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If you protest racism during Black Face season in The Netherlands, you will be beaten up and arrested

[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”]

Photo via

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”]

Photo via

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”.


  1. Dikke wrote:

    I think what people fail to grasp is that it is possible for NL to be one of the least racist countries in Europe, and still be quite racist. For example, the communities the media labels as ‘dangerous’ or ‘not integrated’. I’ve got a friend (my former Dutch tutor, actually) who lives in the Slotervaart area, (which I think is part of the New West,) and it is nothing like it is portrayed in the media, (i.e. it is not at all ‘dangerous’ in the way that I, a USian, would understand it.) So while immigrants are painted as dangerous, I have never heard him or his acquaintances say a bad word about NL or Dutch people, (though I have heard them say what seemed a few negative things about Moroccans- they are Turkish, so I guess there’s some animosity between the countries- I didn’t bother asking with my limited Dutch knowledge because I may have been misinterpreting.)
    Point being, it seems everything I read in the media about the relationship of immigrants and Dutch people completely flies in the face of what I experience when I go back there. (Although I really only spend time in Amsterdam and Zwolle, and certainly Amsterdam is more liberal than other places.)

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Permalink
  2. Heh, I live in New West. Dutch media (and many Dutch people actually) refer to our part of the city as “the ghetto”. I absolutely love it here and you are quite right, it is nothing like media makes it up to be.

    As for being the least racist country, nah. Every European country has unaddressed racism. As I said, part of it comes from a reluctance to see it as a far reaching issue rather than an individual act. All of Europe has a long way to go in that regard.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  3. k wrote:

    Thank you, Flavia.

    The casual racist exoticism of this tradition is absolutely awful.

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 3:17 am | Permalink
  4. Brandon wrote:

    I just wanted to chime in with my support of this post and its author. I recently relocated to the Netherlands from the US and was rather shocked when I learned about the legend/traditions surrounding Sinterklaas and his “helpers.”
    As hard as it might be for many Dutch people, who grew up with Zwarte Piet, to see him as anything other than a beloved, holiday icon, it boggles my mind that they can’t quite process how offensive the character is to expats and locals of African descent. It’s the equivalent of people getting dressed up as Nazis and parading through the streets. Imagine how well that might go over in Amsterdam.

    The time has come (actually, it came a LONG time ago) for Zwarte Piet to become just plain ol’ Piet. Why is the black makeup even necessary? Keep the silly costumes and the hats, just ditch the blackface. This is a simple, straight-forward solution that would likely put an end to this tense debate.

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  5. Chantal wrote:

    @Dikke: “What do you make of the fact that many of the people defending Zwarte Piet claimed to be Surinamse or from the Bijlmermeer?”

    One of the reasons is also the whole “integratie” (integration) policy the NL has. No one dares to speak up because the consequences of that could be that an employer, co-workers, friends or family can accuse you of not being well “integrated”. So they defend all things dutch even at the expense of their own feelings.
    Being well integrated is about the biggest compliment a dutch person can make to a non dutch. Mind you non dutch also means non white caus you can be born and bred in NL and people will still make remarks like:”wat ben je goed geïntegreerd” (you are so well integrated) The saddest part is they have no idea that this is a rude and racist thing to do and will actually be overly offended if you point that out to them.

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  6. E.A. Martina wrote:

    To add to your point Chantal; there’s not a Black consciousness movement to speak of in the Netherlands. The mere fact that Dutch people of colour are so fragmented as a group says a lot. On top of that we as a group have little knowledge of our history; perhaps, because we are so eager to come across as well integrated we spent too much time focusing on assimilation instead of decolonisation.

    I’ve always spoken my mind even though most of the time it didn’t go down well. I’ve noticed that are only certain levels of “Blackness” that are acceptable in Dutch culture. Whenever I express my love for Black cultural expressions, people of colour, or take pride in my heritage, I’m accused of “being too Black” or “shoving my Blackness in people’s faces.” Same goes for when I point out racist elements in Dutch culture. When I look at the representations of Black people on Dutch TV I can only surmise that we are only afforded certain roles: comedian, musician, or athlete.

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  7. Mark wrote:

    This was a nice read Flavia; well thought out and put down. I have lived in this country for 3years now. In my first year here I was witness to this ‘celebration’ and though alarm bells were ringing in my head about the racist connotations, I tried to give the benefit of the doubt to the dubious explanations that were given to me about the holiday. However as time has passed and seeing the vehemence with which this tradition is defended by Dutch people, I have had more and more doubts about these. I’m happy that someone has voiced their misgivings with which I really agree with.

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  8. Millie wrote:

    Amazing article. Articulates the hypocrisy of the dutch and the problems of race in Holland. One of the reasons why dealing with it is problematic in Holland is because of the overwhelming denial and arrogance of the Dutch. I left Holland at 21 because I knew as a person of colour in Holland, my prospects of attaining my dream were low. I have been away for 6 years now and have no plans of ever coming back. I do however applaud your voice in this fight! Right on!

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  9. andrea dun wrote:

    Thank you for this article! I have been fighting with my Dutch family for 17 years and they don’t get it. We have to fight this because its emblematic of our society here. To think this is not racism is very sick! With you!!!

    Friday, November 18, 2011 at 3:22 am | Permalink
  10. Maikel wrote:

    Great article. It shows exactly what is going on. I always ask them if it would be seen as provocative to stick a pamflet with a swastika right outside a synagogue and explaining it as a symbol of the sun. Most will say no.. well can you imagine this is provocative to me?!! If all men are equal I am equal to a Jew and should be treated the same as a Jew.

    Friday, November 18, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  11. Chantal wrote:

    I am not sure where your roots lay but the “problem” with the black community in the Netherlands is that we all have different roots (Surinamese, Dutch Antilles, Afrika (different countries)Jamaica etc) All of these groups speak different languages and have different cultures.

    I guess in a country like e.g. America where the descendants of african slaves all speak the same language (english) it is easier to form a coallition and teach black history.
    The history is the same.

    It is more complex here in the netherlands where the descendants of slaves were dropped on different islands and different countries. Not everyone speaks the same language nor do we share the (exact)same history.

    Also the netherlands practiced a divide and conquer regime and played out different groups against each other. Stereotyping each group carefully so that the next black (or ethnic) group will not become to close to them. To this day we can see the divide and conquer politics. Right now it is the whole “war on islam” before it was Antillian youth, before that Maroccans and before the Surinamese. I might not make myself the most popular girl in the class for saying this but it is how it is and people should realize this instead of fearing one another based on what media shoves in our faces.

    It is only now with “zwarte piet is racisme” that we (african slave descendants)all have a common ground. The common ground is a black young man being dragged over the streets by policeofficers stripped of all rights according to the dutch constitution. This makes his roots irrelevant. In Suriname we have a saying: Wan ogri tjari wan bun” translation: a bad thing brought forth good.

    Friday, November 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  12. Chantal wrote:

    @Maikel I know quite a few people that do not place a swastika above their front door when culturally it is a sign of good luck and protection. No one had to protest against it they just do this out of respect for the sensitivity of this symbol regarding WWII

    Friday, November 18, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  13. Heidi wrote:

    Great Article. So glad there are so many people taking action. Check out my article:

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 1:38 am | Permalink
  14. Heidi, thank you so much for sharing a link to your post. I really appreciate the background you provide and the activist history behind what happened. I added a link to it in the main post as well.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink
  15. Finally, someone who tells it like it is. Kudos to you, Flavia for illuminating the issue so eloquently. It’s my 2nd year as an expat in Amsterdam…my first thought last year when the holiday rolled around was, “You could NEVER get away with this in America!”

    Sunday, November 20, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  16. Proud Historian wrote:

    You guys are all full of shit.
    You revisionist racist pathetic bud monkeys.
    You totally bullshit about something you know nothing about and yourselves are racist, opportunistic twats taking any opportunity to bitch about Europeans, whites and The Dutch. Before you bitch about my country…


    Many apologies “Historian,” but we seem to have lost a portion of your message, including all of the parts where you prove that the tradition of “Black Pete” isn’t racist by claiming that WE are the racists, and then being really fucking racist about it. So this is Garland’s Cockatrice, telling you to fuck right off of this website forever.

    Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  17. shad wrote:

    I can confirm this, a Bro. has been beatdown and arrested, here the proof

    Monday, November 28, 2011 at 5:24 am | Permalink
  18. Val wrote:

    This has just happened in BC (Canada). In the end, the Sinterklaas event was cancelled. This was not what was asked for by those protesting the event but the event organizers (apparently) couldn’t come up with a quick fix they could live with. There are plans to work out a less(non!) racist celebration next year. Comments with the article are typically horrible.

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  19. Mabusha Masekela wrote:

    @ Flavia – I’ve just been watching a lot of 70’s, 80’s Dutch anti-apartheid footage. I’m just curious – this Sinterklaas thing has been going on during the whole anti-apartheid movement?

    Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  20. @Mabusha, oh yes, this has been going on for decades and certainly during the anti apartheid movement.

    Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink