The dangerous myth of the 'innocent' children's holiday
By Eline Stapel
Published Tue Nov 24 2020
As the end of the year nears, and November comes along, many Dutch people are speaking of Sinterklaas and the Petes (‘Pieten’) coming to the country to deliver candy and presents to kids. It’s the Dutch equivalent of Santa, but with one major and important difference: the ‘Petes’ are predominantly called Black Petes, and they are represented by (mostly white) Dutch people in costume and with black-face on.
From a non-Dutch perspective, it takes just one glance at this figure, just one glance at a holiday that has groups of people wearing black-face, to understand that it is racist. But in the Netherlands, it is only in the past few years that there has been a shift in public opinion about the ‘OK-ness’ of Zwarte Piet. Last year, still 75% of people were in the pro-ZP camp, and though the drop from last year is significant, still 52% of people think Zwarte Piet should stay. This leads to the question, how does national public discourse on this issue look like?
To answer this question, we have to look back in time a bit. In the 20th century, when ‘race’ was finally understood to be a societal construct instead of a biological category, racist acts became unjustified; it became clear that racism is deeply wrong. Cultural historian Nancy Jouwe writes that talk of racism thus became taboo; Dutch society decided they did not partake in racism. Yet it seems as if this taboo around race, this unwillingness to talk about race, in fact, hindered critical self-examination when, at the beginning of a post-colonial era, this is especially crucial.
Many Dutch people thus tend to think that racism is not a structural problem, yet the existence and resistance to getting rid of a figure central to the biggest children’s holiday of the country, Zwarte Piet, shows quite the opposite. To me, decades of ignorance or denial of the problematic nature of a figure like Zwarte Piet correlates with decades of refusing to acknowledge that the Netherlands has had, and continues to have, a structural problem with anti-black, as well as other forms of discrimination.
I spoke to Amber, a Dutch university graduate who wrote her thesis on Dutch media stories from 2019 surrounding Zwarte Piet. Still today, her research shows that “generally, Dutch media has a way of framing racial issues as a one-time incident of conflict, instead of a consequence of structural racism… it does not get mentioned at all, pretty much ever.”
A report by MDRA, a contact-point for people who have experienced discrimination and want to report it, revealed that one out of five people who report discrimination (and of course, it happens more than is reported) are black. Other recent studies regarding other forms of discrimination have also been recently published. These show that people with a non-white sounding last name are consistently discriminated against in the housing market; people wearing a hijab are disadvantaged when getting an internship; people who have Suriname, or another country (often Dutch ex-colonial countries) as their birthplace visible on their CV also have less chance of getting a job. These forms of discrimination highlight a very real problem the Netherlands faces today.
A lot has happened in recent months that has brought the general issue of structural discrimination in the Netherlands to the forefront. The horror of George Floyd’s murder by the police in the US and the consequential global outcry against systemic racism, has had a powerful impact on the public discourse around race. Amber says that whilst in previous years, “when a black person got murdered due to police brutality in the States, there was [a reaction] like ‘that doesn’t happen here [in the Netherlands]’”. This year, however, the response was different; in several parts of the country, thousands of people protested against anti-black, and other forms of discrimination. The fact that there is a structural problem with race, also here, in the Netherlands has gained more awareness, more understanding.
As discussed in one of our previous articles, the image of the Netherlands as a tolerant country is so permeating, and so powerful that it has hindered people from properly acknowledging the reality of the situation. “If you bring up the issue of race, it’s like ‘in the Netherlands this isn’t a problem, everyone gets equal opportunity, equal rights, so why would you bring up race?” says Amber. Gloria Wekker, a renowned Dutch sociologist, calls this form of denial ‘white innocence’ and defines it as “the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia”. The existence of Zwarte Piet as a central figure in Dutch holiday celebrations is when this paradoxical behavior is most apparent.
When it is the time of the year where Sinterklaas and the (Zwarte) Pieten ‘come to the country’, they bring with them waves of discriminatory behavior that showcase the problem the NL has with racism all year round. As Amber eventually argued in her research, “Zwarte Piet is racist, perpetuates harmful stereotypes” and “enables racist acts”.
Amber explains that “pro-zwarte piet was the dominant narrative for a long time,” and this could be seen in the way the anti-Zwarte Piet voices were represented in the media. “It’s easy to frame it as a children's holiday [versus] the [anti-ZP] protestors obstructing this really nice holiday. You show a shot of the children and then a shot of the protestors, and that’s how [the media] framed the narrative really well for people to respond like ‘what are these protestors doing?”
In her research, Amber analyzed three media-stories which all show a person of color being called ‘zwarte piet’ in a public space. The first one is about a black girl being called zwarte piet on a train, the second is of a father and a son being called zwarte piet at a pastry stall. The third story is when Ahmad Mendes Moreira (a professional football player) was called zwarte piet, among other racist remarks, during a game by the opposing team’s supporters. When he became emotional, he was called a ‘zielig mannetje’ (‘a pathetic little man’) by the opposing team’s coach.
In all these cases, Amber found that the parties involved did not take action against, or condemn the racist acts straight away. None of the parties were thus held accountable for using the supposedly ‘innocent’ figure of zwarte piet as a tool to intimidate and degrade the person receiving the remark. The figure of zwarte piet is not innocent, and these reported situations are few of the many that show that zwarte piet is harmful and enables racism.
The harm done to people of color forced to experience these encounters is also downplayed in the media. The emotional impact of such painfully insulting remarks, Amber concluded, is often not addressed when these situations are reported in the media. It is often framed as a political battle, whilst this takes away from the negative effect the figure of Zwarte Piet has on individual lives. Moreira, for example, stated that his performance on the field - his job - was hindered as the emotional impact of the verbal aggressions hit him very hard.
Moreira is just one of the few people who has been called zwarte piet; it is important to recognize that this happens to young children, and adults. “I think it’s really important not to brush over the negative impact this can have on [for example] a small, young black girl being called ‘zwarte piet’ by someone. I think this is what a lot of the debate is ignoring, is this impact.”
(Credits: "File:Black lives matter and Black Pete demonstration Leeuwarden Netherlands .jpg" by Arnold Bartels is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)
Within the debate, one of the most contested elements of Zwarte Piet are the figure’s origins. Amber found, however, that “you cannot pinpoint a clear origin of zwarte piet”. Pro-Zwarte Piet people claim its origins have nothing to do with colonialism and slavery, whilst anti-zwarte piet claim precisely the opposite (with a far more justifiable reasons, I think). Yet, even if the precise origins of the figure aren’t clear, what is known is that its first appearance was in a children’s book in 1850, a time of colonialism. This is “one thing that is really important to not ignore. Even if it didn’t directly stem from slavery, even if zwarte piet wasn’t literally an enslaved person as a character, the connotations that the color black had at that time, [and] still at this time, were very negative”. The figure of Zwarte Piet was invented to denote inferiority; as a society, we are responsible for overturning such connotations, not to continue propagating them under a mask of innocent festivity.
“This is a big thing that people are forgetting, that it’s not necessarily about its origins. That’s not why we should have this debate.” What matters, Amber emphasizes, “is what this character is doing to our society [today] and what it’s perpetuating”.
I think there is a lot of work to be done if the Netherlands wants to achieve its desired image of a truly open and just society. Though I would say there are some signs of positive change. Several municipalities in the Netherlands, including Amsterdam, have banned zwarte piet, though the majority still allow the Sinterklaas parade to have people dressed up like the figure. (Some municipalities even still subsidize parades with zwarte pieten). The most popular children’s tv programs about Sinterklaas and the Pieten have replaced zwarte pieten with ‘coal-faced’ pieten.
Also, there is currently a petition for a new broadcaster for Dutch TV. It has reached the 50,000 members it needed to actualize their goal. The broadcaster is called ‘ZWART’ and its promise is to increase representation on Dutch TV (which has been dominated by white people). Like me, Amber also believes “that [this] can bring really positive change, that can bring voices that before were not heard, weren’t given a platform.”
Want to gain a deeper understanding? Consult these resources:
Website with resources from zwarte piet to intersectionality (Dutch and English): www.withuiswerk.nl
White Innocence / Wit Onschuld by Gloria Wekker
TedTalk (English) Gloria Wekker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMwgzK9LGeM
Detailed article on institutional racism in NL (Dutch): https://decorrespondent.nl/11317/institutioneel-racisme-in-nederland-wat-het-is-waar-het-zit-en-wat-jij-eraan-kunt-doen/464087536-47232adb
Paper on the paradox of racism in NL by historian Nancy Jouwe (Dutch): https://www.academia.edu/21447429/Gevangen_in_een_paradox_racisme_in_Nederland
Organization for gender equality in NL: www.womeninc.nl
‘Journalism for equality’ NL: www.oneworld.nl