The “immigrant problem”, integration and assimilation

Last night I was invited to join a debate by one of The Netherland’s main parties, D66. For those outside The Netherlands, D66 is a progressive, social liberal and self defined, “radical democratic” party. I share many beliefs with them, but have some minor disagreements in that they are not leftist enough for my taste, at least in areas of market control and development. Lately, I’ve been drawn to the Green Left party more and more, due to the fact that I feel close to the ideas expressed by Femke Halsema, the Green Left’s current leader. However, she is retiring from Parliament after her current mandate is over (due to the fact that the party’s statue only allows for two terms and she is already in her third, through a special dispensation by the party Congress; she has been asked by the party to stay for yet another four years but she feels it would be unethical and against the platform she has been elected on).

Anyway, since she announced she is leaving Parliament, I’ve come to the realization that I wouldn’t be able to support them. Particularly due to the fact that they are growing closer (and in my part of the city gone as far as creating an alliance) with the PvdA, the Labor Party. Now, usually, if someone told me there was a strong (one of the strongest, in fact), worker’s party, active and playing a major role in politics, I would be, at least, intrigued, if not openly supporting them. Sadly, that’s not the case in The Netherlands. For the past fifteen years, this is no longer a worker’s party. This is, instead, a party that under the leadership of Wouter Bos (former director of Shell) has become a diluted and lost force, appeasing the corporate interests more than the workers themselves. A party that has co-opted all union roots and instead, has been representing an increasingly bourgeois and well off voters base. If I ever had to name one factor for the raise of Geert Wilders in this country, my finger would be pointing at the PvdA. When they stopped giving a voice to the working class, when they stopped addressing the concerns outside the urban wealthy, they opened the door for a populist to take their place. A populist that, needless to say, provides dishonest answers (if not blatant lies), but, at least, gives people the chance to feel represented.

So, last night, at the husband’s instance, I joined the internal debate of D66, which was about integration of immigrants and the party’s position on the subject. Now, before I go any further with this, I need to make a disclaimer: I am married to someone who is very active within the party. At this stage I cannot say much, but he is currently in talks to take a defining role for the party’s campaign in the part of the city where we live (which also happens to be Amsterdam’s largest district). My father in law, in turn, has been active in the party for the past twenty five years or so. So, I reluctantly joined the debate because I was curious about the discussions and the possible outcome for the next election. The two main guest speakers were vice-chairman for the parliamentary fraction of D66, Boris van der Ham and University of Amsterdam’s researcher Jeroen Doomernik (he is a researcher at the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies and Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Political Science at the UvA). Of the two speakers, I have little to say and my opinion can probably be summed up by this: van der Ham was a disappointment (rushed, clueless, unrelatable, without an ounce of interest in what people had to say or ask on the subject)  and I want to spend hours and hours hearing Doornick’s talks because not only he gets it, but his intellectual depth left me curious and inspired to learn more about his area of research.

However, of the event itself, my biggest issue was the obvious one: white guys discussing the fate of foreigners. I was one of two foreigners in attendance (the other, a young man of Moroccan origin who only spoke up after I was handed the microphone and openly protested about this). Here we have the people who run the city, who decide on party positions and the ones discussing the fate of “the brownies”, all white, privileged guys with a foot in the Dutch establishment for decades. I protested. Especially, after one particular guy decided to start throwing stereotypes around and complained about the fact that “us brownies” refuse to integrate. I was vocal. I explained that I was “the unicorn” they kept talking about (the non Western foreigner, female, living in the part of the city they are scared of us taking over). I called myself a Unicorn because they kept referring to foreigners and migrants as if we were mythical creatures to be described with a mixture of horror, fear and emotional distance. I was nervous. This wasn’t my turf and I didn’t want to cause much of a fuss but I was incensed. The “authorities” invited to speak about the party’s position on the subject didn’t represent any interested group, none of the people whose lives are at stake. Someone else, people like the guy I mentioned above, who in all likelihood have no dealings with immigrants are not only giving opinions on the subject, but trying to influence the party’s policies as well. I was upset but more so, shocked that this was such a reflection of the current state of Dutch politics. Above all, I am unsure of how this can be changed.

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