Zwarte Piet: End The Blackface minstrel show in the Netherlands!

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A visit to Amsterdam 

I made a visit to The Netherlands earlier this summer as part of an Erasmus funded International Exchange programme, Introduction to Black Europe. The exchange was hosted by The Ubele Initiative, an African Diaspora led intergenerational social enterprise based in the UK, and Untold Empowerment, an African community organisation that uses creative arts to empower young people, in The Netherlands. 

As part of the visit, we engaged in a range of presentations, talks and workshops about activism against racial and social injustice in the Netherlands, one of which was delivered by poet and human rights activist Jerry Afriyie, the co-founder and spokesperson for the campaign Kick Out Zwarte Piet. 

Kick Out Zwarte Piet was created in response to the racist and discriminatory yearly Sinterklaas festival that takes place across The Netherlands and as someone who did not grow up with this tradition, I was shocked and outraged that something so offensive, deeply dehumanising and degrading is allowed to take place annually across the country. The festival allows hundreds of white people to paint their faces black, with cartoonish red lips, and wear kinky wigs under the guise of imitating Zwarte Piet.   

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

Sinterklaas or Sint-Nicolaas is a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children. The feast of St Nicholas has been celebrated for almost 700 years in the Netherlands. Around 1850, during the Dutch enslavement of Africans, a black servant/slave was added to the tradition to accompany Sinterklaas. 

This was initiated by an influential Amsterdam school teacher and writer Jan Schenkman in his book “St. Nicholas and his servant”. While Sinterklaas, portrayed as an elderly white man, arrives by steamboat and rides a white horse through parades across the Netherlands, hundreds of adults and children dress up during the holiday festivities as his helper Zwarte Piet: by wearing blackface, painted large red lips and black curly wigs and large golden earrings. 

All Dutch children grew up with Zwarte Piet, who pays visits to schools, hospitals and appears at other (public) places and on national television. Many have fond memories of the relic of Dutch colonialism, even though it is at the expanse of black people. Although slavery was officially abolished in 1873 the Dutch are not letting go the last black (imaginary) slave without a nasty fight, racism and violence. 

(See more about Zwarte Piet here)

After speaking with Jerry and his team I knew something had to be done to bring an end to this tradition. While many of us know without a doubt that blackface and minstrelsy are harmful and inarguably racist, the Netherlands is still clinging tightly to a white supremacist “tradition”, at the expense of the inclusion, humanity, and respect for the black citizens of the country.

This is about far more than a mere childrens’ celebration. As noted scholar and writer Prof. dr. Gloria Wekker has outlined in her book White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, much of the white Dutch populace becomes enraged, hateful and even violent at the request to stop with the tradition. 

Institutional violence 

The offensive tradition has openly faced criticism as far back as the 1930s, when an article appeared in the independent Dutch weekly news magazine De Groene, exposing the racism.

Since the kick-off of the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign in 2011, activists who have held peaceful protests in recent years against the festival, have faced on-going backlash from white supremacist groups and law enforcement across The Netherlands resulting in harm, threats, and arrests.

And when we say white supremacist, we mean everyday white Dutch citizens who favor the tradition over the impact of blackface, the government at large who fails to condemn blackface, and the masses who continue to insist that it is a benign and harmless children’s holiday with no real consequences. 

An Issue of Global Anti-Blackness

This example of institutionally condoned and blatant racism is not only objected by people here in the Netherlands. The UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD) has issued multiple calls to action to the Dutch government indicating the inherently racist nature of this practice in its use and reproduction of negative stereotypes as being a clearly historical product of the Netherlands involvement with the transatlantic slave trade.

In 2015, the UN further urged the Netherlands to get rid of Black Pete in a report published on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which highlights that Black Pete is directly connected to the Netherlands dark history of enslavement as “the character of Black Pete is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery.”

According to the Dutch Human Rights Report produced in 2015:
"Human rights apply to all people, everywhere and at all times. They are the basis for human dignity, freedom and development, and provide the foundations of open, free societies all over the world. Without the promotion and protection of these rights, there can be no democracy and no rule of law."

Despite this report, the Dutch government refused to ban the tradition but said it would encourage discussion and debate, even if people felt “uncomfortable” talking about racism. Yet, the fact that the festival continues is a complete outrage and highlights the lack of respect and protection the Black community in The Netherlands have from the state, thereby leaving Africans across the country and the world feeling disrespected, targeted and ultimately unequal.

As Mouhad Reghif of the Brussels Panthers states:

“Blackface is a racist practice whose origins stretch back to the Middle Ages, and which reached its peak in the United States during the infamous period of the Jim Crow laws. Whether in the theatre or the cinema, whenever white men blacken their faces and their bodies to « play a character », their goal is always the same : to caricature and ridicule black people. 

This insulting mockery must be seen in the context of the top-down racialisation of society. It was one of the means by which the white American majority was able to effectively dominate those whom they had previously enslaved and who were now free. For why should a people who are, by definition, stupid, incompetent, vulgar and dangerous, be allowed to enjoy freedom?

Blackface was the means to convince the white majority that black people were too stupid to represent themselves - that they could only be represented by a white man in make up.”

By and large, the Netherlands has failed to acknowledge its history of colonisation, and the impact that history has on colonised people living in the Netherlands today. When you are the object of discrimination, there is no way to see blackface as harmless. When it impacts your ability to find a job, to be considered serious, intelligent, or a contributing member of society. 

White supremacy and racism are global issues, and in each nation we are facing unique manifestations of these oppressive ideologies. For this reason, we need to think of mutual liberation and globally support movements that fight anti-blackness: Local instances of racial violence - the violence that manifests as police brutality, as mass incarceration, as buffoonish and myopic representation, as micro-aggressions, as apartheid conditions, as school and housing segregation, as scoffing at the demand for reparations - are connected to a global anti-blackness. 

This is why we are asking for support both nationally and internationally to fight against Blackface, to remove the barriers that make it impossible for the Dutch black community to be seen as fully legitimate citizens. White comfort and enjoyment can no longer take precedence over black safety, liberation, and inclusion. 

We need to create global awareness of the blackface caricature in the west that has been a painful reminder of the chattel slavery of Africans disguised as a "Tradition". We ask for your help in signing this petition for the next generation to not be confronted with this blatant racist tradition. This tradition must end, now!

CALL TO ACTION!

Jerry and other campaigners are urging people throughout The Netherlands and all over the world to stand up and make use of their right to freedom of expression and freedom to organize meetings, protests and demonstrations, in addition to educational institutions, political associations and other social groups speak out against Zwarte Piet. We have started this campaign because the consequences of Black-facing are indeed very real, and fully felt by the black population continuously. 

What are some other ways you can support the cause?

  • Sign the petition and share it with others.
  • If you are living in the Netherlands: Be vocal with family members, schools or other agencies that continue the tradition about its harmful impact on the community and refuse participation if Zwarte Piet or Blackface is part of the celebration.
  • If you are living in the Netherlands: Boycott and/or write complaints to companies that still use Zwarte Piet in their business or advertising.
  • If you don’t live in the Netherlands, write to the Dutch embassy in your respective country as an act of solidarity calling for the end of blackface as part of the Sinterklaas celebration at the Embassy and in The Netherlands.
  • Use social media to name and shame the Dutch government for co-financing Blackface.
  • If you plan to holiday in the Netherlands, write to the Dutch tourism bureau, contact travel agencies about Zwarte Piet. Ask them what their company stance is on Zwarte Piet and what they are doing to stop it. 
  • Engage with your Dutch acquaintance, co-workers etc to speak out against Zwarte Piet. 

We welcome ALL efforts, ideas and strategies which will help us achieve our goal and contribute to the fight against global Anti-blackness.

In order to continue our work to hold people, government and organisations accountable for their racist acts in the Netherlands, your financial support is extremely important.

You can donate to the campaign via:
Name organisation: Nederland Wordt Beter
Bank name: Triodos Bank
Bank Account: NL09 TRIO 0197 9666 91
BIC (Swift) code: TRIONL2U

Any action you take, whether small or big, we would like to know. Inform us via info@nederlandwordtbeter.nl We also welcome suggestions, feedback or any other contributions.

For more information, visit the following links.

Nederland Wordt Beter / Zwarte Piet is Racisme campagne

Zwarte Piet is Racisme (Facebook)

Stop Blackface / Kick Out Zwarte Piet

Articles:

Zwarte Piet: Black Pete is 'Dutch racism in full display'

Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands

Great articles by Africa is a Country website

Video’s:

Dutch Sinterklaas parade disrupted by right extremists and police (2014)

Police violence against Jerry Afriyie in 2016 in the city Rotterdam

VOX: Why blackface is still part of Dutch holidays

CNN short Documentary: 'Holland's dirty little secret' by award-winning director and writer Roger Ross Williams