Taking Blackface to Court

What the Amsterdam court ruling against blackface figure Zwarte Piet really means.

Gerard Stolk via Flickr.

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.”  That 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.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.