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  • Nina Reis

If it's just a joke, who's not laughing?

By Nina for Pandam Published Tue Nov 10 2020

Having lived in the Netherlands for the past couple of years, the paradox of tolerance seems to accurately describe that experience: Stipulated by the philosopher Karl Popper, the paradox explains that when a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant. In other words, a tolerant society cannot tolerate intolerance, it has to challenge intolerance in order to continue positing themselves as tolerant.

The Netherlands has a reputation as one of the most liberal and tolerant countries in Europe, if not worldwide. I am not sure if I would call any country in general tolerant, because countries are based on citizenship models of inclusion/exclusion. Ex-colonial powers even more so, being well-practiced in drawing up us-versus-them distinctions.

Gloria Wekker formulates the paradox of tolerance at play in the Netherlands best when she describes it as ‘white innocence’. Speaking with Asian people living in the Netherlands, from the Netherlands, the word ‘innocent’ dominates their telling of their experiences and discriminatory encounters in the country. According to Merriam-Webster (the dictionary), innocent is taken to mean 1) free from legal guilt or fault, 2) free from guilt or sin through the lack of knowledge of evil, 3) harmless in effect or intention, 4) unaware, or 5) ignorant.

Meanings differ with context. What does innocence mean in the Dutch context? Racism is seen as an ‘innocent’ act, no harm done. It’s a children’s song called ‘Hanky Panky Shanghai’, it’s asking if you’re eating dogs or cats for dinner, it’s ‘Hoe lang is een chinees’ being played at a party when you walk into the room, it’s people mockingly stretching their eyes when they see you. But it can also be street harassment, or people standing up and moving away when you’re sitting down in the tram.

Not that I have experienced it myself. I believe it is important to state where I am coming from: I am a white woman, privileged in the way I will never experience racism and discrimination. But as I become more aware of how whiteness shapes my daily life in Amsterdam (and in general), how does its pervasiveness and normalization shape the reality of people not identified as ‘white’?

“If I say something, they just say they didn’t mean it like that; they just meant it to be funny and not-racist.” Tina* is a Half-Danish, Half-Chinese university student, having lived in Amsterdam for the past three years. Sharing her experiences working in a restaurant: “It’s hard for me to say incidents because all of these incidents, they were always made under the pretense of banter, being funny. But I don’t think it’s funny at all. At work, for dinner time, they would just be like “oh I’m sorry, I didn’t cook any cat for you, I didn’t cook any dog for you.” I never laughed at it; I was actually counting the number of times they said it to me. After 10 times, I would be like “That’s 10 times you said that.” I think the number went up over 50; they just didn’t stop saying it (…) If I saw something, they just say they didn’t mean it like that; they just meant it to be funny and not-racist.”

(art by Priscilla en Ming)

But if it’s harmless, it’s swift transformation is anything but. As the pandemic took over Europe, shaping daily life, as Donald Trump kept calling it the ‘Chinese Virus’, as a Dutch radio DJ felt the need to play ‘Voorkomen is beter dan Chinezen’ (translation: prevention is better than the Chinese), more and more stories have come up of Asian people being followed on the street, publicly harassed and insulted, and even violently attacked.

Tina* mentions the experience of a friend in Amsterdam; she was followed on the street by a group of teenage boys just yelling at her and telling her to go back to China. Consequently, “because of these stories, I was really hyper vigilant and not really comfortable being out in public. I definitely stopped going out [in public] on my own, especially after what happened to my friend.” Hui-Hui Pan, from Pan-Asian Collective, an organization giving a platform to Asian perspectives and creativity, feels a lot of Asian people in Europe relate to Tina’s experience: “with the coronavirus, you feel like you have a target on your back; ‘you’re the one who brought the virus here’”. The Dutch-Asian artist already wrote the media back in January, asking them to pay attention to how they frame the news regarding the novel Coronavirus. By February, when she and fellow parents increasingly experienced Asian children being excluded in school, the idea for the ‘Ik lach niet’ campaign emerged, out of frustration of years of casual racism, of being called ‘sambal’ or ‘pinda’ or ‘poepchinees’. Inspired by the French ‘#jenesuispasunvirus’, the illustration campaign features works by Dutch-Asian artists, detailing their experiences and realities with the innocence of Dutch racism. Not just during the Coronavirus pandemic, but over the years. Hui-Hui Pan explains how a joke can be more dangerous than the statement of a politician, specifically because it’s seen as harmless, in good humor. But its implications and the scars it leaves are often anything but, being othered and dehumanized and massi-fied; making violence plausible.

‘Ik lach niet’ translates into ‘I am not laughing’. If it’s a joke, look around in the room and take notice: who is not laughing?

“When I first started dating my boyfriend; he’s from a small town in the Netherlands. So I went to a party to meet his friends for the first time. Before the party, there was a small get together and there were like five of his friends. It was the first time I met them. The first thing they did when we played music was, they looked at me and they were like, “you’re going to like this song”. And they played Hoe lang is een chinees. I was so uncomfortable, and no one saw this in any way or form as a wrong thing to do.” Excusing this as ignorance by teenage boys from the countryside both misses the point, fails to account for Tina’s experiences living in the city of Amsterdam, and ignores how identical her experiences are with other Asian people’s.

“When I go out with friends to a club, every single night I would get a Ni Hao or a Konnichiwa.” But even so, her experience at work seems to make the most subtle racism visible, the ‘jokes’ becoming all too present: “A friend of a colleague thought the racist jokes in my workplace were over the top. She even told my boss that he can’t say stuff like that to me because he’s in a position of power, using his race as a joke against his employees. They were making Black jokes [in reference to the Ghanaian employee], Asian jokes as our bosses. So obviously we were in a position where we couldn’t show how uncomfortable we were, and she told him that. He just responded that we are all like a family here so he can make these jokes because we know it’s in good faith; they were actually not being racist, just making jokes.”

Racism in good faith, in good humor, as justified by the environment and the context. Popper’s paradox of tolerance might be at work here, as those objecting the joking are seen as overreacting, not being able to take a joke “The Dutch often take a defensive tone instead of asking me why I am feeling uncomfortable when I speak up (..) I feel like because Dutch culture has always been known to be so liberal and tolerant, they use this as an excuse not to reflect.” Similar to Tina’s experiences with her Dutch peers, seems to be the attitude within institutions: In June, the D.A. decided not to prosecute a Dutch radio DJ because, after only talking with him and not actually the community hurt by his public declarations and his song ‘Voorkomen is beter dan Chinezen’, they viewed it as only a joke, and an overreaction on Dutch-Asian people’s part.

Again, everything is just a joke. But maybe you shouldn’t be making jokes if you cannot come up with a more creative punchline than racism.

Asking myself, what are my anti-Asian bias? How many Asian friends do I have? Have I ever made somebody feel othered? When did I became aware of Anti-Asian racism? And how did my reality and experience of Covid19, of being out in public during a pandemic, differ from Asian people’s?

(art by Yiuloon Lee) *name changed. A huge thank you to Pan-Asian Collective and different Asian people and friends for sharing their experiences with me

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