Anti-discrimination bureau doesn’t want to criticise Utrecht mayor for taking part in yearly blackface parade


How are complaints handled about the mayor of Utrecht taking part in a blackface parade? What happens when a complaint about this mayor was made to the anti-discrimination bureau Art. 1 Midden Nederland? And what happened when the complaint was made directly to the Utrecht city council?

The complaint about the mayor, made to the anti-discrimination bureau

The parade called the Sinterklaasintocht involves many volunteers blacking up, mimicking the skin colour of a black African. These blacked up figures are known as Black Petes. Blacking up is a racist phenomenon, once immensely popular in the US and Britain, which has since been receiving international condemnation and recognition as being wrong on various levels: it ridicules, stereotypes and excludes black people. No laws were required to stop the large scale practice in Britain and America. The practice stopped because after protests people recognised that it was offensive and contrary to standards of decent social behaviour. In the Netherlands the large scale blackfacing practice is still popular and a majority of people are loath to stop it because they find it amusing, and they don’t want their own behaviour confined by constraints which are perceived to be imposed by a minority.

Deze tekst in het Nederlands.

If a mayor or members of the city council are involved in discriminatory conduct against a citizen, that citizen may complain to an anti-discrimination bureau. The statutory provision for these anti-discrimination organisations is called the Municipal Anti-Discrimination Facility law (Wet Gemeentelijke Antidiscriminatievoorzieningen). Art. 1 Midden Nederland is the anti-discrimination bureau for the city of Utrecht. It describes its mission as being to ensure “that citizens and authorities in the province of Utrecht recognise discrimination and acknowledge the importance of counteracting this”. The director of Art. 1 Midden Nederland, Mieke Janssen, agrees that the Black Pete (Zwarte Piet)-blackfacing in the Sinterklaas-parade is racist and unacceptable. That’s the same racist parade in which mayor Jan van Zanen takes part. According to their mission, Art. 1 Midden Nederland should ensure that the mayor and city council in Utrecht recognise and counteract this racist discrimination. Instead, Art. 1 Midden Nederland said that they know that the Utrecht city council have “another point of view”, and “that’s a pity”, but for an undisclosed reason (Janssen wouldn’t give it), they couldn’t publicly criticise the mayor or city council. Janssen confirmed that Art. 1 Midden Nederland is subsidised by the municipal government of Utrecht. They have known for years that mayor Van Zanen has taken part in a racist parade, but Art. 1 Midden Nederland apparently did not contact him or the city council. Art. 1 Midden Nederland gave no reason why they would do nothing to directly deter the mayor from taking part in a racist parade.

Complaint about mayor Van Zanen to the Utrecht city council

The mayor of Utrecht handled my complaint against him personally, because a mayor is a governing body in Dutch administrative law, and governing bodies may handle complaints against themselves. Mayor Van Zanen, in a written reply, said that so long as he doesn’t break the law, he doesn’t see a reason to stop taking part in the parade. There is no law in the Netherlands banning racist stereotypes. This however doesn’t mean that it is acceptable conduct for the mayor to endorse racist stereotyping or imagery. On the contrary, if you stand in front of the city council offices in Utrecht (Utrecht Stadskantoor), the first thing you’ll see is a large glass wall in front of the building containing the words of the first article of the Dutch Constitution, namely: “Everyone in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in similar situations. Discrimination owing to religion, belief, political orientation, race, gender or any other means is not permitted.” Therefore, anti-discrimination ought to be the default position of the mayor of Utrecht.

Mayor Van Zanen, however, “reserves judgement” on the issue, that is: he claims to have no opinion on whether blackfacing is racist, and he feels that his task is to facilitate a dialogue amongst citizens. Both those statements are not true. The city council of Utrecht did more than merely organise a series of dialogues (together with Art. 1 Midden Nederland). Utrecht city council subsidises this racist parade, and Van Zanen is an integral part of the proceedings. Utrecht city council therefore not only lends financial support to the racist event, but officially endorses it too. Be it indirectly, many of the subsidisers of the racist parade are heavily reliant on subsidies from the city council.

Citizens of Utrecht deserve an accountable mayor. If racist discrimination is alleged, the situation needs to be investigated by an independent authority, conclusions drawn, and the necessary action undertaken to eliminate discrimination. By his own admission, Van Zanen hasn’t made that investigation. Instead the mayor takes an active stand to defend and represent the racist status quo. Furthermore, Van Zanen states that “the way of gradual change” is his choice of action. This contradicts what he wrote about “reserving judgement”, because an innocuous tradition wouldn’t need changing. In the meantime, Art. 1 Midden Nederland have withdrawn themselves from the Sinterklaas dialogues. Director Janssen admits that the dialogues were, wrongly, engaging in consensus politics. Van Zanen uses the dialogues as a pretext to delay the removal of blackfacing from the parade. This high profile issue has lead to a plethora of eminent human rights institutions declaring unambiguously that this blackfacing is discriminatory. The mayor wrote that the unanimous standpoints of the UN, the Dutch Children’s Ombudsman and the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights against the racist elements within the parade (all cited in my complaint) have not changed his view on the matter. Note that he gave absolutely no reasoning behind his decision.

Appeal to the National Ombudsman

I made an appeal to the National Ombudsman, because Van Zanen didn’t substantially address my argumentation. To summarise Van Zanen: “I have no opinion,” “My task is to merely facilitate discussion”, “I’ve chosen the way of gradual change“ and “Nothing you say has changed my mind”. That’s not a sound response to my complaint!

The substitute National Ombudsman Joyce Sylvester replied that they would not investigate my complaint, because “the National Ombudsman is of the opinion that the decision of the mayor in response to your complaint has indeed addressed your arguments”. Just because the National Ombudsman says it does, doesn’t make it true! Sylvester’s views on the matter of blackfacing have been cited in an article: “Sinterklaas is a children’s festivity which I have no trouble with. I had never realised that some people might feel hurt by the Black Petes.” It is incomprehensible that the National Ombudsman would find Van Zanen’s ungrounded summarily dismissal of the unanimous standpoints of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racist Discrimination and the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, amongst others, an adequate response to a complaint.

In conclusion, don’t believe the highly visible anti-discrimination rhetoric within and outside Dutch city council offices. In the city of Utrecht, as elsewhere in the Netherlands, your complaints about the mayor taking part in racist blackface parades will probably not be fairly handled, neither by anti-discrimination bureaus like Art. 1 Midden Nederland nor by the National Ombudsman. Discrimination is such a relevant issue in Dutch society that a new political party emerged in 2016 calling themselves Artikel 1, based on the first article of the Dutch constitution. The anti-discrimination bureau Art. 1 Midden Nederland used their time and financial means to take the political party to court, to force them to change their similar name. In the Netherlands quasi anti-discrimination organisations use their resources to attack organisations with a real anti-discrimination mission. That’s what I call “a pity”, Mieke Janssen!