Sunday, December 19, 2010

The break: Blogging Black from the Netherlands and how I became an Afro-European

Ground level Ganzenhoef Amsterdam Bijlmer
I am going to take a break, but of course blogger Sibo wil continue to post his views on Afro-Europe. But before I leave I would like to share some of my toughts and experiences about becoming Afro-European and how I started blogging.

A year ago I received an e-mail from someone who wanted to know more about black people in the Netherlands and how I got there.

Of course I have had these question before. I remember a few white Americans stopped me in the city centre of Amsterdam to ask me if I could translate a few English words for them in Dutch. Suddenly they asked me where I came from. “I was born Amsterdam,” I replied. “No, where do you really come from,” they answered. Great people by the way, so I gave them an elevator pitch about the “African-Americans” of Holland.

This post will not be an elevator pitch.

Growing up ignorant in Amsterdam

I grew up almost colourless. Although I knew I was black there was no racism around me that made more aware of it. I was born in Amsterdam before the big Surinamese migration started in 1975, and I lived in a part of Amsterdam which was almost 90 percent white. But luckily my social circle was cultural diverse. I had Dutch, Surinamese, Bi-racial Surinamese, Jewish and Chinese friends.

Moving to the “black” part of Amsterdam, Amsterdam South East (De Bijlmer)

Moving to a black environment was an experience. The place exploded with anti-racism activists, rastas and black culture advocates. Everything was black, including the junkies of course. But it was a tremendous experience. Walking in the Bijlmer in the summer was like walking on a Caribbean Island, black people everywhere.

From an identity point of view the move was gift from God. But since I was born and raised in the Netherlands I actually had to integrate into the black community. Because I also had an uppity Dutch accent (so to speak) this also complicated the challenge to integrate into a society which was a “deep” black Surinamese Caribbean community back then with a lot of black American influences. I was considered "white” of course. But thanks to shooting hoop all winter I managed to get into the pickup basketball games in the summer. And that’s where my black identity journey began. The character in the book “The white boy shuffle” is me.

Becoming “Black” gradually

I also got new friends of course. They introduced me to the black organisation scene, which meant that I got to meet a lot of black artists and black activists and different black people from across Europe. I remember how I got lost when I had to speak to a French black girl, she could hardly speak English and I hardly could speak French.

What I did learn during that period was the way skin colour was perceived. Most of my black friends dated white girls and I dated black girls. The entire racial dimension when past me like a ship in the night, but I would gradually learn the deeper structure of things. I think it’s a part you miss if don’t grow up in a environment where skin colour is like a military rank.

But although my black identity was developing I felt something was missing. It was like watching CNN, but not understanding the background of things. I was missing a deeper understanding of blackness.

My black experience

I knew that my knowledge of blackness wouldn’t come from playing basketball, eating rice and beans, or hanging out with my friends. The difference with my friends was that I had learned nothing at school about colonialism, slavery or even the history of Suriname. I knew it vaguely, but that was it.

Because Suriname lies in South America one of the first books I read was the “Open viens of Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano. I think it’s the book that Venezuelan president Hugo Chaves gave to president Obama. I remember it opened my eyes about the history of Latin American from a left wing point of view. It’s a radical book, but I think a needed a radical view at that time. I read a lot of books about latin American, but later I found out it wasn’t exactly “my” history. Although Suriname lies in South America, it’s in fact a Caribbean country. But I am glad I read it, it’s a classic. Although Galeano could have added some more black history in it.

The book which really took me closer to my roots was “Van Priary tot en met De Kom, the history of resistance in Surinam”, by Sandew Hira. Hira is the Surinamese version of Eduardo Galeano. although he didn’t made me wear a dashiki, he did gave me a deeper understanding of the black struggle in Suriname and of Dutch colonialism.

The book that shaped by black identity was “Black Skin, white Masks” of French writer Franz Fanon. I think James Baldwin would have said, that it takes you to the dungeons of your black soul. I started reading the book, closed it and opened it again three month later. Fanon dropped an issue that I never thought of before, one of his famous lines is, a black person wants to be white. But he made me feel at ease by explaining that it was a logical consequence of slavery and colonialism that I could have these feelings. But after finishing his book he didn’t leave me with the feeling that I wanted to be white, but he did leave me with the question: why should I be proud to be black if being black meant having a twisted black frustrated mind.

Fanon's book really gave me a Teflon layer so to speak, but as African scholar once said: it didn’t cure Fanon. Did it add to my black identity yes, to my Afro-Dutch identity, no.

Becoming Afro-Dutch?

I don’t have an Afro-Dutch identity, I have a Surinamese-Dutch identity. Saying you’re Dutch to a Surinamese person is sometimes even considered an insult. I think the mayor difference between the French and the British is that the Dutch were more preoccupied with trade then with assimilating slaves into Dutch Culture. Not very a long ago in the Netherlands children from foreign countries could get lessons in their own language and culture during school time. Comfy together, or as they say in Dutch “gezellig bij elkaar” with your own people was the Dutch mantra for integration. Foreign films in Holland are not voiced over as in France or Germany, but subtitled. But the perception about integration and minorities has changed now.

Being Surinamese-Dutch feels like belonging to a cult group, and to be honest I am comfortable with it.

I am going to take a giant leap forward in time.

Blogging and becoming Afro-European

Fast forward two years ago. Before I started blogging about Afro-Europe I was focused on the Netherlands. Although I had met black people from different countries in Europe and Africa, I had virtually no deep knowledge of their backgrounds. Even on holidays in Europe I was running to see the buildings, or other tourist places. A market full of black people in London doesn’t differ much from a market in Amsterdam-South East.

Like most holidays I focused on the beach, or on sight seeing. There is hardly time to actually meet black people in their countries. Before you know it, you’re home in the rat race again.

The inspiration for Afro-Europe began after an interview I did with an Afro-German woman. I am not going to say who it is, but if she reads this: thanks for the inspiration and your mind blowing insights. Although I had met French, British and African people it never came to mind that there were actually black people in Germany, although Germany is the neighbouring country of the Netherlands. What also inspired me was the blog Black Women in Europe.

One of the books I read was the book of Noah Sow, "Deutschland Schwarz Weiss - der alltägliche Rassismus" (Germany Black White - the everday racisme"). The thing I got out this book was the subtle racism I had never seen before. It was as if different lights went on on the same stage. I saw objects I had never noticed before. The little black boy on my cornflakes box who was surrounded by African Elephants and zebras, were thinks I hardly noticed before. To me they were just part of yet an another “Africa” contest campaign. But after reading Sow’s book I realized that there is an implicit racist connection when black kids are portrayed with African animals. Her book made me more aware that I was living in a society with hidden and sometimes even subliminal racist images. I somehow felt as ignorant as the day I moved to Amsterdam-South East. It was strange to get this information out of German book. And yes, these images were floating around me in the Netherlands.

Then I got a mail from Belgium. My name is Sibo and I would like to contribute. It was again strange to find out there was a person from another country who wrote about everything I always wanted to write about, but couldn’t. I was again interested to see new a perspective from a black person from Belgium. But he has something I don’t have, a close connection to Africa.


To me being Afro-European is not the same as being a Dutch black person. I’d like see as an element of it. I’m different from a black British Caribbean or African person. Growing up black in a class structured society is perhaps different from growing up in the egalitarian Netherlands. Growing up black in a French society where showing your black colours was in conflict with the all-people-are-French ideal is very different from my black experience. And being Afro-German is also different because it’s small community in a big white country with an infamous racial history.

But my Afro-European element what I perhaps share with other Afro-Europeans is that I want to have a piece of the country where I was born and raised in. It’s position I don’t even have to defend. Being black and European means that I also have an Afro-European connection on issues like race, black success and other specific black issues. But there is one issue that I consider very important, I don’t only have connection with Afro-Europe, but also with Africa.

How I became African, again

I don’t know if it sounds familiar, but although I read the ‘positive’ books about Africa I still remained biased. I read books about Africa, about the copper masks of the Yorubas and about the monument of great Zimbabwe, but still it looked as if they were compensations for the daily reality I saw on TV. The images of the machetes in Rwanda, the hunger, the child soldiers and the corrupt leaders. If in Europe one person dies it almost seemed similar to 500 deaths in Africa. As if large scale deaths is a natural thing in Africa. That was ignorant me two years ago when if first started blogging.

Thanks to all those wonderful African blogs I know that “Africa” doesn’t exits and that my lack of interest and knowledge made me stereotype a whole continent. It reminds of the silent Nigerian basketball player who trained in my basketball team. I never asked him anything about Nigeria. If you read this Femi, sorry for being so, “basketball minded”? Or the African woman who asked me the direction, and while we were talking I asked her about the “war” in a country in Africa which I had seen on TV. “No that’s not my country, that’s another system,” she replied while shaking her head. If you read this, sorry.

I can honestly say that blogging has changed my perspective on African countries and Africans completely. I have never visited Africa, but the slave fort Elmina where my ancestors left Africa will not be on my visiting list. There is so much more to see then a broken down slave fort, a fort which is just one leave on the tree of Africa.

Has blogging about Afro-Europe changed you?

A lot. I can’t go back blogging on a national level because I have seen, heard and experienced so much of the Afro-European community. I’ve seen people who would outsmart me ten times. I’ve seen successful initiatives that could be copied in other European countries with the same results. And I’ve seen a media landscape which could be a goldmine and powerful network if they would only touch each other.

Two years ago I lived in the dungeon of my own community, today I have new and different perspective. If I was a community consultant I think I would be the one with all the great and successful ideas. I won’t go into personal details, but the blogging has even changed me on a professional level. Blogging Afro-European means reading French, German and Spanish and of course English again, so working on my languages was also a good training.

Is this the end?

No, I think it’s just a break.

Best wishes for 2011!

Erik K.


  1. Racism is always bad.Why this happen to all black and other communities which are not Christan's.I am also sick of such matters.Thanks fro sharing your views through this blog and likes this post so much.

  2. Woaw, thanks for this personal and authentic post! So many things you describe are right on... and no this is not an ending, it's just the beginning. Prettige eindejaarsfeesten en tot snel!

  3. Sibo Kano, I agree with you the information posted is very useful of all travelers out there, so thank you very much of the information. :-)

  4. Thanks Sibo, ook prettige feestdagen toegewenst!

  5. Very interesting!

    As an African-Spanish person, I'm always interested in seeing how other people of African origin feel about their identity and culture in European society, from past to present.

    Thank you for sharing your journey!

  6. Holistic Locs, thank you! Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo

  7. AE.. wow fascinating and thought provoking post. :) You've travelled many "miles" so to say.. and you've still got many to go. I'll be happily reading and travelling along with you and all the "afropean cousins", except on the other side of the Atlantic. Cheers, happy holidays, and enjoy your break.

  8. Beautiful post! Very well presented...I will definately share it with my friends! Come share your insights with us at Living Legacy Journal

  9. Thanks Once upon a time, yes I am still travelling! Happy holidays to you too!

  10. Thanks Lydell, very informative site.

  11. Thanks for sharing your story, it raises some very interesting points about Black identity in Europe.
    Enjoy the break, but please come soon!!! : )

  12. Hi KonWomyn, thanks! I was also thinking about your blog when I wrote the story. :) Happy holidays!

  13. all i can say is what an amazing story! Since i stumbled on to Afro Europe it has been a wonderful education.I found myself reading more and wanting to know more. As an African American it has opened my eyes to a world so much bigger than me. Thank you for all that you have done and will continue to do. Reading all that you had written made my trip to Amsterdam to visit a friend i never met in person...The best trip ever. It made me see what we had in common other than what was different. And when it all came down..the only different was the language... Everything else was the same basically. We both wanted the same things and we had some of the same life experiences. Thank you and come back soon from that break....Kevin from the USA

  14. Thanks Kevin! I really appreciate what you wrote, it means a lot to me. Thanks again for all the compliments. Happy holidays!

  15. Amazing! Love it! Thank you for sharing this.

  16. Hey, this better not be the end. It sure was an excellent way to close this chapter. I am looking forward to hearing more from you and I will definitely keep checking out what Sibo has to say.

    Enjoy your break.

  17. Greetings,
    thoroughly enjoyed reading this and still got one question to ask:

    like the character in white boy shuffle
    it was the mother who finally said:
    thats it! we movin to a black neighborhood
    or something like dat, cyaan rememba well
    so I ask
    what about your parents? did they not mention anything to you about your Africaness/blackness or Africa or anything relating to that?
    I wonder about this all the time when i com across the 'I am not African, I was born in Europe' types. and here in Italy, they are many many many.....

    jus curious

  18. Interesting question MissLee. My parents are Creole Surinamese and Dutch Antillean, and they have a very strong black and anti colonial Surinamese/Antillean identity. Although they consider themselves rooted in Africa, they don't have an "African" identity.

    To answer your question. Did they not mention anything to you about your Africaness/blackness or Africa or anything relating to that? Yes and no. Yes in terms of, bring home a girl who looks like you (colour). And no in terms of, sit down and we will teach you what it’s like to be black.

    But if I would compare myself to some of the black people in Italy you mentioned, some of whom who claim they are not African because they where born in Europe, I don’t think I would fit the profile. I consider myself Surinamese and not Dutch.

    The only problem was I didn’t knew what being Surinamese really meant until I moved to “black” Amsterdam South East. It’s the same as the character of the “white boy shuffle”, he is black, but he doesn’t know how to live in a “street” black environment. In my case it wasn’t street, but the culture of Suriname in the Netherlands.

    I don’t know what the story is with the black people in Italy. But I can understand that black people who are born and raised in Italy are also Italian, whether they like or not. I don’t think the “Seconda generazione” are selling out, maybe they also want to be recognised as Italians and not only as “Africans”.

    I also know that I am very Dutch, but I don't admit it.

  19. Hi Erik,

    I too am Dutch-Surinamese (Dutch dad, Suri mom). I can relate to everything you say. Thank heavens for the internet, that allows people from all over the globe to congregate over issue of similar interest. I stumbled on your blog by accident, and am completely hooked.

    Like you, I grew up 'colorless'. In my case, it was in a village just north of Groningen - my mom was the only black person.
    As a young child my sister and I were doted on by almost everyone - cute little half-breeds, as they regarded us. The problems began as we grew older and entered the competition on the labor market. That's when 'all of a sudden' we were categorized as Surinamese.

    I commend you for staying in Holland. I turned my back on it over 10 years ago, and have not been back for a single day.
    These days I am where the sun (almost) always shines :-)

  20. Hi Anouska,

    Thanks for your comments. I am Suri-ned by the way, but it's nice to hear we share the same experience.

    And if you are where I think you are then I know you must really feel at home.

    And thanks for compliment! Have a Fernandes and a smile.


  21. Very good post. I am an african lady in my late thirties who until recently lived in an African city with a large international (read white expatriate) community. Having worked in international organisations all my life, I got tired of being unable to get equal employment treatment in my own country for being a 'local'. Determined to obtain equal status, I left for a one year masters programme which I have just completed.

    And the one year has been an enormous eye opener. Although I always heard of racism in Europe, I had never experienced it during the numerous visits I made. Perhaps because I was often accompanied by white partners, or because I was always eager to experience the sites, the museums and was in no frame of mind to notice its existence.

    I live in a small city in the Netherlands, and you do experience not so subtle racism from time to time. Majority of it is subtle though, more in the looks and in the compensatory over pleasant manners.

    When I was leaving, an old friend who has lived for years in the US told me, buy lots of necklaces and earings in african fashion. When I asked her why, she simply said, being abroad simply awakens your afrincaness in a big way. I did not understand but now i do, so well.

    As an african, you're considered lesser than most races in all parts of the world and so its up to us to be firm and claim what we deserve. Someone mentioned that confidence goes a long way and I do beleive this is what counts and that one can in the end get respected, even when not open acknowledged.

    To afroeurope, I wish you willm soon be able to travel to Africa and share its pains and mostly its hapiness as they really are.

    To the rest of of you, stand tall all ye black people!!


  22. Hi Kipepeo, thanks for your comment, I really enjoyed reading about your experience. I am sorry to hear you are experiencing racism in the Netherlands. Unfortunately the Netherlands has change from an open minded country to a narrow minded country where being offensive is now the norm.

    Yes, I hope to travel to Africa soon. I had plans to visit urban Lagos, but someone warned me about the ethnic violence, so I am now looking for a more “Caribbean” African destination.


  23. Erik: I am editing special issue of European magazine on Black Europeans & would like to speak with you about your experience in Netherlands. Yes, there is pay.
    Contact me at:
    Much thanks,
    Gyavira Lasana

  24. AfroEurope, I found this post absolutely compelling. I also live in the Netherlands. I have one comment to make, however. Why did you feel that moving to De Bijlmer had to solidify your identity as a black person? I actually believe there is an institutional racism in the pressure that black people in Europe and America feel to be 'street', and fit in with an ascribed 'black' identity.

    I understand the anti-establishment part, especially as a reaction to racism within these countries. But a black person can aspire to more than becoming a famous basketball player: it's that old argument that in America black kids only aspire to become sports stars or rappers, because those are their only role models. Thank goodnesss for Obama.

    Just a thought, Missy (then again, I am not black)

  25. Hi Anonymous, thanks for your comments. Why did I feel I had to solidify my identity as a black person? It wasn’t the street feeling I was looking for, but more a certain part of being Surinamese.

    And basketball, well basketball in the Netherlands is not the same as basketball in the US, here is it's sport like volleyball. Needless to say, soccer is to Europe what basketball is to the US. So basketball was just a way to meet people and not a way to “get out of the ghetto”.

    But what I didn't mention in the story is that the Bijlmer is not always a ghetto environment . It really depends in what social circle you are in. I played basketball with white and black people who had normal jobs or were studying. But I also knew the junky next door and the person who slept in my trash container.

    You wrote that I am anti-establishment because of racism. No! The radical view I mentioned had to do with discovering a part of my history (colonialism and slavery). That’s the history I didn’t learn in school of course. So that’s why I mentioned I needed a radical view.

    So my perception of black is not urban.

    Thanks again for the comment! It’s very interesting to see how someone else looks at the story.

  26. Great ! I am pleased to find this very interesting useful blog, that I found via a very helpful Sistah in the UK. People may wish to check my own blog also, working as as an artist in the UK

  27. Afro-Europe please do visit urban Lagos.It is not that bad people just like to blow things,all you need do is visit a famous site in Lagos as this will help you understand Lagos from an expat point of view that chance and prove them wrong.

  28. Anonymous, thanks for the info!

  29. Please forgive me if I’m overposting, but I just discovered this blog and I find it so interesting.

    I had a question about your experience. You said that you don’t feel Dutch, you feel Surinamese. I’ve noticed that a lot of people of color from the Netherlands that I’ve talked to have expressed similar sentiments and not just black people, but people of Arab and Asian descent as well. And they say this despite the fact that the grew up in the Netherlands and speak Dutch often as their principal (though not sole) language. I wonder if there’s something about Dutch culture that encourages this feeling?

    I’m African American and I’ve lived in London (now in Paris) and noticed that black people in the US and the UK often do feel American or British even if it’s in a hyphenated sense (“Afro-British, black-American, etc). But in other parts of northern Europe, including here in France where I live now, it doesn’t seem to be as much the case. Where is the difference in views coming from, I wonder?

  30. Interested, very interesting question. And please feel free to over post!

    I know that although black people from the UK call themselves black British, they don’t express that feeling when they are with white British people. I remember that black journalist Lola Adesioye, a born and raised British lady of Nigerian decent, said that she was not English, because English is white. She always emphasizes her Nigerian descent.

    But I’ve had this discussion a long time ago with a black British person, he asked me why I don’t call myself Dutch. I told him that I think it has to with the way Surinamese people are raised, they are raised with some kind of anti colonial animosity towards Dutchman.

    I am almost two generations away from Surinam and I still feel insulted if someone would call me Dutch. But I can’t deny I am for one part culturally Dutch. In Surinam there are white descendants of Dutch farmers “de Boeroes” who don’t like to be called Dutch, they consider themselves foremost Surinamese.

    I think that overall it has to do with the typical Dutch group mentality. I remember asking a former Irish colleague what the most important thing was he noticed about Dutch people. He said that in The Netherlands he couldn’t walk into a pub and start a conversation with the people as he was use to in Ireland. In the Netherlands you are confined to your group. To some extend you see the same mentality with Surinamese people. So if you say you are Dutch you are putting yourself outside the Surinamese community.

    But I could be totally wrong!

    An African-American is of course totally different. You are not an immigrant, you’re an American. But I wonder if an American, who was born and raised in the Netherlands, and has two American parents, would call himself himself Dutch. I personally don’t think so.

  31. Thank you for posting this blog. I am in the midst of doing genealogy and and found that my last name is Dutch and originated in Holland although I am of African descent. It refreshing to hear about how others with the African Diaspora live and what thier experiences are like. Again thank you for sharing.

  32. Hey there, this is a beautiful testimony Afro-Europe.

    Could you please tell me if there will be activities in the black neighbourhood during the feest of the koninging next week-end? I would like to check on the community there.

    thank you

    1. Thanks Sanza! About the activities. There is only a local free market in the black neighbourhood Amsterdam Zuidoost. If you want to have fun (buying second hand stuff, drinking bear and eating kebabs) you will have to go to the city.

    2. Thank you Afro-Europe. I mostly want to have fun with my people (and don't need to drink bear lol) so I will go to zuidoost.

    3. I understand. With "fun" I meant what most people see as having fun in Amsterdam during Queensday -:)


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