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Prof. K.I. van Oudenhoven-van der Zee: ‘Integration works better if the own identity is preserved’

06 May 2009

We should stop imposing our Dutch identity on newcomers, is the opinion of Karen van Oudenhoven-van der Zee, director of the Institute for Integration and Social Resilience. That does not promote integration at all. ‘Integration will only work if new identities with which both Dutch nationals and ethnic minorities can identify are created in a dynamic process. That usually works if the identities are linked to goals that are important for both groups and not, as is often the case at the moment, to problems.’
Van Oudenhoven-van der Zee: ‘The Dutch identity is not something static that you can simply transfer.’ Permitting double passports, for example, would in her opinion not significantly weaken integration but probably strengthen it. ‘The general point of departure is that people have two sets of needs. On the one hand they want to belong to something, and on the other, everyone wants to be unique.’ This means that migrants who come to a new country want to get to work as quickly as possible in order to make a significant contribution, the first need. If they are then also given the space to keep their own identity, need two, they will integrate better because they feel accepted. ‘It goes without saying that the primary attention of a person living and working in the Netherlands is on this country. Even if that person happens to have two passports.’


The Institute for Integration and Social Resilience has in the past conducted research into Frisians who went abroad to live. Those who went to America, where it is usual for immigrants to become assimilated as much as possible, usually felt less American than Frisian. In Canada immigrants are given much more space to keep their own identity. The result is that people who have gone to live there really feel Canadian. Once again, this proves that imposing an identity does not work.

Mutual goal

The individual I and the I as part of a group have always been regarded as opposing each other. If you join in a group you have to give up something. In the new vision of commonality that Van Oudenhoven-van der Zee supports, what the group is is determined precisely by who the members are and not the other way round. ‘If you start talking about who everyone is and what they can or want to contribute to a mutual goal, you can take that as the basis for agreeing with each other how to set about it. Then everyone feels included and no longer shut out.’

Turning point

A nice example is an incident a few years ago in Helden in the province of Brabant. After falling victim to arson, a mosque was reconstructed in close consultation with the local population. Everyone thought that what had happened was terrible. That was a turning point. Suddenly people began talking to each other. The end result was that something actually happened.

Mutual identity

The builder of the new mosque was an architect native to Helden. In order to be able to design the building, he had to immerse himself in what for him was a strange culture and learn new techniques. In addition, local volunteers helped with the building work. Two Moroccans from Helden eventually received Royal Decorations for their efforts; a typically Dutch custom. The success Helden had in tackling the tensions between ethnic groups and realising something worthwhile has become something that is part of everyone from Helden – something they are rightly proud of. It no longer has anything to do with a dyed-in-the-wool Dutch identity, but rather with a mutual identity.

Something extra

‘With a new identity it’s important that we can make the most of our differences to achieve something together. A while ago I had a meeting with several South African professors. You can prepare for such a meeting in many different ways. A negative starting point is that a female, white professor really had nothing to gain from a group of male, black professors. But if I start from what we have in common, namely that we are all professors, I can immediately make connections. I can then add something based on the facts that I am a woman and white. That often means that I have a little extra to offer.’

Positive image

So how do you work on a new, mutual identity? Van Oudenhoven-van der Zee: ‘The government must give the impression that a multicultural society is beneficial for us. That everyone has something to gain from it. A nice example is Minister Guusje ter Horst indicating that she wants to see more women and ethnic minorities employed by the national government. And that this has nothing whatsoever to do with discrimination. Although I fully support this ambition, she should make it clear with such a decision why women and ethnic minorities will be employed. It’s because of diversity; because, for example, it will enable the national government to react to the needs of a colourful society better. You link it to a positive image instead of a negative association.’

Enter into discussion

Much more openness is very important, thinks Van Oudenhoven-van der Zee. ‘And you can’t have openness if there is anxiety in society.’ This is in her opinion an important task for the government. ‘But also for the press. Instead of problems or riots, they should show the good aspects of integration. Enter into discussion. That is extremely important, as trust is more important than knowledge when you’re dealing with integration. We can’t blame society that trust has evaporated, not after 11 September and the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh. The government has done little to restore confidence to society.’

Curriculum vitae

Karen van Oudenhoven-van der Zee (1966) is professor of Organization Psychology, Cultural Diversity and Integration at the University of Groningen. Her research concentrates on cultural diversity in organizations. She is also director of the Institute for Integration and Social Resilience (ISW) at the same university. It conducts research in the field of integration matters.


‘On the way to new identities!’
During the celebrations of its 395th birthday this year, the University of Groningen will award an honorary doctorate to Professor Marilynn Brewer on 5 June 2009. As part of the activities surrounding this honorary doctorate, on 4 June the Institute for Integration and Social Resilience will organize a symposium on integration and identity entitled ‘On the way to new identities!’
The symposium will be held in English and will be chaired by Charles Groenhuijsen. Ruud Lubbers, Kader Abdolah, Naema Tahir, Jacques Wallage and Marilynn Brewer will give their views on the question of whether we need new identities in our multicultural society to stimulate integration. And if this is so, what these new identities should be.
In addition to the lectures by the main speakers, there will be a panel discussion between Marilynn Brewer, Jan Pieter van Oudenhoven (Professor of Cross-cultural Psychology), Baukje Prins (University Reader in Social and Political Philosophy) and Marjo Buitelaar (University Reader in Contemporary Islam).
The symposium will be held from 10 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. at the Doopsgezinde Kerk in Groningen. Tickets for the symposium cost EUR 25. You can register via This website also contains more information about the symposium.

Last modified:24 May 2018 10.31 a.m.
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