The struggle against Blackface in the Netherlands

The annual Sinterklaas Festival in the Netherands has become a testing ground for the status of ethnic minorities and their attempts to influence what it means to be Dutch. The festival is based on a legend that every December, St. Nicholas travels to the Netherlands from Spain with an army of helpers or “Black Petes”, clownish and acrobatic figures dressed in Moorish page suits. to reward or punish children. In recent years people of colour have pushed back against the racist, colonial vestige with encouraging results, says Sandew Hira.

The racist stereotype of Blackface has a long tradition in the Netherlands and is rooted in the celebration of the memory of Sinterklaas, which sounds like the Christmas Santa Claus but is in reality very different. The character of Sinterklaas is based on a Catholic bishop from Myra (in Turkey), who was celebrated for the many miracles he performed and was elevated to the status of a saint. He lived in the fourth century, but the legends around him continued well into the 19th century in Europe.

In 1850 a Dutch primary school teacher, Jan Schenkman, published a picture book titled Sint Nikolaas and his servant, in which he developed the storyline and characters that became the foundation of the current-day Sinterklaas celebration. The story goes as follows. Sint Nikolaas – commonly referred to as Sinterklaas – is a bishop from Spain who visits the Netherlands by steamship. He arrives in Amsterdam with his black servants (Black Pete) and is welcomed by the population. He goes to a bakery and buys sweets. On the night of 5 December he travels on the roofs of the houses with his white horse and his black servants. The servants climbed down the chimneys and put the sweets and presents in the shoes that the little children have put them out in anticipation of his visit. Sinterklaas keeps a book in which he records which children have behaved well and who has been naughty. The black servants might try to take the naughty children away from their parents. But Sinterklaas often shows clemency and Black Pete releases the children.

On the basis of this legend, a massive cultural phenomenon has developed in the Netherlands. Three weeks before 5 December hundreds of thousands of children with their parents welcome Sinterklaas at a harbor in different municipalities. Moreover, there is a national parade organized by the public broadcasting company where Sinterklaas is welcomed and the Sinterklaas season officially commences. During this season all major warehouses decorate their shops with characters of Sinterklaas and Black Pete. Sweets and presents in typical Sinterklaas and Black Pete figures are put out for sale. A whole set of children’s songs about Sinterklaas and Black Pete can be heard on radio, in the shops and in primary schools where children are taught to sing them. Presents are accompanied with special Sinterklaas poems that are written by those handing out the presents: family members, friends, colleagues at workplaces. The whole atmosphere during this season is filled with fun and feelings of love for children. After 5 December the warehouses swiftly change their windows and fill them with Christmas decorations so that the shopping for presents can continue right up to the end of the year. But during the Sinterklaas season Sinterklaas and Black Pete dominate the public space.

The social forces behind the anti-racist movement

In 1940 the kingdom of the Netherlands had a majority Muslim population. Almost 90% of the total population of the kingdom were Muslims, but they had no civil rights. The kingdom consisted of the Netherlands, Indonesia, Suriname and the Antilles in the Caribbean. The total population was around 80 million: 71 million in Indonesia (Muslim), 9 million in the Netherlands and 0.2 million in the Caribbean. Indonesia won its freedom from the Netherlands in 1949 after a bloody war that cost 150,000 Indonesian lives. Suriname got its independence in 1975. The Antilles are still Dutch colonies.

In the mid 1960’s the Dutch attracted thousands of so called guest workers mainly from Turkey, Morocco, Spain and Italy to work in the industry. Mass migration from Suriname to the Netherlands began in around 1970. Today the Netherlands has a population of 17 million, of whom less than two million are people of colour: 410,000 Turks, 400,000 Moroccans, 350,000 Surinamese, 87,000 Antillians with the balance being made up by Muslims from many different countries. Around 60% of all people of colour are Muslim. The communities of colour with African descent are from Suriname (40% of the Surinamese community has African ancestry), the Antilles (almost 100% are of African descent) and some other African countries.

The first generation of immigrants in the Netherlands was focused on building the infrastructure of their communities, mainly religious and cultural institutions. Their close connections with families and communities in their countries of origin led to a focus on what was happening in their countries. But their children and grandchildren, the second and third generations, shifted their focus to the social struggle in the Netherlands.

The atmosphere during the Sinterklaas season has undergone a marked change because of the presence of people of African descent in the Netherlands. Black adults experienced how white children were afraid of them. They were called names after Black Pete. Black children were bullied at school. Insults and a general negative stereotype attitude pervaded this season more than in other periods. The first and second generation endured the insults, but the third generation took the struggle to the street and thus changed social attitudes towards the season.

In November 2011 two black activists, Quincy Gario and Kno’ Ledge Cesare, attended the national parade of Sinterklaas in the city of Dordrecht wearing T-shirts with the slogan  ‘Black Pete is racism’. They were immediately arrested. Suddenly the children’s festival of Sinterklaas was linked to an ugly phenomenon: racism. It prompted a national debate on the identity of Dutch culture. Is this national cultural festival proof that Dutch culture is inherently racist? How is the superiority of white Sinterklaas and the inferiority of his black servants linked to colonialism, and more specifically to the history of slavery? What does the educational system teach Dutch children about slavery?

The national discussion received further impetus from a new form of activism: black activists now engaged in confrontational tactics. An organization was formed – Kick Out Zwarte Piet/Kick Out Black Pete (KOZP) – that organized buses to attend the national parade and the parades in different municipalities, knowing very well that they would get arrested. Although the numbers of people involved in the confrontational tactics were small (from less than a hundred to a few hundred, some with a majority of white activists), its political effect was massive. The question whether the Dutch – who portray themselves as a liberal and progressive nation – are racist was hotly discussed in schools, in the workforce, in sports clubs and at family dinners.

The discussion had international ramifications. In neighbouring Belgium Sinterklaas is celebrated in the same way as it is in Holland. They also have a national parade and a shopping season. Although there were no demonstrations in Belgium, a  national discussion also took off in the media.

In 2015 the United Nations published a report in which it urged the Dutch government to “actively promote the elimination of those features of the character of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery”.

The discussion on whether the character of Black Pete should be changed as the Sinterklaas celebration had a practical dimension: should the Dutch decorate their schools, workplaces, offices and houses with elements of Black Pete or not? Are they racists if they do? In 2013 a Facebook petition was organized to keep the character of Black Pete in the celebration. It was signed by 2.1 million people.

But in the years that followed two trends developed among the Dutch population under the pressure of the annual demonstrations against Black Pete and racism in the Netherlands. A growing segment of Dutch people came to accept the idea of removing the character of Black Pete from the Sinterklaas celebration. In a 2013 survey, 89% of the Dutch did not want any change in the character of Black Pete. In another survey in 2019 this number had dropped to 59%. In the big cities with large communities of colour such as Amsterdam and The Hague the drop was even higher.

The shift in public opinion led to changes in the policies of some municipalities which fund the Sinterklaas parades. Amsterdam was one of the earliest cities to abolish the character of Black Pete from its parade. Other cities followed and in this year the organizers of the national parade substituted the character of Black Pete with non-black characters.

One consequence of the shift in Dutch public opinion was the rise of fascist groups that have taken the lead in the movement to keep Black Pete in the Sinterklaas celebration. They used their old strategy of violent confrontation, physically blocking demonstrations against Black Pete. In 2017 buses with anti-blackface activists on their way to the parade in the city of Dokkum were blocked on the highway by violent extremists. It took the police several hours to remove them. In 2018 the authorities fined the extremists for blocking the highway.

In 2019 a congress of KOZP in The Hague was attacked by hooligans with fireworks and baseball sticks. The building could have caught fire, but fortunately it did not. The police arrested five people between 13-37 years old. The extreme right now mobilize violent groups to attack anti-Blackface demonstrators. The situation is turned around: the police protect anti Blackface demonstrators who paint themselves black and shout “Black is beautiful”.

The violence of the pro-Blackface groups and their openly fascist connections has further isolated the pro-Blackface groups in Dutch society. In the final analysis the movement against Blackface in the Netherlands has achieved an amazing result in less than 10 years. In Belgium the state broadcaster, in cooperation with the warehouses, has decided to totally abolish the character of Black Pete in the Sinterklaas season. Many municipalities – certainly in the big cities – have abolished Black Pete. The national parade too has abolished Black Pete.

The next step

The actions against Black Pete offered great opportunities to build a broad anti-racist movement in the Netherlands. In the initial phase there was a connection between racism and Islamophobia. In the context of the political situation in the Netherlands these opportunities were huge, because Holland is the only country in Europe where political parties based on ethnicity succeeded in gaining seats in the national parliament. In 2014 two members of the Labour Party of Turkish descent, Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, left the party and kept their seats in parliament. The founded the political party DENK. In March 2016 they attracted Sylvana Simons, a public figure in the music entertainment industry, to the party. Simons is of African descent and her entry into the party symbolized the alliance of black and Muslim activists. There was outrage in the media and among white left organizations at the formation of this alliance. Forces came into play to try and break it. In December 2016 Simons left DENK and founded her own political party Artikel 1, later renamed Bij1. She used the theory of intersectionality to justify her step, claiming that DENK was not agitating strongly enough against LGTB oppression. Many black activists in the anti-Blackface movement went along with the intersectional line and thus broke the alliance against racism and Islamophobia.

But the discussion is not over. The coming years will show whether the social movements in the Netherlands are able to rebuild the much-needed alliance of blacks and Muslims that will shape the future of Europe.

Sandew Hira is secretary of the DIN Foundation based in The Hague in The Netherlands.  He is a well known activist, author and researcher.  He heads the editorial board for Amrit Publishers, and is the founder of the International Institute for Scientific Research.  You can find many videos of his lectures on Decolonising the Mind and related topics on the IHRC website and IHRC Tv.