The growing controversy over the role of a black servant in a traditional Dutch holiday celebration has led to an explosion of cultural tensions – resulting in street clashes, mass arrests and a public display of racist hatred and indifference. It is high time for the Dutch to revise their colonial overhang.
Every fall, the Dutch celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas – the local version of Santa Claus – on a steamboat from Spain. On a Sunday morning in mid-November, thousands of children will line up along the waterfront of some old Dutch town to welcome the holy man with his characteristic red bishop’s hat, white beard, gray horse and motley crew of clownesque servants. The theatrical reception is meant to be a festive occasion in anticipation of the St. Nicholas holiday on December 5, which is celebrated like Christmas and which remains an important reference point in national folklore.
This year, however, was a little different. This year, the Sint arrived in the town of Gouda accompanied by a private bodyguard of riot police. Local authorities feared the presence of a few hundred protesters, many of them people of color, who had come to the reception to peacefully express their opposition to the disturbing racist overtones of the celebration. As they quietly unfurled their protest banners and displayed the slogans on their T-shirts, the police moved in, arresting 90 people. Some nearby parents hurled racist abuse at the protesters and a number of them were assaulted by right-wing thugs.
“Black Pete Will Stay Black”
In recent years, Sinterklaas festivities have become the lightening rod of growing cultural tensions in the Netherlands – tensions that have in turn laid bare the deep-seated xenophobia and conservatism in this supposedly progressive and multicultural society. The controversy centers on the Sint’s servant: a blackamoor character known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, whose role is generally played by grown-up white folks donning blackface, bright red lipstick, golden earrings, colorful minstrel-like garb and frizzy afro wigs. Many people of color rightly consider the tradition to be an offensive and painful allusion to the Netherlands’ shameful involvement in the African slave trade. Yet, most white people systematically refuse to recognize the obvious connection.
To a large majority of Dutch folks, Sinterklaas is simply a cherished national tradition – and dressing up as Zwarte Piet is nothing more than innocent children’s play. “We are not racist,” they seem to think, “so how could Zwarte Piet be?” In their collective state of denial, white people of various political persuasions – including many among the higher-educated, liberal and supposedly “anti-racist” strata of society – will provide a host of reasons to justify their beloved blackface character and dismiss, ignore or attack the honest concerns of their fellow citizens of color. It is a classic case of cognitive dissonance as described by the great revolutionary and anti-colonial thinker Franz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks:
Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.
In the Netherlands, the official narrative is that Zwarte Piet is black because of the soot. In a collective rationalization of the racist nature of the character, intended purely to protect a core belief in the essential innocence of the fairytale, millions of grown-up Dutch people have actually managed to convince themselves that Zwarte Piet is black because he has to climb down the chimney to deliver the Sint’s gifts. But if such flimsy justifications really mean anything, one is still left to wonder why the Dutch get so upset by reasonable suggestions to alter the appearance of the character in accordance with the myth. When the idea was floated to drop the afro wigs and replace the blackface with actual soot smears, the Dutch went berserk. A pro-Piet Facebook page quickly garnered over 2 million ‘likes’ and the right-wing Freedom Party of anti-immigrant populist Geert Wilders organized a large pro-Piet rally with significant neo-Nazi participation. Earlier this year, Wilders even proposed a law to “ensure that Black Pete will stay black.”
Between Racial Hatred and Liberal Indifference
Sadly, Wilders and his neo-Nazi sympathizers are not the only ones defending the indefensible. The arguments proposed in defense of the blackface tradition range from outright racism on the nationalist far-right to belittling indifference on the liberal left. The former type of response is pervasive on social media; the latter prevails in “civilized” elite discourse. Whenever black people speak out against Zwarte Piet, they will typically be referred to in online comment sections as “unruly slaves” and told to “go back to their own countries.” When a group of black players for the Dutch national football team took a selfie and shared it during last weekend’s Sinterklaas reception, commenters piled in to ask who had unchained them and why they were not in Gouda. When white women with mixed race families speak out, as singer Anouk and fashion model Doutzen Kroes have recently done, they will typically be assaulted as “n*ggerlovers” and told to shut up and take their “Black Pete children” somewhere else.
This outright racism, on full display for everyone to see, is sickening. But what is perhaps even more disturbing is the total failure of the political, intellectual and journalistic establishment to take a stand against this deeply embedded racial hatred, or to connect it to the country’s colonial past and traditions. Instead, the political and cultural elite – which genuinely believes itself to be free of racist biases – has for all practical purposes ended up aligning itself with the far-right camp. In fact, the typical response of a highly educated urban liberal (and even of some leftists, especially older white males) is to dismiss the issue as an exaggeration and a waste of time. Claiming to be fed up with the complaints and unwilling to participate in any “political debates,” they like to point out that there are more important things in the world than criticizing a children’s celebration.
This type of response is not only extremely condescending towards those who feel genuinely offended by the tradition and who as kids, year after year, dreaded the arrival of November; it also serves to depoliticize the broader question of race and racism that the debate is ultimately about. The anti-Zwarte Piet activists are well aware that the real problem is not the holiday itself: on a practical level, it could easily be updated to reflect the concerns of citizens of color and to include the entire population in the festivities. The real problem is precisely the knee-jerk reaction and the feigned "apolitical" indifference of the authorities and the white majority – the stubborn refusal to engage in a meaningful dialogue and the total inability and utter unwillingness to take into account the feelings and sensitivities of others, especially of a minority that has long been oppressed and that continues to be socially, economically and politically marginalized today.
What makes the latter position particularly infuriating is the deliberate abuse of a supposedly anti-racist liberal “color blindness” as a justification for the elite’s complete lack of attention for the disturbing racist tendencies in Dutch society. Prime Minister Mark Rutte perfectly captured this spirit of indifference and insensitivity when he declared that “Black Pete is simply black – and there’s nothing I can do to change that.” He then went on to add: “I can only say that my friends on the Netherlands Antilles are very happy when they celebrate Sinterklaas because they don’t have to paint their faces. When I have to play Black Pete I spend days trying to get that paint off my face.”
So Stop Painting It Black!
The truth is that while the black paint will eventually wash off these ugly white faces, white elites in the Netherlands cannot wash their hands of their historical responsibilities so easily. The black pages in the history books cannot be erased – and black pain will remain inscribed into the black body as long as these historical injustices continue to echo in the present. When Jan Schenkman first dreamt up the contemporary character of Zwarte Piet in his illustrated book Saint Nicholas and his Servant, first published in 1850, the Dutch were still actively involved in the slave trade. In total, they shipped over half a million African slaves across the Atlantic and tens of thousands more towards the Dutch colonies in the Far East. At least 75,000 are believed to have died on the long and gruesome journeys to the plantations, mines and colonial mansions of the New World.
Some of the “lucky” ones who did make it across had children, who had children, who had more children, who had yet more children, and who eventually had children who are now living in our country; who constitute an integral part of our post-colonial society – and whose (grand)children are in turn celebrating Sinterklaas with us today. While white guilt will do little to mend past wounds or improve the present circumstances of the younger generations, the least the Dutch can do is to recognize that cultural traditions based on slavery are just as unacceptable today as they were back then. A UN advisory body on human rights recently decried Zwarte Piet as “a living trace of past slavery,” and a shocked Russell Brand just denounced it – correctly – as a bizarre “colonial hangover.”
The good news is that all traditions eventually evolve – the only question is in what direction. The objective in this respect is not to abolish Zwarte Piet; it is simply to free his character from the racial stereotypes of his 19th century creators and the hateful xenophobic worldview of his 21st century apologists. While Jan Schenkman was busy drawing up sketches of black servants in his original illustrations, the great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass – having just escaped from slavery himself – famously declared that “there can be no progress without struggle.”
Today’s tensions over a children’s fairytale surely pale in comparison to the epic struggles of Douglass’ time, but Franz Fanon was entirely right when he noted that “imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove not just from our land – but from our minds as well.” In the end, the kids will care little whether the characters in their fairytales are black, white or purple; spotty, striped or stained with soot. All we owe them is the opportunity to enjoy the celebrations and to create a colorful future without the burdens of the past. As the Sint himself recently put it aboard his steamboat: “we are heading right towards a rainbow!” Those foolish enough to stand in the way will simply be run over as history charges on – full steam ahead.
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.