‘Zwarte Piet’ and Dutch racism

‘Zwarte Piet’ and Dutch racism


Written by: Chandra Frank and Serginho Roosblad

More and more voices are speaking out against the annual spectacle of blackface ‘St Nicholas helpers’.

We have written before about the Dutch blackface tradition of Sinterklaas’ (St Nicholas’) ‘helper’ Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). This year, though, the debate about Zwarte Piet — dressed in a golliwog-style wig, pronounced red lips and gold earrings — has reached new levels, confronting in the process the racism in Dutch society that many have tried for years to address.

Death threats against anti-racists

In September, anti-racist and black activists pressured the Amsterdam municipality to hold a public hearing into whether to give permission for Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) festivities in which Zwarte Piet would be prominent. (The public hearing was a success, although the municipality eventually did grant the permit.) Then Verene Shepherd, chairperson of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, told a TV programme that ‘she would object to the character of Zwarte Piet if she lived in the Netherlands’, provoking a racist backlash against her. Nearly 2 million people ‘liked’ a Facebook page supporting Zwarte Piet, racist remarks in traditional and on social media were common and, as CNN reports, death threats were made against anti-Zwarte Piet activists.

Dutch and some international media have created the impression that there is a vigorous debate on Zwarte Piet and racism in the Netherlands. This is simply not true; the ‘debate’ has been hijacked by white Dutch intellectuals who downplay the racist nature of Zwarte Piet, arguing that he is an archetype not related to slavery. In the process they overlook how Zwarte Piet is embedded in the racist colonial legacy of the Netherlands. (There are exceptions in the media, with mostly non-Dutch media critically unpacking Dutch race relations. See, for example, the recent reporting by the New York Times and the BBC.) Some Dutch people defend Zwarte Piet on the grounds that it is not racist, but understand that some black people might feel offended. Yet what they fail to grasp is that it is not about feelings, but institutional: that the Netherlands upholds, celebrates and exploits a racist caricature, something that should concern every Dutch citizen.

‘Innocent fun’ and ‘reverse racism’

Discourses of ‘race’ and ‘racism’ rarely enter debate and discussion. Racism is seen as too strong a concept to use, sullying a celebration associated with a children’s party and a national holiday (see the reaction of a grown man in blackface telling the BBC reporter, at the link above, how he’s only trying to make children happy). Another frequently used argument by the pro-Zwarte Piet camp is that people should be looking at ‘real racism’ rather than interfering with a longstanding innocent festivity for children. In doing so, the perceived innocent experience of children is understood as neutral while the experience of black people is infantilised and dismissed. To oppose Zwarte Piet signifies an inability to become really ‘Dutch’. Imagined tolerance is used as an excuse to utter personal racist attacks and to uphold a superior position towards black citizens. If you can’t adapt, leave and go back to Africa or the Caribbean, they shout. ‘Reverse racism’ charges by white Dutch people are common, with some even filing complaints at anti-discrimination bureaux arguing that ‘others’ want to take away their national blackface hero.

Criticism of institutional racism

Yet no less an authority than the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) of the Council of Europe has expressed itself clearly on how racism is woven into the fabric of Dutch society. ECRI details how:

… certain politicians and media often portray Islam and Muslims, as well as the arrival of Eastern Europeans, as a threat to Dutch society… There is no national inclusion strategy for Roma. Bills with discriminatory implications have been announced to regulate the settlement in the Netherlands of Dutch citizens from parts of the Antilles. The integration tests have several questionable aspects.

The Commission was explicit about how Dutch law fails to attack racism and racial discrimination:

…The acts listed in the criminal law provisions against racism and racial discrimination are not prohibited on grounds of citizenship and language. There is no provision explicitly establishing racist motivation as a specific aggravating circumstance in sentencing. There is concern over the interpretation given to the provisions prohibiting racist insults and incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence, particularly when applied in the context of political discourse. The authorities have cut the funds of the Complaints Bureau for Discrimination, which receives complaints about racist offences committed through the Internet.

The report also calls upon all political parties to take a firm stand against racism.

So far politicians have dismissed the ECRI report and brushed off arguments against Zwarte Piet. Prime minister Mark Rutte’s response was that Zwarte Piet ‘just happens to be black’ and that he could do nothing about it. Eberhard van der Laan, the mayor of Amsterdam, responded to the complaints made at the public hearing via a public letter saying he would not call the festivities racist and that an inclusive festivity would be good to strive for in the next five to ten years. Van der Laan aligned himself with Hoofdpiet Erik van Muiswinkel (in effect the national chief of the Zwarte Pieten), who wrote that Zwarte Piet must of course stay but must become ‘less black’ and be less of a servant.

Needless to say, such responses of politicians are offensive and degrading. Sinterklaas is now protected by nine armed police officers dressed as Zwarte Piet to protect him from those who supposedly mean him harm. It doesn’t seem to matter that it is opponents of Zwarte Piet who have been targeted with abuse and death threats, not its supporters.

Critical voices

Critical voices, such as Egbert Alejandro Martina and Zinhi Özdil, who have offered insights on Zwarte Piet and Dutch racism, have been swiftly marginalised as Allochtone Twitter Intellectuelen (Allochthonous Twitter Intellectuals) merely concerned over futile issues. ‘Allochtoon’, whose literal meaning is ‘other tone’, is used to describe black and non-western Dutch citizens, residents and immigrants, indicating racial hierarchies in the society.

In response to the racist backlash and the threats against black and critical voices, some activists, including Martina and Özdil, have circulated a public statement which explains and links Zwarte Piet to anti-black racism and other forms of dehumanisation that are taking place in the Netherlands.


View the statement of solidarity here

This is a modified version of an article which first appeared as ‘File under Dutch liberalism’ on Africaisacountry.com.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

2 thoughts on “‘Zwarte Piet’ and Dutch racism

  1. “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” I wouldn’t go so far about this text, but of course it is to be expected that the institute of race relations takes a radical stance on zwarte piet. It is true that some of the reactions of people who are pro-zwarte piet have been racist. That is the good part of the analysis. In order to write something decent about this issue one has to understand both sides, not just bash one side. What means Sinterklaas for dutch people? It is connected to their identity. It is part of being dutch. Criticizing the way it is celebrated, especially from people from outside is like telling people in the usa it is not allowed to celebrate Christmas with green Christmas trees anymore. It just does not have the same feeling and it is part of how it was always celebrated. It is not so strange that there are objections towards the critique on zwarte piet. A neutral position would be: there are two sides and both have polarised. The text above suggests that zwarte pieten do not need protection, only the criticizers do, but this is not true. There is no good side and bad side, there are just two sides, having their own arguments about history and present. The institute of race relations should know that not everyone who says: it is racism is always right. If you want to prove you are right, you should start with a neutral position and explore the pros and cons, not just cherry pick the arguments that suit you.

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