“The term ‘foreigner’ does not necessarily have a negative connotation”
For her PhD dissertation research, Pomme van de Weerd, PhD candidate at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, joined one of the preparatory secondary vocational education classrooms of a high school in Venlo for 9 months. Her intention was to research language diversity at middle schools but along the way, she developed a fascination for ethnic categorisation.
Nederlanders and buitenlanders
The title of Pomme’s PhD dissertation is ‘Nederlanders and buitenlanders: A sociolinguistic-ethnographic study of ethnic categorization among secondary school pupils’. The choice to leave the words ‘Nederlanders’ (Dutch people) and ‘buitenlanders’ (foreigners) in Dutch while the rest of the title is in English was not an arbitrary one. “I deliberately chose to write these words in Dutch and to format them in italics. This shows that these words are concepts that are used throughout my dissertation and that I do not aim to provide explanations of what these words mean,” Pomme says. “I did not want to create the idea that I explain what the terms ‘Nederlander’ and ‘buitenlander’ mean in my PhD dissertation because there is not a single definition for these concepts; they have a different meaning to everyone. That is also exactly what I wanted to find out in my dissertation: how pupils in this pre-secondary vocational education classroom use these concepts to describe themselves and others, and what meaning they give to these terms.”
The usage of labels
Pomme explains that the terms ‘Dutch people’ and ‘foreigner’ mean much more than we often think or than we are told by the media. “When someone calls him/herself ‘Moroccan’, most people think that this person has not integrated into Dutch society. A concept such as ‘Turkish person’ or ‘Moroccan people’ also quickly evokes a negative connotation. But my dissertation shows that this is not the case.” In her dissertation, Pomme demonstrates that when students with a migration background used labels such as ‘Turkish’, ‘Moroccan’ or ‘Dutch’, they gave a social function to this, for example to create groups within the classroom. “This resembles when I went to school and we differentiated among ‘emos’, ‘altos’, ‘nerds’ and ‘populars’. The youth will always make a distinction between people and always think about which group they want to belong to, but they use different terms for this.”
Her first finding is that labels mean much more than we usually think they do and that these meanings are forged and negotiated in a local context. This negotiation reflects the fact that everyone gives a different meaning to a label. “One student for example thought it was rather logical that when you are Turkish, you are automatically also a Muslim, but this was not the case for another student. They thus all agreed that labels and categories existed, but they all gave different interpretations to these.”
Her second finding is that labels have different functions in different interactions. “Labels were mostly used as a joke. Students for example said ‘that’s such a Turkish thing to do!’ while what that pupil did at that time of course had nothing to do with Turkey or with being Turkish. But at that moment it was simply viewed as being more funny when it was labelled.”
Pomme also saw that students with a migration background used labels to change the balance of power. “At some point, one of the students was being obnoxious in the classroom. When the teacher told this student to sit at the front of the classroom, the student immediately replied ‘that’s only because I am Moroccan that I have to sit at the front’. At that moment, you are not sure whether a student actually thinks about discrimination, because he was also simply being obnoxious and he knew that. But you do see a shift in the balance of power because a teacher feels uncomfortable after such a statement.”
The same also happened among students, Pomme shows in her research. “Students with a migration background were very aware of the stigmatisation of the ethnic labels they used. They thought it was fun and innocent to use these labels themselves but as soon as someone without a migration background called someone else ‘Turkish’ or ‘Moroccan’, it started bordering the stigmatising use of labels, which was not appreciated by the students with a migration background.
Venlo as site of research
Pomme conducted her research in a preparatory secondary vocational education classroom of a high school in Venlo. The choice for this school in Venlo was not arbitrary. “I was looking for a location with a diversity of backgrounds. Venlo is a very diverse city, not only in terms of cultures, but also in terms of languages, which I initially wanted to focus on in my research. Many of Venlo’s inhabitants speak Limburgish. Moreover, Venlo is situated close to Noord-Brabant with its many dialects, and it borders Germany. On top of that, many other languages are represented as well.”
Pomme also encountered linguistics in her observations. The school’s policy was that the working language in class was Dutch. “When students spoke Limburgish with each other, they were not corrected. When students spoke Turkish or Moroccan with each other, however, the teacher would remind his pupils to speak Dutch. Students with a migration background of course thought this was unfair and you again saw a shift in the balance of power, this time towards the teacher.”
The meaning of labels
Pomme is grateful for the many conversations she has had with the students in the classroom. “In the beginning, the students really had to get used to me. When I first arrived in their classroom, I explained them what I would be doing and what my research was about, but they did not fully understand it yet. They saw me as some sort of intern so they thought I was keeping an eye on them and was informing the teacher whenever they were doing something they were not supposed to. They would say to each other ‘no, don’t do that, the intern will see’. I tried to explain them then again that I was just there to sit and listen, not to tell on them in front of the teacher. “Only after they had done things they weren’t supposed to do in class and noticed that I hadn’t told on them, they started to trust me.”
Although Pomme sat in the back of the classroom to observe most of the time, she also at times started the conversation with students. “I would ask a student who identified herself as Moroccan, for example, if she would like to live in Morocco someday. She firmly said she would not want to because ‘those people there are different, they have a different culture’. That verified that labels have a positive meaning for these students and that they feel very integrated and at home in The Netherlands, even though they call each other and themselves ‘Turkish’ or ‘Moroccan’.”
A few times Pomme also asked students directly what the labels and categories they used meant for them. The students thought this question very odd. After all, it was logical that they used these labels because they were Turkish and Moroccan, for them it really did not have any deeper meaning.
By: Eva Durlinger
Pomme van de Weerd, PhD candidate at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences will defend her dissertation 'Nederlanders and buitenlanders: A sociolinguistic-ethnographic study of ethnic categorization among secondary school pupils’ on 18 November 2020. In her dissertation, Pomme researchers how and why students use ethnic labels for themselves and for others.