How Tolerant Are the Dutch?


When I married and we made the decision to come and live in the Netherlands, my father said to me: “The Netherlands is one of the best countries to move to. It’s a socialist country, everyone is counted as equal, and the Dutch are known for their tolerance.” My feelings regarding Dutch tolerance are ambivalent these days.

On the surface, all seems well. Dutch society is after all a mixed society. Turks and Moroccans are part of the social landscape as are Indonesians, Surinamers, Thais, Chinese and to a certain degree, Filipinos. Most Dutch pride themselves on their tolerance, and tourists see the apparent politeness. But once you live in this country it becomes impossible to ignore the prejudices and the racial tensions that exist beneath the surface.

Knowing the language and understanding the nuances of conversation provide immigrants insight into prejudiced and racist attitudes about us. “These foreigners,” some may say. 

And when you remind them that you are a foreigner, they will tell you this, “Oh we mean them, not you.”

In recent events, the far right has taken advantage of this tension to point fingers at the Muslim community. It is a disturbing atmosphere to live in, and while we as Filipinos are not the object of this finger-pointing, a good number of us (in particular women married to Dutch men) have had to face judgments passed on our marriages. 

“I thought you married because it was the only way to escape your life in the Philippines.”

“Are you poor?”

“But where do you come from and why are you here?” 

These are some examples of what I have encountered. But what I encounter is not even as harsh as the blatant discrimination against those who are Muslim.


A few months ago, I was waiting with my youngest son outside a shop in the beautiful city of Gouda. Two young Muslim girls exited the shop. They were laughing and chatting and as they passed through the exit, the alarms just went off. Immediately, one of the cashiers raised her voice and shouted at the two girls.

“What do you have in your bags? What did you take?” 

In front of a stupefied crowd, this cashier together with the security guard opened and emptied out their purses while shouting at them and saying that it was impossible for the alarms to go off if they had taken nothing. The girls were stripped of their coats and their handbags, and when nothing was found, they were made to walk through the port again and again until the alarm no longer rang. Afterwards, their purchases were returned to them. They were sent on their way without even a word of apology for the treatment they had received. 

I voiced out my indignation to one of the Muslim women. She said to me: “We cannot do anything. This is their country. If they want to shout at us, we just have to endure it.” This statement, offered in such a resigned tone, made me sadder than the entire incident. 

My feelings regarding Dutch tolerance are ambivalent these days.

I found myself thinking of the many times I had seen a white girl walk through similar ports. If the alarms rang, shopkeepers smiled and apologized for the extreme sensitivity of their ports. Would the cashier and the security guard have been less virulent if the two women had been white and obviously Dutch-born?

In spite of these unfortunate incidents, Holland is not a bad country to live in. There are laws in place to protect the less privileged. Those laws also protect us who are colored immigrants, when we feel we are being discriminated against on the basis of race. But then, how does one prove racism? Nonwhite people are always being told that we are too sensitive and too quick to cry racism when “it was just a joke” or “it might have been a bad day” or “the person didn’t intend it that way.”

The Dutch themselves strive to come to terms with the increasingly multicultural character of modern-day Dutch society. For those of us who are not born Dutch, educating natives on our culture and way of life is one way of opening doors and tearing down fences. It often requires investing time and energy to explain why I find certain things unacceptable or problematic. It sometimes means taking a stand and saying: “This is my culture and this is valuable to me and to my children.”

Not so long ago, I was criticized for allowing my youngest son to refer to his older brother as “Kuya” (elder brother in the Philippines). The person who criticized me said: “That’s such a funny word. It sounds like “koe” (cow in Dutch). I explained that Kuya was a sign of respect and it was Filipino. To which I was told that my son was not in the Philippines and there was no need for him to use this “ridiculous” word. 

Afterwards, I had a conversation with my sons. I talked to them about my culture and how this small word, while considered ridiculous by some Dutch people, was part of that and part of them too. Today, my youngest son still calls his elder brother Kuya, and his Kuya doesn’t think it’s ridiculous at all. 

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2009 as the recipient of the Octavia Butler Scholarship. She lives and writes in the Netherlands and is a regular columnist for the online magazine Strange Horizon. You can follow her at


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