It is about Zwarte Piet

The premises of white/autochtoon engagement with anti-racism in the Netherlands.

On November 7, 2013 I had the pleasure to participate in the Kritische Studenten Utrecht/Basta! event titled Is the Netherlands Racist? – The Sinterklaas parade & Zwarte Piet launch the debate.

by Patricia Schor, Affiliate researcher, Institute for Cultural Inquiry | Faculty of Humanities | Utrecht University

The event aimed at discussing Zwarte Piet ‘as an expression of racism. But we also want to look further. Where does the intensity of reactions to reform Dutch traditions come from? Zwarte Piet is a good starting point to tackle racism and broaden the discussion? What about other forms of institutionalized racism in the Netherlands and what are ways to tackle them?’.

I briefly addressed the questions above in my intervention at the event, which follows.

Good evening to all and thank you Kritische Studenten Utrecht for the invitation to participate in this debate.

Tonight I will briefly problematize the premises of the Zwarte Piet discussion in the public sphere. Why is this important here and now? Because such premises infect the way white circles of intellectuals/activists engage in the discussion, and undermine the practice of Black people and people of colour. I believe it is fundamental to recognise these problems in order to effectively counter racism.

Therefore I will zero in on recurrent tropes that inhabit this discussion, which are widespread in Dutch culture and society. They are found in the violent and dangerous letter written by the mayor of Amsterdam to the authors of 21 complains against Zwarte Piet in the Sinterklaas parade,i and they are again found in the writing and public positioning of white progressives.

So let me indicate briefly which are the main misconceptions in the discussion:

The 1st misconception: Racism is a serious problem; Zwarte Piet is a minor issue and therefore a deviation of the struggle against racism.

It is fundamental to learn that Black people have been struggling against Zwarte Piet for a long time. In 2003 the Global Afrikan Congress Nederland and 10 other organisations handed a document to the Dutch Parliament, solidly arguing against Zwarte Piet, indicating that there has been critique to the racist caricature for 2 decades.ii That was 10 years ago. Black people have been addressing their critique of Zwarte Piet to the Dutch political establishment, schools and other institutions. They have been paying a high price for their critique. They are, among other minorities, at the receiving end of racism in this country. We must listen and learn from their struggle. If they deem it important we must, at least, pay attention.

I am hereby also challenging the idea of newness to the problem and widespreadness of racism in the Netherlands and to the surprise element to it: this is not new to Black people. They have been dealing with racist slur, micro aggression and racist policies for a very long time. They have been, time and again, ridiculed and silenced by the very white establishment that has just discovered racism among their ranks.

And then only two clues why Back people elected Zwarte Piet to struggle against:

Number 1.) Because it is enlaced or in bed with other racist practices, namely: racial profiling, ethnic discrimination in the labour market, ethnic segregation at schools and housing, immigration and asylum policies; and

Number 2.) Because Zwarte Piet is an overwhelming presence in the life world of the Dutch, in particular of Dutch children, and what we give to children is fundamental.iii Jennifer van Leijen accurately termed the Sinterklaas festivity a ‘racist extravaganza’. She knows what she is talking about as, like myself, Jennifer has children at school age.

The 2nd misconception: Zwarte Piet is just a representation, a fairy tale.

Zwarte Piet is the embodiment of a racist stereotype. It is racist practice for it dehumanises Black people. Somebody does it and she/he must be held accountable for doing it.

The 3rd misconception: Zwarte Piet is matter of feelings.

Racism is a breach of human rights established in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Dutch Constitution. How it feels to be in the receiving end of racist practice? Bad. What we must do about that? Address and stop racist practice, rather than problematize Black people, or give centre stage to the intentions and feelings of the white majority.

The 4th misconception: We are equal parts in a debate and must achieve a compromise.

The Zwarte Piet discussion is actually not a debate. The parts involved do not hold equal power, which means, amongst other things, that they do not have an equal share in framing the discussion. We are dealing here with a minority that is the target of racial policy and practice, and a majority that benefits from white privilege. The majority has defined what is a reasonable outcome of this engagement, and this is basically that the will of the majority should prevail, as morality is presented to be on their side and actually as an unborn property of the white.iv So much so that the benevolent majority is allegedly showing a gesture of accommodating the sensibilities of the minority in offering a compromise between them and the opposing part. What does this mean? Revolutionary measures such as the abolition of golden earrings or sooth in the face of the servile caricature.

It is critical to be precise in this discussion and indicate, time and again, who is the subject of racist practice and who is the object, where power lies and how it is deployed.

Why have I abused on your patience to tackle these recurrent tropes in the discussion: because they are not innocent; they frame the discussion and determine its possible outcomes. They are each and all ideological constructions designed and implemented to deter critique, discredit critics and prevent change.

And finally, what the problematization of these premises leads to: to reframe critical engagement. This means first of all changing the vocabulary of the debate, and the terms of engagement, and then abdicating of the ideas of chronology and precedence in intellectual/activist practice. By this I am saying that we are not tackling Zwarte Piet first and will do other racist practices later. As they are related to each other we are doing all at the same time and, as we actively start to challenge any of them (in writing, in participation in demonstrations, in demanding debate with schools, in legal action) we will naturally engage with others. So if you are critically engaging with racism in the Netherlands, there will be a point when you will have to address asylum policy, or racial profiling, or racism at schools and in the public sphere, and thus Zwarte Piet. When you do so, check out what Black people and people of colour are saying/writing/doing, educate yourself and attribute.v

We will not sit here together tonight and draft a master plan of anti-racism work with its first, second and third stages in order of importance. We must seek alliances, case by case and all the time, be always attentive to the intersections of anti-black racism with other forms of racism, with feminism, queer and class struggle; and start as we speak, now.

We are experiencing a unique moment in the recent history of this country. Racism has entered the public debate. This is an enormous achievement of Black people in the Netherlands, to which white allies marginally contributed, and must continue to do so.

Thank you.


  3. I have adressed the presence of Zwarte Piet in the liveworld of Dutch children here:
  4. For the rhetoric that materialise this perverse construct, see the letter of Amsterdam’s Mayor, as indicated above. I have previously discussed the idea of reasonability in this debate, here:
  5. A brief, selective and far from exhaustive, list of web sources of critical Black voices and voices of color in the Netherlands working on such topics and more:

1,321 thoughts on “It is about Zwarte Piet

  1. Pingback: Dutch slavery, blackface, holiday | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. All the billions of people who have passed through Zwarte Piet’s chimney and who there have confessed their sins and turned equally pitch black in there, disagree with you.
    I wonder what you wil do when it is your turn to confess your sins to him. Will you then regret the abuse you directed at him, and will you then fervently wish that you had accepted a pepernoot from him when you had the opportunity?

  3. Dirk Bontes- children and adults know that ZP represents a black person. Even on the 5th of december Nelson Mandela was referred to as the head Pete (look it up). When dark people are belittled or teased with being called Zwarte Piet, it’s something to take seriously instead of hiding behind a stupid, yes stupid, excuse that you’ve given yourself to avoid facing the ugly truth. Zwarte Piet has Afro hair and bright thick red lips, a common caricature used for a black person. If it were soot- then why is it not on his clothes? Zwarte Piet even arrives on the steamboat (his skin alone) entirely black- before he’s even seen a single chimney. Wake up and smell the coffee. Learn about discrimination and the danger of stereotypes. Don’t wallow in your ignorance.

  4. This is a report that i made about the protest that took place in Amsterdam during the Sinterklaas intocht, on November 17th.

    I am preparing to take legal against for writing a false and negative article about my report. After that i will also start court cases against de Telegraaf and My goal is to have them admit that the spread false information and that they apologize, publicly.

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