Beyond Black Pete: Racial Discourse in the Netherlands

https://www.flickr.com/photos/kshathriya/4315825162/in/photolist-7znJsE-346jj-fevNnE-brvMnf-xf9UrA-bdS3Xk-75MTNs-aH44R4-7AHVMf-wChPfE-pKU6eJ-rHQuf2-a2oSvC-xurQvs-wzKzcm-xxnaTT-wzTTJp-3kfHGZ-wzSW1k-rZSnQh-bdS4UB-wzTW7a-xwLqVF-xf9TJG-wzTVMx-xfgmgP-xwL6tp-xf9Uum-wzKwo5-xf9R9G-xxn9uk-xfg4pc-xf9RdQ-xfgkG2-4RVrwT-ayAitc-6WtUpj-xvWZu1-69hAv-wzKgBG-xvW2m9-xf9U39-xf9CNG-xvWH5Y-i8gp8D-s1wDAU-pD1Lo4-47fcb5-8iaHzK-xvWGUh

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

Yeva Swart
About Yeva Swart 1 Article
From the Netherlands. Yeva studied history at Leiden University and the University of Michigan. She is interested in decolonisation and counter hegemonic globalisation.

3 Comments

  1. Yeva, I wondered, do adults tell the “Black Pete has a black face because of the carbon black of the chimney” -story to Dutch children?

    In Belgium, we also celebrate Sinterklaas and Black Pete on the 6th of December. Here, Black Pete brings the presents by crawling through the chimney. The story that is told to the children is that the carbon black of the chimney gives him his black face. One of the ‘huge questions’ in my early childhood was in fact : “What would be the real skin colour of Black Pete?”. To me, he could be black, white, purple, orange, … I also never perceived Black Pete as being a slave or less worthy than Sinterklaas. On the contrary, I considered him as the best friend of Sinterklaas, funny and impulsive. This is at least how he is portrayed in Belgium (other Belgians, please intervene if you have another opinion). This may be the reason why the whole Black Pete discussion felt very strange to me in the beginning. I had many conversations about it with my friends who have a dark skin colour and grew up in Belgium. They shared my feelings about it and never perceived Black Pete as a racist figure because of the above mentioned reasons.

    Of course, as an adult, I can see the colonialist elements in his appearance. I totally agree with the fact that we could adapt certain things to avoid any racist connotation. His face could be made less black or even get another color, we could remove the earrings and the red lipstick and so on. However, to me, this discussion shows how people all over the world can judge a cultural practice without knowing the exact context, which is very confrontational to experience.

    • hi! Thank you very much for your reply! I tried to give you my thoughts on the things you mentioned that I’ve learned over the last few years from others far smarter and critical than me. If I missed something or if I’m unclear in any part I hope you will let me know. (Sorry for the length 😉 )
      Yes, this is also among the more popular stories in the Netherlands and the one I was raised with. I don’t think at any point in my childhood I associated it with black people consciously. However, I do not think this removes its racist nature. I’ll elaborate! 

      Now that I’m older I think the chimney story is complete nonsense, for if that were the case how come his face is completely black (unlike the chimney sweepers in Mary Poppins for example), has afro hair, red lips and golden earrings (also his clothes are completely clean, but that can be explained with a lot of fantasy I suppose)?

      I think the chimney explanation shows us how we’ve found ways to justify this figure to ourselves. It’s a way to hide the truth for ourselves (unconsciously), “he’s black because of the chimney soot.” (and thus isn’t a racist stereotype). Telling ourselves this (and believing it) is the only way we can ‘accept’ his appearance. If we had directly associated it with racism many of us would never have wanted to be apart of it, would we (or our parents for that matter)?
      So I don’t think many of us do this consciously and therefore never realise that it rationally doesn’t add up. Or at least, I hope so. 

What I think is happening here is that we believe this is the truth because our parents taught us so and they learned if from theirs. We don’t think about it twice. However, when you critically analyse Black Pete it becomes clear he is not in any way black from soot.
      In other words, our perception doesn’t equal what is really going.
      This is a good thing too, because this ‘distancing’ means that you didn’t have the intention to participate in something racist, because you never connected the two. However it also has very negative implications, because it makes one unwilling to look past what we’ve learned as children and have believed for so long. We refuse see what is really going on, acknowledge it and stop it.
      
It might hard to come to terms with this because we have been lying to ourselves and it doesn’t justify it in any way, but it’s in this realisation that we can say, ‘You know what, I see now, yes, this character comes from our colonial past/represents a racist stereotype/is blackface even though I was taught differently and we need to do something about it now.’

      
Another example is the song ‘Daar wordt aan de deur geklopt’. For those who don’t know, in the song Black Pete says “want al ben ik zwart als roet, ‘k meen het toch goed.” (= ‘even though I’m black like soot, I mean it well’). One might think without critically analysing it that this is a reference to the chimney story again. However, I believe it’s directly implying that Black Pete says, “even though I’m dark skinned, I’m a good person.” I don’t think I’m taking it too far here, after all he doesn’t say, “I’m black from soot.”


      (side note, nederland wordt beter has a great project on perceptions of Black Pete where they don’t force children to copy their opinion, but have created an educational program where they try to let them come to their own conclusion and critically analyse what they believe is true or not: http://www.nrc.nl/handelsblad/2015/10/28/hoe-denk-jij-dat-het-komt-dat-piet-zwart-is-1549497 http://www.nrc.nl/next/2015/10/28/les-over-zwarte-piet-er-is-geen-goed-antwoord-1552467)

      
I wish there was more research on this, but I’ve read and heard many times from black people that they’ve been compared to Black Pete by white people, which is extremely hurtful and racist. At the moment I can best recall as an example a clip from Sesamstraat where this was mentioned by Gerda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3s1RcSK3sg
      
It has also been shown that racial stereotypes (e.g. the depiction of Black Pete as idiotic) have negative physiological affects on children of colour.
      (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jIDwVrzRc3iWVyxJc0R5xvElKoAUsijhZfp-Gy5o1-w/mobilebasic?pli=1)
      
I mention this because even if we do not in this moment or have not in the past perceived Black Pete as racism, doesn’t mean he isn’t. Nor does it mean that fellow white people haven’t had that association and thus for example made jokes towards people of colour about it (also an awful act of racism), making clear they directly connect Black Pete to being black because of his skin color. And lastly, we as children might have thought differently, it is quite likely children of colour perceive it very negatively. Our experiences are deeply influenced by the fact that we are white and we shouldn’t forget that or think our experiences represent that of others.

      

You mention your friends. I of course don’t know them and since I’m white I can’t really comment on it. All I can say is that opinions are diverse among the entire population and a lack of education making us unaware of Black Pete’s origin and implications influences all of us. I’ll just leave this link because they answer this question more appropriately than I could do: 
http://nederlandwordtbeter.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/De-meest-gebruikte-argumenten-voor-Zwarte-Piet.pdf



      But let’s continue to perceiving Black Pete as a positive figure and not as a slave, I think many share your experience, then again, I know many who were very scared of him when they were young so that doesn’t go for everyone. I always thought he was a bit foolish. In other words, experiences differentiate as they always do, right?

      
The perception of Black Pete as bad vs good has changed over time (after all he was originally the one who would put you in his sack and/or punish you if you had been bad). As I mentioned in my blogpost, I think the positive emotions associated with Black Pete is one of the reasons it’s making people so emotional and simultaneously makes it difficult for them to accept why this is racism. I’ve heard many times that ‘but we don’t see him as a bad guy or a slave, he’s Sinterklaas’ friend, surely that’s not offensive.’
      Agreed, but it isn’t that simple I think. Let’s look at two aspects of this.

      Obviously he’s not depicted as a slave, I mean that would definitely be something. I like to think even the most radical pro-Piet people would probably be against that. I hope so at least, maybe I’m naive.
      However, he might be a good friend of Sinterklaas, Sinterklaas is his boss and Black Pete is not hierarchically equal to him.
      His historical origin is debated. He was most likely introduced Jan Schenkman’s book, Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht. (Saint Nicolas and his servant, so yes, he was a servant back then). Historically he carries (too) many similarities with black child slaves that acted as servants for the elite: http://www.volkskrant.nl/leven/geen-twijfel-zwarte-piet-stamt-af-van-kindslaven~a3531694/
      
I’m not an expert in Black Pete’s history, I haven’t read enough, but I think it’s safe to say that even if you argue he might not be a slave in the original Sinterklaas tradition (for me the connections are really clear here… I don’t think we can deny slavery and Black Pete are deeply intertwined. How do you feel about that?), he’s still subordinate to Sinterklaas.
      Not to mention that he is a figure originating from a time that saw black people as less that white people and this continues today.
      I think it’s important to critically think about where he came from. Even if it’s different than our own perception for the very same reason I described above in my ‘soot’ response. I’ll move on, as the historical origin is another debate.

      + For me his idiotic, funny and clownish behaviour also implies he’s less intelligent than Sinterklaas, who is the wise generous holy man who leads them (overemphasising here to show you what I mean).

      

I wanted to add this as a sidenote, not directed towards your experience at all, but as something to think about. I find one very limited set of (positive) characteristics of someone also a form stereotyping. He’s a clown (he has one job, like head pete, or horse pete), he acts foolishly etc. I mean, for a children’s party it makes sense that he is funny and clownish, but in combination with the way he looks this is very problematic. No to mention it reminds me too much of other ‘traditions’ of blackface where we see the same ‘behaviour’. (US being the most famous ).
      Secondly, a positive stereotype can do as much harm as bad ones can, the same goes for romantization/fetishization (another topic sorry), it is a form of dehumanisation because you don’t see people as individuals, as themselves, anymore.

      http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2015/07/20/424640508/the-negative-in-positive-stereotypes
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/oliver-burkemans-blog/2012/dec/12/stereotypes-bad-even-when-good

      Again I would mind his behaviour less if he was indeed a chimney sweeper in its origin, but he isn’t and never was. This in combination with how he currently looks just further points out its racist character to me.

      Yes, I agree! It does show that people all over the world can judge a cultural practice without knowing the exact context, but with what practice or tradition hasn’t that happened (first thing that comes to mind: bull fighting)? Although I much prefer doing a critical analysis and develop my knowledge before judging a topic, I think the issue with Black Pete is that people think of blackface immediately. Especially for Americans, who are often more knowledgeable of its history than we are, this is extremely offensive and they will naturally judge quickly. I can’t blame them to be honest, I would too.
      Many won’t know the importance of the celebration nor the context or history of Black Pete (neither do many of the Dutch and Flemish though… which is why I believe the lack of education or one-sided historical education plays such an important influential role here), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing always. When racism, sexism, ableism etc. is involved I believe the international community should disapprove ( like the UN did with the Netherlands and Black Pete) or at a minimum show their interest and ask for an explanation.
      There are also people who do no know Black Pete and do not associate it with racism (see the video posed here on the blog).
      But more importantly, the criticism has come from within, it started in Amsterdam and only lately has gotten more attention from outside. At the end of the day it’s our tradition and our responsibility. And I definitely think we agree on the core of the discussion, we need to adapt Black Pete as a step in the right direction.

      To conclude, I think that it’s good that you (and I and others) do not associate Black Pete with black people, but in many ways that makes us blind to what Black Pete is and where it comes from and that is very harmful. This is what I meant in my blog (partially) that there are things we do not perceive as racist, doesn’t mean it’s not racist. An essential way of realising this and recognising it in society is by listening to experiences of people of colour. And lastly a general note, for me pro-Piet arguments create a danger of prioritising one’s own emotions over those who do say it is racist and are hurt by it.

  2. “This also means that if you don’t personally associate or recognise something as racism, it doesn’t mean it’s not racist”

    I was like oh yesss! I read it so excited and thinking this covert racism is the same one that says “I don’t see color” or “I voted for Obama I’m not racist.”

    I’m glad you opened it up to be able to have a discussion about it. I feel that people are either too racist to even try to have one, or too done with the issue (some activists) to even shed light to people who really want to understand. Sometimes I’m in this group, who am I kidding that’s me: “I’m not your teacher.”

    But, your essay made me reflect on my behavior. It was a great, easy reading. Thank you!

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