Zwarte Piet: Tolerance Gone Wrong in the Netherlands

Zwarte Piet: Tolerance Gone Wrong in the Netherlands
Photo by Floris Looijesteijn (copied from Flickr)

Photo by Floris Looijesteijn (copied from Flickr)

The Dutch have been making international headlines in the past month for something we are not generally known for: racism. It all started on October 17th in Amsterdam, where 21 locals had requested a hearing to object to the presence of Zwarte Piet during the annual Sinterklaas parade in November.

Sinterklaas is our Santa Claus, based on a Byzantine bishop who became known as the patron saint of children. He arrives mid-November for a gift-giving extravaganza culminating on the evening of December 5th or the morning of the 6th. However, he doesn’t arrive alone. Instead of elves, our Santa has Zwarte Piet, literally translated as ‘Black Pete’.

Black Pete was introduced to the festivities in 1850, when schoolteacher Jan Schenkman introduced the character in a book called Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (Sinterklaas and his Servant). His introduction happily coincides with the end of the Dutch Transatlantic slave trade.

However, the role and image of Black Pete have changed since his first imagining. Though he still wears a Renaissance style page costume, dons a curly black wig, red lipstick and a golden earring, in the early 80’s the makeup used for Black Pete was still fully black. In the early 90’s brown makeup was introduced and Black Pete briefly adopted a Caribbean accent, only to drop the accent again a few years later, after protest from people of Caribbean descent in the Netherlands.

Black Pete has been criticised by Dutch people of colour since their arrival from the Dutch colonies in the early 50’s. Debate has grown particularly fierce in the past couple of years, starting with the Sinterklaas parade in 2011, when performance artist Quinsy Gario was brutally arrested for wearing a t-shirt stating ‘Zwarte Piet is Racist’.

Previous protests were largely ignored. Gario’s arrest garnered little attention, with Dutch media quickly moving on to other topics. This year however, the debate decidedly ignited when Verene Shepherd, a member of the United Nation’s Working Group of Experts on People of African descent, spoke out against the figure stating: “The working group cannot understand why it is that the people in The Netherlands cannot see that it is a throwback to slavery […] as a black person I feel, that I, if I were living in The Netherlands, I would object to it.”

The Dutch were enraged a foreigner had the gall to interfere in local traditions and a pro-Pete movement came into effect. Support for Black Pete ranged from those arguing his “tradition[al]” value, to Zwarte Piet as an ‘example of black power’, as well as a complete denial of the racist origins of Black Pete. People speaking out against the figure were told that ‘if they don’t like it, they should go back to where they came from’ and Gario and others started receiving regular death threats.

Others were quick to make bank on the debate. A Pete-tition on Facebook, gaining over two million likes in just two days, turned out to be a case study by a marketing company specialised in social media and ‘virals’. Dutch newspapers and blogs have experienced massive increases in traffic to their websites since the start of this year’s debate, with some boasting about the success of the Black Pete debate on their editorial blogs.

How is it possible that a country that is generally known as liberal and tolerant, and among the first countries in the world to legalise everything from gay marriage, cannabis and euthanasia, has responded so violently against a character that is evidently racist?

Ironically, the motive appears to be that very same tolerance the Dutch are famous for. It is important to understand that Dutch tolerance is rooted in financial gain. Always one to spot a good opportunity, the nation first became ‘tolerant’ when it allowed people who were not allowed to trade in other countries due to their religious beliefs to trade here.

I am of Indonesian-Dutch descent. My family fled here in 1962, when the Netherlands had to give up its final stake in the East Indies. Indos are generally accepted in the Netherlands as the model-minority. We are mostly ‘othered’ in the sense that we are fetishized, but we do not suffer the level of discrimination other people of colour do. We are hailed for our successful integration into Dutch society, though people tend to forget the majority of us descend from the children of Dutch men and Indonesian women, who received the same education as the children in the Netherlands at the time.

I had bought into this concept of Dutch tolerance. I loved my country and I loved how open-minded and liberal it was. Sometimes friends would make racist comments, but I would shrug them off as a rarity or be told “Oh but you’re different” when I did speak up.When anti-Islamic Pim Fortuyn became wildly popular in 2001 and calls for foreign elements to adjust or get out became more common, it was impossible for me to not look at my family’s history, the not always warm welcome they had received in the 60’s and my Muslim great grandmother, and to not realise that even if I was Dutch, I would never be Dutch enough. Up until 2001, I had mistaken Dutch tolerance for respect, and Dutch consensus politics for a politics that benefited everybody.

Unfortunately Dutch tolerance is more synonymous with the traditional definition of tolerance, i.e ‘to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behaviour that one does not necessarily agree with’. And is a forced tolerance at that: we must reach consensus, so we must tolerate one another. For decades we lived under an assumption that everybody here was equal. This equality however has turned into an idea that everybody is and must be the same. Immigrants who move here are asked to assimilate themselves completely to Dutch culture and one of the most popular sayings in the Netherlands is “Doe maar normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg” (“Act normal, because that is weird enough”).

It is no wonder then, when people start to speak out against inequalities, and claim rights for themselves that others may not have and even ‘limit’ the rights of others (though of course the right to dress up in blackface is questionable), they are met with such a violent reaction. The idea that we are all equal and everybody can do what they want, combined with this idea of tolerance, has come to mean that we should put up with things we do not like. So if Dutch people have to put up with things they do not like, people of colour should put up with things they do not like. Under the guise of tolerance any consideration for others has gone out the window.

The problem is that, because we have ignored inequalities in Dutch society for so long, at this point people don’t understand what racism and discrimination really entail. Some white Dutch people have even gone so far as to file complaints with Dutch anti-discrimination agencies stating they feel discriminated by the Black Pete debate.

ZwartepietPeople who are for Black Pete or don’t mind recent derogatory comments made to a Chinese contestant by a Holland’s Got Talent judge often argue that they get name called for wearing glasses or having red hair too and that it’s ‘no big deal’. They simply don’t understand that name calling is not the same as discrimination and does not have the same socio-political and economic impact on their lives.

In the weeks since the Black Pete debate started, more and more examples of institutionalised racism have come to the surface, from objection from the Council of Europe that the Dutch need to do a better job at addressing racism, to the national ombudsman pointing out racism in Dutch politics, to an internal rejection email saying “Had a look, it’s nothing. First, he is [a] dark coloured (negro)” that accidentally reached the applicant instead of a co-worker, and more.

While a part of Dutch society has now openly embraced their racist ideologies, there is also a large group of people who have been shocked by all the information that has come out in recent weeks and are slowly beginning to realise something needs to change. Still, many of them claim, Black Pete has nothing to do with this and should remain as is, or maybe change from full on black face to a few smudges of soot, so the ‘he is black from the chimney’ argument actually holds.

The main argument at the moment is that because Black Pete is no longer ‘intended’ as racist, we should keep him. It may be a while before the Dutch realise that consequences are more important than intentions, but at least we finally have a conversation on race.

Corporate whore by day, writer by night. Mieke is currently exploring her place in the world as a model minority and the descendant of both the powerful and the powerless in the context of the Dutch-Indonesian colonial past and post colonial present

One comment

  1. Janfrans Zuidema says:

    You are obviously intolerant of Zwarte Piet. So I guess that makes you an intolerant person. But don’t be sad Mieke, I for one have never met a truly tolerant person in my life. I guess we can all identify aspects of life which we can’t stand. You’re only human…

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