November 25, 2015


The Near-Impossibility of Assimilation in Belgium (CHIKA UNIGWE, NOV. 25, 2015, NY Times)

Some years ago, I was invited to sit on a panel in Antwerp -- "together with other distinguished foreigners," in the words of the panel organizer -- to discuss language and culture in Flanders. I had, by then, become a naturalized Belgian, but I had never felt accepted enough to claim that identity; when people asked where I was from, I still said Nigeria. I had come to Belgium as an adult. Neither my Dutch nor my French was as fluent as the average Belgian's. Perhaps, I reasoned, people had every right to deny me access to that identity.

When the biographies of my co-panelists were read, though, I was stunned to learn that all three of them had been born and raised in Belgium. One was a newscaster whose Dutch might even have been considered posh, whose only relationship with his parents' country was as a visiting tourist. Yet he had shown up at the panel as an immigrant! When I asked the moderator what made my co-panelists "foreign," his answer used the Flemish word "allochtonen" -- the opposite of indigenous, a word that means, literally, "originating from another country." My co-panelists were of North African and Turkish origins; their names and their skin ensured that they would always be classified as allochtonen. Growing up in Belgium, they had internalized the label: once an allochtoon, always an allochtoon.

Or almost always. Another writer once told me the word was simply a way of identifying one's cultural roots. But when someone else waded into the conversation to ask if her son, who was half-British, should be considered allochtoon, the writer said no: "He's Caucasian. How is anyone going to know he's half anything?"

I thought of this when I ran into Toon two years later. Toon had been in my oldest's second-grade class, except he was not called Toon then, and his Dutch was heavily accented and hesitant; he and his mother had just arrived from Poland. As far as his teacher was concerned, this made him one of two foreigners in the class -- the other being my son, whose father is Flemish, whose last name is Flemish, who had only ever vacationed in Nigeria for a few weeks. (When she spoke of Africans, she made sure to point him out as one.) The day I ran into Toon, I called him by his Polish name, but he smiled and said, "Ma'am. I am now called Toon" -- a very Flemish name. His accent was gone. A change of name and accent were all Toon needed to bridge a gap that the Belgian-born children of "other-colored" immigrants will never be able to.

Assimilation, for a Belgian with non-European roots, is a near-impossible task.

Posted by at November 25, 2015 6:22 PM


« GHWB '88 OR GORE '00?: | Main | PURE CLASS: »