[Content warning for very racist images, links to videos of police brutality and depictions of State endorsed racism]
Ah, my home, The Netherlands. Tourists from all over the world wax lyrical about the tulips, the windmills and the widely available weed. What these tourists hardly ever get to see is how institutionalized racism works in this country and the lengths the State will go to in order to protect it. Or how, if you are personally affected by this racism and you summon the strength to protest it, you will be brutally beaten up and arrested.
Now, here is the thing: this is a small country. All matters of racism happen here but they go unreported in international mainstream media because the Dutch language is mostly inaccessible to the world at large. So, these matters remain untold, underreported, downplayed or just ignored. However, international media loves to talk about our most famous homegrown xenophobe: Geert Wilders. His influence is far reaching and international. His words repeated all over the international press; he gets invitations for public engagements and speeches; fellow populist and xenophobe politicians from all over Europe and places as dissimilar as the US, Canada or Australia cite him as a source of “inspiration”. Meanwhile, the general public abroad struggles to come up with an explanation of why, a country that is present in popular imaginations as “tolerant”, “multicultural” and “modern” could be represented by such a divisive and racist force. That is, because systematically, mainstream media misses the context. And I believe that the events that transpired on Saturday, during the official opening of what I like to call “Black Face season”, can provide some of that context.
“Black Face season” is not exactly the official name for what, in reality, is a children’s holiday known as Sinterklass. This is the time of the year when Dutch people carelessly don black face and speak in a faux Surinamese accents. This is the time of the year when, if you venture the streets, you are likely to encounter sights like these:
[Image description: a group of eight White adults wearing multi-color satin and velvet costumes that imitate those of Colonial times. All people in the photo wear Afro wigs and make-up commonly known as “Black Face”]
Or like this:
[Image description: two White women walk down a street while wearing a satin costume in orange and purple colors, Afro wigs and make-up commonly known as “Black face”]
The above, for those not familiar with our local “traditions”, are popularly known as “Black Pete”, or “Zwarte Piet” in Dutch. These “colorful” characters are the helpers of Sinterklaas, or more formally Sint Nicolaas/ Sint Nikolaas or Saint Nicolas in French. Sinterklaas is a children’s Winter holiday celebrated every year in The Netherlands, Belgium and some cities in the North of France. According to tradition, the Saint arrives to The Netherlands a few weeks prior to the celebration, in a boat, carrying the gifts he will deliver to children. The “Black Petes” are his helpers and they carry candy and control children’s behavior (children who misbehave supposedly get no presents from the Saint). Again, according to “tradition”, these helpers are Moors, or North African slaves. This “tradition” has evolved throughout the years, partially due to increasing protests from groups that find these depictions offensive. Nowadays, it is claimed that the Black face is due to the fact that the helpers have gone through chimneys and as a result, their faces are covered in soot. What again, nobody can clearly explain, is what kind of soot leaves such a uniform and evenly spread residue. Or worse, why these “chimney dwellers” speak in a fake accent that parodies the Black population of the Dutch former colony of Suriname.
Over the years, a small but growing group of people have been protesting this celebration of Black face costumes and ridiculing of minorities. Systematically, these protests have been met with a very strong and stubborn resistance from a majority of White Dutch who refuse to even consider the racist implications of this “tradition”. Those who are against the Black Pete depictions are consistently told that there is nothing offensive in it, that the tradition is not up for debate, that they are being oversensitive and that, and here comes the usual xenophobic retort, “if they don’t like it, they should go and live some place else”. Additionally, people who speak against this are also told that they are importing North American models of “political correctness” that have no place in Dutch society. Moreover, the supporters of these Black face depictions are adamant that there is nothing, absolutely nothing racist in Black Pete’s representations and that claiming otherwise is the result of a cultural imperialism brought upon by North American influences. According to supporters, Dutch culture is so different from that of the US and the context so incomparable that such discussion should not even take place. Any attempt at contextualizing the role of the Dutch in slavery in the Americas and how the continuation of these racist practices owes everything to the mindset that made such trade possible is met with protestations and the statement that “only Americans see offense in Black face, we, the Dutch, are obviously different and not racist in our traditions”. In sum, what they claim is that the rights of White people to don Black face are more or less sacrosanct and native Dutch children have a right to the continuation of this “tradition” undisputed.
And because I promised context, here’s what the Black face apologists will never tell you or admit, not even to themselves: the real, harmful consequences of the perpetuation of this racist stereotypes. In The Netherlands, where a significant portion of the White native population demands the freedom to be racist, under 25 years old Moroccan youth (not faux Moors like the Black Pete “legend” claims) face an unemployment rate of 28%; and under 25 year old Surinamese youth (the ones who do not speak with a faux Suriname accent during a children holiday, but the all too real citizens of the former Dutch colony), face an unemployment rate of 27%. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for White, Dutch, under 25 years old natives is at a meager 6.9%, the lowest in the European Union. And I would love for anyone to tell me that there is no correlation between racist media depictions and people’s real lives.
Earlier this year, a group of Dutch people from the former and present Dutch colonies (Curacao, Suriname, Aruba, etc.), started a campaign under the banner “Zwarte Piet is racism”. They invited people to submit a photograph of themselves wearing a stenciled t-shirt, making a statement against this racist practice. Some local celebrities like Greg Shapiro (from the legendary comedy group Boom Chicago) have lend their support to the campaign. Moreover, in June this year I was at one of the final performances of the Broadway musical Fela! (one of the main guests at the prestigious Holland Festival) and some of the members of the cast, at the end of the show, held a sign that read “Zwarte Piet is racism”. Unsurprisingly, local media remained moot and this went unreported.
All of the above is just a mere introduction for the events that transpired this Saturday, 12th November. This weekend marked the arrival of the Sinterklaas boat with the little “slave helpers” wearing the usual Black face. The event is a yearly spectacle that attracts significant crowds. Parents bring children to the port and they watch actors disembark with horses and parcels carrying the gifts that will be handed over to children later on in December. This is an event that more or less kick starts the pre-Christmas holiday season and to say that it is massive would be an understatement. Not only is the event broadcasted in national TV, but it is also reported in news channels, newspapers, magazines and major websites. Every year, the “official” arrival takes place at a different Dutch city. This year was the turn of Dordrecht, a city in the province of South Holland . The usual pomp and circumstance surrounded the event, which would have been as inane as it usually is, had it not been for a small group of people who decided to take a stand against the practice of Black face. This group of activists, mostly Black local youth, (Dutch media cannot agree on the exact number, some say five or six, others say a dozen or so), wore the stenciled T-Shirt with the words “Zwarte Piet is racism” and stood by the side of the road while the parade passed by. According to reports, they also yelled “Zwarte Piet is racism” when the Black Petes were walking in their vicinity. This was met with disgust by the Dutch in attendance who complained that they were “ruining” the celebration. Police were summoned. The State called upon to protect the right of the Dutch to continue being racist.
What happened afterwards will turn your stomach. Police demanded the activists to disband and stop protesting. They were told this was a children’s event and that children had the right to celebrate the holiday without disturbances. Two men and two women were arrested (link goes to news report in Dutch) when they stated that they also had the right to protest practices that actively harm them. They were told, in no uncertain terms, that they had no right to be there. One of the men resisted. He yelled that it was his right to protest. This video here, caught by a bystander, shows what happened to this protester. He was dragged outside the Parade, brutally beaten, thrown into the ground, dragged some more. In the video, you can see this young Black man, wearing a t-shirt that states “Zwarte Piet is racism”, subject to State violence in order to protect a Dutch tradition that is clearly not open for debate. The right of the White majority to wear Black face every year should be protected through whatever means necessary, even at the expense of those who are harmed by it.
Earlier this year, in a highly publicized trial, Geert Wilders was acquitted of inciting hatred through Hate Speech. Dutch courts stated that his speech is denigrating but not hateful. Prosecutors were asking for a sentence that contemplated the possibility of jail time. Wilders has used coarse and xenophobic language against immigrants and minorities in this country. His party is funded on the premise that those of us who hail from nations classified as Non Western have no place in this society. He actively promotes laws and initiatives to further alienate and isolate immigrants. And yet, his words were deemed non hateful and, as such, not deserving of a sentence or even one day in jail, protected by free speech laws. A young Black man protests racist stereotypes that actively hurt him, he protests a tradition that further promotes his isolation and his status as “Other” and he is brutally beaten and dragged through the ground, arrested. He is told he has no right to protest, no right to raise his voice. Obviously, the protections afforded by free speech are only available to those that the State deems to be free to begin with. The largely unacknowledged responsibility of the Dutch State in the transatlantic slave trade, practically absent from school history books, means that some people, still to this day, continue to be bound by chains that prevent them from exercising the same rights freely afforded to Gert Wilders. Because above all, the Dutch State has made it clear that it will protect the right of White Dutch people to be racist without consequences.
Edited to add: Yesterday, Sunday 13th November, the Sinterklaas Parade also took place in Amsterdam. Five people carrying flyers stating “Zwarte Piet is racism” stood by the Parade route, in the Leidseplein attempting to distribute the flyers. In order to avoid direct confrontation, they didn’t wear the stenciled T-shirts. All five were also arrested for “provocation” and told they had no right to disturb an event aimed at Dutch children. (Link goes to report in Dutch)
Edited November 19th: Heidi Sincuba, a writer and artist, has a great post with background on the people who got arrested and the activism behind the resistance to this “tradition”.