Black Pete: Has the time passed for the Dutch blackface tradition? | News from the Netherlands

It seems that the winds of social change have finally reached the shores of the Netherlands.

After years of protests against Black Pete and amid the recent Black Lives Matter protests, the controversial Sinterklaa tradition has largely faded from view this year.

And with the parades canceling COVID-19, Sinterklaas’ arrival by boat this year, with his assistant Black Pete, has been a very low-key event.

“This year has definitely been the year of change,” said Jerry Afriyie, one of the founders of the Dutch anti-racist organization Kick Out Black Pete.

“We used to be called terrorists, now we are the mainstream. The fight today is whether the change is going to be done right.

Black Pete, or Zwarte Piet as it is called in the Netherlands, is a holiday tradition dating back to the 19th century that depicts a helper of Saint Nicholas wearing a black face with an afro wig, large red lips and golden hoops. Many see Black Pete as a racist symbol reminiscent of minstrel performances in the United States and the Netherlands’ involvement in the slave trade.

After George Floyd’s death in the United States, a moment that sparked a global anti-racist movement, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who himself defended Black Pete and dressed in blackface, said: “I hope that in a few years there will be no more Black Petes, “as he acknowledged” systemic problems “with racism in Holland.

“Politicians, they want to be on the right side of history,” Afriyie said, adding that officials are now contacting him and other members of the movement.

“I am delighted that the Prime Minister has finally come to the conclusion that we have a problem with racism in the Netherlands, but it has been years and he has not taken a position, and it has been dangerous.”

National support for Black Pete is waning, according to recent polls, especially in large cities, where Black Pete appears in multicolored, or as Chimney Pete with dark spots on his face, a compromise narrative that contemplates help. of Sinterklaas as covered with soot because it came into the fireplace.

“Nine out of 10 schools changed their decorations from Black Pete to Chimney Pete and also changed the songs.”

While Afriyie praised the moves, he warned that Chimney Pete was also a racist.

“We see them moving away from racism to light racism,” he said. “Darker Chimney Petes is said to have walked through the chimney more times.

“Every black person will tell you that their name was Black Pete in their childhood”

Changing the tradition of Black Pete is a difficult conversation for Dutch citizens.

Myrco Benschop, a black student who works part-time at a store in the south-east of Amsterdam, a predominantly black and immigrant neighborhood, hates being asked if any Black Pete items are being sold this year.

“I think every black person you interview will tell you that they called themselves Black Pete several times in their childhood,” he said.

“I said I’m on the fence first because the argument ‘This is our Dutch culture’ is so ingrained in me.

“It’s not difficult to find an alternative for Black Pete. You know, if you can convince a kid that Sinterklaas exists, you can also convince him Pete took a shower and is no longer black.

Margaret Kwidama was born in Curaçao and has lived in Amsterdam for 25 years.

“On our island, Zwarte Piet is normal,” she says. “The kids are used to him, they get so excited when you mention Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. That’s why I think the Zwarte Piet tradition should stay. I also dress in Zwarte Piet for the children. Things like slavery are a thing of the past. You have to let go and move on. What is in the past is a thing of the past. ”

Recently there have been a flurry of reports that Dutch libraries have removed books featuring Black Pete from their shelves. But the Association of Public Libraries of the Netherlands later issued a statement clarifying that there was no national policy on Black Pete.

“Some libraries choose to keep books in which Zwarte Piet plays a role in the collection, some libraries remove it from the collection and others include them in the warehouse, from where they remain available on request,” the statement said. . “Each library chooses its own pace. In addition, anyone who is a member of a library can access the collections of other libraries. ”

And there are many on the far right who don’t just watch Black Pete lore go slow into the night.

Geert Wilders, the far-right politician who has been accused of inciting hatred and discrimination, tweeted: “Only one is true. Everywhere in NL. It is neither gray nor white and it does not have a smear of soot but it is black. It’s our tradition and our culture and it has nothing to do with racism! Long live Zwarte Piet !! ”

“Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete), who is Saint Nicholas’ assistant, is seen during a traditional parade in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on November 18, 2018 [Eva Plevier / Reuters]

Afriyie was planning anti-Black Pete protests in Eindhoven last week, but the rally was called off because the right-wing, anti-immigration and anti-Islamist group Pegida also applied for a license to demonstrate in support of Black Pete.

“It was very dangerous. We have been attacked for the past two years, last year with fireworks, ”he said, claiming that the authorities previously wanted to place them in the same square at the same time,“ like, ‘ You are fighting ‘.

While the decline in support for Black Pete is encouraging, he warned, “The people who support Black Pete have been radicalized and are being supported by extremists and hooligans.”

Assistants of Saint Nicholas called ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) or ‘Roetpiet’ (Soot Pete) arrive by boat in a port in the Netherlands [File:Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters]

Pegida spokesperson: “When I dress in Zwarte Piet, most people like it”

On Thursday, Mitchell Esajas, co-founder of the Black Archives, which documents the history and culture of black Dutch people, was in parliament discussing policies relating to discrimination and racism in the Netherlands, when his phone rang.

“I received photos from my colleague, who had just arrived at the archives.”

A mural they had commissioned on the wall of the building of black resistance fighters and Surinamese community heroes, including anti-colonialist author Anton de Kom, had been vandalized with white paint painted on their faces.

“They also put stickers on our door and on the mural that read ‘Chimney Pete is white genocide,’” Esajas said.

“Chimney Pete is a compromise. It doesn’t include the racist elements, but there are many Dutch people who think that changing tradition is an attack on their culture. Because there is change, the extreme right is radicalized and it is subject to violence. Many politicians underestimate the radicalization of the far right. ”

Esajas said right-wing social media accounts doxed – seeking out and posting private information about – peaceful protesters, including putting their names and personal information online.

“The stickers they put on our door, we only saw them once, when a group of white extremists, Zwarte Pieten Actiegroep, visited the home of Dutch rapper Akwasi, who gave a speech at the Black Lives Matter protest, and they went blackface and left exactly those stickers.

Edwin Wagensveld, a member and spokesperson for Pegida who organized Eindoven’s pro-Black Pete counter-protest this year, admitted that “football hooligans” were showing up at the anti-Pete protests, but says his group is against violence, adding that bullying comes from both. sides.

He said he welcomed the dialogue, but said the Black Pete Kick Out movement isn’t just about Black Pete, it’s “like the Black Panther movement.”

“Kick Out Black Pete says Zwarte Piet is a symbol of something bigger,” he says. “No one would deny that racism exists for reasons of skin color or religion. But this organization is also against Chimney Pete. We must therefore abandon the children’s party for much more than the simple figure of Zwarte Piet.

Wagensveld disagrees with the Prime Minister’s statement that Black Pete will disappear and disputes the idea that people want the tradition to end.

“Rutte said there is a change going on in the Netherlands, but I think this change is not voluntary. We (like Pegida) see that there is a lot of pressure. There is fear, especially among entrepreneurs. Traders are afraid of being linked to Black Pete. People don’t want to see change by force, so we see resistance growing and we get more and more support.

Wagensveld does not believe there is systemic racism.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the Dutch population consider Zwarte Piet to be non-racist,” he said. “When I dress in Zwarte Piet, most people like it… Black Pete is absolutely not racist.”

For Afriyie, “the problem is that whites decide what is racist, and it’s not for them to decide, it’s for blacks to say what is racist. ”

Building on the success of the Kick Out Black Pete movement, Afriyie will help launch a new movement on December 10, International Human Rights Day, a coalition of 15-20 groups focused on the broader goal of civil rights Dutch and end systemic racism.

“We have drafted a Manifesto for the Emancipation of Blacks which will be presented on December 10,” said Esajas, also a member of Kick Out Black Pete, “and this Sunday there will be a protest against racism in The Hague. ”

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