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Why it makes sense for Witte de With to be renamed

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Good timing always remains tricky. Just as the middle class is getting ready for the St Nicholas season announces the Supervisory Board of Arts Centre Witte de With that is set to change its name. That name came up for discussion in the wave of public agitation over appropriation, unionist images and reparations for the Netherlands' slavery past. Initially, it seemed to be about the word 'Wit' appearing in the name in duplicate, but so it is not.

Or maybe it was at first. Someone wondered why an arts centre striving for a more colourful look now necessarily had to be called White twice. Still, minimal research into the further background of that name will have raised eyebrows. One word: wikipedia.

Naval hero

My grandmother lived on Orchard Street, a side street of Witte de With Street, and at the time I never wondered who Witte de With was. 'Sea hero', was enough. After all, every city has a sea hero neighbourhood, and Witte de With was one of them. Just someone who helped put the Netherlands on the map against our enemies in Spain, England and Portugal.

The problem, of course, is the way someone like Witte de With did it. I mean, things weren't particularly gentle in the world four hundred years ago anyway, but our Witte had a real appetite for it. It started with 'heavy-handed interrogation' and soon ended up with 'destroying Jakarta'. And then he hadn't even really started.

Mohamed B

For someone from one of our former colonies, it must be strange to walk around a building named after a mass murderer of your own ancestors. I mean: you don't want to drink coffee in Koffiehuis Mohamed B on holiday as an archetypal Dutch tourist in Casablanca either.

Does time heal all wounds? Four hundred years from now, would we be ok with visiting the Adolf Hitler Museum of Medieval Landscape Art in Berlin? Didn't think so.

So it is not about colour, but about honour. And to whom it belongs. Even if he had been called Black the Swarth, it was seriously time to take the name of a professional killer off the façade in a world that everyone wants to value.

Politically Correct

The question does remain how far this will go. Fear of a politically correct iconoclasm is, of course, overblown, but it can't hurt in specific cases to scrutinise your self-evident history. Also in the light of today. We owe that to the future. After all, it would also be annoying to put a disclaimer on every nameplate:

"We once called him 'hero', but it turned out to be a huge dick. Still, we let the sign hang. Because it hangs there."

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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