Ari Lennox's Racial Profiling Incident in Amsterdam is a Reminder That Europe Isn't As Progressive As We Think It Is

ari lennox airplane racisl profiling
credit: @arilennox/Instagram

On Monday, November 29, singer Ari Lennox, tweeted that she was being arrested at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam for reacting to a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines staff member racially profiling her.

A few days later, she tweeted again to say that she was safe, thanked her fans for their support, and stated that she regretted her reaction to the racism and discrimination she experienced.

She wrote,

“My only regret is my reaction to the racism and discrimination I experienced. I would like to explain what happened to me but KLM has made it clear that they never cared to hear it from [the] jump. It’s painful being silenced like this. It’s painful what I went through. I’m not ok.”

Following the incident, a spokesperson for the Dutch military police claimed,

“Our unit found a woman full of emotions, that wouldn’t calm down. That’s why she had to be taken into custody.”

Ari’s management team also offered an apology to KLM Airlines for the incident.

Most reporting on this situation, and even the apology from her management team, frame Ari as the inconsolable over-reactor but there have been no further investigations into how the KLM staff member spoke to Ari that led to her feeling racially harmed. There also hasn’t been any information on anti-racism or de-escalation training received by the airport’s military police and KLM staff.

It’s worth noting that this is not the first time that KLM Airlines has faced racist accusations. In February 2020, the airline had to issue a public apology for an act of racism towards East Asians. During the height of COVID, a KLM flight attendant flying from Amsterdam to Incheon wrote a sign in Korean that said “cabin crew exclusive restroom” and posted it on the restroom door. 

It was quickly noted that the sign was only posted in Korean, presumably pertaining only to passengers who could read the sign. KLM issued an apology stating that it was the reflection of a thoughtless individual flight attendant and not the airline itself. But if none of the flight crew had received any anti-discrimination training to flag that sign, then what does that say about their anti-racism knowledge as a whole?

A History of Racism

Amsterdam has become known as a progressive destination to many people internationally, with legalized marijuana, legalized sex work, and accessible post-secondary education. But Ari’s experience is a reminder that this sparkling outward appearance is still marred by the Dutch history of colonialism and deep-seated racism. 

If the anti-racism discourse over the last year (and decades) has taught us anything, it’s that Black women, and especially visibly dark-skinned Black women like Ari Lennox, make up the most systemically harmed and oppressed population globally. As a group, Black women are often harmfully labeled as being “emotional” or “angry,” just as the police spokesperson described her.

While North America grapples with concepts of racism and colorism, Europe seems to remain a few steps behind in having these overt conversations. The Netherlands specifically, still celebrates an archaic Christmas tradition during Sinterklaas festivities in which many white Dutch citizens dress up in black face as Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete).

This outlandish tradition has been defended by politicians and, while it has lost some steam in major urban areas of the Netherlands, it is still very visibly practiced in rural areas, gaining traction with their right-wing, white supremacist movement. This begs the question over their general understanding of overt racism and the urgency with which anti-racism needs to occur.

The Emotional Trauma of Racism

Comedian Hari Kondabolu once stated that racism is always felt by the victim twice; first when it is experienced and a second time when the victim has to convince others of what they experienced. We see Ari Lennox painfully expressing this through her tweets.

A common notion that is overlooked is how racist micro-aggressions add up, and with the addition of each transgression, the feelings of harm escalate for the individual experiencing it. As Ari Lennox moves through the world as a visibly dark-skinned Black woman, how was this recognized? It wasn’t.

In a place like the Netherlands, which struggles to draw a line for overt racism let alone subtle micro-aggressions, we are left to wonder what they are doing to actively acknowledge and change their racism. Had Ari been any other celebrity, would the situation have escalated to the point that armed military police needed to detain her?

The arrest of Ari Lennox and the concerning statements made by the police spokesperson afterward speaks to a larger issue of whether or not the Netherlands is ready to take accountability in how it shows up to the anti-racism discussion.

It is no shock that Ari stated in her most recent tweet that she does not feel okay. An experience like that compounded with racism and micro-aggressions at home, in the US, would have been traumatizing. We can hope that she feels safe and respected to travel to the Netherlands in the future again and that KLM and the Netherlands actively work on changing their culture.

As long as they fail to recognize who they treat in certain ways and the impact it has, they will not be able to successfully implement anti-racism and anti-discrimination in practice and culture.


Black Face is Alive and Well in the Netherlands with Christmas Character Zwarte Piet

Alicia Khan
Alicia (she/her) is passionate about bringing equity to life through a critical and fearless lens, even if it gets uncomfortable (that is where growth happens after all). When she isn't busy writing, working, or studying, she loves to curl up with a good manga, build her Sailor Moon collection, binge-watch Netflix, or catch up with friends over comfort food.