In the Netherlands, many people convince themselves that racism is something that exists elsewhere–in South Africa, for example, or in the United States. For theirs is a ‘tolerant,’ liberal nation. To maintain the facade, often blatant acts of racism are downplayed, rationalized or swept away. As an exercise, see some of the comments on our Facebook page whenever we post something about racism in the Netherlands.
We have written before about the Dutch blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet (in English: Black Pete), and what passes for ‘debate’ on the topic annually about this time of the year. This year though the debate about Zwarte Piet — dressed in a golliwog-style wig, pronounced red lips and gold earrings — has reached new levels, confronting in the process what many for a long time have tried to address: racism in Dutch society.
In September, anti-racist and black activists pressured the Amsterdam municipality to have a public hearing into whether to give permission for Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) festivities during Sinterklaas’ “helper” Zwarte Piet would be prominent. (The public hearing was a victory, though the municipality eventually did grant the permit.) Then Verene Shepherd, chairperson of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, told a TV program that “she would object to the character of Zwarte Piet if she lived in the Netherlands.” The result was a nasty racist backlash against Shepherd. Nearly 2 million people “liked” a Facebook page that expressed support for Zwarte Piet. Racist remarks in traditional and on social media were common and, as CNN reports, death threats made against anti-Zwarte Piet activists.
Dutch, and some international media, have created the impression that there is a vigorous debate on Zwarte Piet and racism in the Netherlands. This is simply not true. Instead, what we have is a ‘debate’ hijacked by white Dutch intellectuals who downplay the racist nature of Zwarte Piet by arguing that he is an archetype not related to slavery. In the process they overlook how Zwarte Piet is embedded in the racist colonial legacy of the Netherlands. (There are exceptions in the media, with mostly non-Dutch media critically unpacking Dutch race relations. Have a look, for example, at the reporting by the New York Times and the BBC in the last few days.)
Some Dutch people defend Zwarte Piet on the grounds that it is not racist, but understand that some black people might feel offended. Yet, what they fail to grasp is that it is not about feelings, but institutional: that the Netherlands upholds, celebrates and exploits a racist caricature, something that should concern every Dutch citizen.
Discourses of ‘race’ and ‘racism’ rarely enter debate and discussion. Racism is seen as too strong a concept to use, sullying a celebration associated with a children’s party and a national holiday (see the reaction of a grown man in blackface telling the BBC reporter, at the link above, how he’s only trying to make the children happy). Another frequently used argument by the pro-Zwarte Piet camp is that people should be looking at ‘real racism’ rather than interfering with a longstanding innocent festivity for children. In doing so, the perceived innocent experience of children is understood as neutral while the experience of black people is being infantilized and dismissed.
To oppose Zwarte Piet equals inauthentic citizenship. Imagined tolerance is used as an excuse to utter personal racist attacks and to uphold a superior position towards black citizens. If you can’t adapt, leave and go back to Africa or the Caribbean, they shout. “Reverse-racism” charges by white Dutch people are common, with some even filing complaints at anti-discrimination bureaus arguing that ‘others’ want to take away their national blackface hero.
Yet no less an authority than the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) of the Council of Europe has expressed itself clearly on how racism is woven into the fabric of Dutch society. ECRI details how:
… certain politicians and media often portray Islam and Muslims, as well as the arrival of Eastern Europeans, as a threat to Dutch society. The criminal-law response to some of these statements has been criticised. There is no national inclusion strategy for Roma. Bills with discriminatory implications have been announced to regulate the settlement in the Netherlands of Dutch citizens from parts of the Antilles. The integration tests have several questionable aspects.
The Commission was explicit about how Dutch law fails to attack racism and racial discrimination:
The acts listed in the criminal law provisions against racism and racial discrimination are not prohibited on grounds of citizenship and language. There is no provision explicitly establishing racist motivation as a specific aggravating circumstance in sentencing. There is concern over the interpretation given to the provisions prohibiting racist insults and incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence, particularly when applied in the context of political discourse. The authorities have cut the funds of the Complaints Bureau for Discrimination, which receives complaints about racist offenses committed through the Internet.
The report also calls upon all political parties to take a firm stand against racism.
So far politicians have dismissed the severity of the ECRI report and brushed off arguments against Zwarte Piet. Prime Minister Mark Rutte couldn’t do any better than to state that Zwarte Piet “just happens to be black” and that he could do nothing about it. Eberhard van der Laan, the mayor of Amsterdam, responded to the complaints made at the public hearing via a public letter. In his response Van der Laan stated he would not call the festivities racist and that it would be good to strive for an inclusive festivity in the course of five to ten years.
Van der Laan aligned himself with Hoofdpiet Erik van Muiswinkel (basically the national chief of the Zwarte Pieten) who wrote that Zwarte Piet must of course stay but that the figure must become “less black” and be less of a servant. Needless to say, such responses of politicians are offensive and degrading. Sinterklaas is now protected by nine armed police officers dressed as Zwarte Piet to protect him from those who supposedly mean him harm. It doesn’t seem to matter that the racist remarks and death threats were targeted against those who oppose Zwarte Piet.
Critical voices, such as Egbert Alejandro Martina and Zinhi Özdil, who have offered intellectual insights with regard to Zwarte Piet and Dutch racism, have been swiftly put aside as Allochtone Twitter Intellectuelen (Allochthonous Twitter Intellectuals) merely concerned over futile issues. The descriptor “allochtoon” meaning “other tone” is used to describe black and non-Western Dutch citizens, residents and immigrants and point to racial hierarchies in the society.
In response to the racist backlash and serious threats against black people and critical voices, some activists have circulated a public statement. Among the organizers were Martina and Özdil. The statement clearly explains and links Zwarte Piet to anti-black racism and other forms of dehumanization that are taking place in the Netherlands:
We would like to reiterate that Zwarte Piet is racism and the protests against Zwarte Piet are not a deviation from a wider struggle against all forms of oppression. In addition, the protests against Zwarte Piet are not new. There are and have been countless others who have inspired this struggle and cleared the path long ago.
Zwarte Piet is on par with other forms of dehumanization through racialization, such as racial profiling, racism in the labour market, and the violence inherent in Dutch asylum policy. Our protest against Zwarte Piet is situated in a broader ongoing decolonial anti-racist project.
Within the mainstream Dutch public sphere the tone is that people are ‘getting tired’ of the debate on racism and Zwarte Piet. Racism has become something to laugh about. Predictably someone’s already made and posted a Hitler-parody video on YouTube.
Yet what can’t be denied is that racism is deeply imbedded in Dutch society and should not be viewed as the exception but rather as part of the normative framework in which society operates. What the ‘debate’ on Zwarte Piet and racism has shown is how black bodies are systematically oppressed, critical voices are silenced, and how the normativity of white power continues to determine the rules of engagement.