Since the 1800s, every Christmas, Zwarte Piets (Black Petes)—depicted by white Dutch people in blackface—parade through cities and towns throughout the Netherlands. Last week, the European Parliament debated whether the Zwarte Piet tradition promotes racist stereotypes. Mitchell Esajas, chairman of the New Urban Collective, a network of youth from diverse cultural backgrounds, spoke at the debate and offers his insight into the issue.
This article was first published on the website of Open Society Foundation.
The criticism of Zwarte Piet voiced at last week’s European Parliament debate has been met with a strong backlash from people defending the tradition. Why is this event so divisive?
I think one of the reasons is that Dutch people have an image of being tolerant and progressive on civil rights. When you look at their liberal policies—people can smoke weed, things like that—that’s the self-image they have. And this image is set in our educational system and in the media.
But at the same time, you have to look at the Dutch colonial past, the role the Dutch played in this system from the 16th to the 19th centuries. There’s ahistorical context to Zwarte Piet. The colonial past still affects our present.
But if the Netherlands is so progressive, why are so many Dutch people seemingly not bothered by Zwarte Piet?
There’s a cognitive dissonance to it, and I think that’s the reason the defense of Zwarte Piet has been so aggressive. They see it as a tradition in a society that has changed, a society they now see as tolerant and liberal. But this is not just about a tradition. This is about raising awareness and knowledge about our colonial past and how it influences our current structural inequality.
Critics of Zwarte Piet see the tradition as an example of both racism and Afrophobia. What’s the difference between those two things?
The big difference is that racism is a structural part of a society. It’s the way people behave and act reproduced through institutions and systems and structures. Afrophobia is more about the irrational fears that people have about Afro-European or black people. It’s more of a psychological phenomenon.
What impact do you hope the Zwarte Piet debate will have on racism and Afrophobia in the Netherlands?
I think it has already had an impact. There’s a national debate going on and everyone is talking about it. Racism used to be a taboo subject in Holland. If you talked about it you’d be censored immediately. People would say, “Oh, that only happens in America or South Africa.” But now people are talking about it. It has created a space for dialogue.
What would you say to people who fear that losing the Zwarte Piet tradition means losing a piece of their cultural identity?
All traditions change across time. Losing it doesn’t mean their identity would be destroyed. In fact, I think it would be an enrichment for our culture and our nation.