Holland’s Sinterklass reeks of racism. For many years, the people of the Netherlands have celebrated the festival of Sinterklass (Santa Claus) with black characters which have their roots deep in African slavery. But now Holland’s black population cannot take the insult any more and want the black characters banned. Femi Akomolafe reports from Amsterdam.
It was the Frenchman Jean Paul Sartre who asked one of the weightiest questions of his time: “What then did you expect when you unbound the gag that muted those black mouths? That they would chant your praises? Did you think that when those heads that our fathers had forcibly bowed down to the ground were raised again, you would find adoration in their eyes?”, Sartre asked.
It must be a very difficult time to be Dutch today. Just imagine that a short century ago, your grandfather owned a large stock of African slaves. He treated the stocky black men and women as his chattel property, like any of the other properties he owned. The heavily-muscled black males worked like mules in his plantations. From sunrise to sunset they worked, with grandpa having nary a worry about salary or suchlike. The black slaves grew the cotton, the sugar-cane, the tobacco and whatnot, which they processed into marketable products that went all over the world and brought enormous profits, profits that were ploughed back into building modern machinery, big castles, and well-laid out towns and cities.
It was this wealth from slavery that totally transformed Europe from a place that constantly lost one-third to one-half of its population to hunger and plagues.
While the male slaves laboured in the plantations, the women slaves existed to cook, waited over the master’s wives and nursed the master’s children even as their own children were plucked from them and auctioned off. They also provided sexual pleasures whenever the master’s libido was stirred. The slaves were also encouraged to “breed” (yes, that was the word used) like mules; the more the merrier for the profit margins of the plantation. Human beings were plucked like cattle from pens, branded and sold off whenever the masters felt like it. Abraham Lincoln, who became the proud president of the USA, once sold a slave for a bottle of molasses!
And all of a sudden, the world turned upside down, and the very profitable enterprise was ended. The slaves were freed and they developed mouths. And Jean Paul Sartre became a prophet. Imagine the trauma the slave masters had to go through! Their world upended in chaos!
Today, the Dutch appear unable to drop a Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) on their little ones without his Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Imagine the enormous cultural shock the little angels will suffer. And where is the racism in that? Not long ago, almost 10% of the Dutch population signed a petition that support the tradition; surely they can’t all be racist!
This appears to be the cry of the Dutch who continue to celebrate Sinterklaas, a festival so riddled with slavery symbolism, that it beggars belief that some people can even think about organising it in this age and time. But the Dutch do it, and many of them have absolutely no qualms about it.
Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas or Santa Claus), celebrated on 5 December, is probably the greatest festival in the Netherlands. The Dutch variation of the name is a bastardisation of the real Saint Nicholas, said to be a fourth-century bishop from Asia Minor who helped the needy. Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is a white man with populous white beard. But unlike Santa Claus who is helped by elves, the Dutch variant continues to be served by black-faced helpers – “Zwarte Pieten” (Black Petes) – white men who dress themselves up as black men in brassy clothes and enter town in raucous, bombastic processions.
They decorate themselves with bushy Afro-wigs on their heads, with their lips painted ruby red and ears decked with gold hoop earrings. They prank around and act the characters of black people with the brains of a fool – utterly ignorant, docile, yet jolly servants who continue to faithfully serve their white masters.
In fact, the Dutch have a Piet for many functions: there is a “Hoofdpiet” or Head Piet; a “Wegwijspiet” or Navigation Piet, who is supposed to be the navigator of the steamboat from Spain to the Netherlands; and there is “Pakjespiet” or Packing Piet who packs the gifts. According to the legend, the Pieten distribute presents and ginger biscuits to children deemed good; and they threaten to pack mischievous ones in sacks and ferry them back to Spain to pick oranges.
Between 5 and 6 December every year, Dutch children leave their shoes near the chimney, and in the morning they express surprise when they discover gifts in them. Of course, the gifts were bought by their parents who try to rationalise the obvious racism of the Zwarte Piet caricature of black people by telling their children that the Pieten have black faces because they climb down dirty, soot-filled chimneys.
What no one bothers to explain is how climbing down chimneys could result in curly, Afro wig hair, large red lips, large earrings, the loss of a literate tongue, and little brains. In fact, the whole Sinterklaas idea reeks of rank racism.
It is, thus, difficult to understand how the Dutch, with their brutal history of slavery and colonialism, can fail to see the enormous insult they heap on the injuries of black people by this mindless festival in which they appear to take so much joy. No one dare mock the Jewish Holocaust, but millions of Dutch people think nothing of jesting about a part of their history that should shame their nation.
Everything about Sinterklaas appears as though the Dutch still hanker after slavery and regret its abolition. It brings to mind what Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: “Negrophobes exist. It is not hatred of the Negro, however, that motivates them; they lack the courage for that, or they have lost it. Hate is not inborn; it has to be constantly cultivated, to be brought into being, in conflict with more or less recognised guilt complexes … That is why Americans have substituted discrimination for lynching. Each to his own side of the street.”
Of course, most black people in the Netherlands today find the Sinterklaas highly offensive, but because they are a minority in the larger Dutch population, they have no avenue to express their frustrations. Sadly for them, the Dutch media, even those with liberal pretensions, treat protests by black people as overreactions by “sensitive” people who like to overreact.
Gradually though, the momentum to outlaw the obscene Zwarte Piet seems to be gathering pace. The man who is spearheading the fight is Quinsy Gario, a Curaçao-born Dutch performance artist. He wants the Zwarte Piet abolished.
In 2011, when Sinterklass arrived in the Dutch town of Dordrecht, Gario led some black activists on a protest. To forestall any action that would disallow little white Dutch angels from enjoying their black minstrels, the city officials made it illegal to demonstrate in the town centre.
That notwithstanding, Gario and his colleagues decided on a defiant stand-in protest. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with: “Zwarte Piet is racism”, they stood by the side of the road. This was too much for overzealous police officers who badly manhandled Gario. Thankfully the brutality inflicted on him stirred some red-hot controversy.
Then in 2013, as God will have it, the Dutch were thrown into an unwanted international limelight. On 22 October, Verene Shepherd, chair of the United Nations’ Working Group on People of African Descent, in an interview with the Dutch television news programme, EEN Vandaag, stated that: “The Working Group cannot understand why it is that the people in The Netherlands cannot see that [Sinterklaas] is a throwback to slavery… As a black person, I feel that if I were living in The Netherlands, I would object to it.”
For her troubles, Verene Shepherd, who is Jamaican, was subjected to racist vituperations of the worst kind via offensive e-mails. So incensed were the Dutch by Shepherd’s statement that two days after she made it, more than two million people responded by endorsing a Facebook (Piet-ition) to keep Zwarte Piet’s image unchanged.
The “Save Zwarte Piet” Facebook petition was initiated by two Dutch publicists, Kevin van Boeckholtz and Bas Vreugde. The Telegraaf, the Netherlands’ largest newspaper, chipped in with articles denouncing anti-Piet protesters as troublemakers. The paper even presumed to speak for black people by patronisingly claiming that the protest did not represent black people in the Netherlands.
But that was not all. One of the best- known black faces in the Netherlands, sports newscaster Humberto Tan, narrated on national television the type of negative retorts he got, including a lynching threat, when he supported the anti-Zwarte Piet campaign.
The singer Anouk (who represents the Netherlands at this year’s Eurovision contest) and Doutzen Kroes (the model in Victoria’s Secret), two high-profile Dutch female celebrities married to black men, also had ugly sexual insults hurled at them after they condemned Zwarte Piet.
Even Jan Pronk, a supposedly leftist politician, who once served as the UN representative to Sudan, endorsed Zwarte Piet: “These are very old traditions,” he said, “I don’t think it’s so bad.”
No wonder Gario got threats of unspeakable violence, including death, because he dared to speak about the racist history of Zwarte Piet. In response, the Dutch tabloid media continues to mock him.
Taking a cue from the tabloid media, Geert Wilders, the anti-immigrant politician whose Partij voor Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) currently leads in the Dutch polls, tweeted that he would rather eliminate the UN than Zwarte Piet.
But the opponents of Zwarte Piet are not just rolling over. In the words of Gario: “The world is watching, and the Netherlands has been found wanting.” Thus, totally embarrassed by the actions of the Zwarte Piet supporters, more Dutch people appear to be coming around to the conclusion that Zwarte Piet is a relic whose time has passed, and should be consigned to the ashes of history.
In an interview published in the Het Parool newspaper, an Amsterdam councilwoman, Andree van Es, herself as white as you can get, openly called for Zwarte Piet’s end: “The Sinterklaas celebration once began without Zwarte Piet, it’s time it continues without Zwarte Piet,” the councilwoman said.
In the last few weeks, a Facebook page with the slogan “Zwarte Piet is Racism” has become the major platform for the anti-Zwarte Piet battle.
The director of the Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam, Jessica Silversmith, now says “there is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might think.”
She said that her office, which used to receive one or two complaints per year, saw a sudden rise in complaints to more than 100 last year, and she fears that the figure will increase for 2013. “It’s not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining, it’s all kinds of Dutch people,” she added.
In early December 2013, a documentary laying out the arguments against Zwarte Piet was broadcast on national television. One of the Netherlands’ leading news blogs, “GeenStijl” took everyone by surprise when it launched a vitriolic attack against Zwarte Piet.
“Zwarte Piet,” the blog said, “is nothing more than a repulsive parody of a slave, fine-tuned to indoctrinate schoolchildren into the finer points of racism. The sooner we get rid of Zwarte Piet, the sooner we won’t look like idiots to the rest of the world.”
One columnist for the NRC Handelsblad, the Netherlands top business newspaper, asked whether the country was really as tolerant as it pretended to be. The writer deplored the fact that whereas the USA re-elected its black president, not a single member of the Netherlands’ cabinet is of non-Dutch ancestry.
The Dutch playwright, Mark Walraven, says he used to be one of those who painted their faces and delighted children with Zwarte Piet pranks. Not any more. “I stopped after I began working with black people,” he said. “Many of them are offended by this symbol. Many countries have abolished these things but in Holland they still exist.” Walraven added that it was possible to have Sinterklaas without Zwarte Piet.
Although Verene Shepherd asked the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutter, to use his influence to stop the Zwarte Piet festival, it is not an appeal the Dutch premier will heed any time soon. He simply shrugged off the mounting criticism: “Zwarte Piet is black. There’s not much I can do to change that,” he said.
The prime minister was backed by the leader of the PvdA (or Labour Party), Diederik Samsom, who said: “I don’t particularly like to quote Premier Rutte, but he put it well. Zwarte Piet is simply black.”
However, the Dutch home affairs minister, Ronald Plasterk, says he is in favour of a change. “I can live with it if green or blue Petes should also run around between the Black Petes. I don’t think the children would have less pleasure from this.”
One change that anti-Piet activists have suggested is replacing his black face with smudges, since the “cover story” is that Zwarte Piet becomes black from going down chimneys.
Some people appear to be grudgingly embracing the change. Leading the way are two of the country’s leading chainstores, Blokker and V&D, which have dispensed with Piets with black faces in their catalogues and replaced them with images of kids with ash-smudged cheeks.
The fight against Zwarte Pieten can be won, but it needs more ammunition, soldiers, and Quinsy Garios.