File under: Dutch Liberalism

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.



  1. Zwarte Piet is not racist or blackface, for blackface is and always going to be an American-only issue. Calling the Dutch a racist society is ridiculous to anyone who’s been there, theirs is pretty much the picture perfect example for social integration of their population from their former colonies.

    Applying black paint to one’s face does not immediately create a minstrel show, only shortsighted Americans who want to shape the world in a way so their very own internal problems along with their proposed solutions can be fitted to it think that. ZP is not blackface, because Dutch people have nothing to do with the history behind it.

    American SJW tards need to open their eyes and realize the world and its problems is not as black and white (lol) with clear cut questions and answers as they’d like to make it. As Europeans don’t feel entitled to talk about US internal politics, you don’t get to play Master Yoda on our issues either. Kindly, please fuck off. (even if you happen to be Canadian or Australian!)

    1. @Niemand, the “shortsighted Americans” you are referring to are actually Dutch. Both Chandra and Serginho live in the Netherlands and are Dutch.

  2. The comment above, I think clearly illustrates the problem many Dutch have about discussing Zwarte Piet. Mainly it’s just defensive as the article itself shows, essentially reducing this serious problem to a kind of this is our culture so leave it alone. Holland, Niemand, has a dark history, a colonial power and a slaving nation. You think you are liberal but you are not. I can’t imagine how you can justify this, in what world is it okay to dress up as another racial group in caricature? To reduce a people to a curio. Why? Zwarte Piet is racist and if you don’t see that you are either racist or ignorant and I’m not sure which is worse.

      1. Being defensive as opposed to acknowledgement of a problem and then an attempt to solve it or at the very least discuss the connotations of blackface in a society with a history of slavery, racism and so on. Hajji Firuz is racist as well. Iran just like the Netherlands has a problem it would rather not deal with. But the point of discussion is not Iran and its problems but the Netherlands. I’m interested as to how one supports this very visible display of racism, the Dutch paint their defense of it under the brush of culture but culture isn’t always right and is subject to change like anything else. The problem is that the Dutch see themselves as under attack, things will never change if that is their perspective.

      2. The defensive part has always been that Sinterklaas bought slaves (from the middle-east, therefore has little to do with Africa) and freed them. The freed slaves on their turn decided to work (they get paid) for this saint. I get it that it can be seen as racism by people that do not understand the culture. However, why is it up to the dutch to change and not the people that feel offended? Especially when these accusations are based on false information, spread by articles like these. That might be an explanation why Dutch people get tired of this debate. This festivity was never about offending people, it has been about telling a story of a saint who did good deeds. And stories about saints are plentiful!

        Why is nobody falling over Hajji Firuz? If you’d take a short look into Verene Shepherd, you might understand why the Dutch are being discussed, and not the Iranians.

    1. Can you comprehend that maybe, just maybe some societies are not as obsessed about race on a mass scale as the fear-mongering Americans? You know, because even if some European nations did have a slaving past, it was hardly as upfront and obvious as the US’s and thus people knew/cared much less about it, which in turn did not create the American argumental mindset, i.e.: any argument can be instantly won by accusing the other of racism, for racism and any deviation from the utopistic liberal values immediately deems the other unworthy of a single more sentence. You call us ignorant, yet you live this lie? You are welcome to, but don’t expect us to be this stupid.

  3. Niemand’s comment is priceless. “We’re not racist. Only Americans are racist. Stop bothering us you Americans (or Australians or Canadians.”

    Authors’. Point. Proven.

    (Plus, ten seconds with Google and you’ll find no Americans nor Australians nor Canadians wrote the piece. So, um, yeah…)

    1. I guess you really can’t be wrong when you build up the entire problem and evaluate it according to your own subjective standards. Please, by all means, call the entire world racist. Call the curbside racist if a black person trips on it. We. Don’t. Care. Can you understand that? Can you believe that instead of arguing, we just deem you and your message not worthy of our time? Please, try.

      1. You seem to be spending an awful lot of energy on things unworthy of your time! I’m somewhat saddened by the Dutch reaction to this whole discussion. I’m Dutch but grew up in Scotland for the majority of my life and grew up on Sinterklaas but still find Zwarte Piet a bizarre and rascist tradition. Mostly bizarre because the Dutch venomously deny that it is even possibly slightly rascist. They hide behind their children or their liberalism or try and make stories of Spain or the middle east or soot. What is so hard about taking a look at our history and then the character? The bottom line is he is black with red lips and hoop earrings and has traditionally acted mischievous and stupid (slave caricature anyone?) It seems kind of ridiculous that such an advanced and intelligent culture seems to suddenly drop all common sense in their nostalgia. Instead of opening a fair and open discussion I sense a kind of meanness in the Dutch culture that makes me ashamed of being from there. America had a civil rights movement maybe it’s time the Dutch had one. Maybe the Dutch will even get a black leader. Why was the leading party not so long ago all white? Why are the Dutch pretending rascism doesn’t exist? Didn’t you see the letter by that Dutch grandma in the Dutch news about her white grandchildren and her black grandchildren and that the latter were treated differently by the police? If the Dutch want to be liberal they need to think about allowing the discussion instead of trying to shut it down. This is different from the murder of the artist Van Gogh because of Muslim Extremists. That is something to be angry about. This is a holiday character that belittles a skin colour the Dutch made their millions on. The Dutch are a logical, down to earth people, why don’t we look at our history, look at Zwarte Piet, back at our history, back at Zwarte Piet and make a conclusion based on that without bringing in sentimentality, colourblindness (we’re all equal), reverse rascism (oh look at me I’m white and being suppressed because I have to give up a questionable tradition) or other countries (look at America). Let’s just look at our history and Zwarte Piet, see if we can draw any connections, try to understand why it may offend some people and think about the solutions so we can all live in harmony.

      2. To be honest I never thought Zwarte Piet to be racist and never saw them as some depiction of a race. I am well educated and perhaps that is naive, but Zwarte Piet itself is considered an entity. A lot of people from Suriname like Zwarte Piet as well, are those people racist as well? Isn’t that strange? Another thing I find difficult to gasp, children and adults love zwarte piet, somehow loving and wanting to be this person is seen as something negative? Are the offended people now looking down upon themselves? How can a festivity with so much positivity be seen as something negative. Why can’t offended people see it is not intended to be racist. I compare it a little bit with the word fuck. Fuck is considered offensive, why, because people chose it to be offensive. By bleeping the word on national television it made it only worse. Now by bleeping a lovely shakespear you can make it an utmost vulgar text. Seems like emphasizing these things only backfire. Don’t look for stuff that is not there. I have the feeling that the further in time we get the more intolerant we grow to each other. Intolerant in the sense that we cannot live our own lives and ignore what other people do. It is called growing up.
        Now you say that the Dutch leading party was only white. Why would that matter? There are very few women in there as well. Sometimes stuff is not equal. For a country in the middle of Europe it kind of makes sense the leading party is white, it is something called statistics. For women I guess you can figure that one out yourself.

    2. @Jeffrey: What @Niemand pretends to overlook is that both writers of this post are Dutch. Secondly, to pretend Dutch culture is innocent to Blackface, is disingenuous.

  4. Next time you write an article on such a delicate debate you should check your facts. Even the simplest ones: This insinuating way of writing is easy and everything but professional. For someone living in the Netherlands you seem to know damn little about it. In my humble opinion, I would be ashamed to put my name under and above such an ‘article’.

    1. Hajji Firuz is not blackface cos he isn’t meant to be a black person. He is a spiritual being whose face is black because he has come from the world of the dead. It is not offensive to black people at all because it has nothing to do with black people, zimbies can be offended by that if they so choose. It is entirely possible to celebrate a historical figure without dressing up in a caricature and offensive manner. I played Mary, mother of Jesus in countless Christmas plays as a kid, I did not try and make myself look Middle Eastern.You can wear the dress of the time but no need to paint your face.

  5. Ok so if I see this correctly; Santa Claus’s elves are white.. They are Santa Claus’s little helpers/slaves.. I am Caucasian.. Should I be offended by this?? Should we be eliminating Christmas all together because of this? Or should we make the Elves purple perhaps?
    Bottom line is; this is a children’s festival. Children don’t see the difference between white, black or yellow. I think we (adults) should be following their example. And because this discussion got blown out of proportion you are actually accomplishing the opposite of what you are trying to do here. Just my 2 cents.

    1. Children DO see differences in color. I’ve been aware of my skin color for as long as I remember.
      Saying children don’t see color has no basis in reality whatsoever.

      1. You obiviously missed the whole point.. So i’ll explain; you’re right, children see the difference in color (yellow, blue, red). Yes I know children have eyes. But children usually don’t judge upon somebodies skin colour, if their minds haven’t been polluted yet with our judgemental assumptions

  6. My friend Amina has bee building a web site about a young boy who was killed in the 1980s.

    20 August 1983: Kerwin was walking with a friend in Amsterdam when he was pestered by a group of racist skinheads. He went into a nearby snackbar but when he came out, one of the group told Kerwin he had no right to walk there and abused him racially. Kerwin said he could walk wherever he wanted to, whereupon he was stabbed in the stomach. The attacker had the words ‘100% white’ tatooed on his arm.

    Kerwin ran to the Dam Square, got into a taxi and asked to be taken to hospital. The taxi driver said he didn’t want blood all over the seat, took him out of the car, lay him on the ground and told him to wait for the ambulance

    Kerwin lay there while onlookers stood round him watching his blood seep into the cracks between the cobble stones. It was almost 20 minutes before the ambulance arrived to take him to hospital. He died shortly after.

    Kerwin was 15 years old and his killer 16.

    For an extensive look at the case and reactions check out

  7. Sandra and Serginho, thanks so much for this article. The comments, especially from people like, @Niemand illustrate the problem. Perfectly. This time of the year is the hardest and saddest part of living in The Netherlands as a Black person. *Huge Sigh* Well done on the article, though.

  8. You know what? There are way to many people on this planet obsessed with race and those are the real racists! (This obsession is what creates the skinheads etc.)I’ve said it before on this blog and I’ll say it again; Why would anyone move to a place (country) that has customs and traditions alien and abusive to themselves? I would not move to any muslim country simply because I don’t like or agree with their customs and traditions, and it’s not because I’m a christian, in fact I’m an aetheist. I don’t like the way they treat their women, I don’t like the fact that they are sexist and oh so macho, I don’t like the fact that they still practice slavery and it is accepted, I don’t like the fact that they are polygamists, and so forth. I would also not live in many African countries for the same reasons, and more. One should live in a place where they feel at home in, a place where they feel comfortable, so, once again, why would anyone live in a place they don’t like? (Please don’t give me the bullshit excuse of “they have no choice as their countries are fucked-up and they are looking for a better life.” Two points; 1 – stay home and fix your fucked-up country, 2 – a better life, like the rose, comes with it’s own thorns.)

      1. Two things; 1 – The freedom to choose and the necessity to live with those choices, and 2 – This obsession with race and the backlash it causes.
        But, pray tell, what are your comments on the post?

    1. Are you saying everyone should just leave a country every time there is a problem? Even the ones who have been there for generations and no longer feel they come from that country? I think you are getting the whole thing upside down. Defending neo nazi’s is a little disconcerting. They are looking to hate. The racism debate is about understanding and equality. The race debate is cleaning out all the spider webs in the closet. If you took time to listen to the debate and wonder WHY people are feeling like they do you may feel empathy. Instead you see it is as separating and causing race issues that didn’t exist because they don’t – for you. That is why it is so confusing and bewildering to the vast majority – “what do you mean – I don’t see any inequality?” That’s because you don’t experience it. You have a point that new immigrants have more of a choice in where they land (if they are not asylum seekers or refugees) but I’m sure that doesn’t comprise the whole Dutch population. I doubt you can call many of them foreigners anymore either. Especially once they have a Dutch passport and speak fluent Dutch. Or do you want to move back to Germany, Belgium or Poland wherever you have descended from because the race debate has exceeded your comfort level?

      1. Listen pal, I’m a South African. I live in a country where the President proudly proclaims that the majority has more rights than the minority simply because it is the majority, where the majority implements laws to protect themselves from the minority. I’m part of the minority and you don’t hear me complaining and I’m certainly not a bleeding heart “liberal” filled with white-guilt. I’m just a normal person living with my decision to live in the country of my choice. The problem with minorities in the West is that they are over protected. Perhaps their protectors should come be a minority in Africa then we can talk.

    2. Sorry to correct you pal but this ‘protector’ is living in the Dutch Caribbean and is a white minority here. Sure you can call me a liberal I take that assumption as a compliment. Saying I suffer ‘white-guilt’ is another assumption but incorrect. I never feel guilty about the situation – it’s called empathy and curiousity. It doesn’t have to be tied in with a feeling of guilt. These white protectors you are talking about in the west obviously aren’t doing a very good job if you look at any statistics. The vast number of minorities are at the bottom of the pyramid in terms of jobs, education, business and politics. Just because you are fine with your white minority position doesn’t mean it is the same to be in a black minority. I am sure there are not any white shanty towns in South Africa and I know whites have a lions share of the wealth ‘According to a study conducted in 1995, whites in South Africa, with per capita income of US$32,076, made 11.8 times more per capita than blacks (who had a per capita income of US$2,717)’. It is similar on the island where I live and although I’m not rich I have access to the jobs, resources and privilege whenever I want. So although the government is predominantly Antillean most of the business owners and managers are Dutch. I am sometimes discriminated against but it is never oppressive because the opportunities for me are unlimited. I have access to enough wealth and education to move countries, take jobs in other countries or go back to my country to be in a majority. In those countries where I am a minority my teachers at school are most likely going to be white (that’s based on my experience of school in the South Pacific) and there will be good jobs lined up. And if not I can just move countries quite easily. That is my white minority experience and because it’s different from yours I hope you can imagine it is going to be extremely different for anybody in a black minority.

    3. P.S After apartheid it seems funny that you are insinuating that everyone is obsessed with race all of a sudden.

      1. Some pertinent facts for you to consume. 1 – At the age of 16 I witnessed a white Afrikaans policeman pistol-whip my white 16 year old school friend to death while shouting “Jou fokken Engelsman” (you fucking Englishman), 2 – I did not agree with apartheid and so refused to do my compulsory military service and spent 2 years in prison for my beliefs.
        I did more in the fight against apartheid than all you fucking bleeding heart liberals and most of the current members of government in South Africa. Today I’m discriminated against purely because of the colour of my skin and I accept that as the sins of the father’s ……… Before you all speak your load of kak come here and help us help our country because the current government cannot and will not. Come build some schools, clinics etc instead of sitting in your comfy chairs making comments you have no idea about! What do you say to that Clark?

  9. Clark had nothing to say to that. Nor any of the other ‘anti-racism’ obsessed racists that dominate this site.

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