Doorbraak, March 21, 2013
Author: Harry Westerink
Black Pete is sooo 1850
The Black Pete figure is outdated. Soon this racist figure may become a museum artifact in an exhibition on 19th century colonialism. Because the black house slave of the white master Sinterklaas is sooo 1850: the year in which the teacher Jan Schenkman blew life into the figure through his book “Sint Nicolaas and his servant”. The social movement which, 150 years after the abolition of slavery, demands the abolition of the Black Pete figure is on the winning side.
After years of growing criticism regarding Black Pete, 2012 seems to be a turning point. It looks like the final hour of the Saint’s servant has struck. The supporters of the Black Pete figure are pushed more and more into the defense. For years they have stubbornly held on to a blackface tradition which has become obsolete in the rest of the world half a century ago and now only brings forth shame and anger. White people painting their faces black and behaving according to colonial stereotypes of ‘niggers’ is condemned and seen as racism almost everywhere. Finally this voice is being heard in the Netherlands, where a decreasing amount of people is trying to sustain the racist Black Pete folklore. They seem to have lost their rearguard action now, forever. Because a remarkable transition has occurred: more and more people are joining the anti-racist camp. Whoever stays where he or she is will be put aside as a rusty colonialist who year after year whines about his/her hopelessly outdated traditions. Those who do not distance themselves from Black Pete and act dumb, will become the laughing stock at work and at family parties, and will be ignored. “Are you still celebrating Sinterklaas including Black Pete? That’s really not done, you know. It’s so outdated, so nineteenth-century”, that’s what they will be told.
Celebrities such as singer Anouk, model Doutzen Kroes, and politician of the Amsterdam GreenLeft party Andree van Es have expressed their opinion about it. Scientists such as the anthropologist and Sinterklaas-specialist John Helsloot of the Meertens Institute, too, have made their case. They are all publicly acknowledging that it is time to say goodbye to Black Pete. More and more people are disturbed by the Black Pete racism and are calling out through media, their work, or in their private circles to stop this phenomenon. The protest against this racism is not something new, but it started to develop relatively late. This is due to the fact that for a long time the victims of Dutch colonialism and their descendants hardly had any influence in the “motherland”. Only since the 70s did larger numbers of people from the colonies, especially Surinam, come to the Netherlands. Their perspective and way of dealing with the colonial past was the complete opposite of the perspective of the white Dutch population. The descendants of those who were made into slaves started the critiscism regarding the Black Pete racism in the 80s and 90s and were the first to protest against it both verbally and with actions. This first wave took place against the background of the wider anti-racism battle that was fought at that time, also against the extreme right.
A few years ago the protests flared up again. The German and Swedish artists Annette Krauss and Petra Bauer received a lot of attention for their critical project “Read the masks, tradition is not given” and especially with the creative protest march against Black Pete. The march encountered so much agression from the populist right that it was cancelled at the last moment. This abuse and these threats generated reactions from more Black Pete criticisers who felt they also needed to give their opinions and counter the agression. It became obvious that the protests against the racist caricature could not be swept under the carpet so easily anymore. By cooperating closely with Krauss and Bauer Doorbraak was able to make a substantial contribution towards broadening the criticism of Black Pete. Doorbraak activists wrote and published articles, they co-organised the protest march, they were speakers at meetings and played a role in the production of a film by the artists about this project.
More and more white people are joining the black people in the movement against Black Pete that is continuously getting stronger, certainly more than in the past. The united white front that protected the Black Pete as an icon of an almost sacred heritage seems to have been broken permanently now according to public opinion. More and more, the racist caricature is considered as a problem. The argumentation with which the black servant used to be defended is losing terrain and is deteriorating. Cracks have appeared all over the camp of the Black Pete-fans. These followers are very aware of the fact that their idolised Sinterklaas tradition from now on will be accompanied by a impressive and continuous petition to abolish Black Pete. They know the discussion about the racist caricature will keep recurring and that things will never be the same again, as it used to be in the so-called good old colonial days when blacks were servants and whites were bosses. These losers had better come to terms with this and end their completely outdated grumbling and whining.
Some time ago the free newspaper Metro made it clear to what extent the criticism of Black Pete has advanced in the media. Whether Black Pete is a funny chimney sweep or a racist caricature is something we will probably never agree on, the newspaper summarised the debate. In the meantime it appears that the opponents of Black Pete are given an equal role and are taken serious in the discussions. This is striking because for a long time the Black Pete critics were ridiculed as over-sensitive fanatics or ignorants who needed to be made aware of the delicate Dutch culture as soon as possible. “Let’s make 2013 the last year in which we talk about Black Pete”, was the challenge of scientists Mariska Jung and Laura Boerhout, who want to abolish this racist caricature as soon as possible. “Honestly, are there still people to whom we have to explain that Black Pete is not black because of the chimneys?”. Two other scientists, Maartje Janse and Karwan Fatah-Black, objected to the fact that the University of Leiden distributed chocolate letters with an edible Black Pete head to its employees, as part of its end of year gift. “The University chooses to identify itself with a tradition that is not only controversial but also in its final days: the tradition in which Sinterklaas is pictured with a caricaturish black helper”, they wrote. “This black helper historically speaking is a relatively new phenomenum: while the Sinterklaas celebration is older and has seen helpers in a number of forms, the black servant was only pictured in 1850 for the first time in a Dutch children’s book. It was no coincidence that in those years a debate was taking place in the Netherlands about how slavery in the colonies should be abolished. It is not unthinkable that the black, obedient helper was meant to subdue the fear for uprisings by slaves after the abolition of slavery.”
Even the Sinterklaas-lobby that has had to strain itself in recent years, realises that times have changed and that the image of Black Pete needs readjustment. Although the corny Sint Nicholas Society is not advocating for the abolishment of the racist caricature, it does want to do away with a number of characteristics that have defined Black Pete through the years, such as his somewhat silly, cheeky, childish and merrily dancing appearance. According to their own communication, the Genootschap would like to upgrade him to “an indispensible manager”. This means that they would like to modernise him and embed him in the forward-sweeping capitalist tide? Looking at it in this manner the ancient pseudo-saint Sinterklaas would have to be transformed into a CEO of an international company that uses its black managers to ensure the smooth procurement and distribution of its gifts. This raises the question why Black Pete even in his role as manager continues to look like some kind of 18th century footman. Society chairman Jan van Wijk continues – perhaps against his own better judgment – to fight the opinion that Black Pete will soon disappear. “It is for Sinterklaas to decide which kind of Pete he wants to take along and so far he chooses Black Petes.” In other words: Sinterklaas should remain the boss who selects his servants, and these servants should be black. According to the Genootschap the master-servant relationship is not to be challenged. The attempt to give Black Pete the image of a modern anager could very well originate in the desire to keep this skewed relationship of power by camouflaging him. But even this club of blackface-fans appears to be slowly forced into recognising, very reluctantly, that the Sint and Pete tradition in its current form is under attack.
When the cracks in the Dutch white camp might not yet be enough to make Black Pete extinct, there is always the wave of anti-racist support from abroad. Whether in Germany, the United Kingdom or the United States, everywhere there are people raising their voices in shock and anger against the fact that the racist blackface-folklore is still permitted in the Netherlands. The Black Pete debate is spreading around the world. People exclaim in astonishment: “The Netherlands continue to live in the 19th century!”. Not only press agencies such as Associated Press are writing critically about Black Pete, but also media such as Al Jazeera. The criticism of the blackface-folklore in the Netherlands also appears to have stimultated the discussion in Germany about painting children’s faces black during the celebration of Epiphany in the country. What should not be done in the Netherlands also has no place in Germany, the critics there say. They will feel strengthened in their opinion by the international protest against the Black Pete racism.
This ever-growing protest results in demolishing the nationalist fantasy image of the Netherlands as a progressive and tolerant nation. Although many Dutch stubbornly try to keep this image alive, the fact that this country has a backward culture and a seriously deficient civilisation is now being discovered all over the world. International companies with branches in the Netherlands refuse to adapt to the Black Pete racism because their employees take offence. Taking part in the blackface-folklore could damage the image of the company. “There you have Sinterklaas and his army of black slaves”, is what Americans will say when they are walking in the streets on December 5 in the Netherlands. They conclude with anxiety that the country of the windmills, wooden shoes and tulips is picturing black people as servants of the whites. However, as soon as it has financial repercussions, it turns out that a striking number of Black Pete-fans are all of a sudden and most opportunistically, able to calculate that their racist tradition may offend many foreign business partners and tourists, and that the country might lose market share. The Schiphol airport is in favour of showing very little of the popular racist caricature on December 5.
Due to the increasing international irritation and contempt that the cold country behind the dikes is experiencing, the Black Pete-supporters see themselves forced to play down their self-indulgent nationalistic attitude that assumes that foreigners do not understand the Sinterklaas tradition and need to be acquainted with it. As a result the nationalistic self-image of the country is falling apart. Deep down many Dutch know that their blackface-folklore is a sensitive issue. When they are abroad, they tread very carefully. The HEMA does feature the Sinterklaas celebration in its shop in London, but wisely leaves out the blackfaced servants. The Petes in the store only have some black spots on their cheeks. A Dutch café in the British capital also keeps Black Pete out because they fear the government might charge them with racism. The Golliwog, the British little brother of Black Pete, has been thrown out with the trash of history long ago on account of offending and stigmatising black people. The Dutch had better not carelessly introduce their own version of the Golliwog in the United Kingdom.
The continuing dissatisfaction with the Black Pete figure has greatly increased after the summer of 2011 due to the efforts of Quinsy Gorio and others in the “Black Pete is racism” campaign. The arrest of a number of activists during the Sinterklaas welcoming parade in Dordrecht has caused international outrage. They were arrested hard-handedly because of the simple fact that they were wearing a T-shirt with the text: “Black Pete is racism”. The already considerable irritation directed at allowing this kind of racism now increased with anger about this violation of the freedom of expression. It appeared that the authorities responded with repression to any criticism of Black Pete. This offended many people, even those who in the past had their doubts about Black Pete but until then had not spoken out openly against him. Now more and more Black Pete critics protested openly. The “Black Pete is racism” campaign has mobilised many people due to intensive street protests and handing-out flyers against the racist caricature. This has obtained results, so much so that Gario recently concluded that his goal to keep the discussion regarding Black Pete going had been reached. In the meantime the influential National Committee Slavery History, that has been lobbying for years to erect a statue in the Amsterdam Oosterpark to commemorate slavery, has submitted a formal complaint against the Black Pete racism. They intend to bring the issue to the international level in order to increase the pressure on the Netherlands.
No matter what way you look at it, no matter what way you turn, it cannot be stopped: sooner or later Black Pete will disappear. The sooner, the better. The protest against the servant of Sinterklaas is successful and it is part of the broader fight against Dutch colonialism and nationalism. The critical approach towards dealing with the colonial past has become more substantial over the past 15 years. This has generated all sorts of results, not just the erection of the Amsterdam monument against slavery, the yearly commemoration of the abolition of slavery on July 1 and the sharp debates about the slavery history of this country, but also a victory in the courtcase against war crimes of the Dutch army in the village of Rawagede during the colonial war against Indonesia. In the meantime new lawsuits are started by relatives of Indonesians and by the Dutch-Indies conscientious objectors, in which the Dutch state is accused of criminal acts during the Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia.