Letter to the municipal council about mayor Van Zanen and the racist blackface parade in Utrecht

Utrecht mayor Jan van Zanen has no opinion on blackface but participates yearly in a blackface parade.
Utrecht mayor Jan van Zanen has no opinion on blackface, but participates yearly in a blackface parade.

In an earlier article I reported what the stance of the mayor of Utrecht, Jan van Zanen, is towards an annual racist parade with Black Petes in which he takes part: he has no opinion on the subject. Van Zanen also stated that the positions of various human rights bodies who have unanimously condemned the blackfacing component within the parade, have not lead to him changing his perspective. The problem of taking part in a racist parade is that the mayor endorses the racism by that conduct.

Deze tekst in het Nederlands

The Dutch ministry of Social Welfare and Employment commissioned a report into the mechanisms which operate to the detriment of people of African origin. The report, called “The mechanisms of exclusion concerning people of African origin in the Netherlands: what is known about it?” (pdf), mentions an attitude prevalent in Dutch society which Gloria Wekker labelled “white innocence”. White innocence is an identity that many Dutch people ascribe to themselves: not only do they not know what discrimination entails, “they don’t want to know” in order to protect their identity as an innocent. This attitude is perfectly illustrated by the stance of mayor Van Zanen.

In practice this white innocence attitude facilitates the existence of ongoing racism. To eliminate something successfully, in this case racist discrimination, you have to be able to identify it first. Racist discrimination is a serious problem and there is something absurdly childish about Van Zanen’s stance. An adult approach to the allegation of racism is: is this racism? Because if there is racism, I mustn’t endorse it. If it is racist, I must eliminate it.

Van Zanen’s stance is: I don’t have an opinion. And his consequent action is to do what he’s always done: attending the racist parade without further research, without further questioning. When he is confronted with standpoints by human rights experts, he retorts: that doesn’t change anything. It shouldn’t be possible that a mayor can make racist decisions based on unsound arguments. When a mayor rejects expert judgement, just because he can, it’s a serious issue.

Mayors are not elected in the Netherlands, they nevertheless should be accountable. That’s why I sent a letter to all municipal councillors in Utrecht, and according to protocol they should answer my questions. This is an English transcript of the original e-mail:

Dear councillors,

This letter contains several questions in response to a letter that I received from mayor Van Zanen earlier this year. I shall put these questions on behalf of my three children and, of course, in the interests of other children in the city of Utrecht. My letter is about the presence of the Black Piet figure at Sinterklaas and the role of the municipality and especially the mayor. The Black Piet figure is a caricature of people of African origin.

On the one hand, mayor Van Zanen does not have an opinion on the issue whether the Black Pete phenomenon (involving the wearing of face paint to resemble a black person) is or is not discriminatory. On the other hand, he participates in Sinterklaas parades with discriminatory blackfaced caricatures. The mayor participates as the governing body of the municipality of Utrecht. What do the councillors think of this participation? Does the city council agree that the mayor, by his very participation, approves of the presence of the Black Petes? If so, what do the councillors think of this approval?

The Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, the Children’s Ombudsman, CERD (United Nations anti-racism committee) and many black and white Dutchmen have spoken out against the Black Pete figure. This did not lead to mayor Van Zanen changing his perspective. Why not? For what reasons does the mayor reject the expert views of human rights organisations and why does he not consider the growing group of Dutch, including residents of Utrecht, who advocate the abolition of the Black Pete figure? And why does Van Zanen not consider the more than 60 schools in Utrecht, namely the schools under the auspices of two school boards, the SPO Utrecht (with over 30 schools) board and the PCOU (29 schools), both whom have eliminated the racist caricature from the celebrations at school?

According to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the interests of the child must be the first consideration in all policies concerning children. It is in the interests of all children, black and white, not to be confronted with the Black Pete figure, because this figure is a caricature of people of African origin. In view of this Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights treaties, I request the councilors to answer the questions in this letter. In addition, I invite you to exercise your influence in vanquishing the Black Pete figure from future Sinterklaas welcome parades in Utrecht.

I look forward to like receiving your reply.

Will the municipal council take blackface racism seriously? Will they be transparent and accountable for their decisions? Will there be anti-discrimination in their conduct instead of endorsing racism? To be continued.