Beyond blackface: emancipation through the struggle against Black pete, Dutch racism and Afrophobia

Beyond blackface: emancipation through the struggle against Black pete, Dutch racism and Afrophobia

This article is based upon a presentation given at the Third Decoloniality Europe Network meeting “the next step against the struggle against anti-Black, anti-Roma and Islamophobia racism in Europe of May 16th tot May 19th 2014 in Amsterdam. The article contains a reflection on the struggle against Black Pete (‘Zwarte Piet’), institutional racism and emancipation of the African Diaspora and people of color in the Netherlands.

A Dutch children’s holiday, institutional racism and emancipation are related to each other through “Black Pete”, a figure which is part of one of the biggest Dutch Holidays called ‘Sinterklaas’. The figure is loved by many Dutch people but has becomecontroversial due to its racist characteristics. Since 2013, Black Pete became turned into a national debate exposing the Dutch difficult relation with its colonial past and its present day legacy of racism.

What is “Black Pete”?

Every December 5th the Dutch celebrate ‘Sinterklaas’, a feast rooted in Middle Age folklore. The legend goes that Saint Nicholas travels from Spain in the Netherlands every year with his steamboat to reward the children who have behaved well with presents and punish those who have behaved naughty. The old, wise and kind white saint dressed in his red and white robe and cloak moves from chimney to chimney on his loyal white horse to distribute presents en delicacies to the well behaved children. The saint, however, does not have to do all of this work himself, he is accompanied by an army of helpers, the “Black Petes” [Zwarte Pieten], a crew of clownish and acrobatic figures dressed in Moorish page suits, who supposedly have become black because they climb through the chimneys at night secretly giving out the presents while the children sleep.

The controversy starts where myth and reality meet. A few weeks before the actual holiday, Sinterklaas and his Black Petes are welcomed by a national fanfare and parade. Dutch children and parents who have been preparing for this event for weeks through games and assignments on schools, through children’s TV shows and shops filled with Sinterklaas and Black Pete imagery. The Black Petes, however, are played by white people who paint their faces black, wear Afro wigs and golden ‘creole’ earring and thicken their lips with red lipstick. Indeed, these are white people dressing up in blackface. While Blackfacing, they play their role as the subservient, unintelligent, childish and clownish caricature helping the old, wise and kind white Saint to carry out the work. For the majority of Dutch people, this “innocent children’s holiday” is a period of pleasure and bonding between friends and family as the tradition involves writing and exchanging poems, giving and receiving gifts and spending time with loved ones. To others, especially black people, however, Black Pete reflects a painful colonial history where white men who considered themselves superior subjugated, dehumanized and enslaved black bodies which they deemed inferior. Critics of this Dutch tradition are met with verbal and in some cases even physical aggression by its staunch defenders. As a result, the controversy surrounding the Dutch tradition has sparked activism and a national debate about the Dutch colonial legacy, identity, citizenship and institutional racism.

An invented tradition rooted in racism

Although the Sinterklaas tradition is rooted in Middle Age European history, the figure Black Pete appeared for the first time in the mid 19th century (Smith, 2014). Research has pointed out that the Black Pete figure was introduced by Jan Schenkman who wrote the popular children’s book ‘Sinterklaas en zijn knecht ‘ (1848) [‘Sinterklaas and his servant’]where the Saint traveled from Spain to the Netherlands on a steamboat accompanied by black servants. As the Black Pete figure became more popular and prominent in the tradition its appearance evolved throughout time. It was introduced at a time when racialized images of black people where produced as part of a larger body of representations of black people, racial hierarchies and a global colonial/racial formation (Grosfoguel, 1999). At the time the figure of Black Pete was produced the Netherlands was a global colonial power involved in slavery and slave trade for more than 200 years. From the late sixteenth century to the abolishment of slavery in 1863, the Dutch had traded 554,000 African men, women and children across the Atlantic and enslaved millions more (Hira and Small, 2014). To justify the enslavement of African people, colonial expansion and segregation in the 20th century racist ideologies were produced. During this period biological racism was the dominant discourse justifying the ‘Other’ as genetically inferior beings. This dominant discourse was adopted by Western social and natural scientists and philosophers such as David Hume, who wrote:

“I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.”[1]

This dominant discourse of biological racism was translated into stereotypical images and representations of black people as stupid, ugly, childlike, ruled by base desires and impulses who were closer to apes than to people. On the other hand, white people were represented as good looking, trustworthy, and civilized who were ruled by reason and intelligence. These racial ideologies and stereotypes about black people were materialized, visualized and communicated to the general population through myths, folklore and (children’s) books. The books “White about Black: images of Africa and blacks in popular western culture” by Jan Nederveen Pieterse[2] and “Black: the image of black people in the Dutch illustration art 1880 – 1980” by Jeroen Kapelle and Drik J. Tang show how the visual images and stereotypes about black people in western art and popular culture developed over time and how they were rooted in Eurocentric and racist thought. Stereotypical images of black people were popularized through minstrel shows in the US and Europe, in which white people dressed up in blackface to entertain white audiences through stereotypes of Black people as “happy-go lucky, dancing, singing, joking buffoons”.These blackface traditions reinforced notions of black inferiority, inhumanity and white supremacy. As Otoo (2012, 62) stated: “it was designed for and by white people to reinforce the message: “they” are not like “us” Blackface became a popular expression of this dominant discourse of biological racism (Brienen, 2014, 185). In the UK Golliwog, an old black “nigger” doll became a popular image and in Germany blackface traditions arose in the East German film industry to entertain predominantly white audiences. The development and popularization of the Black Pete figure, which has similar characteristics as other forms of racist stereotypes of black people such as the blackface minstrels with the thickened lips, the coal blackened skin, the clownish attitude to entertain and serve white audiences cannot be isolated from this historical and cultural context.

Dutch Innocence

The most common argument given by the Dutch to defend their tradition is to say “it’s just an innocent children’s holiday”. Indeed, the Dutch belief in their own innocence and good will. Furthermore, the tradition is deemed as one of the most popular aspects of Dutch culture and identity, an essential tradition to be or become Dutch. Ethnologist Helsloot (2012) stated: “every Dutch child is socialized into the ritual, at home and in schools, producing a strong emotional attachment that continues to hold sway in later life.”In the recently publicized collection of critical essays and articles Essed and Hovinga Dutch racism (2014) stated that Dutch Racism can be characterized by the claim to innocence, a sense of moral superiority and a strong sense of entitlement. Despite a long history of slavery and colonialism the Dutch have constructed a self-image of “being a tolerant, small and just ethical nation and that foregrounds being a victim rather than a perpetrator of international violence” (Wekker in Essed and Hovinga, 21). A self-image constructed through a misrepresentation of history as the Dutch pride themselves on their glorious national achievements as a center of commerce, science and art during of the “Golden Age” the 16th to 17th century while denying, downplaying or misrepresenting its participation in slavery and the slave trade, colonial wars in Indonesia and oppression of colonized people. The former Prime Minister Balkenende passionately urged Dutch citizens to be proud of their culture and history by taking up the good old Dutch VOC mentality – the Dutch multinational VOC involved in the colonization of parts of Asia and Trans-Atlanticslave trade.

This statement of the prominent political leader of the country should not come as a surprise when one takes into account how the identities and understanding of Dutch history and culture are shaped through the educational system. In a study on school text books Melissa Weiner (2013) showed how the Dutch involvement in slavery and colonialism is either ignored or distorted towards the master narrative which focused on how the Dutch experienced slavery and includes sentences such as ‘the Dutch had a very hard time on the plantations'[3][4]. This narrative serves the construction of a Dutch national identity based on whiteness, innocence and “being good” and makes it hard to have a meaningful discussion about racism and the legacy of slavery and colonialism in the Netherlands. Ignorance prevails in discussions about the shared history of white Dutch people and Dutch people of African descent. In March 2014, the current prime minister Rutte caused more controversy after making the following comment when confronted with a question about Black Pete at the Nuclear Security Summit:

“It is an old Dutch children’s tradition, Saint Nicolas and Black Pete. It is not about a green or brown Pete and I cannot change that. I can only say that my friends in the Netherlands Antilles are very happy with the Saint Nicolas celebration, because they don’t have to paint their faces. When I play Black Pete, I am for days trying to get the grime off my face.”[5]

Black protest meets white denial and aggression

Ever since black people have been in the Netherlands there has been protest against the racist element of the national tradition Sinterklaas protesters and accusations of racism, however, are met with aggression and denial as the Dutch tend to associate racism with covert racism such as Jim Crow in the US, Apartheid in South Africa and Nazism. ‘Racism is something the Dutch don’t do’, as it opposes the national self-definition and culture of “innocence”, tolerance and liberalism. The majority of white people and mass media continue to dismiss protesters against the “blackface tradition” as being “oversensitive”, “whining” and “trapped in the past”. In many cases the protesters are confronted with aggressive counter reactions, being ignored or ridiculed. Denying the existence of race and racism reflects the ‘politics of color blindness’ and dismissing black people and people of colors feelings and perspective while claiming the authority to decide whether Black Pete is racist or not. It reflects the unequal balance of power embedded in the structure of Dutch society and white privilege.

Since the 60s progressive white people contested the blackface caricature Black Pete through relatively small scale protests. These protests intensified in the 70s and 80s when a large number of African Carribean people migrated from former colonies Surinam and the Dutch Antilles to “the motherland”. In the 60s M.C. Grunbauer proposed a “White Pete plan’ and in the 80s an organization of Surinamese migrants set up the campaign “White clause and Black Pete? This is no party! Stop racism, Stop Sinterklaas Blanke baas [Santa clause, white boss] and in the 90s Surinamese youth from Amsterdam Southeast set up the action committee Zwarte Piet = Zwart Verdriet [Black Pete =black grief].[6] Several schools in the predominantly black neighborhood Amsterdam Southeast introduced “Colored Petes’ as an alternative to the Black Petes and in 1993 the city of Amsterdam experimented with ‘Colored Petes’ at the official Sinterklaas parade of the city. The latter, was met with aggression and dismissal by the majority of white people so the changes were cancelled quickly.[7]

The impact of these protests stayed relatively small and local. A change took place in October 2011. Two black artists – Quinsy Gario and Kno’ledge Cesare- attended the official national televised Sinterklaas festivities in the city of Dordrecht. About 60.000 people were expected and more than 1.8 million viewed on TV. They were engaged in an art project which aimed to foster dialogue about issues of racism related to the figure Black Pete by spray painting t-shirt with the slogan “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” on it. They visited festivals and events to spray paint and sell the t-shirt, they engaged in dialogue with thousands of people and photographed them for the media website To foster dialogue, the two artists went to the festivities accompanied by a Danish student wearing their “Zwarte Piet Is Racisme”-t-shirts. When they wanted to expose a banner with the slogan, the police forbid them to do that as ‘demonstrations’ were not allowed that day. The artists agreed and silently stood at the side of the parade wearing their protests when a few police men subsequently arrested them using violence and force, dragging Quinsy Gario over the floor into an ally while he was screaming ‘but I haven’t done anything!’. The police force was filmed by a bystander, uploaded on Youtube and went viral immediately. The artists were fined and set free after a few hours in custody as they refused to pay. The day afterwards a few other black people such as artists and activists Kunta Richo and Miss Kitty voicing their concerns by spraying t-shirt with the slogan “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” at the festivities in the city center of Amsterdam were arrested as well. These weren’t incidents but merely two well known examples of aggression and deep rooted racism when people protest and voice out their views on this “Dutch tradition”. In August 2008 two artists from the van Abbe art museum in the Netherlands aimed to organize a ‘performance’ protest march to ‘voice critique against the phenomenon of Black Pete’ as part of a long-term project called ‘Read the masks. Tradition is not given.’ The management of the museum had to cancel the activity because of the threats of violence as they received hundreds of negative emails and public opinion condemned them after the media took notice of the event. It must be noted that these events were not picked up by the mainstream media initially but the reactions on social media indicated that the majority of Dutch people approved the police actions and aggressive reactions towards protesting people.[8]

The rise of the anti-Black Pete movement

Since the arrest of Quinsy Gario and Kno’ledge Cesare the debate and protest increased, especially via social media. The anti-Black Pete movement, however, arose in prominence in 2013 after 21 people including Quinsy Gario, activists, intellectuals, youth from different cultural and social backgrounds filed a law suit against the city of Amsterdam. Against facilitating activities with “racist” elements as the Dutch capital organizes an annual Sinterklaas parade annually attracting thousands of children and parents. The law suit was picked up by mainstream media, who used to ignore the controversial subject. The media attention reaching the masses of people via TV, newspapers and social media sparked a massive wave of aggressive, racist and xenophobic reactions on social media towards Quinsy and anti-Black Pete protesters. The debate got more heated when Verene Sheperd, a Jamaican academic advising the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights as part of the working group for People of African Descent announced that they would instigate an investigation into the “tradition” and urged the Dutch government to ‘end the racist tradition’ because it ‘reminded black people to the horrible history of slavery’:

“The working party cannot understand why the Dutch cannot see that [the Zwarte Piet character] is a return to slavery and that this festival must stop in the 21st century […] If I, as a black person, were to live in the Netherlands, I would have objections.”” [9][10]

Her remarks were picked up by international media, parked so much fury that a group of Dutch people organized a pro-Piet demonstration, set up a pro-Pete petition and Facebook page called Pietitie which reached the mark of 2 million likes within a few days and even threatened the UN advisor with violent and racist reactions.[11] The anti-Zwarte Piet movement gained momentum as it sparked a heated national debate about racism, identity and citizenship in the Netherlands, issues which had been ignored and denied for a long time in the country of “innocence and tolerance”.

The new form of racism and the continuation of blackface

Because of, the Dutch self-image of “innocence” critical self-reflection and debate about racism has been a taboo for a long time, but the dominant discourse seems to be changing. Grosfoguel (1999) argued that the dominant discourse of biological racism was delegitimized after the Nazi occupations and Second World War in Europe and the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Instead, it changed into a new form of racism which he calls “cultural racism”, a form of racism in which the word race is not even used, it is seen as a thing of the past. Instead, the discourse is centered on ethnic minorities which are viewed as essentially different and mutually exclusive from the dominant culture. The public discourse on ethnic minorities is associated with (social challenges and) problems and their inability of integrating into Dutch society due to their ‘culture’. The inferior status of ethnic minority cultures is expressed in relation to criminality, their labor market position and social welfare dependency which is constructed as a consequence of their cultural values, habits and behaviors implying the cultural superiority of dominant Dutch culture. Explicit forms of racism are generally not accepted anymore but classified as extreme right.

In contrast to the Netherlands, antiracist movements of people of Color in other parts of the world supported by white allies gained power and changed the public discourse, politics and policies. They managed to banish covert forms of racism such as the ‘Jim Crow segregation in the US, racial discrimination on the labor market in the United Kingdom, the Apartheid system in South Africa and explicit forms of racial discrimination including racial stereotypes such as, the minstrel shows and the Golliwog.[12] [13] In contrast to the US and the UK the Netherlands never had a mass movement of black people and people of color who collectively challenged the dominant narrative and confronted the Dutch with their colonial history and its present day legacy. The Dutch have never been forced to engage in critical self-reflection about racism in their own country which is why the self-image of “innocence” has prevailed and a racist caricature is still deemed “innocent and playful” where they are seen as offensive, politically, socially and morally incorrect in other countries.[14] Although they differ in context, similar blackface caricatures, rooted in the same racist and colonial ideologies are also still present in other European countries such as Germany where blackface is regularly used in theater shows, where a popular TV-show host invited an entire audience to dress up in blackface and most recently German soccer fans attended FIFA World Cup games in Brazil in blackface.[15] [16] In Sweden, the minister of Culture, sparked controversy by eating a ‘blackface cake’ and in France a group of police officers steered debate after organizing a ‘blackface party’.[17] [18]

Scratching beyond the surface, hiding behind the blackface mask

The national debate around Black Pete has polarized people for and against maintaining the tradition, common ground seems hard to find. Just like masks and Blacked faces serve to hide people true faces to take on a mythical identity, the Black Pete seems to hide the Dutch ambivalent relation with its colonial history, slavery and its legacy. When we look beyond the surface of the Black Pete debate it exposes structural problems in Dutch society of everyday and institutional racism and structural inequality rooted in 400 years of colonial cultural production. From primary school to higher education black and minority children are faced with structural obstacles such as low expectations of teachers based on stereotypical images and prejudice of teachers resulting in lower rates of attendance in higher education. On the labor market black and minority people are faced with the same stereotypes and prejudice fostering labor market discrimination resulting in an unemployment rate of 28,4% among migrant youths which is three times as high in comparison to native Dutch youths of which only 9,8 % are unemployed. The European Commission against Racism and Tolerance, a human rights body of the Council of Europe concluded that the Netherlands needs to better address its issues of racism in a report published in 2013.[20] Research by Amnesty International, published in 2013 as well, showed how black and minority youth are more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police due to ethnic profiling. In daily live, black and ethnic minority people, regularly have to deal with micro aggressions: “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” (WingSue, 2010)

In 2014 the New Urban Collection launched the campaign I, Too, Am VU / UvA on the VU University and University of Amsterdam aimed to foster institutional change and dialogue about issues of diversity, exclusion, institutional racism and micro aggressions both on the campus and in Dutch society in general. The photo campaign consists of examples (personal experiences) of micro aggressions which black and other minority students have experienced on, and of campus. The photo campaign more than 50 students and graduates where photographed with typical micro aggressions they have encountered sparked the discussion and sparked a debate which beyond the surface. The campaign included examples of students were called the N-word, who were being excluded and ‘Othered’ through language and denigrating yet well intentioned questions such as ‘But, where are you really from?’ and questioned because they questioned the national blackface tradition Black Pete. My own example of a micro aggression reflected the Dutch problem with racism, the self-image of “innocence” and Black Pete. After I questioned the caricature in a discussion with fellow Anthropology master’s students at the university one of them responded:

In my opinion Zwarte Piet has always been the one who went through the chimney to provide the children who were good with presents, so not in any way anything bad. The innocence therefore for a child is something that is destroyed by emphasizing the racism debate – something which is in my opinion not very wise to do because the concept of race has been rejected for a long time in the Dutch scholarly society, and unfortunately when applicable used in debates. I think that you know, as well as I, that race is not the right word here to use; if you want to talk about something the concept of discrimination would suffice better. […] Her friend, another fellow class mate got emotional and responded: […]And besides that, nobody is forcing you to celebrate it. It is a part of Dutch culture however, so you can accept that and shut up, or keep whining about it and move. (Discussion in Anthropology Facebook group on December 5th 2012 )

The discussion reflected the Dutch self-image of innocence, the perception of Black Pete as an “innocent children’s tradition” and the micro-agression of dismissing critical views on the tradition.

Everyday racism behind blackface

The protest against Black Pete is more than a protest against a “racist caricature” and the “innocent children’s holiday”. The protest essentially is a symbolic struggle against structural inequality, micro aggressions, racism and discrimination which have been normalized in daily routines, dominant discourse and traditions but also structures such as the labor market and the education system. In her work on everyday racism in the Netherlands Philomena Essed (1991, 295) wrote:

“Once we recognize the fact that racism is systematically integrated into meanings and routine practices by which social relations are reproduced, it follows that it is not specific agents but the very fabric of the social system that must be problematized. This requires that we reformulate the problem of racism as an everyday problem. The analysis of everyday racism makes clear that racism must be combated through culture as well as through other structural relations of the system. Racism not only operates through culture, it is also the expression of structural conflict. Individuals are actors in a power structure. Power can be used to reproduce racism, but it can also be used to combat racism.”

Therefore, when we think about Black Pete we have to analyze the social system and the structural relations in society behind the blackened face. The protest against Black Pete is an expression of structural conflict in which individuals and organizations use their power to combat racism. The anti-black Pete protests of the recent years has sparked activism and protest amongst ordinary people, individuals, students, young professionals, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who became fed up with daily forms of micro aggressions and everyday racism. In 2013 hundreds of them, especially black people and people of African descent, were united in a common goal: to get rid of Black Pete, a symbol of everyday racism. Although the protests started by individuals such as Quinsy Gario, Kno’ledge Cesare, Kunta Rincho, Miss Kitty and Anousha Nzume, in addition to relatively small networks and organizations of anti-racist organizations, their impact has been significant. In 2013 we observed how the Black Pete debate exposed latent racism and xenophobia in Dutch society and how the dominant discourse changed.

Unfinished emancipation and decolonization of minds

Equally important, the anti-Black Pete actions seems to have started a movement and continued the process of emancipation of black people in the Netherlands. As Nimako & Willemsen stated in the seminal book ‘The Dutch Atlantic: Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation’, the legal abolition of the enslaved on July 1st 1863 was ‘piecemeal and incremental’ and maintained ‘long-entrenched racialized and gendered systems of inequality and political power’. Indeed; ’emancipation was unfinished’. Today the legacy of slavery still exists as the African Diaspora and people of color continue to face issues of identity and culture, institutional racism, and structural inequality in education, in the labor market, through ethnic profiling, and other forms of racism.

As argued before, the Sinterklaas tradition is considered an essential aspect of Dutch identity and culture which is based on a national identity based on whiteness, “overt or covert feelings of superiority”, “innocence” and being good”. People, especially black and ethnic minority people, protesting against the national tradition are seen as “Others” who “want to take away our Dutch tradition” and “need to go back to where they came from”. The Black Pete debate seems to reflect issues of citizenship and identity for people from the African Diaspora as well. While the debate sparks intense debate and racist and xenophobic, “Othering” black Dutch people it is a way of claiming citizenship by actively participating in Dutch society in pursuit of true equality and emancipation. As Steve Biko stated: ‘the most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’. Besides physical, economic and political domination, an essential aspect of slavery was the colonization the mind and consciousness of people of African descent. In the article ‘Decolonizing the mind: the case of the Netherlands, decolonial scholar Sandew Hira described how mechanisms of colonizing and decolonizing the mind work. These mechanisms include ‘the concept of inferiority of the non-western culture and the superiority of western culture linked to colour’ and ‘the concept of self-humiliation of the coloured people and self-glorification of the white people’. According to Hira (2007) the Sinterklaas celebration, is an example of the concept of inferiority of non-western culture and the superiority of western culture linked to colour reflected in one of the Sinterklaas children’s songs with lyrics like: “even though I am black as coal, my intentions are good” (Hira, 2007, 63). He states: “decolonizing the mind means analyzing the mechanisms that have been used to imprint this concept in our mind and finding ways to remove it from our consciousness” (Hira, 2007, 63). The fight against Black Pete reflects the process of emancipation through decolonization of the mind. By asserting their agency, challenging dominant discourses and institutions and demanding change black people continue the process of emancipation and decolonization. As the political leader, entrepreneur and one of the proponents of pan-Africanism Marcus Garvey wrote:

“We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind; use your intelligence to work out the real things of life. The time you waste in levity, in non-essentials, if you use it properly you will be able to guarantee to your posterity a condition better than you inherited from your forefathers.”

Black community organizations, cultural and activist groups have been active in remembering the history of slavery and its legacy through local events, festivals, official commemorations culminating in the realization of the National Slavery Monument in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam, the Keti Koti festival and other forms of self-organization and commemoration. These activities were spearheaded by a relatively small group of activists and community leaders. The Black Pete debate, however, seems to have sparked the mobilization of a large number of people, both young and old, black, white and other people of color to protest against this symbol of everyday racism “Black Pete”. As Malcolm X stated: “usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.” For a long time, the majority of black people and people of color did not actively voice out their concerns out of fear, hopelessness and complacency but this seems to have changed. After the violent arrests of Quinsy and Kno’ledge and even more since the legal action of 2013 more and more people, black, people of color and white Dutch are engaged in forms of protests via social media, by demonstrating, by writing articles, debating at home, at work and on the streets. International media such as BBC, Al Jazeera and The Huffington Post and institutions such as the United Nations have paid attention to the case scrutinizing the international reputation of the Netherlands as a “tolerant” and “progressive country”. The anti-Black Pete movement gained momentum and changed the dominant discourse. According to postcolonial theory of Gilroy white people need to go through a process to recognize and deal with their own racism. It starts with denial and continues with phases of guilt, shame, recognition and finally reparation. The typical responses around “Black Pete” start with denial through aggression and dismissal. Increasingly, however, reflections of guilt, shame and recognition can be observed. Whereas issues of racism, discrimination and especially protest against Black Pete where a taboo, minor changes are already visible as an increasing number of people are challenging the dominant discourse. More and more “ordinary people”, concerned mothers, fathers, children, white people, famous Dutch people and a few politicians are speaking out against Black Pete. Authorities have showed willingness to change the tradition but they are confronted with resistances from the Dutch majority. In an attempt to foster national dialogue and appease critics the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage presented a, what they viewed as, ‘alternative inoffensive Black Pete’. The ‘inoffensive’ Black Petehowever caused more controversy as it provided little change and still included blackface.[21] On July 3rd the judge will rule on the appeal of the anti-Black pete protestors who filed a law suit against the city of Amsterdam and people are already planning demonstrations and protests for the Sinterklaas period in the Winter of 2014. As dr. Lez Henry stated during one of our event about social movements: “activism is not always about the luminaries we see on the walls all of the time, it’s also about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

Shared history, shared issues, shared struggle

It was during the Summerschool on Black Europe which I attended in 2011 that I first heard of the term Afro-European but only after engaging in critical dialogue with activists, students, scholars and youths during the network meetings ISD and ENAR in Berlin, our youth exchange in London and the Decoloniality conference in Amsterdam that I learned about the true meaning and reality behind the term. The history of slavery of colonialism inescapably connects to the histories of people of the African continent, Europe and America. It connects a history of colonialism and imperialism to the present modern world and it connects an ‘African diaspora’ across Europe, Africa and America; the Black Atlantic (Gilroy, 2006). During the discussions and working sessions of Decoloniality conference, the NUC exchange in London and the ISD / ENAR network meeting I learned that we have more in common than we think. I heard stories from black people from London, Berlin, Antwerp and other European cities which could have been stories from my friends in Amsterdam. As we face similar issues in different places, we can learn from each other’s strategies and experiences and support one another through actions of solidarity. Research of the European Network Against Racism showed how people of African descent, or Black People, face a particular form of discrimination and black racism conceptualized as Afrophobia: “the irrational fear of people of African descent, usually incorporating individuals with West African or Sub-Saharan African origins. Afrophobia also incorporates the fear of ‘Black’ Europeans, or reflective of the US context ‘people of colour” (ENAR, 2013). People of African descent in Europe, or Black Europeans, face harsher socioeconomic conditions than the majority of the population such as labor and employment discrimination, unequal access to housing, racial profiling, the perpetuation of stereotypical images of Africa in the educational system and the issue of refugees. Many of the issues that black people face intersect with the issues other people of color and so-called minorities face. Such as the Islamic communities who face intensifying Islamophobia and the Roma people who face similar issues of discrimination, racism, and exclusion. These common issues are rooted in the system of White Supremacy and racism, and call for a shared struggle and movement to fight against structures of oppression and racism through actions of solidarity and empowering one another to build alternative networks and structures based on principles of equality, humanity, and revolutionary love (Hooks, 2006). I think this movement arose in the Netherlands during the anti-Black Pete debate.

During the Decoloniality Europe, ENAR and ISD meetings scholars, community organizers and activists came together to discuss common interests, objectives and strategies for social change. As ENAR recognized and the Civil Rights Movements taught us: “we need to extend and reinforce our strength as a movement able to mobilise communities on the ground to influence policy developments at European and national levels; we represent one of the clusters of society most excluded from democratic decision making processes, yet the one upon which any decision taken has the most impact.” The protests against Black Pete have been inspired by movements and leaders of the past and present such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks and Angela Davis. As emancipation is still unfinished and the Black Pete caricature continues to be celebrated the movement will continue to grow. We aim to build upon the momentum of the anti-Black Pete movement with the following objectives:

– To acknowledge Black Pete as a racist element of the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition which is offensive to people of African descent, even if it is not intended as such

– To mobilize the black community and the Dutch society in general in the movement against racism and for equality and freedom for all

– To educate and raise awareness about racism, discrimination and exclusion, in particular anti-black racism and Afrophobia

– Urging the government to develop a national strategy against racism and discrimination as proposed by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance[22]

– To urge the national government and the European Union to take specific steps to counter anti-black racism and Afrophobia as specified by the ISD demand catalogue and the ENAR policy paper for people of African descent and Black People [23][24]

How can you support our local struggle?

– Raise awareness: through writing articles, organizing debates and events around the issues of blackfacing, stereotyping black people and POC both in the Netherlands and other countries

– Actions of solidarity: organize actions of protest against Black Pete for example by setting up picket line demonstrations at the Dutch embassy, writing letters to the Dutch embassy or boycotting of businesses who support the blackface traditions.

– Network: contact anti-racist institutions within your network to raise awareness on Black Pete and institutional racism in the Netherlands to scrutinize the Dutch reputation of a “tolerant” and “progressive country” and put pressure on Dutch institutions to ban Black Pete


– Bell hooks (July 2006), “Toward a Worldwide Culture of Love”, Retrieved from:

– Essed (1991) Everyday racism: an interdisciplinary theory, Sage publications. Amsterdam

– Essed P. and Hoving I. (2014) Dutch Racism, Rodopi. Amsterdam

– ENAR, General Policy Paper No. 8: People of African Descent and Black Europeans, June 2013

– Gilroy P. (2006) The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity. In Theorizing Diaspora, edited by Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, 49-80. Malden, MA

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Mitchell Esajas studied Social and Cultural Anthropology, he is co-founder and chairman of the New Urban Collective, a network of students and young professionals with the mission to empower youths from diverse cultural backgrounds and contribute to a more just and equal society with a special interest in youth of African descent and black youth. NUC is member of the Decoloniality Network, the European Network Against Racism and active in the anti-Black Pete movement by raising awareness, producing decolonial knowledge and mobilizing youths in pursuit of emancipation, freedom and equality.

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