Date: December 12th 2014
A Dutch children’s holiday, institutional racism and emancipation are related to each other through ‘Black Pete’, a figure in one of the most important Dutch holidays called ‘Sinterklaas’. The figure is loved by many Dutch people but has become increasingly controversial due to its racist characteristics. Since 2013, Black Pete has become the subject of a national debate exposing the Dutch’s struggle to acknowledge their colonial past and its present legacy.
What Is ‘Black Pete’?
Every 5 December, the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas, a celebration rooted in Middle Age folklore. According to legend, Saint Nicholas travels from Spain to the Netherlands every year on his steamboat to reward the children who have behaved well with presents and punish those who have misbehaved. The old, wise and kind white saint, dressed in his red and white robe and cloak, moves from chimney to chimney on his loyal white horse to distribute presents and delicacies to the well behaved children. The saint, however, does not have to do all of this work by himself. He is accompanied by an army of helpers, the ‘Black Petes’ [Zwarte Pieten], a crew of clownish and acrobatic figures dressed in Moorish page suits, who supposedly have become black because they climb through the chimneys at night secretly giving out the presents while the children sleep.
When Myth and Reality Meet
The controversy begins where myth and reality meet. A few weeks before the actual holiday, Sinterklaas and his Black Petes are welcomed by a national fanfare and parade. Dutch children and parents prepare for this event for weeks through games and assignments in schools, children’s TV shows and shops filled with Sinterklaas and Black Pete imagery. The Black Petes, however, are played by White people who paint their faces black, wear Afro wigs and golden ‘creole’ earrings, and thicken their lips with red lipstick. Indeed, these are White people dressing up in blackface, who play their role as the subservient, unintelligent, childish and clownish caricatures, helping the old, wise and kind white Saint carry out his work. For the majority of Dutch people, this ‘innocent children’s holiday’ is a period of pleasure and bonding between friends and family, as the tradition involves writing and exchanging poems, giving and receiving gifts and spending time with loved ones. To others, especially Black people, however, Black Pete reflects a painful colonial history during which White men who considered themselves superior subjugated, dehumanised and enslaved Black people who they deemed inferior. Critics of this Dutch tradition are met with verbal and, in some cases, even physical aggression by its staunch defenders. As a result, the controversy surrounding the Dutch tradition has sparked activism and a national debate about the Dutch colonial legacy, identity, citizenship and institutional racism.
An Invented Tradition Rooted in Racism
Although the Sinterklaas tradition is rooted in Middle Age European history, the Black Pete figure appeared for the first time in the mid 19th century (Smith, 2014). Research has shown that the Black Pete figure was introduced by Jan Schenkman who wrote the popular children’s book Sinterklaas en Zijn Knecht (1848) [‘Saint Nicholas and his servant’], in which the Saint travelled from Spain to the Netherlands on a steamboat accompanied by Black servants. As the Black Pete figure became more popular and prominent in the tradition, its appearance evolved throughout time. It was introduced at a time when racialised images of Black people were produced as part of a larger narrative involving racial hierarchies and a global colonial/racial formation (Grosfoguel, 1999). At the time the Black Pete figure was produced, the Netherlands was a global colonial power involved in slavery and the slave trade for more than 200 years. From the late 16th century to the abolition of slavery in 1863, the Dutch had traded 554,000 African men, women and children across the Atlantic and enslaved millions more (Hira and Small, 2014). To justify the enslavement of African people, 20th century racist ideologies encouraged colonial expansion and segregation. During this period biological racism was the dominant discourse justifying the ‘Other’ as genetically inferior beings. This dominant discourse was adopted by Western natural/social scientists and philosophers such as David Hume, who wrote: “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation” (In Garrett, 2000).
This hegemonic discourse of biological racism was translated into stereotypical representations of Black people as stupid, ugly, childlike, primitively impulsive, and genetically closer to apes than people. On the other hand, White people were represented as good looking, trustworthy and civilised, ruled by reason and intelligence. These racial ideologies and stereotypes about Black people were materialised, visualised and communicated to the general population through myths, folklore and (children’s) books. The books White about Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Popular Western Culture by Jan Nederveen Pieterse (2009) and Black: The Image of Black People in the Dutch Illustration Art 1880 – 1980 by Jeroen Kapelle and Dirk J. Tang (2008) show how the visual images and stereotypes about Black people in Western art and popular culture developed over time and were rooted in Eurocentric racist thought. Stereotypical images of Black people were popularised through minstrel shows in the US and Europe, in which White people dressed up in blackface to entertain White audiences through stereotypes of Black people as “happy-go lucky, dancing, singing, joking buffoons” (Dormon in Brienen, 2014: 185). These blackface traditions reinforced notions of Black inferiority, inhumanity and White supremacy. As Otoo (2012: 62) stated: “it was designed for and by white people to reinforce the message: ‘they’ are not like ‘us’”. Blackface became a popular expression of this dominant discussion about biological racism (Brienen, 2014: 185). In the UK, Golliwog, an old black ‘nigger’ doll, became a popular image; in Germany blackface traditions arose in the East German film industry to entertain predominantly White audiences. The development and popularisation of the Black Pete figure, which has similar characteristics to other racist characterisations of Black people, cannot be divorced from this historical and cultural context.
The most common argument given by the Dutch to defend their tradition is to say “it’s just an innocent children’s holiday”. Indeed, the Dutch believe in their own innocence and good will. Furthermore, the tradition is deemed as one of the most popular aspects of Dutch culture and identity, an essential tradition to be or become Dutch. Ethnologist Helsloot (2012) stated: “every Dutch child is socialised into the ritual, at home and in schools, producing a strong emotional attachment that continues to hold sway in later life”. In the recently publicised collection of critical essays and articles Dutch Racism (2014), Essed and Hoving state that Dutch Racism can be characterised by a claim to innocence, a sense of moral superiority and a strong sense of entitlement. Despite a long history of slavery and colonialism, the Dutch have constructed a self-image of “being a tolerant, small and just ethical nation and that foregrounds being a victim rather than a perpetrator of international violence” (Wekker in Essed and Hovinga, 2014: 21). The Dutch have created a historically inaccurate self-image and pride themselves on being a centre of commerce, science and art during the ‘Golden Age’ from the 16th to 17th century while denying, downplaying or misrepresenting their participation in the African slave trade, colonial wars in Indonesia and oppression of colonised people. The former Prime Minister Balkenende passionately urged Dutch citizens to be proud of their culture and history by taking up the good old Dutch East India Company (VOC) mentality – but the Dutch multinational VOC was involved in the colonisation of parts of Asia and the transatlantic slave trade.
This statement by a prominent political leader of the country does not come as a surprise when one takes into account how Dutch identity, history and culture are shaped through the education system. In a study on school textbooks, Weiner (2013) showed how the Dutch involvement in slavery and colonialism is either ignored or diluted to fit the dominant narrative that Dutch experienced slavery and includes sentences such as “the Dutch had a very hard time on the plantations”. This narrative constructs a Dutch national identity based on Whiteness, innocence and ‘being good’, making it hard to have a meaningful discussion about racism, the legacy of slavery and colonialism in the Netherlands. Ignorance prevails in discussions about the shared history of White Dutch people and Dutch people of African descent. In March 2014, the current Prime Minister Rutte caused more controversy after making the following comment when confronted with a question about Black Pete at the Nuclear Security Summit:
It is an old Dutch children’s tradition, Saint Nicholas and Black Pete. It is not about a green or brown Pete and I cannot change that. I can only say that my friends in the Netherlands Antilles are very happy with the Saint Nicolas celebration, because they don’t have to paint their faces. When I play Black Pete, I am for days trying to get the grime off my face. (Daily Herald, 2014)
Black Protest Meets White Denial and Aggression
Ever since Black people have been in the Netherlands, there has been protest against the racist element of the national tradition Sinterklaas. Protesters and accusations of racism, however, are met with aggression and denial as the Dutch tend to associate racism with overt racism such as Jim Crow in the US, Apartheid in South Africa and Nazism. Racism is something the Dutch don’t do, as it opposes the national image and culture of ‘innocence’, tolerance and liberalism. The majority of White people and mass media continue to dismiss protesters against the blackface tradition as being ‘oversensitive’, ‘whining’ and ‘trapped in the past’. In many cases the protesters are confronted with aggressive counter reactions, ignored or ridiculed. Denying the existence of race and racism reflects the ‘politics of colour blindness’ and dismisses people of colour’s feelings and perspective while claiming the authority to decide whether Black Pete is racist or not. It reflects the unequal balance of power embedded in the structure of Dutch society and White privilege.
Since the 1960s, progressive White people contested the blackface caricature Black Pete via relatively small scale protests. These protests intensified in the 1970s and 1980s when a large number of African Carribean people migrated from former colonies, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles, to ‘the motherland’. In the 1960s, M.C. Grunbauer proposed a ‘White Pete plan’ and in the 1980s an organisation of Surinamese migrants set up the campaign “White claus and Black Pete? This is no party! Stop racism, Stop Sinterklaas Blanke baas [Santa Claus, white boss]. In the 1990s, Surinamese youth from Amsterdam Southeast created the action committee Zwarte Piet = Zwart Verdriet [Black Pete = Black grief] (Hoving, Dibbits and Schrover, 2005). Several schools in the predominantly Black neighbourhood of Amsterdam Southeast introduced ‘Coloured Petes’ as an alternative to the Black Petes and in 1993 the city of Amsterdam experimented with ‘Coloured Petes’ at the official Sinterklaas parade of the city. The latter were met with aggression and dismissal by the majority of White people and the changes were quickly cancelled as a result.
The impact of these protests remained relatively small and local. A change took place in October 2011. Two Black artists – Quinsy Gario and Kno’ledge Cesare – attended the official Sinterklaas festivities in the city of Dordrecht, which were broadcast on national television. About 60,000 people were expected and more than 1.8 million viewed it on television. They were engaged in an art project which aimed to foster dialogue about issues of racism related to the figure Black Pete by spray painting t-shirts with the slogan ‘Zwarte Piet Is Racisme’ [Black Pete is racism] on it. They visited festivals and events to spray paint and sell the t-shirt, engaged in dialogue with thousands of people and photographed them for the website zwartepietisracisme.tumblr.com. To foster dialogue, the two artists went to the festivities accompanied by a Danish student wearing their ‘Zwarte Piet Is Racisme’ t-shirts. When they wanted to put up a banner with the slogan, the police forbid their plans as ‘demonstrations’ were not allowed that day. The artists agreed and silently stood at the side of the parade wearing their t-shirts when a few policemen subsequently arrested them using violence and force, dragging Quinsy Gario into an alley while he was screaming “but I haven’t done anything!”. The police force was filmed by a bystander; the video was uploaded on Youtube and went viral immediately. The artists were fined and set free after a few hours in custody, but they refused to pay. On the following day, a few other Black people such as artist-activists Kunta Richo and Miss Kitty voiced their concerns by spraying their t-shirts with the slogan ‘Zwarte Piet Is Racisme’ at the festivities in the city centre of Amsterdam and were arrested as well. These incidents were but merely two-well known examples of aggression and deep-rooted racism when people protest and voice their views on this ‘Dutch tradition’. In August 2008, two artists from the van Abbe Art Museum in the Netherlands aimed to organise a ‘performance’ protest march to “voice critique against Black Pete” as part of a long-term project called “Read the masks. Tradition is not given”. The management of the museum had to cancel the activity because of violent threats received by email and public opinion condemned them after the media took notice of the event. It must be noted that these events were not picked up by the mainstream media initially but social media reactions indicated that the majority of Dutch people approved the police actions and aggressive reactions towards protesting people (NRC, 2008).
Since the arrest of Quinsy Gario and Kno’ledge Cesare the debate and protest increased, especially via social media. The anti-Black Pete movement, however, rose in prominence in 2013 after 21 people, including Quinsy Gario and other activists, intellectuals and youth from different socio-cultural backgrounds filed a lawsuit against the city of Amsterdam for facilitating activities with ‘racist’ elements, as the Dutch capital organises an annual Sinterklaas parade attracting thousands of children and parents. The lawsuit was picked up by mainstream media, who used to ignore the controversial subject. The media attention reaching the masses of people via television, newspapers and social media sparked a massive wave of aggressive, racist and xenophobic reactions on social media towards Quinsy and anti-Black Pete protesters. The debate became more controversial when Verene Sheperd, a Jamaican academic advising the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as part of the Working Group for People of African Descent, announced that they would instigate an investigation into the ‘tradition’ and urged the Dutch government to “end the racist tradition” because it “reminded Black people of the horrible history of slavery”:
The working party cannot understand why the Dutch cannot see that [the Zwarte Piet character] is a return to slavery and that this festival must stop in the 21st century (…) If I, as a black person, were to live in the Netherlands, I would have objections. (Higgins, 2013)
Her remarks were picked up by international media and created so much fury that a group of Dutch people organised a pro-Pete demonstration, set up a pro-Pete petition and Facebook page called Pietitie which reached the mark of 2 million likes within a few days and threatened the UN adviser with violent and racist reactions (Cendrowicz, 2013). The anti-Black Pete movement gained momentum as it sparked a heated national debate about racism, identity and citizenship in the Netherlands, issues which had been ignored and denied for a long time in the country of ‘innocence and tolerance’.
New Forms of Racism and the Continuation of Blackfacing
Because of the Dutch self-image of ‘innocence’, critical self-reflection and debate about racism has been a taboo for a long time, but the dominant discourse seems to be changing. Grosfoguel (1999) argued that the dominant discourse of biological racism was delegitimised after the Nazi occupation in Europe during World War II and the US Civil Rights Movement. It changed into a new form of racism which he calls “cultural racism”, a form of racism in which the word race is not even used because it is seen as a thing of the past. Instead, the discourse is centred on ethnic minorities which are viewed as essentially different and mutually exclusive from the dominant culture. The public discourse on ethnic minorities focuses on their social challenges and inability to integrate into Dutch society because of their ‘culture’. The inferior status of ethnic minority cultures is seen as linked to criminality, their labour market position and social welfare dependency, which is viewed as a consequence of their cultural values, habits and behaviours. This narrative implies the cultural superiority of dominant Dutch culture. Explicit forms of racism are generally no longer accepted but classified as extreme right.
In contrast to the Netherlands, people of colour’s anti-racist movements in other parts of the world supported by White allies gained power and changed the public discourse, politics and policies. They managed to banish overt forms of racism such as the Jim Crow segregation in the US, racial discrimination in the labour market in the United Kingdom, the Apartheid system in South Africa and explicit forms of racial discrimination including racial stereotypes such as the minstrel shows and the Golliwog. In contrast to the US and the UK, the Netherlands never had a mass movement of Black people/people of colour who collectively challenged the dominant narrative and confronted the Dutch with their colonial history and its current legacy. The Dutch have never been forced to engage in critical self-reflection about racism in their own country which is why the self-image of ‘innocence’ has prevailed and a racist caricature is still deemed ‘innocent and playful’, while it is seen as offensive, politically, socially and morally wrong in other countries. Although they differ in context, similar blackface caricatures, rooted in the same racist and colonial ideologies, are also still present in other European countries such as Germany, where blackface is regularly used in theatre shows, where a popular TV-show host invited an entire audience to dress up in blackface and most recently German soccer fans attended FIFA World Cup games in Brazil in blackface (Golgowski, 2014). In Sweden, the Minister of Culture sparked controversy by eating a ‘blackface cake’, and in France a group of police officers stirred debate after organising a ‘blackface party’ (Willsher, 2014).
Scratching Beyond the Surface, Hiding Behind the Blackface Mask
The national debate around Black Pete has polarised people for or against maintaining the tradition; common ground seems hard to find. Just as masks and blackened faces serve to hide people’s true faces to take on a mythical identity, the Black Pete seems to hide the Dutch people’s ambivalent relation with their colonial history, slavery and its legacy. When we look beyond the surface of the Black Pete debate, it exposes institutional racism and structural inequality in Dutch society, rooted in 400 years of colonial cultural production. From primary school to higher education, Black and minority children are faced with structural obstacles such as low expectations of teachers based on stereotypical images and prejudice, resulting in lower rates of attendance in higher education. Black and minority people are faced with the same stereotypes and prejudice in the labour market, fostering discrimination and resulting in an unemployment rate of 28.4% among migrant youths, which is three times higher compared with native Dutch youths, of which only 9.8% are unemployed. The European Commission against Racism and Tolerance, a human rights body of the Council of Europe, concluded that the Netherlands needs to better address its issues of racism in a report published in 2013. Research by Amnesty International, published in 2013 as well, showed how Black and minority youth are more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police due to ethnic profiling. In daily life, Black and ethnic minority people have to constantly deal with micro aggressions: “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” (Wing Sue, 2010)
In 2014 the New Urban Collective launched the campaign “I, Too, Am VU / UvA” at the VU University and University of Amsterdam, which aimed to foster institutional change and dialogue about issues of diversity, exclusion, institutional racism and micro aggressions both on the campus and in Dutch society. The photo campaign consists of examples (personal experiences) of micro aggressions which Black and other minority students have experienced on and off campus. The photo campaign of more than 50 students and graduates sparked a debate that went beyond the surface. The campaign included examples of students who were called the N-word, who were being excluded and ‘Othered’ through language and denigrating yet well intentioned questions such as “But, where are you really from?” and questioned because they criticised the national Black Pete tradition. My own example of a micro aggression reflected the Dutch problem with racism, the self-image of ‘innocence’ and Black Pete. After I questioned the caricature in a discussion with fellow Anthropology Master’s students at the university, one of them responded:
In my opinion Zwarte Piet has always been the one who went through the chimney to provide good children with presents, so not in any way anything bad. The child’s innocence is destroyed by emphasising the racism debate – something which is in my opinion not very wise to do because the concept of race has been rejected for a long time in the Dutch scholarly society, and unfortunately when applicable used in debates. I think that you know, as well as I, that race is not the right word here to use; if you want to talk about something the concept of discrimination would suffice better. (…)
Her friend, another fellow classmate got emotional and responded:
(…) And besides that, nobody is forcing you to celebrate it. It is a part of Dutch culture however, so you can accept that and shut up, or keep whining about it and move. (Discussion in Anthropology Facebook group on 5 December 2012)
Everyday Racism Behind Blackface
The protest against Black Pete is more than a protest against a ‘racist caricature’ and ‘innocent children’s holiday’. The protest essentially is a symbolic struggle against structural inequality, micro aggressions, racism and discrimination which have been normalised in daily routines, dominant discourse and traditions, but also structures such as the labour market and the education system. In her work on everyday racism in the Netherlands Philomena Essed (1991: 295) wrote:
Once we recognise the fact that racism is systematically integrated into meanings and routine practices by which social relations are reproduced, it follows that it is not specific agents but the very fabric of the social system that must be problematised. This requires that we reformulate the problem of racism as an everyday problem. The analysis of everyday racism makes clear that racism must be combated through culture as well as through other structural relations of the system. Racism not only operates through culture, it is also the expression of structural conflict. Individuals are actors in a power structure. Power can be used to reproduce racism, but it can also be used to combat racism.
When we think about Black Pete we therefore have to analyse the social system and the structural relations in society behind the blackened face. The protest against Black Pete is an expression of structural conflict in which individuals and organisations use their power to combat racism. The anti-black Pete protests in recent years have sparked activism and protest amongst ordinary people, students, young professionals, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who have become fed up with daily micro aggressions and everyday racism. In 2013 hundreds of people, especially Black people and people of African descent, were united in a common goal: to get rid of Black Pete, a symbol of everyday racism. Although the protests were initiated by individuals such as Quinsy Gario, Kno’ledge Cesare, Kunta Rincho, Miss Kitty and Anousha Nzume, in addition to relatively small networks and anti-racist organisations, their impact has been significant. In 2013 we observed how the Black Pete debate exposed latent racism and xenophobia in Dutch society and the dominant discourse changed.
Unfinished Emancipation and Decolonisation of Minds
Equally important, the anti-Black Pete actions seem to have started a movement and continued the process of emancipation of Black people in the Netherlands. As Nimako and Willemsen (2011) stated in the seminal book The Dutch Atlantic: Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, the legal abolition of slavery on 1 July 1863 was “piecemeal and incremental” and maintained “long-entrenched racialised and gendered systems of inequality and political power”. Indeed, “emancipation was unfinished”. Today the legacy of slavery still exists as the African diaspora and people of colour continue to face issues of identity and culture, institutional racism and structural inequality in education, the labour market, ethnic profiling and other forms of racism.
As argued before, the Sinterklaas tradition is considered an essential aspect of Dutch identity and culture based on a national identity that values Whiteness, overt or covert feelings of superiority, ‘innocence’ and ‘being good’. People, especially Black and ethnic minority people, protesting against the national tradition are seen as ‘Others’ who “want to take away our Dutch tradition” and “need to go back to where they came from”. The Black Pete debate seems to reflect issues of citizenship and identity for people from the African diaspora as well. While the debate sparks intense reactions and the xenophobic ‘Othering’ of Black Dutch people, it is a way of claiming citizenship by actively participating in Dutch society in hopes of true equality and emancipation. As Steve Biko stated: “the most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” (Mungazi, 1996). Besides physical, economic and political domination, an essential aspect of slavery was the mental colonisation of African-descended people. In Decolonising the mind: The Case of the Netherlands, decolonial scholar Sandew Hira described how mechanisms of colonising and decolonising the mind work. These mechanisms include “the concept of inferiority of the non-western culture and the superiority of western culture linked to colour” and “the concept of self-humiliation of the coloured people and self-glorification of the white people”. According to Hira (2007), the Sinterklaas celebration is an example of the conceptual inferiority of non-Western culture and the superiority of Western culture linked to colour, which is more specifically reflected in one of the Sinterklaas children’s songs with lyrics like: “even though I am black as coal, my intentions are good” (Hira, 2007: 63). He states: “decolonising the mind means analyzing the mechanisms that have been used to imprint this concept in our mind and finding ways to remove it from our consciousness” (Hira, 2007: 63). The fight against Black Pete reflects the process of emancipation through decolonisation of the mind. By asserting their agency, challenging dominant discourse/ institutions and demanding change, Black people continue the process of emancipation and decolonisation. As political leader, entrepreneur and major proponent of Pan Africanism Marcus Garvey wrote:
We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind; use your intelligence to work out the real things of life. The time you waste in levity, in non-essentials, if you use it properly you will be able to guarantee to your posterity a condition better than you inherited from your forefathers.
Black community organisations, cultural and activist groups have been active in remembering the history of slavery and its legacy through local events, festivals, official commemorations culminating in the realisation of the National Slavery Monument in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam, the Keti Koti festival and other forms of self-organisation and commemoration. These activities were spearheaded by a relatively small group of activists and community leaders. The Black Pete debate, however, seems to have sparked the mobilisation of a large number of people (young, old, Black, White and of colour) to protest against this symbol of everyday racism. As Malcolm X stated: “usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change” (Malcolm X, 1965). For a long time, the majority of Black people and people of colour did not actively voice their concerns out of fear, hopelessness and complacency but this seems to have changed. After the violent arrests of Quinsy and Kno’ledge and the legal action of 2013, more and more people (Black, of colour and White Dutch) are engaged in forms of protests via social media, demonstrations, writing articles and debating at home, at work and on the streets. International media such as BBC, Al Jazeera and The Huffington Post and institutions such as the United Nations have paid attention to the case, scrutinising the international reputation of the Netherlands as a ‘tolerant’ and ‘progressive’ country. The anti-Black Pete movement gained momentum and changed the dominant discourse. According to the post-colonial theory of Gilroy, White people need to go through a process to recognise and deal with their own racism. It starts with denial and continues with phases of guilt, shame, recognition and finally reparation. The typical responses around Black Pete start with denial through to aggression and dismissal. Increasingly, however, reflections of guilt, shame and recognition can be observed. Whereas issues of racism, discrimination and especially protest against Black Pete were a taboo, minor changes are becoming visible as an increasing number of people are challenging the dominant discourse. More and more ‘ordinary people’ (concerned mothers, fathers, children, White people, famous Dutch people and a few politicians) are speaking out against Black Pete. Authorities have showed willingness to change the tradition but they are confronted with resistance from the Dutch majority. In an attempt to foster national dialogue and appease critics, the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage presented what they viewed as an “alternative inoffensive Black Pete”. The ‘inoffensive’ Black Pete, however, caused more controversy as it provided little change and still included blackface (Jabbar, 2014).
The Clash of Tradition and Fundamental Rights
In July 2014, the court of Amsterdam ruled that Black Pete, indeed, is a negative stereotype of Black people and led to an intrusion of the private lives of the plaintiffs, based on statistical information, a statement from the Dutch Institute of Human Rights and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The court ordered the municipality to re-examine its decision to grant a permit to the Saint Nicholas festivities but the Mayor of Amsterdam van der Laan and an organisation of Black Pete performers decided to lodge an appeal against the ruling.
On 12 November 2014, the Council of State, the highest administrative court in the Netherlands, overturned the lower court’s decision stating that the mayor is not authorised to judge the content of festivities in the process of granting a permit. According to the Council, the mayor is only obliged to judge whether public order and safety are at stake, not if stigmatisation, unequal treatment and discrimination may occur. The ruling of the Council of State was disappointing as it reflected the bias of the Council to rule in favour of the Dutch State and fuelled more activism among the anti-Black Pete protestors.
On 15 November 2014, more than 80 people protesting against the controversial Dutch blackface tradition were arrested at the national Saint Nicolas Parade. The mayor of Gouda, Milo Shoemaker, had forbidden opponents to express their opinion on the market square of Gouda where the festivities would take place. Instead, he assigned a space for them to demonstrate outside the city centre, far from the festivities. The protesters ignored the mayor’s decision, demanding their fundamental right to freedom of expression, and organised a non-violent and silent protest. They went to the parade and stood in a human chain wearing t-shirts, sweat-shirts and a banner stating Zwarte Piet Niet [No to Black Pete] and Zwarte Is Racisme. It was a peaceful protest until a group of extreme right youth started to pull one of the banners away. The scuffle lasted a minute and the police took them away. After a short while the police closed the demonstrators in and arrested all of them.
The Ombudsman recently ruled that the police acted unlawfully and infringed fundamental human rights, including freedom of speech, when Kno’ledge and Quinsy were violently arrested during the Saint Nicholas festivities of 2011. This weekend Kno’ledge was arrested again and this time more than 80 people joined him. They were released after a few hours of imprisonment and announced that they would continue to demonstrate until Black Pete becomes history. The 2014 protests highlight the fact that Dutch institutions continue to struggle with the legacy of the country’s colonial past by maintaining the controversial tradition and disregarding the hurt caused to millions of Dutch citizens and residents of African descent. Tradition and fundamental rights will continue to clash as long as politicians and institutions do not take leadership to face the Dutch society’s problem with racism and discrimination.
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Mitchell Esajas studied Social and Cultural Anthropology and Business Administration, he is co-founder and chairman of the New Urban Collective, a network of students and young professionals with the mission to empower youths from diverse cultural backgrounds and contribute to a more just and equal society with a special interest in youth of African descent and black youth. NUC is member of the Decoloniality Network, the European Network Against Racism and active in the anti-Black Pete movement by raising awareness, producing decolonial knowledge and mobilising youths in pursuit of emancipation, freedom and equality.