Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Gender in ethnically mixed relationships of immigrants from Dutch former colonies in the Netherlands, 1945-2005

Subproject of "Differences that make all the difference. Gender, migration and vulnerability (migration to the Netherlands 1945-2005)"

2006 - 2012
Marlou Schrover
NWO Vici NWO Vici

This thesis is part of a project on gender and migration Differences that make all the difference. Gender, migration and vulnerability (migration to the Netherlands 1945-2005). It focuses on interethnic relationships involving immigrants from former Dutch colonies in the Netherlands. I will use a historical perspective, stressing changing attitudes towards mixed relationships through time, but I also hope to point out that these gendered attitudes were part of the legacy of the colonial pasts that migrants and Dutch society shared. I approach mixed marriages from a gender perspective, trying to capture not only differences between men and women, but also the discourses on femininity and masculinity, on sexuality, and how this varies for different ethnic groups. 

The construction and perception of ethnic differences are not gender neutral. My goal is not to determine which differences are intrinsically important but to determine which distinctions are perceived to be important. The value of difference is not innate but constructed in human interaction. The perceived distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are the catalysts of group formation. Sense of belonging expresses itself in the choices that people make, especially in a choice so close at heart: the choice of a spouse or life companion. The central question of my thesis will be: how and where are ethnic boundaries drawn between ‘them’ and ‘us’ – from both perspectives –and how are these processes gendered in (responses of outsiders to) conjugal choices? I look at relationships in which the partners involved are thought to be different from each other (by others and by themselves). The partners are thought to have different ethnic identities, different religions, different nationalities, different skin colour or other phenotypic characteristics, or come from different socio-economic backgrounds. I will focus on mixed relationships based on ethnic differences. 

The postcolonial immigrant communities are especially interesting as a case study in this respect, because the colonial history shaped gender and ethnic relations in a specific way. In European colonies, white Europeans were a minority, but a minority with all political, social, and cultural power. The ‘othering’ of colonial subjects was key to legitimizing and thus maintaining power. Vagueness on who belonged to ‘them’ or ‘us’ from the colonizer point of view and permeable boundaries threatened the status quo. The desire to remain in power was inextricably bound by the desire to remain racially pure and to remain economical, social, cultural, and ethnic homogenous. Remaining racially pure meant controlling sexuality, especially that of white women. A discourse developed on sexuality, ethnicity and race, and power, which greatly influenced views on mixed relationships. These discourses were reproduced in postcolonial times by both (formerly) colonized and colonizer. 

By treating postcolonial immigrants as a distinct group, I assume that they share common characteristics and that the colonial legacy joins them and influences integration and settlement processes. Therefore, I am particularly interested in discovering continuities and discontinuities between the colonial and the postcolonial context concerning the gendered construction of ethnic boundaries and the attitudes towards mixed relationships. Does the colonial legacy explain differences between immigrants from former colonies and other immigrant groups in the Netherlands, between the different groups from the former colonies, and between women and men within these groups? Postcolonial immigrants spoke the Dutch language, had (some) knowledge of Dutch culture and mores, had attended schools with a Dutch curriculum, were mostly Dutch by nationality and were predominantly Christians– all legacies of the colonial ties. These characteristics influenced the high rate of exogamy (marrying outside a specified group of people to which one belongs). The colonial (white) European culture and colonial policy concerning interethnic relationships explain the particular gender differences after decolonisation of the colony and after migration of its subjects to the metropolis. I will demonstrate that migrants and the receiving society, consciously or subconsciously, reproduce these gendered ideas on and responses to mixed relationships in a postcolonial context. 

Taking this in regard, I have formulated three hypotheses. The first assumption is that ethnic identities and therefore ethnic groups are fluid, dynamic and situational. Since the context changed with migration, ethnic identity changed as well. Ethnic boundaries are gendered and intertwined with class boundaries. Secondly, despite the fact that (the boundaries of) ethnic groups changed as a consequence of migration, colonial discourses on masculinity and femininity and gendered ethnic boundaries were reproduced by both formerly colonized and colonizer in a postcolonial and postmigratory context. The colonial history influenced the rate of exogamy (which was higher than in other migrant groups) and attitudes towards exogamous couples. The rates of and attitudes towards exogamy differed for men and women. 

As the colonial government formulated different policies on mixed relationships for Caribbean colonies and the East Indies, and as the demographical make-up of the colonial society in the Caribbean and the East Indies differed from each other (especially due to the presence of (former) African slaves), there will be specific, different attitudes towards exogamy for and from immigrants from the West and the East Indies. 

Thirdly, mixed relationships are often understood as a benchmark for the level of integration. As mixed relationships have got something to do with group boundaries, it also assumes that these boundaries are not ‘that big of a deal’ for the couple itself. But they are a big deal for the outside world. However, there are also other factors that influence the development of a mixed relationship that do not have anything to do with the level of integration or group affiliation.

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