What the Dutch Black Pete-debate is really about

Typical Dutch blackface.
Typical Dutch blackface.
In the past three weeks we have published two very widely read and discussed articles by Doorbraak activist Matthijs van de Sande about the racism of Black Pete: “Black Piet and racism: some critical (and spiced) notes” and “Racism is not an opinion”. We do not want to deny you his contributions to the Belgian discussion about ‘our’ blackface tradition. He wrote the below article for the website dewereldmorgen.be.

The original text in Dutch
(october 31st, 2013)

Ce texte en Français

Translated into English by Jet

If no one wants, or is allowed, to be called ‘racist’ in a society, this does not mean that society is protected against racism. Those who think this discussion is just about Black Pete for that matter have very little understanding of racism anyway.

In the Netherlands the emotions have been stirred considerably. The public debate is not dominated by the budget cuts of several billions by Dutch government leaders Rutte and Samson, or by the fatal blow this will mean to social security, health care and education. A completely different theme has taken over the debate: what to do with Black Pete? Is now the time to give Sinterklaas a different helper? Or to reverse the roles?

Many Belgians have followed this heated debate with increasing astonishment. “The heated discussion is symptomatic and it points at hypersensitivity from both sides, and this is being directed at a children’s festivity as a convenient way to vent frustrations”, is Saskia De Coster’s conclusion in newspaper De Morgen. “Some oversexed individuals see every lamppost as a giant erection but is that the fault of the lamppost?”

Rik Torfs who is rector at the Catholic University of Louvain takes a more nuanced stand in newspaper De Standaard, but also concludes on a critical note towards the anti- Black Pete camp: “To not insult others is a sign of civilisation. The same goes for not feeling offended too easily.”

In other words: perhaps those coloured Dutch citizens do feel genuinely offended by the Black Pete phenomenon. But is all this Dutch commotion really necessary? Why not give Pete a different colour, others suggest, and this discussion will finally be over and done with.

Obviously it is not that simple. The Flemish opinion formers conveniently ignore that this discussion in fact is not only about Black Pete.

First something different: last week the European Council expressed its concern about the increasing racism in the Netherlands. The Dutch government does not have any strategy to address discrimination on the basis of origin or skin colour while in fact discrimination is indeed on the rise. But the real problem lies deeper.

In the slipstream of this report the national ombudsman Alex Brenninkmeijer confirmed that the Dutch political climate itself is discriminatory. From “Polenmeldpunt” (Wilders’ registration of complaints about Polish workers) to “kopvoddentaks” (“head rag tax”: Wilders’ headscarf tax aimed against muslim women): racism like that is acceptable according to many Dutch politicians – although no one will call it racism.

Obviously racism is far from being a typical Dutch problem. On the other hand what is unique is the political role played by the extreme Right over the past years. Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party (PVV) has expertly taken advantage of the murder of Pim Fortuyn (politician of the populist Right) by equating every accusation of racism or extremism with “demonising” and by already downplaying or legitimising political violence in advance.

As a result there are few politicians who have the courage to put obstacles in his way. Wilders is not only given space to dominate the political debate as a legitimate discussion partner. In addition he was the de facto member of Rutte’s first government as indispensable partner “tolerating” the minority government.

The consequence is that in the Dutch debate wide-ranging opinions are allowed, especially where it concerns immigration or integration issues. The only taboo is to suggest that any person might have racist ideas. Any topic can be discussed with the exception of the question as to whether some topics should perhaps be less admissible in the discussion. Racism is allowed – but labelling this as racism is an absolute no-go area.

And ‘all of a sudden’ there is this group of ‘coloured’ Dutch citizens who demand political space for themselves. They feel offended by the symbol of Black Pete that indeed appeals to their history of slavery that few Dutch people are familiar with.

The similarities between Black Pete and the old-Dutch stereotype of ‘the Moor’ are indisputable: the frizzy hair, the fat red lips and an 18th century pageboy outfit. Sinterklaas, the dignified, rich and wise man is riding a horse. His numerous servants who supply the muscle power accompany him on foot and all of them are black.

In spite of all references made to Germanic legends or to the soot from the chimney, it is crystal clear why Black Pete looks like this: he IS a slave.

That is why quite rightly these critics use the “R-word”. Back Pete is racism: the die is cast. This goes against the grain of many “white” Dutchmen, and not only because the theme “racism” is a political taboo in The Hague. No one likes to consider themselves racist. Racism is also confused with having an opinion: deliberately choosing a position and identify with it, also politically. The fact that racism can be implicit in symbols, words and customs without everyone recognising it as such, is hardly or not at all taken into consideration.

Many “white” Dutchmen have never experienced Black Pete as something racist – moreover they have never meant it to be racist. Their reaction is: “who do these whiners think they are”. Well, these “whiners” are people who personally experience that even a society where no one wants (or is allowed) to be called “racist” is not immune to racism because of this.

They have had to put up with a lot over the past years. For them racism is real and has daily consequences. For them Black Pete is the symbol of a far bigger problem, a problem moreover that cannot not be named in the current debate. They now demand a role for themselves in the political debate on racism and integration – and Black Pete constitutes a concrete and immediate cause for this.

Does this mean that for now we should consider this as a Dutch matter? It is not for me to decide this. But the fact that many “white” Flemish opinion makers cannot see beyond the immediate cause of the debate conveys a clear message in my view. Those who think this discussion is exclusively about Black Pete have understood precious little about racism. This is not uniquely the case in the Netherlands, in my opinion.

Mathijs van de Sande