Why the Dutch word ‘allochtoon’ should be abandoned

Both the Dutch Minister of Justice, Ernst Hirsch Ballin and the Minister for Housing and Integration, Ella Vogelaar, have breathed new life into the debate around the problems generated by the peculiar Dutch terminology around migrants – the distinction between ‘allochtoon‘ and ‘autochtoon‘ Dutch citizens.

Officially, according to the CBS, you’re either if you’re born outside the Netherlands, or have at least one parent born outside the country. However, the everyday usage of the term allochtoon tends to stretch to anyone with a non-Western background, giving it more of a racial effect, raising the bar to ever becoming autochtoon, or ‘native’, and reinforcing the ‘natives’ capacity to control who does or does not get recognized as genuine ‘insider’. Paul Scheffer observes the problems associated with this terminology, and although he has used the term allochtoon in the past, he now steadfastly avoids it, using terms such as ‘migrants and their children’ in its place. However, there has been only limited public debate about the question, and when it is raised, there is a tendency for commentators to pour scorn on the idea of changing the terminology by trivializing it, or by arguing that language has its own autonomous dynamics in any case.

As my own modest contribution to the debate, I thought I’d post a fragment from a longer piece that I’m writing which deals with the question:

When increasing numbers of migrants with a greater diversity of cultural orientations started flowing into the country in the 1980s, there was a strong inclination towards pretending it wasn’t happening, sometimes throwing a fair bit of money at whatever the problem was, relying on the elites to sort their community out, and above all, continuing to insist that the country was not a country of immigration, and that it was all temporary. The use of the word allochtoon to refer to migrants – as distinct from autochtoon, native or indigenous Dutch – is an expression of this. Hilda Verwey-Jonker[1] was going to title her 1971 report to the Ministry of Culture, Recreation and Social Work, Immigrants in the Netherlands, but this encountered objections from those in the Ministry who still felt disinclined to concede that the Netherlands had become a country of immigration, and the concept allochtoon – already in use among human geographers to refer to internal, rural-urban, migrants – was turned to as a suitably scholarly euphemism. From that point onwards the country’s politicians and policy-makers have been torn between their heads – telling them that they needed to get used to the fact that the guest workers were not going home, that their the colonial past was catching up with them in the shape of Surinam and the Antilles as well as Indonesia (‘we’re over here because you were over there’), and that Dutch society was constantly changing – and their hearts, which still yearned for stability and continuity, Holland winning the World Cup, Sinterklaas festivities, pea and ham soup. and croquettes.

One of the more striking examples of the ‘thickness’ of Dutch culture and its lack of porousness for newcomers, in contrast to the classic immigration countries, is this linguistic distinction still made between autochtoon and allochtoon within the category of ‘Dutch citizen’. The word combines the Greek words ‘allos’ and ‘chtoon’, ‘other’ and ‘earth’, referring to anything or any person that is non-native, non-indigenous, ‘not from here’. Autochtoon refers to anything or person that is native, Indigenous, original. If one is allochtoon if one has one or more parents born outside the Netherlands, in principle there should be no such thing as 3rd generation allochtonen. But the 1989 WRR Report, the first official adoption of the concept, did include people whose grandparents were born outside the country, and the added distinction between western and non-western allochtonen (only the latter have to undertake the citizenship test) means that in fact it ends up referring to anyone of non-Western background, no matter what their citizenship status. This is how a school textbook on the multicultural society explains the terminology:

An autochtoon is an inhabitant of our country who has roots here. His family has lived in theNetherlands for generations.

An allochtoon is somebody who differs on grounds of race or other clearly visible marks from the original inhabitants of our country. We do not call Belgians or Germans allochtoon. Children of Turkish guestworkers, who were born here, speak Dutch (of a regional dialect) perfectly (and maybe no longer speak Turkish), and who have Dutch citizenship do, however, belong to the allochtonen. After some generations they will probably not be different any more from autochtonen children. They will have the same habits and perhaps no longer remember that their grandfather came from Turkey. They will then be considered as autochtonen[2]

This means that one doesn’t even need to speak Dutch to escape definition as allochtoon, one need only be white-skinned. The entire Dutch Royal family and former Prime Miniser Ruud Lubbers are officially allochtoon, but they will never be referred to as such. Whereas it doesn’t matter how well-integrated one is in terms of language and general cultural competence, as long as one looks Turkish or Moroccan or Surinamese, one remains an allochtoon, a non-native. Stephan Sanders observes that the ancient Greek definition of a barbarian was simply, ‘not from here’:

‘Not from here’ we repeat literally, with the same aplomb. And if such an ‘allochtoon’ happens unexpectedly to be born in theNetherlands, but his parents or grandparents came from elsewhere, then we say: Third Generation Not-from-here.

Indigeneity can only be claimed when cultural difference has been more or less eliminated. Sanders gives the telling example of the permanency of allochtoon identity, ‘a dark-skinned Dutchman on TV, with roots in Surinam, who said about himself with a certain smugness, “Me? I’m a born and bred allochtoon”. With this contradiction terms, the allochtoon has definitively, I fear, been integrated’ (2000).

There have been numerous critiques of the concept, pointing to its ethnic, indeed racial connotations, the placement of ethnic above juridical identity, the assumption of a non-existent cultural homogeneity within each category, the presumption that allochtoon Dutch citizens are always disadvantaged or have some sort of problem, the one-dimensional reduction of complex social and cultural identities to a single characteristic (or the amplification of that characteristic to absorb all others), its conversion of an apparent jus soli conception of citizenship into a Trojan Horse for a jus sanguinis model. But the aspect that should be emphasized here is its clear exclusionary effect, the very high threshold it sets to acceptance as full members of Dutch society. As Frans Verhagen has puts it, ‘anyone who calls a third-generation Turkish-Dutch child an ‘allochtoon’ suggests that these children born, raised and settled in the Netherlands don’t actually belong’.[3]

It was born in 1971 of avoidance of the reality that the Netherlands had become a country of immigration, reiterated in 1989 when the Scientific Council for Government Policy explained that the problem with ‘migrant’ or ‘immigrant’ was that these terms ‘suggest too much that the settlement is permanent, when in practice that by no means always has to be case’ (WRR 1989: 61), and it seems that its continued use reflects an unconscious yearning for all the effects of increased migration to simply go away. As Hans Magnus Entzenberge has said ofWestern Europemore broadly, ‘The goal of integration has not yet been accepted by large parts of the European population. The majority is not ready for it, at present perhaps not even capable of it’ (1994: 136).

Hirsch Ballin argues that the opposition between allocthoon and autochoon Dutch citizens should be abandoned, because it creates a false opposition. More elaborate arguments have also been made by the Scientific Council for Government Policy. The Hague refuses to use the word allochtoon, and refers to “Turkish-the Haguers”, etc.

But what are the counter-arguments?

“It’s superficial, attention should be paid to real issues like unemployment and criminality”.
Answer: (a) the two types of issue are not mutually exclusive, talking about one doesn’t stop you thinking about the other. (b) it’s not superficial at all, language makes people think in certain ways. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been worried about the word ‘nigger’ or calling women ‘chicks’.

” Language follows reality, if people think it’s important to make a distinction between those who originally come from the Netherlands and those who don’t, then they will, no matter what you do with the terminology”.
Answer: (a) even if this is true, there’s no reason for the terminology used by official bodies to adopt the same approach – the word allocthoon was introduced by the government, it can choose to stop using it if it wants. Whether this does actually have any impact on everyday usage, time will tell. But it is likely to make a difference whether or the distinction is officially approved, whether it keeps getting used in public discourse. (b) This misunderstands the active role that language plays in structuring cognition and thought. This is why other countries have worried about the language they use, and why they have at times changed their terminology.

Long live the hyphenated Netherlander!


[1] The first sociologist in the Netherlands to gain a PhD, in 1945, and a founder of the Dutch Labour Party in 1946.
[2]Luijsterburg, C. (1996) Multiculterele samenleving. Examenmodulen Maatschappijleer. Groningen: Wolters-Nordhoff.
[3]Verhagen, F. 2006 ‘Leve de streepjes-Nederlander’ Trouw 2 December 2006” 24.