Shades of identity

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I have often heard the term ‘white-passing’ used to describe me. People look at my build and complexion, and they see a European, perhaps with a touch of Mediterranean. Yet, I have always identified as someone of mixed heritage.

Upon closer inspection, there’s a hint of something else. A round face that tans a bit quickly. Black hair, or was it dark brown sprinkled with tints of red? And eyes round, with a hint of almond shape, dark brown in color, framed by long, thick eyelashes that make mascara redundant.

I am of mixed Indonesian and Dutch lineage. There are quite a lot of people in the Netherlands like me. What birthed this mix?

The obvious answer is colonization. It is a dark legacy of Dutch brutality and subjugation that came at great cost of people of color. My family’s story is closely knit with this sad history. Some of my forefathers arrived in the former ‘Dutch East Indies’ seeking their fortunes, eventually settling with native women. My great grandfather in the male line, for instance, enrolled in the colonial army in the early 1900s to escape a life of poverty and peasantry. My mixed-race paternal grandparents, born in the 1920s and 1930s, later relocated to the post-war Netherlands after enduring World War II, Japanese internment camps, an independence war, and a lengthy journey by boat. Many others, some uncles included, found the Dutch climate, both atmospheric and cultural, too harsh and moved on to the United States.

What was a Dutch Indonesian diaspora household like back in the day? Outwardly, they appeared diligent and assiduous, always blending in and aspiring to be “more Dutch than the Dutch”. But indoors, it was a different realm. The air vibrated with rock and roll and the mouth-watering aroma of spices like cloves, galanga, and lemongrass. Family gatherings are usually a treat, teeming with music, dance, and most of all delectable food.

Sadly, there was not always happiness. Traumas from war and internment lingered, and the challenges of sudden repatriation and assimilation left scars. But they would not talk of it. Theirs was the silence.

I do want to point out that there is a lot of diversity of experiences within the Dutch Indonesian diaspora, and this narrative is just one of many. Colonization impacts are vast and varied.

My father was born into such a milieu. When he met my rebellious mother, happy to do away with the yoke of her, in her eyes, ‘bourgeois’ Dutch family, she eagerly absorbed his family’s vibrant culture. Nothing noteworthy about a light-skinned boy or two being born out of that union. Surprisingly, they named me Bas, a thoroughly Dutch name, foregoing the more international names many of my cousins received.

Shades of identity
Taken in 1990. From my personal archives

I did not fully understand my family’s culture as a small child. I remember I was rather overstimulated by all the sounds, smells and tastes. Nevertheless I grew up with their language, music, food, and customs. I still use a botol cebok. (Go ahead, look it up.)

I was already young when I saw a divide. I grew up in a rural town near the German border where the people were generally white. It’s not like my family were the only people of color in town, but we were still a minority. There was some racism here and there. And though I have experienced some of it myself, I was spared the worst, compared to other family members. But in general, we were valued part of the community, and loved by many.

Here, one can see the generational shifts within the Dutch Indonesian diaspora. My grandparents’ generation chose to remain silent and assimilate in post-war Netherlands. It is essential to view this choice not as passive acceptance of colonial rule, but as deliberate decisions made in the context of post-colonial pressures. This was a show of resilience, to withstand and recover from their difficult conditions, such as oppression, war and migration. Assimilation might have been a way to avoid direct conflict, gain better economic opportunities, and protect their families from prejudice and violence. The strength, intelligence and agency of the older generation should be acknowledged.

In contrast, my father’s generation celebrated their distinct identity and heritage. Their desire to stand out and differentiate themselves led to highlighting contrasts with the dominant culture. This distinction often manifested as an “us versus them” mentality. Many times, white locals became the subjects of light-hearted jokes about unseasoned food and pronounced Lower Saxony dialect and accents.

I always had the feeling that my mother, despite embracing my father’s culture, occasionally felt out of place amidst these attitudes. The ‘unseasoned food’ stereotype reflects more than culinary tastes; it signals our overlooked, rich food traditions. This jest, like comments on dialects, seeks to reclaim cultural pride and foster unity. However, such jests can deepen divisions and reinforce stereotypes. While humor may help cope, we must understand its wider impact.

And then there was my Dutch family, who not only looked different, but had an entirely different composition. There were no cousins to play with. Family gatherings mostly consisted of older people, talking in dialect. But there was also a lot of love. Having relatively young grandparents on my mother’s side, my brother and I have had the blessing of spending a lot of time with them when growing up. They have had a tremendous impact on our personal values.

The differences between my families were stark – in culture, language, food, music, age, wealth, and values. When growing up, I often felt out of place, as if I wasn’t entirely a part of either group. I was too “brown for the white kids”. Too “white for the brown kids”. Yet, I was perfectly content daydreaming, reading, playing videogames and listening music. I am beginning to sound like a typical ‘tragic stereotypical mixed-race person‘. Luckily, it’s not all boo-boo.

University life in a bustling city changed everything. I found myself among diverse peers, leading me to a profound self-awareness and self-discovery of my own multifaceted history. This was the time when I came to embrace my identity wholeheartedly. I was not a mere sum of fractions – but a composite of wholes. Not measured in halves and quarters; but counting as double. I eagerly delved into my dual cultural history, food, and even genealogy.

To me, one thing became clear: I am not white. Or brown. I am of mixed heritage. I claimed my space in this continuum of racial and cultural identities, embracing the fluidity of my own identity, without falling into binary categorizations.

In today’s age of decolonization, I wonder how history will perceive the Dutch Indonesian diaspora. A byproduct of colonialism, doomed to diffuse. An inconvenient reminder of our troubled past that cannot be forgotten too soon.

Nowadays, many perceive me as ‘white’. After I recently applied for volunteer work at a local queer organization, I was told they were “prioritizing people of color due to rising white supremacy”. Though I understand and have made my peace, my (black) husband still jests about this perceived whiteness, and cracks out the ‘unseasoned’ jokes. Thanks, honey.

There is an irony in being deemed “too white” – again. It completely negates the cultural, linguistic, and experiential aspects of my identity, and focuses primarily on my physical features. But I guess it cannot be helped. After all, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck… then it probably is a duck.

It seems each shade of identity has its challenges to face, I guess.

This is the first in a trilogy of articles with the theme ‘Duality’. The trilogy describes a recurring theme in my life; a clash between opposing forces. The articles detail about my struggles with subjects as fear, race and desire.

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