Prime minister Rutte, the Seventh Day Adventists and others concerning blackface racism

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 19 (also read numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6/7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18).

My sincere apologies for not writing an update sooner and my sincere thanks for all those who have helped promote this petition. I saw for the first time today that some people have donated money to promote this petition and I am utterly grateful and will continue with this struggle till we win.

Fighting structural racism is difficult. Reni Eddo-Lodge prefers to use the expression “structural racism” instead of “institutional racism”. To quote Eddo-Lodge: “’Structural’ is often the only way to describe what goes unnoticed – the silently raised eyebrows, the implicit biases, snap judgments made on assumptions of competency”. And she went on to mention a British Social Attitudes survey which recorded an increase in the amount of people who were “happy” to admit their own racism. This increase was sharpest amongst “white, professional men between the ages of 35 and 64, highly educated and earning a lot of money”.

In the Dutch context, it’s the same, except that institutions are being noticeably racist. The media in the Netherlands, for example, are rife with racism. The Dutch version of Sesame Street had blackface for years, until a few letters were sent to the American organisation by activists. The same happened with Viacom, an international company responsible for the tv channel Nickelodeon. Don’t tell me that these white executives were initially unaware that they were promoting blackface.

Then there’s the Seventh Day Adventists, a religious group that has tried to redefine themselves as being anti-racist, but who facilitate racism by providing their Dutch headquarters to the NTR media company for the filming of a racist children’s television programme (called “Het Sinterklaasjournaal”) promoting blackface. In the US the Walla Walla university, affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventists admitted that they had a diversity problem.

So these institutions are managed by rich, white men who KNOW that this is unacceptable. Yet they exploit the situation – making money with racist entertainment – and particularly when it’s possible to get away with it, it’s a choice easily made, without the constraints of accountability. I would like the Dutch Seventh Day Adventists to stop facilitating the NTR in making this racist children’s television.

It’s a choice that many Dutch institutions make, even human rights institutions. When, in 2014, a mother took a school board to a Human Rights Tribunal (called in Dutch: het College voor de Rechten van de Mens), the tribunal said that although the blackface figure was discriminatory, because the school had “done enough” to discuss the subject, they would grant the school a year’s amnesty, permitting the racist figure to appear in the school for which the board is responsible.

The Human Rights Tribunal treated racism as an opinion and not as a wrong. In comparison, the Assembly of the Council of Europe considers racism a crime. Many Dutch newspapers reported in their headlines that the Human Rights Tribunal had “allowed” the racist caricature, which of course they had.

In 2015, a court in Amsterdam ruled that not only was the racist figure discriminatory, but that it also violates the right to private life. A higher court chose to decide that human rights considerations don’t apply in that specific case, because they were not explicitly named in the law. Shouldn’t human rights be relevant and implicitly applicable always?

A few days ago a Dutch newspaper called “De Telegraaf” published an article advertising the fact that a neo-Nazi political party intends to “legally” demonstrate in support of the racist caricature. De Telegraaf didn’t mention in the article that the NVU is a neo-Nazi party. The article did quote a description of anti-racism activists as being “screamers”. The Telegraaf article therefore conjured a misleading image: the image of a reasonable group, which wants to demonstrate ‘properly’ versus a noisy group of people. An honest portrayal would be to juxtapose a neo-Nazi party with people who express understandable outrage at the presence of racism promoted to children.

The Dutch Children’s Ombudsperson was coerced to issue a statement on this racist children’s tradition in 2016 after activists contacted other European Children’s Ombudspersons during a convention in Lithuania. The activists found it incomprehensible that the Dutch Children’s Ombudsperson remained silent on this nationally controversial issue. The Dutch Children’s Ombudsperson, Margrite Kalverboer, (reluctantly) issued a statement saying that children’s main objection is “the Afro-hair, the earrings, (and) the thick red lips”.

Noticeably absent from her list is the face paint. The face paint is THE essentially racist part of the costume. The children with whom the Children’s ombudsperson spoke mentioned the face paint as a dominant factor. I have heard this at first hand from one of the children interviewed by Margrite Kalverboer. The Dutch Children’s Ombudsperson applied an inadequate analysis to this patently unjust racist phenomenon. A serious analysis would have lead to a conclusion that red lipstick and earrings are not intrinsically offensive, but that the application of dark face paint is. An adequate response would have been to directly criticise the Dutch state which promotes this racist tradition with taxpayers’ money. The Children’s Ombudsperson did nothing beyond a vague statement requesting that the figure undergo changes.

Similarly, the NTR has a legal task to provide media services for the Netherlands; it is subsidised by the government. The legal task involves, ironically, education, youth and diversity. Yet neither the ministry responsible for the media, education and science, nor the NTR supervisory board have held the makers of the racist children’s television series to account. The NTR does generate income by selling lesson material to primary schools.

Other media companies with a legal task such as the NPO also generate income by producing minstrel shows for children featuring the very same NTR actors in blackface (the shows are called Zapp Sinterklaasfeest.) The price per ticket ranges from 13 to 32 euros per ticket, at the Jaarbeurs (venue) in Utrecht. This venue has a capacity to hold thousands of people.

Dutch police wear blackface as part of their job when monitoring parades, and mayors take part too when parades take place in various municipalities. Municipal governments subsidise these racist parades. Prime minister Mark Rutte made the racist remark (watch from 2:10 min into the fragment) that black people are lucky that they look like the caricature without needing the effort to put face paint on. All these institutions in Dutch society create a hostile environment for non-white children, because all Dutch children are exposed to this white supremacist imagery.

If human rights institutions, religious organisations, politicians, press and police can fail to be fair when it comes to questions of basic human dignity, it’s no wonder that discrimination exists in education, housing, and employment within Dutch society, along with the daily structural experience of micro agressions. It’s hypocritical that these institutions lay both the blame, and responsibility to change the racist status quo, at the feet of the very same hostile society which they themselves helped create.

Jennifer van Leijen