The battle for Zwarte Piet: Everyday racism in the Netherlands by Dorothea Hilhorst

December 3, 2018

Every year around this time, a major cultural and identity clash emerges in the Netherlands as proponents and opponents of Sinterklaas (the Dutch version of Santa Claus) clash over Zwarte Piet, his black servant. However, instead of leading to resolution, debates on Zwarte Piet have become increasingly marked by violence and intolerance, as some fiercely defend this tradition, while others call for change. What is the debate all about, and how can it provide us with insights on everyday racism in the Netherlands and beyond?


zwarte_piet_sinterklaas_supermarkt_hellevoetsluisAs a child growing up in a Dutch, white suburb, my favourite tradition in the Netherlands has always been Sinterklaas. It is our variation of Santa Claus, but our Sint gives the children presents on the occasion of his birthday on 5 December. Three weeks before the big day, Sint arrives by steamboat in the Netherlands and during the three weeks’ stay he visits schools, families, and hospitals to meet children. Before going to bed, kids place their shoes near the chimney or door. They sing the traditional songs about Sinterklaas, and add a root or water for Sinterklaas’ horse. In the middle of the night, Sinterklaas’ servants – so the story goes – would enter through the chimney and place sweets or presents in the shoes.

THE ISSUE WITH ZWARTE PIET…

As a child, Sinterklaas was the highlight of my year, and I was never aware of the racist character of the tradition. Sinterklaas is surrounded by servants that are black. Although there are many myths about the origin of Zwarte Piet, it is not difficult to see remnants here of the Dutch history riddled with slavery. The representation of Zwarte Piet, a servant with exaggerated racial traits, including shiny black skin, kinky hair, and fat red lips, is perceived by many as reproducing racial stereotypes and as a form of everyday racism. For the last ten years, the discussion on Zwarte Piet has escalated to become a principal battleground of what it means to be Dutch in the twenty-first century.

In 2014, a UN research team concluded that Zwarte Piet was indeed racist, and the report noted that the committee was shocked to find how ignorant Dutch society is about its history with slavery. The e-mail account of one of the researchers, Jamaican professor Verene Shepherd, had to be temporarily closed due to extensive hate mail from Dutch people who felt that one of their most precious traditions was being attacked.

ZWARTE PIET REIMAGINED?

While protest against Zwarte Piet is growing in the Netherlands, it is important to note that the tradition is not under attack. Nobody wants to ban the tradition of Sinterklaas, protesters just want a minor adaptation to Zwarte Piet. The proposed alternative is Roetveegpiet: a person of unspecified ethnicity that is blackened by the soot from inside the chimneys through which Piet supposedly enters the houses. This alternative seems simple and doable, yet the Netherlands continues to be utterly divided over the matter. When HEMA – a popular store – announced in 2015 that it was changing its December displays to the Roetveegpiet, it quickly had to backtrack because of a consumer boycott and security threats received by HEMA personnel.

In 2017, when Sinterklaas’ arrival by steamboat took place in the province of Friesland, a number of people blocked the highway to stop anti-Zwarte Piet demonstrators from holding a peaceful protest. The people who blocked the highway have recently been convicted by a court to several weeks of community service, but fail to understand why and show no remorse or regrets.

This year, 2018, the arrival of Sinterklaas was accompanied in many cities by violent attacks on peaceful protesters against Zwarte Piet. Apparently, the core of those coming to the defence of Zwarte Piet is now formed by football hooligans that take joy in throwing cans and other objects at the protesters. Dozens of the hooligans have been arrested. While extremist hooligans are the most visible part of the pro-Zwarte Piet movement, surveys show that in the society at large the support for Zwarte Piet is declining, but that he can still count on majority support among the population.

For this reason perhaps, the Dutch government so far has refused to intervene in the debate, claiming this is not a political, but a socio-cultural issue. Only last week, the leader of the Christian party Christen Unie that forms part of the current government coalition publicly announced his support for Roetvegenpiet.

It is quite incredible how Zwarte Piet has become the epicentre of the stormy discussion on how the Netherlands has to relate to itself in times of diversity and migration. Accusations of racism on the one hand and treason on the other entrench antagonism in the battle for or against Zwarte Piet.

RESISTING EVERYDAY RACISM

At ISS, everyday racism is a major topic of analysis. One of the things that I’ve learned from our international students is that something can be racist with or without intention. When somebody is reprimanded after telling a nasty joke about black people, the usual defence is, “Oh, but I never meant that to be racist, and, by the way, I have many black friends.”

But even without the intention of racism, a joke can be racist in the sense that it reproduces prejudice about minority groups with a different skin colour or a non-majority ethnic background. And even without racist intention, these friends may still find it unpleasant to hear the jokes.

How can this insight help us in the Zwarte Piet debate? Could Zwarte Piet critics believe that the large majority of Zwarte Piet lovers have no racist intentions? And could Zwarte Piet defenders then acknowledge that Zwarte Piet is nonetheless a hurtful expression of everyday racism?

1974 2 VAN DE DRIE MEISJES.
The author (on the right) with her sister in the 1970s.

In November 2013, the ISS community sent a letter to Erasmus University’s Rector Magnificus to raise the issue of the celebration of Sinterklaas and the everyday racism it represents. The letter was a response to an invitation (which just had a picture of Zwarte Piet) to celebrate Sinterklaas on the Erasmus University campus in Rotterdam. Authors of the letter called for the recognition and appreciation of principles of tolerance on which the ISS strives to be built and requested that the university starts to consider alternative forms of representation to overcome the racial stereotyping from the celebration of Sinterklaas. The letter was signed by 52 members of the community.

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