Social wounds never fully heal
This is what exclusion looks like, I thought.
It seems odd to me that a two class train system is still in practice in the Netherlands in these so-called modern times. I have brought this up with friends many times, but no one seemed to share the same indignation. Many consider it to be a free choice, whether or not to pay more for a train ticket and with it access to comfort. But not everyone can afford the more expensive ticket and therefore choice is actually an illusion.
The systematic class distinction that the Dutch Railways shamelessly maintain must therefore be the first to be overhauled. In contrast to our Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is happy to place the responsibility with the citizen, I believe that the government and companies should set the example here.
I have never been able to explain why this concerns me so much. Until last Saturday I read the NRC essay “See how class blind we are” by Arjen van Veelen. He clearly explains how class difference in the Netherlands is determined by the level of education of your parents and is revealed by the way in which you are looked at. Eyes speak louder than words.
The article immediately brought me back to my primary school days. Fortunately, most children do not make a distinction, but it is the parents who think it is important that their children develop within their own social class. I often experienced not feeling welcome by parents of friends. I always thought it was because I am of mixed cultural origin. Looking different is something that you clearly perceive as a child. The more subtle layers in the social ranking remain hidden from you. Most of those parents expressed their aversion very subtly, but my best friend’s mother didn’t bother to beat around the bush.
She told me bluntly that we could not actually be friends, as we were that different, didn’t I understand that? Through my friend came the message that she was no longer allowed to hang out with me, because I would have a bad influence on her. These memories still hurt. Rejection in a time when you have no idea who you are shapes you. The scar that it leaves behind is always visible.
It confused me that my friend’s Surinamese friend was welcomed with open arms at her home. Wasn’t she also of a different origin? I now realize that it was not about that. Her father went to work in a suit and drove a brand new car. They lived in the same street as my girlfriend. It was not about origin or color, it was about class.
Years later I went to live with that same friend in Amsterdam. When we went to buy a jacket for her in the PC Hooftstraat as 19-year-olds we were looked at in a crooked way. I felt terribly uncomfortable with these looks in the most expensive street in the Netherlands. But my friend enjoyed being able to take out her father’s credit card without straining a muscle and putting the seller in place. It was as if she proved with this: I belong here, this is my class. We are still friends today and there is hardly any difference in what we earn and how we live. For the outside world, we are now part of the same class: highly skilled self-employed people in the city. I was recently called self-made. I doubt whether I should take that label as a compliment or insult.
The members-only club Soho House opened in Amsterdam last year, which has been a household name in cities such as London and New York. In their own words “a community of creative influencers, thought leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs, a global society that encompasses every creative industry.” It comes down to the following: you pay an annual amount that gives you access to all locations in the world. What you actually pay for is access to an exclusive club of people from a certain social class: the trendy, creative industry in world cities. More than once I was asked if I would also become a member, “It is so you”.
There is no greater insult to me than that. I don’t belong in a place where you can only enter if you are a member. Where you can only be a member if you are approved by a committee and you work in the so-called creative industry. But I can’t blame people for thinking that. I know many members. I sometimes come to appointments and when I leave my bike outside I see a look of approval in the eyes of the other people that says “you are one of us”.
Not long ago I had an appointment there and she left a little earlier. I sat still for a while. I looked out the window at the fantastic view over Amsterdam and thought: look at us sitting here comfortably. In an interior that seems to come directly from a magazine, we drink priceless coffee or matcha latte, are served by staff flown in from London and we literally look down on the rest of the city. This is what exclusion looks like, I thought.
I clearly experience an inner struggle between the class in which I was born and the one in which I am now. As an individual, can you belong to different classes or do you have to choose and deny part of yourself? It is not only at Soho House that I experience this inconvenience. I also feel it when I order an acai bowl in Tulum in Mexico, when I pay for my clothes at Filippa K, when I get out of the Uber and see people come out of the metro, when I walk past a line to the guest list. I feel like a fraud. I don’t belong here.
The scar from my youth now has an important function in my life, it serves as a compass in my struggle for more equality. Thanks to my dear friend for whom the class difference between us has never made a difference, I believe that change is possible. It starts with the seemingly innocent remarks like “don’t you want to play with Peter / Jan / Kees?”, When your child’s best friend is called Achmed. Or “this is not how we talk here” if your child takes home some street language. You may think that you have the best for your child, but remember that this is your contribution to the world in which your children will soon live.
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