. This one is a memorial to Theo van Gogh, the anti-Islam filmmaker. The proximity is jarring. A monument against discrimination and the subjugation of African people just yards from a memorial to a man whose propaganda many Muslims accuse of helping fuel their subjugation. Tolerance a few yards from its opposite. The contradictions of Amsterdam, captured in a few turns of the wheels on my bike.

Back in my room at the Dylan hotel, a beautiful refurbished canal house, I was packing to go home—trying to figure out what to do with all my souvenirs as well as my white liberal guilt. There was a knock at the door. It was the porter, Daniel, coming to see if I needed my minibar refilled. He trudged up the stairs of my loftlike room, ducking to avoid the broad ancient beams at the doorway. I hesitated a second and then asked, while he knelt by the tiny fridge, if he thought there’s discrimination in the Netherlands.

Originally from Suriname, Daniel said no, not a bit of discrimination here. He has every opportunity in Holland. Sure, the voice in my head snapped cynically, every opportunity to be a porter.

In five days flitting around Amsterdam’s posh restaurants and shops and museums, Daniel was actually the only nonwhite employee I had encountered. People of non-Western origin make up about a third of Amsterdam’s population, but unemployment among “ethnic youngsters” is more than three times that of white youth nationwide. Still, I wanted to take Daniel at his word.

Having found a few inches of my suitcase that could still be filled, and with a few hours until my flight home, I decided to find some hunks of how-duh to bring home as stocking stuffers. I went to one of the city’s most famous cheese shops, De Kaaskamer, which was just a few blocks from my hotel. I walked, figuring that since I had already written in my notes that I had managed not to have an accident in five days on a bicycle, I might have thus jinxed myself and should quit while I was ahead.

In De Kaaskamer, there were wheels of cheese everywhere. Walls of wheels of cheese. And I couldn’t tell what set them apart other than color. I bought some light yellow and some dark yellow, both of which tasted lovely, though I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint the difference. Back on the street, I marveled at the subtle shades all around me—the gay couple I passed kissing on the street, the memorial to the gay people killed in the Holocaust and persecuted throughout history, the legalized prostitution on the blocks in between, the fact that everyone around me was white. Shades of tolerance.

In the United States, I’d come to think of tolerance as a linear progression. I envision those brimming with animus based on race, gender, or sexuality bunched together at one end of the spectrum. Hopefully, I see everyone else haltingly, imperfectly, but progressively moving toward enlightenment at the other end. Here in Amsterdam, things were spun around. Or maybe just round. Openly gay politicians were rabidly anti-Muslim. Defenders of blackface were enthusiastically smoking pot. Amsterdam was neither enlightened nor close-minded but constantly shifting, not progressing along a line but simultaneously occupying multiple points on a circle. Like a wheel of cheese. Or maybe spokes on a bike. Constantly turning.

Top photo by Tambako The Jaguar.

This appeared in the June/July 2015 issue.