Sex, Drugs, and…Blackface?

How the US antiracism movement is challenging the meaning of tolerance in the Netherlands

Think of the Netherlands and you probably conjure up images of tulips, windmills, and bicycles, the exciting Red Light District and countless sex shops and haze-filled “coffeeshops” — all symbols of a what’s universally considered a progressive, open-minded, and tolerant culture.

Some lesser-known imagery, though, is that of “Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. He’s the popular holiday character represented each year by thousands of white folks in blackface, with dark afro-style wigs and exaggerated red-painted lips. While most modern Americans would be baffled by the sight, the Dutch have defended this tradition vehemently for generations, declaring it’s not racist, just a bit fun for the kids.

For Netherlanders, Black Pete is at once a national treasure, a holiday hero, a symbol of white supremacy, and a polarizing source of pain and contention. But now, thanks to pressure from the current antiracism movement, this hurtful holiday tradition might finally be getting a makeover.

It’s difficult to fathom how this small but mighty darling of the EU — the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage — can be so out of touch with what the rest of the Western world deems as racism.

As an American expat living in Amsterdam, I’ve been surprised at how my own ideas of racial equality are viewed as overly sensitive and unwelcome. I learned quickly of the prevailing belief that American sensitivity and political correctness are to blame for creating a perception of racism where it didn’t previously exist.

This so-called, “imported racism,” with which the US had been credited, is certainly laughable, but less so is the new wave of anti-racism, which is proving meaningful in bringing awareness to long-overlooked racial discrimination in the Netherlands.

Many Dutch reject the recent insinuations of societal or systemic racism, which has led to increased and heated debate across the country. And of course, no conversation about race in the Netherlands is complete without a discussion of Black Pete.

The Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet tradition

Every November, large crowds turn out to watch the arrival of Sinterklaas (a Dutch version of Santa or Saint Nicholas) on a boat with his posse of black “servants,” the Black Petes. The characters are agile and clownish, as they prance around throwing candy to children. They speak broken Dutch with a bad accent and do the bidding of their white master, Sinterklaas, the stoic hero complete with a white horse. They’re known for being mischievous, dimwitted, and childlike, in a portrayal that resembles prominent colonial-era stereotypes.

Black Pete wears a gaudy costume, dressed like a performer from an American minstrel show, which toured around Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Of course, these derogatory blackface shows went out of style in the US as the civil rights movement progressed.

Frederick Douglas described blackface performers as “the filthy scum of white society,” in the North Star newspaper. The performers, he said, “have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature…to pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”

Since its inception in minstrel performances, blackface has proven mean-spirited, dehumanizing, and pro-white supremacy. Every year in the Netherlands, the streets, television, and schools are filled with this imagery.

Black Pete’s controversial origins

The history of Black Pete is cloudy. Sinterklaas, or his antecedent, Saint Nicholas, can be traced back as far as the middle ages, but the origins of his helper vary from source to source.

The earliest evidence of Black Pete is found in an 1850’s children’s book, written by Amsterdam school teacher, Jan Schenkman. In the book, Black Pete, referred to only as “the servant,” is the dark-skinned person who helps Sinterklaas deliver presents to nice children and punish those who have been naughty — he either tosses them treats or stuffs them into his burlap sack to take them away to Spain.

Black Pete is believed to be a gentler adaptation of other frightening Saint Nick accomplices like Krampus or Belsnickle, who were meant to terrify children into behaving. These legendary companions were birthed from the lore of the chained black demon who was tamed and enslaved by Saint Nicholas to help with his holiday dirty work.

Historians suggest that this demon was revamped in the Netherlands as a black slave, bearing the likeness of a Moor, in the early nineteenth century. As one children’s song goes, “Piet zijn knecht zo zwart als roet, met een ketting aan zijn voet,” meaning, “Pete his servant black as soot, with a cuff around his foot.”

Despite the convincing historical connection to slavery, many modern Black Pete supporters claim that he is simply black and his history innocent/irrelevant. Others say that he is only black from going down the chimney (which cannot explain his curly hair, red lips, hoop earrings, and every inch of deep brown skin).

In a 2017 Dutch poll regarding whether people perceive Black Pete as a racist character (only 12% did), one defender of the tradition said, “It is a children’s party and not a racist party. Black Pete is black with soot, nothing more nothing less.” On the less popular side of the argument, one poll responder said, “Black Pete is still really portrayed as a not too smart helper of the Saint. The story about soot and chimneys no longer counts at all. They are just black slaves, just as was the case with the real Saint Nicholas.”

Overdue progress

In the largest global protest in history, the anti-police brutality and Black Lives Matter demonstrations have shown more than solidarity with the US as each country’s own racial injustices have been brought to the foreground. In the Netherlands, the protests have drawn overdue attention to a broad range of racial concerns, and most loudly, Black Pete.

In a surprising response to the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests, for the first time, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte admitted there is institutional racism in the Netherlands, and mentioned he had changed his opinion of Black Pete. He said he realized that children were feeling discriminated against during the holiday festivities, saying, “that’s the last thing we want during Sinterklaas.”

Up until this point, Rutte had always taken the stance that it was a harmless tradition and, “Black Pete is simply black.” He himself has dressed up as Black Pete in the past. Rutte is apprehensive to fully admit there are racist undertones to the Black Pete character, only that some black people are hurt by it, and that’s not a good vibe for a holiday party.

Rutte made it clear that there are no plans for policy changes, sympathizing equally with the pro-Black Pete camp, saying, “There are people who say, ‘I don’t want — while I’m not totally discriminatory or racist — to be forced to let go of that symbol, which I have never seen as a discriminatory symbol.’” He doesn’t think the government should intervene because the discussion is “so nuanced.”

Less nuanced, perhaps, are some of the louder voices in favor of keeping Black Pete. The black leader of the campaign, “Kick Out Zwarte Piet,” routinely receives hate mail and death threats, with a recent letter saying, “…we will have fun slaughtering you, your family, and extended family,” and, “won’t wait for Sinterklaas.” Rutte says he imagines these issues will resolve themselves over time.

Outside intervention

From an American lens, the response to racial disparities in the Netherlands has been awkwardly behind the times. In an open letter sent on June 10th, America’s own Jesse Jackson called on Rutte to end this “hurtful tradition.” He writes, “I trust that with your moral leadership, the good people of the Netherlands will respond positively to ban the offensive and racist Black Pete, for good.” He says that the unrest that’s happening in the US proves it’s naive to think that racial issues will simply disappear over time.

He’s right, of course. There’s evidence of deep-seated systemic and cultural racism throughout the Netherlands, but because Black Pete is such a dominant and polarizing topic, conversations about racial inequality tend to stop there. In the Netherlands, a country known for being culturally accepting and tolerant, many customs and institutions clearly marginalize people of color.

Why is this happening in the Netherlands?

The Dutch are clearly not bad people who are trying to do harm, and thinking so would only cause more division and misunderstanding. So how is a modern, seemingly progressive country like the Netherlands so clearly out of touch with what we see as basic racial equality?

Philomena Essed, the author of Dutch Racism, writes that it’s helpful to compare the Netherlands to the US in matters of racial discrimination, saying, “Even while racism remains insidious and widespread in the US, there is a general sense that people should not get away with it. The Netherlands, in contrast, has remained stagnant and generally accepting in the face of racism.”

The Black Pete defenders aren’t convinced that the opposition is correct in its claims of racism because they don’t believe that they, or the people they love and respect, are racist. To attach the simple joy and pleasure that’s associated with the holiday with the word “racism” is jarring, and the reaction is defensiveness — defense of tradition and of a proud cultural reputation.

The reputation for tolerance, a hallmark of Dutch culture, seems to serve as a get-out-of-jail-free card for racial discrimination. But tolerance, of course, isn’t equivalent to respect and equality, and the idea that it inherently exists creates an unwillingness to see the racial biases that exist throughout society.

Both Essed and Gloria Wekker, author of White Innocence, write about how the Dutch sense of self, marked by innocence, tolerance, and high moral standards, leaves no room for self-examination, leading to a fierce denial of colonial violence and racial discrimination. Wekker shows the dedicated support for Black Pete as an example of how this racial exceptionalism safeguards white privilege and argues that over 400 years of colonialism and imperialism have left an imprint on the “cultural archive.” She writes,

“It encapsulates a dominant way in which the Dutch think of themselves, as being a small, but just, ethical nation; colour-blind, thus free of racism; as being inherently on the moral and ethical high ground, thus a guiding light to other folks and nations. Notwithstanding the many, daily protestations in a Dutch context that “we” are innocent, racially speaking; that racism is a feature found in the US and South Africa, not the Netherlands; that, by definition, racism is located in working-class circles, not among “our kind of middle-class people”; much remains hidden under the univocally and the pure strength of will defending innocence. I am led to suspect bad faith; innocence is not as innocent as it appears to be.”

There’s a common mentality in the Netherlands of being “post-race” or “color blind,” as if the Dutch heritage includes immunity to racial bias. Even with the most glaring example of racism, Black Pete, whose roots are clearly linked to slavery and colonialism, few, if any, supporters will acknowledge the significance of the connection.

Marc Giling, spokesperson for the Sint en Pietengilde (a site dedicated to preserving the tradition) believes that the Black Pete discussion is getting carried away with the current antiracism movement, saying, “We support these demonstrations, but Zwarte Piet has nothing to do with racism.” Black Pete advocates believe that if the character is not intended to be racist, he can’t possibly be.

This defense aligns with the common misconception that if people love Black Pete, they can’t possibly be racist against black people. They’ve grown up adoring the jovial, candy-tossing character, and they don’t see how his skin color is relevant.

Untold history

There is a general sense in the country that the history of the Netherlands doesn’t include racism, likely because similar to the US (but even more so), they’ve received only a whitewashed version of it.

The Dutch history taught today most widely involves stories of the extravagant Golden Age, Nazi resistance during WWII, and progressive international trade. But take one look behind the prosperous Dutch economy and you’ll find a history of racial oppression and brutal colonialism. Playing a primary role in the transatlantic slave trade, the Netherlands gained its wealth by selling and trading enslaved people, and using them to work in Dutch colonies.

In a country that was one of the last to abolish slavery, in 1863, it would be ignorant to presume that all traces of discrimination have simply vanished. This distortion of history has created an environment where people feel justified in claims of post-racism, not recognizing how deeply rooted ideals of white superiority are throughout society.

Black Pete flaunts hundreds of years of suffering, serving as an annual reminder of a history of black people being put in positions of inferiority. The tradition brings with it an intrinsic understanding of white supremacy because it was instilled in times when that was the socially accepted attitude. This bit of history, and the significance behind it, seems to escape Black Pete supporters, who tirelessly deny racism to preserve a party — a party that knowingly that hurts people and reinforces negative stereotypes.

Time for change

Reverberations from the upheaval in the US have been felt across the world, bringing much-needed attention to racial disparities in the Netherlands. The pressure to eliminate blackface and address systemic racism is stronger than ever.

At the second antiracism demonstration in Amsterdam on June 10th, Mitchell Esajas, co-founder of the Black Archives, addressed the crowd, saying, “Never before have so many people taken to the streets in the Netherlands to make a stand against racism,” he said. “We are writing history.” Later, the crowd chanted, “down with Zwarte Piet!”

With over 20 Black Pete protests planned for this November, there’s a good chance Black Pete’s blackface days may be numbered. Last month, two Dutch cities, Arnhem and Nijmegen, decided to ban blackface at future Sinterklaas parties, and several cities are no longer hosting the arrival of the Sinterklaas boat.

In a recent study conducted by a Dutch news source, EenVandaag, 32% of white people said they become more aware of their own behavior through the recent protests against racism in the Netherlands. The same report, which has been assessing support for Black Pete since 2013, when controversy around the character sparked, also shows that support for Black Pete has dropped from 89% (in 2013) to 47% (in June 2020).

There’s still an incredible amount of work ahead to dismantle the many forms of systemic racism that are hidden in plain sight, and the Netherlands has a lot of catching up to do. Now, though, there’s a sense that the country may be moving, albeit kicking and screaming, in the right direction.

Freelance writer, Amsterdam expat. Twitter: @brinandrews

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