The Black Pete figure is outdated. Soon this racist figure may become a museum artifact in an exhibition on 19th century colonialism….
This article is written by Harry Westerink from Doorbraak and presented during the Basta Debate organized by KSU: Don’t Panic, Organize! Home grown success stories & Food for Change. See some results of the evening below!
The black house slave of the white master Sinterklaas is sooo 1850: the year in which the teacher Jan Schenkman blew life into the figure through his book “Sint Nicolaas and his servant”. The social movement which, 151 years after the abolition of slavery, demands the abolition of the Black Pete figure is on the winning side
After years of growing criticism regarding Black Pete, the last years seem to be a turning point. It looks like the final hour of the Saint’s servant has struck. The supporters of the Black Pete figure are pushed more and more into the defense. For years they have stubbornly held on to a blackface tradition which has become obsolete in the rest of the world half a century ago and now only brings forth shame and anger. White people painting their faces black and behaving according to colonial stereotypes of black people is condemned and seen as racism almost everywhere. Finally this voice is being heard in the Netherlands, where a decreasing amount of people is trying to sustain the racist Black Pete folklore. They seem to have lost their rearguard action now, forever. Because a remarkable transition has occurred: more and more people are joining the anti-racist camp. Whoever stays where he or she is will be put aside as a rusty colonialist who year after year whines about his/her hopelessly outdated traditions. Those who do not distance themselves from Black Pete and act dumb, will become the laughing stock at work and at family parties, and will be ignored. “Are you still celebrating Sinterklaas including Black Pete? That’s really not done, you know. It’s so outdated, so nineteenth-century”, that’s what they will be told
Celebrities such as singer Anouk, model Doutzen Kroes, entertainer Paul de Leeuw, crime fighter Peter R. de Vries, and politician of the Amsterdam GreenLeft party Andree van Es have expressed their opinion about it. Scientists, such as the anthropologist and Sinterklaas-specialist John Helsloot of the Meertens Institute, too, have made their case. They are all publicly acknowledging that it is time to say goodbye to Black Pete. More and more people are disturbed by the Black Pete racism and are calling out through media, their work, or in their private circles to stop this phenomenon. The protest against this racism is not something new, but it started to develop relatively late. This is due to the fact that for a long time the victims of Dutch colonialism and their descendants hardly had any influence in the “motherland”. Only since the 70s did larger numbers of people from the colonies, especially Surinam, come to the Netherlands. Their perspective and way of dealing with the colonial past was the complete opposite of the perspective of the white Dutch population. The descendants of those who were made into slaves started the critiscism regarding the Black Pete racism in the 80s and 90s and were the first to protest against it both verbally and with actions. This first wave took place against the background of the wider anti-racism battle that was fought at that time, also against the extreme right.
A few years ago the protests flared up again. The German and Swedish artists Annette Krauss and Petra Bauer received a lot of attention for their critical project “Read the masks, tradition is not given” and especially with the creative protest march against Black Pete. The march encountered so much agression from the populist right that it was cancelled at the last moment. This abuse and these threats generated reactions from more Black Pete criticisers who felt they also needed to give their opinions and counter the agression. It became obvious that the protests against the racist caricature could not be swept under the carpet so easily anymore. By cooperating closely with Krauss and Bauer Doorbraak was able to make a substantial contribution towards broadening the criticism of Black Pete. Doorbraak activists wrote and published articles, they co-organised the protest march, they were speakers at meetings and played a role in the production of a film by the artists about this project
More and more white people are joining the black people in the movement against Black Pete that is continuously getting stronger, certainly more than in the past. The united white front that protected the Black Pete as an icon of an almost sacred heritage seems to have been broken permanently now according to public opinion. More and more, the racist caricature is considered as a problem. The argumentation with which the black servant used to be defended is losing terrain and is deteriorating. Cracks have appeared all over the camp of the Black Pete-fans. These followers are very aware of the fact that their idolised Sinterklaas tradition from now on will be accompanied by a impressive and continuous petition to abolish Black Pete. They know the discussion about the racist caricature will keep recurring and that things will never be the same again, as it used to be in the so-called good old colonial days when blacks were servants and whites were bosses. These losers had better come to terms with this and end their completely outdated grumbling and whining.
When the cracks in the Dutch white camp might not yet be enough to make Black Pete extinct, there is always the wave of anti-racist support from abroad. Whether in Germany, the United Kingdom or the United States, everywhere there are people raising their voices in shock and anger against the fact that the racist blackface-folklore is still permitted in the Netherlands. The Black Pete debate is spreading around the world. People exclaim in astonishment: “The Netherlands continue to live in the 19th century!”. Not only press agencies such as Associated Press are writing critically about Black Pete, but also media such as Al Jazeera
This ever-growing protest results in demolishing the nationalist fantasy image of the Netherlands as a progressive and tolerant nation. Although many Dutch stubbornly try to keep this image alive, the fact that this country has a backward culture and a seriously deficient civilisation is now being discovered all over the world. International companies with branches in the Netherlands refuse to adapt to the Black Pete racism because their employees take offence. Taking part in the blackface-folklore could damage the image of the company. “There you have Sinterklaas and his army of black slaves”, is what Americans will say when they are walking in the streets on December 5 in the Netherlands. They conclude with anxiety that the country of the windmills, wooden shoes and tulips is picturing black people as servants of the whites. However, as soon as it has financial repercussions, it turns out that a striking number of Black Pete-fans are all of a sudden and most opportunistically, able to calculate that their racist tradition may offend many foreign business partners and tourists, and that the country might lose market share. The Schiphol airport is in favour of showing very little of the popular racist caricature on December 5.
Due to the increasing international irritation and contempt that the cold country behind the dikes is experiencing, the Black Pete-supporters see themselves forced to play down their self-indulgent nationalistic attitude that assumes that foreigners do not understand the Sinterklaas tradition and need to be acquainted with it. As a result the nationalistic self-image of the country is falling apart. Deep down many Dutch know that their blackface-folklore is a sensitive issue. When they are abroad, they tread very carefully. The HEMA does feature the Sinterklaas celebration in its shop in London, but wisely leaves out the blackfaced servants. The Petes in the store only have some black spots on their cheeks. A Dutch café in the British capital also keeps Black Pete out because they fear the government might charge them with racism. The Golliwog, the British little brother of Black Pete, has been thrown out with the trash of history long ago on account of offending and stigmatising black people. The Dutch had better not carelessly introduce their own version of the Golliwog in the United Kingdom.
The continuing dissatisfaction with the Black Pete figure has greatly increased after the summer of 2011 due to the efforts of Quinsy Gario and others in the “Black Pete is racism” campaign. The arrest of a number of activists during the Sinterklaas welcoming parade in Dordrecht has caused international outrage. They were arrested hard-handedly because of the simple fact that they were wearing a T-shirt with the text: “Black Pete is racism”. The already considerable irritation directed at allowing this kind of racism now increased with anger about this violation of the freedom of expression. It appeared that the authorities responded with repression to any criticism of Black Pete. This offended many people, even those who in the past had their doubts about Black Pete but until then had not spoken out openly against him. Now more and more Black Pete critics protested openly. The “Black Pete is racism” campaign has mobilised many people due to intensive street protests and handing-out flyers against the racist caricature. This has obtained results, so much so that Gario recently concluded that his goal to keep the discussion regarding Black Pete going had been reached. In the meantime the influential National Committee Slavery History, that has been lobbying for years to erect a statue in the Amsterdam Oosterpark to commemorate slavery, has submitted a formal complaint against the Black Pete racism. They intend to bring the issue to the international level in order to increase the pressure on the Netherlands.
In 2013 and 2014 the campaign against Black Pete has been intensified. The grassroots organisation Zwarte Piet Niet organised a strong and successfull demonstration in November last year. Some 20 persons protested with a courtcase against Black Pete. Today, July 3, this procedure ended in a victory, a breakthrough. The court declared that the local authorities of Amsterdam must do research on the Black Pete-racism, before they can allow Black Pete in public. This is a step forwards in the struggle against the racist stereotype, but we still have a long way to go. Anyway, no longer it is normal that the racist figure can appear on the streets. Black Pete is no longer a tradition. Black Pete is a problem.
No matter what way you look at it, no matter what way you turn, it cannot be stopped: sooner or later Black Pete will disappear. The sooner, the better. The protest against the servant of Sinterklaas is successful and it is part of the broader fight against Dutch colonialism and nationalism. The critical approach towards dealing with the colonial past has become more substantial over the past 15 years. This has generated all sorts of results, not just the erection of the Amsterdam monument against slavery, the yearly commemoration of the abolition of slavery on July 1 and the sharp debates about the slavery history of this country, but also a victory in the courtcase against war crimes of the Dutch army in the village of Rawagede during the colonial war against Indonesia. Let’s intensify the fight against racism and colonialism!
More information (mostly in Dutch):
On Black Pete: http://www.doorbraak.eu/category/themas/zwarte-piet
On Dutch colonialism: http://www.doorbraak.eu/category/themas/kolonialisme
Here some photo’s of the Basta evening where people like Harry shared their ingredients for successful organizing, for example against racism, but also against other forms of oppression and inequality present in our society today. Look at some of the ingredients for successful organizing and cook yourself a tasty organizing meal!