A childish and offensive figure in the Netherlands

Aware that many African traditions are under fire from progressive thinking in the West, it was surprising to find such resistance to changing even one small tradition in the Netherlands.

The Belgian cartoon ‘Tintin’, with its painful caricatures of Congolese people, has led to strong accusations of racism in my country, the DRC. But I had always thought that Dutch people were different from our Belgian former colonisers. Amsterdam and the Netherlands were known to me and many fellow Africans as tolerant, liberal, progressive. Could it be true that, even in the Netherlands, one can be beaten for wearing a T-shirt with an opinion on it?

Because this is what I am told when I interview a black Dutch activist named Quinsy Gario. He tells me that his activism against ‘Zwarte Piet’, the black helper of the Dutch version of Santa Claus, got him arrested, beaten and detained two years ago.

Apparently he was accused of disturbing the people, among whom many children, who were enjoying the Santa Claus and Zwarte Piet festivities.

A unique tribal festivity

I am here on a mission that is very different from my usual field of corruption, exploitation and human rights abuses in African countries like the DRC. I had taken it almost as a vacation, a light hearted exploration of a traditional children’s festivity that is, I am told, unique to the tribe of the Dutch. Instead of Santa Claus with his green elves, they have a ‘Sinterklaas’ with black helpers, I am told. And they insist it has nothing to do with racism.

My first impression, walking around in Amsterdam and listening to people, is, I must say, that the Zwarte Piet figure is indeed a very racist image, reminiscent of the slave trade and colonial racism. I see grinning blackface depictions in every store and on TV. I learn how Dutch schools organize drawing competitions where children must colour Zwarte Piet black, make him funny, attribute funny gestures, often even make him speak funny.  It is clear that he is childish, not mature and sensible like Sinterklaas. I am told that Dutch black children grow up with fellow white children, who will compare them to Zwarte Piet and often even call them ‘Zwarte Piet’.  I hear that black grown-ups have even been called ‘Zwarte Piet’ at work.

Many people have recently stood up to say that they don’t want to live with this anymore. Judging from the internet campaign to abolish Zwarte Piet, there are now tens of thousands of people in Holland who agree with Quinsy Gario. Among them there are plenty of white people who understand that something has to change. But, judging from media reports and a petition that carries two million signatures, I note that the movement to resist change is much, much bigger. They say that there is no such thing as racism in the festivities and that the campaigners are trying to destroy a family celebration and upsetting children. Because, I hear over and over again, it is only a children’s party.

Scary responses

But is it really the children who are at risk of being upset? I notice only adults. Two million grown-up people have signed the petition to keep the tradition as it is. My own children, I think, who would be upset if they would read what some of the ‘Zwarte Piet’ defenders say. "Saint Nicolas without bogeyman is like Santa Claus without his donkey (sic)", says one. Or ‘burn the niggers who come to spoil our fun.” Belgian Facebook pages have emerged to support the Dutch who want to keep their tradition. The biggest Dutch newspaper, de Telegraaf, actively campaigns against the protesters. According to a poll the newspaper conducted, 91 % wants to stick with Zwarte Piet as is. When Verene Shepherd, chair of a UN working group on human rights, publicly criticised the tradition, she was vilified both by De Telegraaf and on social media. Gario and fellow activists have even received death threats.

The year 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the official abolition of slavery in Dutch colonies, but for a few moments during my stay in legendary free Amsterdam, I feel that I am thrown several centuries back, and in the equatorial forests of Africa, looking with trepidation at the mightier white men. The Zwarte Piet debate in this land of cheese and freedom has surprised me. A lot.

I receive many historical explanations. A lot of people tell me that Zwarte Piet used to be a negative figure, but that he has changed in modern times. Apparently, the bogeyman image is in the past. “He used to be that scary black figure who accompanies the white Saint Nicolas who is all good. Piet frightened the children, carried the twigs with which to beat them, and the sack in which to take them away if they are naughty”, I hear at ZAM offices. “But he is now a lot nicer. He also doesn’t talk in a silly way anymore, he is grown-up and clever now.” I ask myself if this really makes such a big difference. So he has had some training, but he is still the servant. He is still the opposite of the lilywhite, endlessly good, Sinterklaas.

Spanish nobility

Interestingly, I can’t find anyone who wants to defend the ‘Zwarte Piet’ figure in a face to face interview with me. I ask a few friends of friends, who are known to continue with the tradition; I place an invite with my name on the pro-Zwarte Piet Facebook page, with its more than 2 million likes. I email the initiator and administrator of the pro-Zwarte Piet Facebook page. Nothing. Until I receive a message from Bart Houx.

Advertising agency manager Houx, 41 years old, married and father of two children, gives me some background to the Zwarte Piet story that I was not aware of. “The Zwarte Piet figure has really nothing to do with racism”, Houx says. “He often has a Spanish name and wears the clothes of Spanish nobility in the 16th century. He is not ridiculing black culture, or any stereotypical black behaviour. He is not a blackface character.” Therefore, Houx feels justified in continuing to love Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas. “This is an innocent tradition. The Zwarte Piet character is completely fictional.”

He strongly disagrees with those Dutch people who have told anti-Zwarte Piet campaigners to ‘go back where you came from’, but he feels those are ‘simply insults’ and also not a reason for change. "Some people can be creative when they insult others. I have been insulted all my life for having a big nose," he says, laughing. And the fact that black children and grown-ups are sometimes called ‘Zwarte Piet’? “These are shameful incidents. But it would also be a shame to abolish a cherished tradition just because of incidents.”

I find that there are indeed Spanish, or more accurately, North African- Moorish elements to the background of Zwarte Piet. These date back to the invasions and occupations of part of southern Europe by the Moors between the 8th and 15th centuries. There are also other historical elements of the ‘bogeyman’ type in traditions that are celebrated in other European countries. This bogeyman type also often comes with black face, afro hairstyle and earrings.  Some say that these figures only merged in the 19th century with Zwarte Piet. It is then that the blackface Zwarte Piet, and his character as a servant, became commonplace.
Colleagues at ZAM concede that there is a clear ‘servant’ part to Sinterklaas. "It’s true, the festivities come with special songs in which we greet 'Sinterklaas and his servant', and in which Pete is described as 'nice in spite of his black colour’.”

It can’t be racist

Patricia Schor is a researcher affiliated with the Faculty of Humanities at Utrecht University and co-author of a ‘Public Statement on Zwarte Piet ‘. She doesn’t mince her words. “Zwarte Piet inculcates racism in all Dutch children, black and white”, she says. She feels that there is a problem with the widely felt certainty among Dutch people that they already are good, benign, liberal and tolerant, and that, therefore, they simply cannot be racist. And also therefore, whatever they do cannot be racist. Where Bart Houx sees ‘incidents’, Schor sees symptoms.

I start to ask the pro-Zwarte Piet-people why they can’t change this tradition? Especially one that is so hurtful to a lot of Dutch people who are black? But ‘no, tradition is tradition. A tradition can’t change’, a man at a public discussion tells me. I know the man to be politically progressive. I can’t believe my ears. Dutch and other white people always come to Africa to train us and make us change our traditions. Changing a tradition is not bad. Some traditions, like female circumcision and child marriage, must be abandoned. Why can’t a racist tradition be abolished, or even modified? The anti-Zwarte Piet people are accused of destroying a ‘children’s party’, but as far as I can see they don’t want to do that. They want Piet to be of all colours. Maybe even Sinterklaas to be of all colours. That seems like a good change to me.

But the majority of Dutch do not accept, apparently, any change to their cherished tradition. Patricia Schor is right. Many Dutch people whom I approach immediately get very angry when I use the word ‘racism’. They refuse to engage.  I read confusing statements on social media, for instance that Zwarte Piet ‘could be any colour, red, green or purple’ –but, strangely, he must still be black precisely because the fact that he is black ‘does not mean anything’. He is black ‘because he delivers presents down a chimney’, but we also mustn’t change the blackface Piet for a Piet with some brushes of chimney soot on his face, like the anti-Zwarte Piet campaigners propose.  He must just be black. I am assured, over and over again that ‘the Dutch are not racist’. So anyone who thinks otherwise should be silent, I guess.

Mother Klaas

There is an exhibit on racism at a local museum dedicated to the so-called ‘Third World’: the ‘Tropenmuseum’ . The exhibit shows pictures and quotations of black and white Dutch people, who comment on their feelings about one another and about colour and racism. But it stays on the level of behaviour and communication. There is no analysis, no way forward. Are Dutch democratic and cultural institutions even interested in addressing stigma based on origin, race and skin colour? In stereotyping and discrimination in schools, at work and in public places? I always thought they did, but now I am not so sure.

One store advertises a ‘Mother Klaas’, female, but all magnanimous and powerful and kind and white, just like her male counterpart.

Eric Mwamba is a Congolese journalist living in Australia. A past chairman of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) and correspondent for, among other media, L’Eveil and Le Phare in the DRC, he is now setting up a new project: ‘Wealth Magazine’, that is to investigate natural resources, companies and personalities in the Congo.

Extra. Nigerian satirist Ikenna Azuike likes Black Pete. Watch his hilarious video: