Think of the Children

A steam ship approaches the old harbour in the city centre of a generic Dutch brick-house town lined with trees. Cameras from the national television, broadcasting live, record exhilarated crowds of parents with their young children, some with blackened faces and colourful-feathered hats. They are awaiting the arrival of some very special people. As the boat draws nearer, one can distinguish an old man with an enormous white beard dressed in a red bishop’s costume on deck, surrounded by countless figures in renaissance-style outfits in all the colours of the rainbow with their faces painted black, their lips bright red, golden rings in their ears, and frizzy black wigs. Welcome to the Netherlands, land of the annual blackface festival known as Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas
Photographer: Hans Pama

Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, is the most beloved children’s holiday of the country. Every year halfway November ‘Sint’ arrives by steamboat from Spain carrying presents and candy. With him are servants helpers: his ‘Zwarte Pieten’, or Black Petes. They assist the ancient man with the enormous logistics that come with delivering presents and candy to children’s shoes in the first few weeks, and gifts with moralist rhymes to all at the finale that is Pakjesavond.

To any foreign observer the origin of Black Pete as a nineteenth century caricature of a slave is immediately obvious. However, for most Dutch people it is extremely difficult to accept that their most joyous childhood memories consist of a bunch of grown white men in blackface. They refuse to comprehend why this could be racist. For many Dutch with a darker skin tone, however, this is the season of crude jokes at their expense and little children coming home from school crying, locking themselves up in the bathroom trying to scrub away the black.

The story we tell our children is that Black Petes get black from the soot in the chimneys they go through as they deliver the presents. However, besides common sense (are there Afro wigs in chimneys?) historical fact easily dispels this myth. Saint Nicholas’ festival has a long tradition in many parts in Europe that goes back to the Middle Ages. Often he came with a helper that was dark in one way or another. The most well known example is Krampus, the demon from Austria and Southern Germany, who eats naughty children. However, the Dutch version has over time developed a very distinct character, as the Saint’s helper grew into a caricature of a slave inspired by the tradition of the Moorish squire. In 1850 schoolteacher Jan Schenkman published a little book introducing the definite account of Black Pete’s look and introduced the concept of a national arrival by steamboat known as the Intocht.

Black Pete has since lost his switch and no longer takes naughty children to Spain in his burlap sack. Most of the time he also no longer has a Surinamese accent and he has regained some, but not all, of his intellectual capacity. However, Black Pete remains the same at heart; a mischievous multitude of meek and simple labourers for the benefit of Saint and children.

These days the Intocht has two parts. In the morning there is the national arrival, broadcast live on television, preceded and followed by weeks during which the ‘Sinterklaas Journaal’ reports on the trials and tribulations that befall the Saint and his helpers. After Sinterklaas arrives in the country in the morning, there is usually an Intocht in one’s village or town organised by a local committee in the afternoon. No one single group is in charge, although the rise of the ‘Sinterklaas Journaal’ and its story lines set the tone nowadays.

How do Dutch people justify such an obvious instance of blackface? You would be hard-pressed to find someone who admits that Black Pete is racist, and still defends the practice. Most people try to look for a way to deny that the festival has racist elements in the first place. If they admit that Black Pete may originally have been a racist caricature, they hold that these days the intention is no longer to offend. A very common defence (also heard from people who are themselves not fully white) is that a children’s festival has nothing to do with racism. Activists who want to change this practice are told they are importing adult problems into a children’s world.

Think of the children! Don’t ruin it for them. Black Pete is positive, he is a children’s friend, a nice guy. What could possibly be wrong with him?

However, this assumes that children live in some kind of magical utopia where there is no racism or internalisation of harmful stereotypes. The movement that staunchly supports an unchanged Black Pete also has strong current of the same discontent that fuels anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiments. Under pressure from globalisation and a perceived pernicious influence of the EU on national identity, a group who does not benefit from the shrinking of the world have grown more nationalist and reject any attempts by ‘foreigners’—the word often used for immigrants and their descendants—to take away ‘tradition’. The activists are portrayed as a small minority of outsiders, who want to force their view onto the native majority, who disagrees. Activists should stop whining about this innocent oer-Hollandse (arch-Hollandish) custom.

‘Think of the children!’ is uttered also by those against Black Pete. They however, mean something else by it. Many in the black Dutch community are understandably uncomfortable with the annually recurring and pervasive nature of blackface, from storefronts, to schools to the media. However, the lack of an accountable institution to whom criticism can be addressed teamed with a stifling consensus that Black Piet is “just fun”, has meant that a more activist attitude has slowly emerged. Visible protests first showed in the early eighties, shortly after many Surinamese moved to the Netherlands after Suriname, a former Dutch planters colony, gained independence in 1975.

Various groups and individuals from the Surinamese-Dutch and Afro-Antillean communities have tried to effect change in the past decades, but initially without much success. In 1997 and 2006 attempts were made at local and national level with ‘Rainbow Petes’, but the resulting backlash was so intense, that these changes were quickly reverted. Activist artists planning performance art taking the shape of a mock Intocht in 2008 backed down after death threats. Black Pete seemed to have been so firmly enshrined in Dutch national identity, that change was neigh impossible. However, these initial efforts laid the seeds for the current and much more successful attempt.

Quinsy Gario holding the ‘Black Pete is Racism’ template
Photographer: Auke Vanderhoek, 3 December 2012

In 2011 the poet and artist Quinsy Gario, who hails from the Antillean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, kicked off a performance art project that would forever change the way in which the national debate on Black Pete is conducted. On the project’s blog on Tumblr he describes how went to the poetry slam competition “U-Slam” wearing a t-shirt on which he had spray painted the phrase ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’ (Black Pete is Racism). All components had been bought from companies representing the ‘Dutch trade spirit’ (handelsgeest). When he spread a picture of himself wearing the t-shirt on Facebook, many people showed interest and in the following months he travelled to various art festivals and other events to make more shirts together with other people. Initially the project was rather low-key.

Everything changed after the national Intocht of 2011, in Dordrecht for that year. Together with fellow activist Kno’Ledge Cesare, a journalist in training and a Danish researcher of the phenomenon of Sinterklaas, Gario went to Dordrecht. He and Cesare wore the t-shirt they had produced. While they were in the back of the crowd, they were violently arrested by the police. Gario was pushed to the ground and beaten by an officer. All four of them were locked up for a while. At the same day five protestors were removed and fined by the police for instigating disorder when they handed out leaflets during the Amsterdam Intocht explaining why Black Pete was racist. Even though the Public Prosecution Service later acknowledged that the arrest of Gario, Cesare, and the other two had been in violation of their freedom of speech and the national police opened an investigation into excessive use of force, the media coverage domestically and abroad, ensured that the simmering issue of Black Pete now became a recurrent conflict-ridden feature of the onset of holiday season.

In 2013, the often ugly debate reached boiling point after activists tried to fight the permit for Amsterdam’s Intocht in court. Pro-Black Pete activists started to speak out in great numbers. When professor Verene Shepherd, who, in her position as chair of the UN OHCHR’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, announced she would do an inquiry on the matter, she was on the receiving end of anger and abuse by the pros and the tabloids. Opponents thought she was biased after in a somewhat emotional interview beforehand she already declared Black Pete racist.

Anti Zwarte Pieten

Anti-Black Pete Protest in Amsterdam
Photographer: Robby Hiel

Several hundred people demonstrated in the government seat of The Hague to show their support for Black Pete and disgust with the UN. The protest gained notoriety when a group mobbed a dark-skinned woman holding her regular one-woman protest against the Dutch abandonment of West-Papua to Indonesia, because they thought she was protesting against Black Pete. Police officers took the woman away.

The savagery of 2013 was not repeated in 2014, but the opposition was still going strong as change starts to become unavoidable. Two million people out of a population of almost seventeen million signed a Facebook petition (the ‘Pietitie’) calling for the protection of Black Pete. Doubt about the neutrality of the executive that had started with the incidents in 2011 worsened when the Prime Minister remarked that Black Pete simply was, as the name implied, black, and that the PM was envious of his Antillean friends, because they did not need to wash off make-up after playing Black Pete.

Nevertheless, this year there were modifications to the tradition after all. During the national Intocht in Gouda there were Soot, Clown, Stroopwafel and Cheese Petes alongside the regular ones, and the year’s story ended iconoclastically with Sinterklaas handing a mantle to Opa Piet (Grandpa Pete), with whom he would henceforth share some of his duties. It might seem like a shocking change from a Dutch perspective, and the final scene of Sinterklaas and Grandpa Pete riding into the distance on respectively a black and a white horse is something I myself would never have dreamt to see, but that is because the ‘solution’ found by the national scenario writers is so absurd.

Nothing substantial has been changed. The supposedly equalised Grandpa Pete is still a white man in blackface. Even the alternative Petes still wear Afro wigs and Soot Petes are merely Petes in training, who will get blacker over time. When the responsible scenario writer Ajé Boschuizen was asked in an interview with national paper NRC about the changes, he exclaimed, with the childish enthusiasm almost dripping from the lines, about Grandpa Pete that it was just like Bishop Tutu. In his eyes Black Pete has got nothing to do with blackface, since “blackface is impersonating a negro. This is something else, this is a fairy tale.” These remarks and those of the Prime Minister show a complete lack of awareness of what the problem is.

Ajé Boschuizen and the PM are part of the ‘reasonable’ majority that dominates public debate. The more extreme pro-Black Pete protestors appear to come from a group in society that is fashionably called the ‘losers’ of globalisation, those who feel threatened by the world and vote anti-immigrant and anti-EU. But the majority tries to take the high-road, have a more nuanced stance between what in talk shows and op-eds is often portrayed as two extremes who fail to understand each other. They have begun to argue that there should be understanding for the grievances of the Afro-Dutch community, but also that the tradition should not be damaged and that care should be taken not to harm the children’s festival.

A very important reason why such people see anti-Black Pete activists as extreme, is the fact that a group chose to protest during the Intocht. In 2014 there were arrests as pros and antis clashed in Gouda. This was frowned upon by many. The activists—and most of the blame goes to the antis; for apparently the harsh response is to be expected on this issue—are chastised for ruining the holiday for the children. Protests detract from the festivities and might even break the spell for the little believers in Sinterklaas.

However, even the ‘moderates’ these days begrudgingly accept that Black Pete is maybe somewhat problematic, although for most calling it racist would be too extreme. Very few people really want change, but no one would really defend the current practice either and the consensus is still in motion. Many big companies, especially those also operating abroad, have removed images of Black Pete from their products and marketing. This is remarkable, considering how fierce opposition is and how the tabloids are especially dead-set against interference with ‘tradition’. It is therefore worth looking somewhat closer into how the often abhorred protests of the antis achieved this norm shift.

Saint Nicholas and its elements are an essential part of Dutch collective identity. Following Alexander Wendt, collective identity is when the border of the Self is expanded to include the Other. As such it is made up of ideas and norms that are beyond the control of the individual. If someone wants to remain fully committed to the Dutch identity, including Black Pete, they need to find a solution to the cognitive dissonance created within their Dutch identity or with other identities. As Wendt says, “When their culture is threatened well-socialized actors will tend instinctively to defend it.” The solutions they come up with have been mentioned already. It is very difficult to bring change to the resulting stable consensus of hypocrisy as long as the Dutch identity wholly intact with problematic elements stays dominant.

Only people in whom Dutch identity is strong enough to be wholly part of that culture, yet who also have other identities that are strong enough to see Black Pete for the blackface it is, can bring about change. The Surinamese community that was the source of the initial protests consisted of many relatively recent arrivals who had to combine multiple identities. The current core of activists consists of people who are often very aware of their heritage. Gario talks about his Antillean origin and the negative perceptions of the former Netherlands Antilles in the country. Cesare was born in Ghana. Both are unequivocally Dutch as well. In contrast, many of the black people who say they take no issue with Black Pete often only identify strongly with mainstream Dutch identity.

As one letter to a national paper observed, the anti-Black Pete movement is a sign of increasing integration of the descendants of the Netherlands’ immigrants. While their parents often saw themselves as standing outside of society, the current generation of Afro-Dutch wants to claim their rightful place in the country and demands to be treated with full respect. A similar phenomenon could be observed after an incident in 2013 in the Voice of Holland. When ‘singer’ Gordon, who has made his profession out of the stereotype of a “bitchy gay”, in his role as jury member of the Voice of Holland bullied a Chinese contestant—to the amusement of all his colleagues but the foreign member—younger members of the hitherto invisible Asian-Dutch community started to speak out on the abuse they encounter in daily life. This generation more firmly than their parents feel confident enough in both their Dutch and minority identities to call out problems when they see them.

However, most of the norms they challenge do not hurt the majority and this explains the indifference many people display when minorities mention problems. Most people live in neighbourhoods with very little contact between different cultural groups. I grew up in a typical countryside village, where the only non-white people you will see are the single Chinese family running the inevitable Chinese-Indonesian restaurant, and the occasional family of asylum seekers unlucky enough to be assigned that place. There is no way to come into contact with the life stories of those who are hurt.

Many of the original activists’ white supporters originally came from the same artists’ community, where people have weaker ties with mainstream ‘Dutchness’ anyway. The people who, after the premier at the poetry slam event, went on to request t-shirts, were part of a community with an identity of its own that functioned as a counterweight to the dominance of pro-Pete mainstream Dutch identity. In this regard, art made a valuable contribution because of its characteristic of creating a separate, ‘protected’ community where norms brought in from other identities could be tired out and spread.

But art has more uses. Specifically performance art has the capability to influence identity of those who come into contact with it. Regular art can already have great power of conviction. Participating in a performance art event with like-minded people, such as making those t-shirts and wearing them in public, helps socialise a shared identity that can have norms that diverge from the mainstream. The negative reactions of society in this case helped to reinforce the role of being a progressive vanguard in a misunderstanding society, strengthening group solidarity.

Via its powerful communication methods art can function as tool for disseminating views that would be controversial in the mainstream. Media follows the dominant discourse and academia is often not far behind due to its links with high society. The ideas from cultural and political minorities can find their outlet in the arts, where they have more room to breathe. Further social learning can over time spread this message throughout society.

It is therefore the existence of a vibrant minority community that allowed the insertion of an ‘outside view’ into the main discourse. It was the artist community where these views could further develop and be prepared for dissemination. Through their unique potency, art allowed the debate to spill onto the national stage. This is just one instance of how art works, from literary works decrying the depravities of trench-life in WWI, to Banksy’s graffiti calling attention to social issues, have influenced the public debate. Therefore, art is the ultimate tool of the protestor.

Further Reading:

As very little has been written on the issue in English, here are some useful links to give more perspective on the issue.

  • zwartepietisracisme.tumblr.com is the Tumblr of the initiative that started it all, but is no longer updated.
  • www.roetinheteten.info is the current focus of the original activists, its name (Soot in the food) a reference to the description of Black Pete being ‘black as soot’ – an expression that most closely translates to ‘spoiling the broth’ in English
  • www.facebook.com/pietitie is the home of the ‘Pietitie’
  • Quinsy Gario is active on Twitter at https://twitter.com/quinsyg
  • If you want to read what Gario himself has to write about the issue, see this speech he gave in the European Parliament: http://www.roetinheteten.info/2014/12/a-revolutionary-black-emancipation-in-europe/
  • A Dutch journalist’s view: http://placelux.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/netherlands-how-rainbow-coloured-became-the-new-black/
  • An article from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/dec/05/black-pete-race-netherlands

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Sense Hofstede is finishing his undergraduate degree of International Relations at the University of Groningen, in his home country of the Netherlands. He specialises in China and Korea and takes a particular interest in the present-day consequences of European colonialism in Asia.