What the Dutch court ruling against blackface figure Zwarte Piet means

The Amsterdam court ruling on Dutch blackface hero Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) yesterday quickly went viral. But what does the ruling really mean. In a nutshell: an Amsterdam judge did not forbid the figure of Black Pete, but ruled that Zwarte Piet “is a negative stereotype of black people and the city must rethink its involvement in holiday celebrations involving him.”  Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan should review the license given for the parade last year. This ruling is an important outcome of years of protesting and activism by those opposed to Zwarte Piet.

Note here, how the stereotype is seen as insulting to black people specifically and not to society as whole. There is an important difference between the idea that you need to be felt discriminated upon and seeing that something is just blatantly racist. In the ruling we read that a “fair balance” should be found between the interests of the claimants and the Dutch national interests. This follows from Article 8 of the European Convention on European Rights, a so-called qualified right, which means that in certain cases public authorities can interfere with private and family life of an individual. This “fair balance” suggests that black face and promoting racist stereotypes affects the private life of black people, but (again) not society as a whole. Of course we also need to realize, as many activists have pointed out as well, that Black Pete is a product of a society that is inherently racist. Racism will obviously not disappear with the figure of Zwarte Piet.

The ruling is not national and only states that reconsideration must take place for the city of Amsterdam. The decision might influence the upcoming parade in the fall, but it doesn’t mean that Zwarte Piet will totally disappear. The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent who have been here for five days have made it very clear that Black Pete is racist and that education should play a crucial role in making people aware of this. The chair of the committee, Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France said, “We are surprised to see that many people don’t see the problem.” 

We asked Patricia Schor, an anti-racism activist and affiliated with Utrecht University, her opinion on the significance of the court case:

I am thoroughly surprised with the court decision, given the history of denial of racism in the Netherlands and lack of routes to counter it. We are all elated by the decision however limited and problematic it is, as it does not recognise that racism is more than a matter of hurt feelings on the part of racialised and marginalised groups, in this case the Black Dutch. Still, this is a major victory for those who endured in a very long struggle. Furthermore it might serve as a precedent to the festivities outside Amsterdam as well. The court has signalled to the Dutch white establishment that Black people, who are otherwise deemed and treated as second category citizens, do have rights. However obvious it might seem, it is a novelty to the majority of Dutch society.

It will be interesting to see if Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan (that’s him in the image above welcoming Sinterklaas and one of his Pieten last November) will finally wise up and listen for a change.



Chandra Frank

Chandra Frank is a PhD Candidate at Goldsmiths College (University of London) and works as an independent curator. Her research interests include Black feminism, race, resistance, heritage and art.

  1. Cry me a fking river Plz.

    The Jamaican racist already pronounced last year that we were a bunch of racists, without ever Reading a letter about this national hollyday. Ofcourse she decides it is time to call all dutch people racists.

    Because you get a house, health insurance and a minimum income The moment you arive and dont forgot to get a free education.

    See how bad we are against foreigners?

    We must be a country filled with racists…

    1. Mijnheer Bas
      How does this justify the racism against dark-skinned people still widespread in your country? All this proves is that structures have been legislated to attract foreign labour, perhaps not even on a national basis, considering Nederland is a member of the E.U. You have yet to show why presenting a caricature of a black man as a servile oaf is tolerable.

  2. There was just one thing that arguable could be seen as truthful thing to say by Miss Sheppard and that was her remark about historical knowledge, albeit not in the way she intended.
    She also made a point about her being a scholar and a historian, which it, in itself, isn’t an argument nor is it an inoculate against the disservice she is doing to our shared history and the historical disciplines.

    It is clear as day that Miss Sheppard is playing the “historical identity” game in which nuance, facts and proper context are shunned in order to point out victims and villains. This kind of amateurish and dangerous approach to historical analysis is out of place and should be called out for the fraud that it is.

    It is trivially easy to point out the flaws in her reasoning simply by asking whether her assumption stands to reason in historical contexts. There are two contexts which we should look at, the first being the broad general context of 19th century Netherlands and the second context that looks at the Author Jan Schenkman as the central figure from which the tradition took root.

    Black Pete as a product of his time, being intrinsically racist is a very amateurish correlation argument that could never stand up to scrutiny academically. Auto-correlation falls flat as soon as you realize that before 1863 there was a lot of anti-slavery activism in the Netherlands. To deny this is a slap in the face of every person and institution that, in the 19th century, fought for slave emancipation.

    So, at best without knowing political or other ideologies, one should at least give Jan Schenkman the benefit of the doubt and consider his views ambiguous, seeing as his contribution is the context in which the Pete figure would have been given it’s essence.

    Unfortunately for the nay-sayers, Schenkmans involvement is far from ambiguous and his context does not agree with the professional victims that use general and superficial arguments to gain martyrdom.

    It is uncontested that Jan Schenkman, the author of the modern St’Nicolaas canon and literary father of Black Pete was a member of “De maatschappij tot nut van het algemeen” or “t’ Nut”, a society which promoted social improvement and which coincidentally was known as one of the most progressive anti-slavery movements in the 19th century.

    This context is often omitted, either due to historical ineptitude or willful ignorance because it does not help the cause of those who would like us to believe that our tradition is in essence pro-slavery.
    But within this context, it becomes incredibly hard to paint a picture of Schenkman as author, deliberately creating a farcical negative stereotype in support of European slavery and supremacy.

    In fact, I find it much more compelling to assume the Black Pete figure in Schenkmans stories to be intended as a literary example of an emancipated black person, a sort of Uncle Tom figure for Dutch audiences. As an educator and member of an abolitionist movement, it would make sense promoting emancipation as an ideal through education and literature.

    If we ban Black Pete on the basis of poor historical cherry-picking, we are possibly throwing away a part of our shared history which actually was on the front-line of the dutch process in abolishing slavery. History isn’t a grab-bag from which you can construct the most comfortable role and identity for yourself. History is common and shared and it predominantly resides in the past.

  3. lol. Black Dutch people earned the right to respect and whatever benefits they receive through SLAVERY. Remember that part? The part where the Dutch decided to go conquer parts of the Antilles and South America and hold black people in slave labor there?
    Were it not for centuries of enslavement, conquest, and pillaging, where would the money that built Amsterdam’s great monuments have come from? Read up on your history.
    Get Rid of the Black Pete. Given the fact that your country’s wealth is partially built on blood money, the least you can do is show their descendants a little respect.

    1. Nobody alive today has any responsibility with regards to that part of our shared history apart from that we must respect the history in all it’s complexity. The literal black-white, slaver-slave dichotomy is inherently false and non applicable to contemporary situations by context and reason.

      If a bible’esque notion of original sin is to be applied to the institution of slavery, then logically, the slave descendants would have some unfinished business with their own kin, the elite rules who traded them for trinkets. Is it perhaps that the west African slaver kings squandered their loot that makes the difference? I think not.

      Simply crying “read up on history” is a fallacy. I’m well versed in the historical methods as I am in history itself and your faux history and it’s dependence on very select en one-side interpretation does not impress me the slightest.

      I will not be guild-tripped and I will not make our common and shared history a free for all for any random group or individual that thinks that through hereditary sin they can simply demonize entire communities.

      Our common descendants have an equal claim in history, be it hero, victim or villain, but none of us can derive any form of right or status from that which would have any significant meaning in the rational world. If you think that wrong, you are either stupid or malevolently dishonest.

      1. “Nobody alive today has any responsibility with regards to that part of our shared history apart from that we must respect the history in all it’s complexity.”

        I’m not sure that’s true. We are the direct descendants from those people and society’s general structure is virtually the same. So responsibility should certainly be upheld by all.

        “The literal black-white, slaver-slave dichotomy is inherently false and non applicable to contemporary situations by context and reason.”

        Again, I’m not sure this is true. The so called “black-white slaver-slave dichotomy is not inherently false, ” quite the contrary. If we look at discrimination of blacks living in Europe you won’t see any physical shackles but society’s general hostility towards blacks highlights the the tangible oppression. Some sections in society with embarrassingly weak theories blamed blacks for the riots in London. These were and remain the exact oppressive forces at work during slavery. How do you think some of the biggest brands, banks, national institutions were funded? Several household names have their roots in the oppression of blacks. Changes in society are aesthetic and relative.

        “If a bible’esque notion of original sin is to be applied to the institution of slavery, then logically, the slave descendants would have some unfinished business with their own kin, the elite rules who traded them for trinkets.”

        Wow you were clearly on a roll… For someone who is “well versed in the historical methods” the fact you take what was a fractional aspect of a substantially larger issue displays an arrogance which is testament to the verdict itself. Who could say they were honestly surprised by the decision? Especially when attitudes for large sections of society resonate with yours. The fact is your lack of empathy ultimately renders what you’re saying questionable to say the least.

        The problem with spouting flimsy “facts” is that without context they are meaningless. Typically the issue of black on black disharmony creeps into another issue where blacks were initially reported as the victims. Just for the record, it does not exonerate the treatment blacks endured during slavery and colonisation, so I’m not sure why it’s even been mentioned. Is there a guilt? Are you somehow trying to justify your ancestors’ actions? Or are you simply upholding the foundation you inherited? These are questions you should ask yourself.

      2. Bosa: “fractional aspect”. Really? The internal African slave trade was much larger than the trans-Atlantic trade, and went on for much longer than those three centuries. 12 million slaves approx. were shipped across the Atlantic. An estimated 19 million eastwards. In the latter trade there was marginal European involvement. It is not well researched, as there are few records.
        But on this site you find an abundancde of amazing facts http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/assessment/essays-intro-01.faces
        One could rather argue that the trans-Atlantic triangle trade was a “fractional aspect” of African slave trade through history, but why, and to what end? Let us reflect upon history with open minds and stop
        accusing people who have nothing to feel guilty about.
        My point is that you should not try and revise history for personal purpose. Like Voxullus said, “History isn’t a grab-bag from which you can construct the most comfortable role and identity for yourself. “

    1. Fringe – Where are you getting your numbers from? One of the triumphant successes of the marginalisation of blacks was the destruction and distortion of African history. Considering there was next to no mass contact with Africans from Europeans until colonisation/ slavery I have to seriously question the authenticity of your claims. Did these historians have connections in Africa spanning over 500-700 years? Because 19 million is an astronomical number, almost seems made up…

      It may be a belief, I reckon you like many others cannot see past your ancestors barbaric past so you try and justify it by reminding us all of internal slavery. I’m not saying it did not happen. It probably did, but we cannot realistically place any number on it, because we do not know. And like I said, this does not justify nor exonerate your ancestors actions, actions that whites benefit from today. That’s probably why your defence is so valiant.

      “marginal European involvement…” Really? I shouldn’t justify this with the response. It’s actually amazing that you would you the word marginal. Over 400 years of interaction and you describe it as marginal…

      What I am saying (and I have to repeat myself) is that the transatlantic slave trade was and remains a unique phenomenon. Unique in the numbers that went across the Atlantic and unique in the fact that an entire race was commodified. When blacks sold one another we were harming ourselves, it was horrific, no doubt, but it was our own business. What the whites did was create an entire race of slaves, slaves that did not bear the same (so-called) status as whites. That kind of oppression is still present up until this present day, as the court ruling potently reminds us. Rather than actually trying to empathise you and others like you opine the same rhetoric that may feel good to type, but carries no meaning to those of us that rely on facts. And yes you disagree, but actually go out and the truth is there.

  4. Come to think of it, we have Black Pete in Scandinavia, too. But not in a very prominent role, he is reduced to a card game where he is the character you lose if you’re stuck with him in the end.
    That is of course a very negative image of coloured people. You can actually still buy this game. Whoever puts a stop to this rasist malfeasance will of course go down in history as a major figure in the fight agaisnt racism, up there with MLK and the other greats.
    Remembered as the one who changed the coirse of a whole civilization.
    Svarte Petter in Sweden, Sorteper in Denmark.
    But really, in Scandinavian minds Black Pete has been reduced to a Disney character. You gotta do something about Disney, too.

  5. @bosa…
    The whites didn’t create an entire race of slaves…
    Blacks and others (non-believers) were already enslaved by the Muslims…
    They are the ones who enslaved millions and millions and sold them to their east and to the Europeans.
    It was actually the whites who finally stopped slavery world wide ;-)
    All though within some islamic country’s and culture, there’s still slavery…

    # And concerning the childrens party…
    Only 1 reason why “we” should keep Black Pete.
    It’s none of your ff-ing business.

    But… the government (taxpayers) shouldn’t support (pay for) it, also not be able to forbid it.

    It’s a piece of theatre, with 2 characters, obviously both of them are silly caricature’s.
    People should have the freedom to make theatre or a movie or whatever.
    To forbid every character in any form of art which seems to portray someone as black in a negative way is ridiculous. (what are we gonna do next? forbid black rappers to rap???)

    I never considered Black Pete a slave or as bad, more like the co-worker (police) of Saint Nicolaas.
    The origin of the story is quite interesting though.

    Black Pete is a Moor (Moroccan / Arab) who is actually the Enslaver, shipping children to the Arab world (Spain at that time).
    And Saint Nicolaas was the one to judge which bad children should be “sacked”…

    So basically it’s a piece of folklore.
    Some people don’t get it and start screaming racism…

    Go mind your own ff-ing business ;-P

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