We, as concerned citizens of the Netherlands, are deeply alarmed by the physical and nonphysical violence directed at Black people and critical voices in the Netherlands, most recently displayed in the national public debate about the racist blackface figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
Black people and non-Black allies have been protesting against blackface for decades and have been facing dismissal and marginalization.
This year the backlash against critical voices, especially Black critical voices, has reached a climax. It is in this context of unbridled anti-black racism that we are releasing this statement.
These events are unfolding in 2013, the year in which we are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the formal abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies.
Dutch politicians across political divides have dismissed critique and protests against the racist caricature of Zwarte Piet. Racist responses, mainly targeting Black critics, have been implicitly condoned by Dutch politicians, from the prime minister to the mayor of Amsterdam.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte stated “Zwarte Piet: the name says it already. He is black. (…) I cannot do much about it.”
On 17 October 2013, a public hearing was held in Amsterdam to consider the formal complaints submitted by twenty one citizens against the permit the municipality had given to the Sinterklaas parade in the city of Amsterdam, due to the racist character of Zwarte Piet.
In a public letter communicating his decision to dismiss the complaints the mayor of Amsterdam Eberhard van der Laan aligned himself with and reinforced public opinion hostile towards Black and non-Black people of colour.
In the letter, the mayor downplays the racist character of Zwarte Piet, stating that the Sinterklaas celebration in its current form is “(usually) not racist (…) and essentially brings people together”.
Van der Laan proposes a gradual change of Zwarte Piet “over the course of 5 to 10 years (…) in order to prevent young children from being confused by abrupt changes and to avoid hurting the feelings of many adults who have fond memories of Zwarte Piet.” In addition, the mayor brands protesting during the Sinterklaas parade as morally unacceptable.
Both Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher and Minister of Culture Jet Bussemaker praised Mayor Van der Laan’s letter. Bussemaker further stated this should be the end of political involvement in the Zwarte Piet debate.
We are, therefore, not surprised that politicians across political divides have dismissed the findings of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) report on the Netherlands.
The report criticizes the lack of political attention for ethnic segregation in schools, discrimination in the labour market, restrictions of the rights of citizens as well as a threatening climate perpetuated by Dutch mass media and present in political discourse. One of the conclusions of the report is: “All political parties should take a firm stand against discourse targeting a group of persons on grounds of their race, religion, nationality, language or ethnic origin.”
Deputy Prime Minister Asscher trivialized the findings of ECRI report. By doing so, the deputy prime minister not only silences critics, but also discredits them. He problematizes minorities who are at the receiving end of racism by reducing racism to hurt feelings on their part. Asscher not only glosses over institutionalised racism, but also fails to acknowledge the effects of the violent political rhetoric on Black and non-Black people of colour.
The National Ombudsman Alex Brenninkmeijer, however, publicly subscribed to the findings of the ECRI report and urged the political establishment in the Netherlands to take the report seriously. He went on to state that Dutch politics is racist and that racism is kept off the political agenda.
Racism is a political and electoral project.
Politicians speak to a White majority. Across the political spectrum politicians regularly show a blatant willingness to pander to racial antipathies and mobilize racial animus for their own electoral benefit.
Politics in the Netherlands is a politics of distraction. Racism is used to distract people from unpopular neoliberal policies. These policies has been consistently framed as ‘taking responsibility’ and ‘making tough decisions’.
Yet, politicians fail to take responsibility, and effectively confront institutional racism in the Netherlands, which is well researched and documented.
We, therefore, call upon our government to take action now.
We are appalled by the irresponsibility and disregard being displayed by the political establishment towards concerns and critique voiced by (inter)national institutions such as the Council of Europe and the Ombudsman, as well as by Black and non-Black Dutch citizens.
It is important to point out the role of Dutch media, which have been framing anti-black racism as solely a problem of the White lower class, who are consistently portrayed as anti-social. Based on the dominant media narrative, one would be led to believe that racism belongs to lower class White people.
However, when the political establishment, mainstream media, and the wider public aggressively attack minorities for exposing institutional racism, it is not merely a White lower class problem, nor one of the extreme right. Rather, racism is present throughout society.
We would like to reiterate that Zwarte Piet is racism and the protests against Zwarte Piet are not a deviation from a wider struggle against all forms of oppression. In addition, the protests against Zwarte Piet are not new. There are and have been countless others who have inspired this struggle and cleared the path long ago.
Anti-black racism, too, is neither a new nor a ‘foreign’ phenomenon. The historical record is crystal clear: the Netherlands was one of the major perpetrators of the transatlantic slave trade. Yet, dominant Dutch discourse dictates that structural and institutionalised racism is a US American problem. Despite this exceptionalist attitude, the cultural history and social attitudes towards race and ethnicity in the Netherlands are akin to those of other Western colonial powers.
The blackface figure Zwarte Piet is part of a long cultural tradition of anti-black, darkie iconography in the West.
We cannot diminish the gravity of Zwarte Piet, given its overwhelming presence in the lifeworld of Dutch children. The figure is ubiquitous. It is embedded in school curricula, mainstream media and children’s television programmes, and is massively commercialised. The racist caricature of Zwarte Piet inculcates racism in the minds of children.
Zwarte Piet is on par with other forms of dehumanization through racialization, such as racial profiling, racism in the labour market, and the violence inherent in Dutch asylum policy. Our protest against Zwarte Piet is situated in a broader ongoing decolonial anti-racist project.
We are not in support of an adaptation of the racist caricature known as Zwarte Piet. We are calling for a complete removal of the racist caricature from the public sphere. Our goal is to fight racial stereotyping, not to rescue or rehabilitate racist imagery.
As such, we challenge the Dutch political tradition of consensus (the Polder Model) that is rooted in a principled belief in compromise for resolving all matters, which effectively favours the decisions made by the white majority.
In the political debate and in the current instalment of the Zwarte Piet discussion, we are framed as the Other, de facto non-citizens, and are expected to remain in the roles assigned to us. This marginalization and silencing of critical voices stifles the public debate and occurs within an environment in which social injustices grow steadily.
We, as Black and non-Black people of colour, position ourselves expressly as citizens, since our right to engage meaningfully in political life is conditional upon our willingness to submit to the perspective of the dominant white majority. True criticism and ownership is implicitly and explicitly denied to us, when our voices are systematically silenced, ridiculed and erased.
We are Dutch academics, activists, Black feminists, parents and queers of colour. We engage in political work within our own networks and in coalition with other progressive groups and movements. We believe that it is important to talk back and talk with, despite the far-reaching consequences of dissent in a culture built on White hegemony.
We, the authors of this public statement, show solidarity and support to all who are protesting against the racist blackface figure of Zwarte Piet. We reiterate that this protest cannot be separated from the struggles against global White supremacy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, neoliberalism, ableism and all other forms of oppression.
We urge each and every one who subscribes to this statement to show solidarity by signing and sharing it.
Egbert Alejandro Martina