Tis the blackface season in the Netherlands

Zwarte Piet has turned into the epitome of how the Dutch majority silences and denies racist realities.

A still from the Dutch documentary film, "Zwart als roet."

For all the Dutch claims about liberalism and multiculturalism, their love affair with a popular black-faced figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), associated with the annual tradition of Sinterklaas (a Santa Clause like figure), keeps exposing the racism that is a part of Dutch, culture, public opinion, institutions and national identity. If you forgot, ZwartePiete are the menacing blackfaced-helpers of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas season starts in earnest again later this month and based on experience last year, it is all going to go pear-shaped.

Three years have now passed since Dutch police officers dragged artist Quinsy Gario to the ground and arrested him for wearing a ‘Zwarte Piet is Racism’ T-Shirt. Today, Zwarte Piet has turned into the epitome of how the Dutch majority silences and denies racist realities. He is found in courts (like earlier this week, when the Dutch Council of State ruled that the mayor of Amsterdam is not authorized to reject applications for permits because his office fears an event may be racist) and in regional governance institutions in the Province of Groningen, where right-wing PVV (Freedom Party) members have started to attend assembly meetings as Zwarte Piet (at least, last week they did).

In general, attacks on Zwarte Piet are widely interpreted as attacks on (white) Dutchness and threats to (white) children’s right to jovially celebrate their “cultural heritage.”

It’s old news now that the Council of Europe’s Anti Racism Commission and the United Nations Human Rights Group concluded that the tradition undermines the dignity of the country’s black minorities. There’s also growing activism and criticism by minority, particularly black, activists against Sinterklaas. In response, the city of Amsterdam has committed to reform Piet; make him “less black” over the next couple of years and “empower” him, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

For many Dutch citizens, however, such a change would set a dangerous precedent. Below we’ve catalogued some of the efforts Dutch citizens and organizations have gone through in the last month or so to retain Zwarte Piet:

In mid-September, the right-wing leader of the PVV (Freedom Party), Geert Wilders proposed a Bill to legally protect Black Pete (as well as the Sinterklaas lyrics). Separately, the Dutch Center of Folk Culture, has applied for the current version of Sinterklaas complete with blackface to be placed on the national heritage list.

The largest pro-Pete Facebookcommunity has 2,014,400 “Likes,” which –if all are indeed Dutch- equals 12% of the entire populace. (For anti-Black Pete groups, click here, here and here).

Pro-Zwarte Piet activism is not merely limited to the internet. In Rotterdam, for example, pro-Piet activists have apparently started to hang Black Pete dolls withI wanna staysigns on lanterns across the city.

And while some retail stores briefly considered banning the sale and display of Zwarte Piet, many of these went through great lengths to assure shoppers that, in their stores, Black Pete can be both displayed and consumed.

Albert Heijn, the country’s largest supermarket chain, makes for a good case study. Last month, it surprised everyone when it announced they no longer feel comfortable with Zwarte Piet. The associated candy would still be sold, but in the promotional materials a white boy would play the helper. The announcement met with nationwide opposition. Jochem van Gelder (an actor and presenter of children’s TV) called for a boycott of the chain on twitter. To him, Albert Heijn’s move was childish and unfriendly to children. Albert Heijn’s main competitor Jumbo was quick to tweet that they still honored Piet’s blackface.

The public made it very clear that the failure to unconditionally protect Piet’s blackness is a costly affair. As soon as Albert Heijn realized that no principle could possibly be worth this kind of profit plunge, and that the restoration of the nation’s faith in their loyalty to Dutch values would demand a novel heartfelt reconciliation strategy, they chose to pen a Love Poem to Zwarte Piet and publish this in national newspapers. It goes like this:

Dear Pete,

You’re not even in the country yet

But you’re all over the news

They say you’re banned from our stores

But that, dear Pete, is a lie

You’re all over our shelves

Just like every year

To us, you’re amazing in Black and other colors

We will let the Netherlands pick

But that’s the reaction to Zwarte Piet gets in the Netherlands.

What if you dress up as Zwarte Piet and went to London and asked unsuspecting passers-by (including, somehow, Russell Brand), what they make of your venerated “tradition”? A white Dutch filmmaker did just that. Watch and for your own health don’t read the Youtube comments by Dutch people below the video:

  • The clip is from a new film.

Further Reading