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“Miss, you shouldn’t forget that we’re foreigners”

“Miss, you shouldn’t forget that we’re foreigners”


Archive PvdW

PhD research on ethnic categorisation among secondary school students

She made hours of audio recordings during her fieldwork at a secondary school in Venlo, Limburg. Pomme van de Weerd, who will receive her PhD from Maastricht University on 18 November, did research on its students’ language use. Most of them were teenagers with a migration background who regularly label themselves and others as buitenlander (foreigner), Marokkaan (Moroccan), Nederlander (Dutch) or Turk (Turk). Van de Weerd wanted to know why they do so and what they mean by it.

Many Dutch people may not have a clue what words like wolla or tatta mean. To them, Pomme van de Weerd’s dissertation will read much like an enlightening introduction to Dutch youth language. Van de Weerd fortunately saw fit to give a few explanations along the way. For example, wolla, which is used as a filler, means “I swear”. And a Dutch person is a tatta, derived from ptata or tata (“potato” in Sranan Tongo). This word refers to the stereotype of a white, potato-eating Dutch person.

Ethnographic research
The anthropologist in Van de Weerd – who holds a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from Utrecht University – flourished during her field research. This was also the reason why she had expressed her interest in pursuing a PhD degree to Leonie Cornips, professor at Maastricht University and one of Van de Weerd’s supervisors. When she first arrived at the secondary school in Venlo, a broad topic had been decided – identity and multilingualism in Limburg – but her research question had yet to be defined. “This is common in ethnographic research: you prepare by reading a lot about the topics you’re interested in, so it’s definitely not like you go in blind, but at the same time you try to go into the field with as open a mind as possible. I did expect to find something in the use of different languages, but I noticed that the students very often spoke in categories, like ‘Dutch’, ‘foreigner’, ‘Turk’ and ‘Moroccan’. That’s what I ended up focusing on.”

No means no
Does a boy who calls himself “a Moroccan” automatically feel less at home in the Netherlands? “In our society, it makes sense to think that. But when you really listen to these teenagers, you realise that they’re talking about everyday things. They’re not discussing big issues like social integration. They’re establishing social hierarchies. Who is cool? Who isn’t? Who follows the rules? What does someone in a certain category look like? It’s actually like it was when I was in school – our categories were ‘nerdy’, ‘alternative’ and ‘popular’.” About half of the secondary school students she followed were people with a migration background. Although these teenagers were born in the Netherlands, they prefer not to label themselves as Dutch, Van de Weerd noticed. In their eyes, a tatta is obedient, always comes to class, is boring and has no sense of humour. In short, a list of negative personality traits, as Van de Weerd learnt. The following example, an excerpt from her dissertation, took place during a mathematics class:
Amine: “One minute.”
Teacher: “Amine, I said no, and you’re doing it anyway.”
Mohammed: “No means no!”
Amira: “To a tatta no means no, to a Moroccan it doesn’t.”

Weird about money
During another conversation, between Van de Weerd and two boys named Omer and Ben, the topic of Dutch stinginess versus Turkish generosity comes up. Van de Weerd asks Omer why he doesn’t like Dutch people. “It’s just very different, Miss, from [our culture]”, he replies. How so, Van de Weerd wants to know. “When you’re together, it’s just a very different feeling, Miss. They’re much and much more serious. When you go somewhere, for example, and they don’t have any money, [they] are so weird about money. ‘I want those ten cents back tomorrow.’” Yes, he’s exaggerating a bit, Omer admits, but “those kinds of things, we’re not used to them in Turkish culture. If someone has no money, we say ‘I’ll pay’, and I don’t need it back.”

Gucci caps
Another remarkable finding is that, to the students, it’s cool to be a foreigner. “They said that their Dutch peers want to become Moroccan, ‘they’re wearing Gucci caps to fit in’, ‘because Moroccans and Turks get a lot of attention’.” Van de Weerd finds this interesting because in Dutch society, Dutch people are “at the top of” the hierarchy. “I think they use it as a strategy. Maybe it’s a way for them to make their marginalised position in Dutch society a little less painful.”


Humour, usually in the form of teasing, appears to be another way for the students to deal with the stigma they face in society, the researcher realised. In her dissertation, she cites a situation in which a girl of Moroccan descent shouts that “kut-Marokkanen hier alles verpesten” [“f*cking Moroccans ruin everything here”]. She says it in a joking manner. “To me, it shows that they are very aware of the public discourse about people with a migration background, that they are familiar with it and know that they are the subject of it and are affected by it. It’s hurtful to be seen as an ‘inferior’ group. They try to take the sting out of it with humour. Laughing about it takes away some of the misery. In the end, what else can they do? They can’t very well escape those labels, because everyone keeps calling them that. So they might as well make something positive out of it.”

“I remember one moment, in the morning, at a classroom door. I’d been at the school for a couple of months and the students knew what my position was.” She was a fly on the wall who sometimes helped with assignments; someone they talked to, but not one of their superiors. “While talking to one of the boys, who said he was tired because he had come home late the previous night, I asked what his parents thought about that. He replied, with a bit of an attitude, that his father had no authority over him. I thought it was strange – he lived at home, so surely his father had some influence over him one way or another. He replied, ‘Miss, you shouldn’t forget that we’re foreigners. We’re not like Dutch people.’ He used his relationship to another culture to make it clear that different rules apply to him, because he belongs to a different group. They don’t have regular meal times or curfews and bedtimes. With that reply, he shut me down. After all, I belong to the other category: the ‘Dutch’ woman with her rules.”

Local dialect
Teachers didn’t appreciate it when students used Turkish or Moroccan words. “They said that everyone had to speak Standard Dutch. At the same time, children who spoke the local dialect – which isn’t Standard Dutch either – were not corrected. Limburgish was seen as acceptable because the school was located in Limburg, but Turkish was positioned as a foreign and therefore inappropriate language.”

Van de Weerd is aware of the fact that her study contributes to a sensitive topic. “I think anyone could benefit from reading my findings. Most people think they know exactly what labels like ‘Moroccan’ or ‘Turk’ mean, and don’t take the time to really listen to how these labels are used and test any ideas of their own. This also happens in research – there are a lot of examples of surveys that ask whether someone calls themselves Dutch or Turkish. This is taken to be a sign of a sense of citizenship or belonging, but the researchers didn’t look at what those labels mean to those people.” She also hopes there will be workshops in secondary schools and higher education institutions to get teachers and students to talk about this topic. “What does it mean to one person when they say ‘Moroccan’ or ‘Turk’ and what does it mean to someone else? Are there any differences? All this could lead to better understanding.”



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