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For Pete’s sake

‘LOVABLE ROGUE’: Piet enjoys overwhelming support from the Dutch public

IF YOU were sitting in a London park and a couple of blacked-up white people wearing minstrel outfits approached you bearing sweets, how would you react?

Sunny Bergman, a respected Dutch documentary-maker, chose to recreate that exact scenario for her new film, Our Colonial Hangover. The point?

To encourage the Dutch public to see Zwarte Piet – what Bergman calls “a racist tradition that brings back memories of slavery” – through the eyes of the outside world.

If you’ve never heard of Zwarte Piet, he is a major character in the Dutch equivalent of Christmas: the Sinterklaas [Santa Claus] festival. This celebration is much like the varied versions of Christmas that play out elsewhere, but in recent years, it has become embroiled in a race row, due to Santa’s ‘helpers’: the Zwarte Piets.

The clue to the furore is in the name ‘Zwarte Piet’, which literally means ‘Black Pete’. Whilst the Sinterklaas is white, his subordinates are black, resembling minstrels, or golliwogs, down to the last detail.

Zwarte Piets have black skin, full red lips, curly Afro wigs, and gold hooped earrings. And they just happen to be characterised as daft, bumbling and mischievous.

CRITICISM

What’s the explanation for this racially loaded appearance? ‘They came down the chimney delivering gifts’.

And despite criticism and the charge of racism, most Dutch people cling to this coyly innocent explanation, showing unwavering trust in the transformative makeover powers of Holland’s chimneys.

Zwarte Piets are disturbingly ubiquitous across the Netherlands during the festive season. Men and women, predominantly white, dress up as the character to join in parades, to greet children in shops and malls, or just to black-up apparently for the sheer love of it.

Zwarte Piets are everywhere, making appearances on chocolates and in advertisements, shop windows and department stores. Perhaps most worryingly, children do Zwarte Piet-themed schoolwork and sing Zwarte Piet songs from a very young age.

For years, a movement has campaigned against Zwarte Piet’s appearance and characterisation. Most notably, a collective of activists recently demanded that the municipality of Amsterdam review the inclusion of the character in the city’s annual parade.

Professor Gloria Wekker, chair of ethnicity and gender studies at Utrecht University – dubbed Holland’s Angela Davis – was a key player in the court proceedings.

“What is at stake here is not just black people feeling they are being discriminated against, but the recognition of the institutional, systemic and symbolic aspects of racism,” she said.


POLITICAL AWAKENING: Protesters demonstrate earlier this year against the tradition of Zwarte Piet

The campaign faces an uphill struggle though, with only six out of 211 local councils opting to make any changes, however small, to the blackface characters.

Stubbornness on the local government level has been matched by police heavy-handedness.

Quinsy Gario, a Curaçaoan artist and long-term resident of the Netherlands, was forcefully arrested for wearing a ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’ T-shirt at a Sinterklaas festival in 2011. This month, 90 demonstrators were arrested in the city of Gouda for protesting against Zwarte Piet.

The standard, supposedly rational arguments, in defence of Zwarte Piet (aside from the chimney fantasy) are either attempts to trivialise or to dodge the discussion altogether.

When challenged, Piet loyalists will infuriatingly point to ‘real’ problems like Ebola or ISIS, or refer to incidents, like the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, as ‘real’ racism.

Gario, who inadvertently became the face of the anti-racism movement following his arrest, explained that the Dutch majority continue to understand racism as something confined to interpersonal attacks, rather than as “a system of oppression and subjugation”.

The Dutch establishment dismisses any critique as an attack levelled by PC militants on the nation’s innocent children. Some people attribute this collective denial to a colonial blind spot, concluding that it is sheer stubbornness that preserves this tradition, rather than blatant racism.

SINISTER

Meanwhile, however, a more vitriolic pro-Zwarte Piet majority has been mobilised, suggesting the blackface party could be indicative of something more sinister.

A Facebook page, rife with bigotry, immigrant bashing and barefaced racism, is dedicated to defending Zwarte Piet remaining exactly as he is, right down to the gold earrings.


VOICE: A taxi driver shares his view during a protest

Disturbingly, it has attracted two million likes in a population of 16 million – five per cent of which (800,000) define themselves as Afro-Dutch.

Bergman described the reaction as a “tidal wave of racist backlash” in which the Zwarte Piet’s critics are “threatened with death and continually attacked in a very racist manner”. This, Gario added, shows “that white supremacist thought is alive and kicking”.

After all, the act of defending something your fellow countrymen find aggressively racist and throwing yourself behind it publicly on social media or painting your child’s face black, shows, at the very least, a disturbing disregard for the charge of racism, if not blunt racism.

The ‘Us vs Them’ tone that runs through the debate also underlines that non-white Dutch, whether first, second or third generation, continue to be categorised as outsiders and treated with suspicion.

The fact that the word “neger” continues to be heard in polite conversation in Dutch society should sound the alarm if nothing else does. It is not just naivety that preserves this tradition.

And yet, this grossly imbalanced debate, in which the majority of the public, as well as the media and elected leadership, trivialise and dismiss those standing up to racism goes largely ignored outside The Netherlands.

Perhaps if the wider world woke up to this debate and vindicated the charge of racism – blindingly obvious to most – the Dutch majority, who pride themselves on their tolerance above all else, might be more inclined to confront their colonial history, and take racism, past and present, seriously.

In the end, however, as Gario believes, international awareness and scrutiny of the “Netherlands’ secret practice of blackface” is important, but change will ultimately be delivered by the home-grown vocal anti-racism movement that has emerged in the country – a movement that will ensure you never hear the name Zwarte Piet again.

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