Early November is one of the most important times of the year for the Dutch. Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas) returns to the Netherlands after his year in Spain. His arrival is rejoiced with a big parade and from then on Dutch children are allowed to put their shoes near the chimney each night and sing songs in hope he will visit their houses and leave gifts in their shoes. The celebration ends with a highlight on the 5th of December, much like christmas eve. An evening full of gifts, candy and songs. Saint Nicolas is a central part of Dutch culture and something people take great pride in. Alongside him arrives a large group of Black Petes (Zwarte Pieten), his helpers, people adorning a black afro wig, dark facial make-up, red lips and golden earrings.
This is where things become more complicated. Although Black Pete had been critiqued before, the figure truly became the topic of public debate when four people held a silent protest during the annual parade of Sinterklaas in 2011. Artist Quinsy Gario and poet Kno’legde Cesare wore t-shirts stating ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’ (Black Pete is Racism). Following their arrest there was a strong national reaction against the message of the protestors. Most people felt that a celebration for children should not be the grounds for a political debate. Gario explained that they were trying to start a dialogue on Black Pete and racism in the Netherlands. What followed was the start of a discussion that has returned every year in which opinions became extremely polarised on whether or not Black Pete was an outing of racism and whether or not to adapt the national celebration. Much has been written and said on the questionalready, but as an activist who’s been part of this debate I’ve become increasingly interested in the way people react to ‘Black Pete is Racism’ and what this shows us about the way we perceive racism in the Netherlands.In my experience there tend to be two kinds of reactions from those who disagree.
Firstly, people react in an angry aggressive way, often using xenophobic and (anti-black) racist language. In my personal experience, the comments have ranged from ‘go back to your own country’ , comparing black people to monkeys and other comments of extreme afrophobic nature and death and rape threats of different kinds. It has become most evident on social media, of which the latest incident has attracted attention in the Dutch media. Over 10.000 racist reactions were posted on a selfie shared on Facebook by activists after their peaceful protest during the Sinterklaas parade 2015.
Secondly, people deny Black Pete has any kind of correlation with racism. How can something that they’ve been enjoying for so many years and associate with so many good memories be an act of racism? The Netherlands after all is known for being a tolerant country. White people don’t perceive themselves as being racist and thus Black Pete has no racist intentions. This I believe perfectly reflects the way we think about racism in Dutch society. I truly think it is one of the most important issues to arise from the Black Pete debate and something we will need to tackle further extensively.
In the Netherlands racism is mostly associated with very explicit forms, the use of slurs, apartheid or the KKK, but many people do not realise that racism is far more complicated and widespread than this dictionary definition tells us. In the Netherlands we lack the cultural and social education that racism is a system of inequality with that defines powers structures. This can be traced back to the absence of an anti-racist movement in the Netherlands, and to an extent in mainland Europe, compared to the kind the UK and America had in the last century. It is a system in which racism is institutionalised, is reflected in the way we discuss our history, concerns racial profiling by the police, creates great discrepancies in unemployment on the labour market or is found in micro aggressions such as assumptions about people’s background and intelligence, and much more of course. All of these are examples that have been come to light in the Netherlands in the last few years.
In other words, one can perpetrate racism in different ways, but the implicit ones aren’t acknowledged and that’s dangerous. Most of the time white people are blind to it, for systematic racism as described above does not directly affect us and we don’t experience it. This also means that if you don’t personally associate or recognise something as racism, it doesn’t mean it’s not racist. What we need to learn in the Netherlands is not to immediately defend ourselves or deny our actions are racist but stop for a minute and think about it. The most important lesson to learn on racism here is that it is not something you choose not to do. Even when fully aware of its implications, one can still perpetrate it.
Furthermore, even if you don’t understand why certain issues are considered racist by others, ask yourself this, what about empathy?
If someone else is hurt or stigmatised by something we do, why do we feel the need to continue this? In the case of Sinterklaas, should not everyone be able to enjoy the party? I played Black Pete myself when I was a child and for many years I was unaware of its meaning, but I’ve come to realise that we need to change this. Even if we made mistakes before, instead of denying everything or feeling guilt we need to work towards a better society and take responsibility. This is where we have to go to.
Change is coming, already municipalities are adapting Black Pete and we’re going further. For if Black Pete disappears, the fight isn’t over. We can see that a new movement and awareness has slowly begun to build itself. In November an article was published in a Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, that focussed on the experience of Black Women in the Netherlands. Among the topics they discussed were the issues of white privilege and white allies, concepts that many Dutch people are completely unfamiliar with, let alone comprehend them enough to be able to reflect on them. It is these little landmarks that show change, though it never comes easy as we have seen in the Black Pete struggle.
The discussion on Black Pete has shown us once more the lack of knowledge and dialogue on race and racism in the Netherlands, but this doesn’t have to be this way. We should not idly stand by and let racism continue in our society and minds: as long as we do not discuss this, we don’t challenge it and it won’t change. So let’s talk.
Special thanks to Bibi Schwithal.
Editor’s note: we also made a video about the question of Black Pete, you can watch it here: Global reactions to Black Pete: Not So Black and White
Disclaimer: Statements expressed on this website are not official statements of EIUC or EMA. They are written under the responsibilities of the individual author