Blackface racism not taken seriously during local council elections

Zwarte Piet is racism.
Zwarte Piet is racism.

In 2016 Doorbraak activist Jennifer van Leijen initiated a campaign to stop the Dutch government from subsidizing blackface (Zwarte Piet or Black Pete) on children’s television. More than 12.000 people already signed. Van Leijen regularly writes updates. Here is number 16 (also read numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6/7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15).

The issue of the racist Zwarte Piet caricature has reared its ugly head within the context of the Dutch local elections. The VVD political party has issued a party political promotional film featuring Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister. The film states that people who celebrate Sinterklaas, a Dutch national children’s tradition, aren’t racist.

But the blackface caricature in that celebration, Zwarte Piet, is racist. The Dutch government, lead by Mark Rutte, subsidise the making of a children’s television programme, called Het Sinterklaasjournaal, which promotes this racist imagery. The party political promotional film alleges that the VVD political party wants to concentrate on “real problems”.

But racism is a real problem. It involves a fundamental right to be treated with dignity. There is a reason why the VVD ironically focuses on this issue, which it pretends is unimportant. The children’s television programme Het Sinterklaasjournal not only normalises this racism, it also popularises this racism.

The fact is that the VVD knows that it’s a real problem, but is using a cheap populist strategy to gain public support, because the practise of blackfacing is already popular amusement in the Netherlands.

When Ugbaad Kilincci, a brown skinned political candidate in Emmen (the capital city of the Dutch province of Drente), was verbally abused while out canvassing for votes, it brought her to tears. Passers by called Kilincci, amongst other things, an ape, or “Zwarte Piet” (the blackface caricature). When this racism was reported in the Dutch newspapers, the press omitted the fact that the political candidate was also name-called “Zwarte Piet”.

It appears that Dutch society, even though it is patently obvious, still has a problem with acknowledging that the blackface caricature called Zwarte Piet is racist. To make matters worse, the VVD, on their Facebook page, referred to anti-Zwarte Piet protesters as “shouters”. The VVD not only refuses to see racism as a serious human rights problem, but they continue to subsidise racism, and frame the people who strive for social justice as divisive.

Imagine if the US schoolchildren who protested for more gun control, were dismissed and demonised as “a small group of shouters” instead of the concerned, caring, members of society that they are?

The patently obvious racism within Dutch politics has lead to situations of great absurdity. For example, a candidate for the FvD, a racist party, was recently criticised in the press for making (self-loathingly) racist, and homophobic remarks. It lead to his withdrawal as candidate. But another candidate, Annabel Nanninga, who has made various antisemitic remarks, has not been criticised by the Dutch press.

It reminds me of the recent situation in India, in which a children’s book was published featuring world leaders who have “devoted their lives for the betterment of their country and people”. The problem is that Hitler was included in the book as one of the leaders in that category. The fact that Hitler was responsible for mass murder was not sufficient for the Indian publisher to withdraw the book.

The publisher didn’t take the criticism seriously, just as Dutch politicians and media don’t take the very real problem of racism seriously. We need to continue to make our voices heard, even if it means that we need to shout before we’re heard.

Jennifer van Leijen