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Chinese-Dutch children unconsciously learn that being white is the norm in the Netherlands

Chinese-Dutch children acquire the idea from their mothers and children’s books that white people are the norm and are preferable. But the coronavirus pandemic made their preference for their own Chinese-Dutch group stronger, PhD candidate Yiran Yang discovered.

‘My research is based on social learning theory’, Yang explains. ‘This states that social factors influence our development. And for the factors that I studied – mothers, children’s books and the coronavirus pandemic – Chinese-Dutch children between the ages of 7 and 11 proved to have a strong preference for the white majority group in Dutch society.’

Unconsciously acquired white normativity

This white normativity is mainly unconsciously acquired, as the children’s books written and translated into Chinese that Yang studied for her research into how mothers rear their Chinese-Dutch children show. This white normativity was apparent in the children’s books in the over-representation of white characters and the representation of Asian characters: they were depicted with typically white external features such as big round eyes or red hair. ‘Such characters can have a negative influence on children because they mark out who is beautiful in our society’, says Yang.

In the research in families, Yang saw a big discrepancy between the way mothers thought they were rearing their children and the reality. Whereas the questionnaires that the mothers filled in showed, for instance, that they find it important to give their children a multicultural upbringing, the videos filming the mothers’ interaction with their children in a home situation show that they were actually more ‘colourblind’, particularly towards white people.

‘I got the mothers to play the “Guess Who?” board game with their children, where you have to try to guess which person is on the other side of the card’, says Yang. ‘I noticed that they hardly ever asked if the person on the card was white, but they did ask if they were black or Asian. This shows that people of colour have to be explicitly defined and white people don’t because they are the norm.’

Changed preference with covid

That Chinese-Dutch children pick up this white normativity became apparent from another part of Yang’s research in which she showed the participating children class photos of children of different ethnicities. ‘I then asked the child who they would like to sit next to most (or not) and who they would like to play with most (or not). And which children they would invite to their birthday party’, says Yang. ‘White children were once again favourite, followed by Chinese-Dutch children. Black children were rejected most.’

Interestingly enough, Yang saw how the coronavirus pandemic changed the Chinese-Dutch children’s preferences. ‘The children were much more positive about their own ethnic group with the coronavirus crisis, probably because the social environment was that much more negative about them and discriminated against them more. In such a situation you are more likely to seek help in your own group.’

Aim for a colour-conscious multicultural upbringing

Yang, whose own son has a Chinese background but was born in the Netherlands, hopes her research will make the parents of Chinese-Dutch children aware of the influence of white normativity on children and give them tools for a more colour-conscious multicultural upbringing. ‘I already give online workshops for parents and eventually want to write a book for the public. It is important that parents of Chinese heritage prepare their children for discrimination in Dutch society but also make them proud of their ethnic culture. We have to be able to talk openly about these matters, which in my experience does not happen enough.’

Yiran Yang will receive her PhD on 21 June for her dissertation ‘Rice Eaters in the Land of Cheese: The Context of Ethnic Socialization of Chinese-Dutch Children.’ Watch the livestream here.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp

Photos: Yiran Yang and Xiaomo Zhang

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