Last year 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 10.000 people already signed. Van Leijen regularly writes updates. Here is number 13 (also read numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6/7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12).
Yesterday, an item appeared on the news: about an international school in Breda that celebrates a Dutch tradition using Zwarte Piet, the blackface racist caricature. What is worrying about this item, is the pride in which the school allowed the television reporters onto their premises. It sends a message to Dutch society that this tradition could easily be exported, because international people are okay with it!
The Dutch constantly use the non-argument that it’s a children’s tradition to repel criticism, as if only innocence is possible with things connected to children. It’s one of the reasons why people trace the origins of this caricature to a school teacher: Jan Schenkman, who wrote children’s literature. The words “school teacher” conjure up an image of respectability and decency.
However, Jan Schenkman wrote (popular in its day) antisemetic literature and pornographic literature. The words “antisemetic pornographic writer” is how this man ought to be referred to. This is not an innocent tradition, schools are not not by definition free of discrimination and sadly schoolteachers can be racist too.
It is really shocking that a teacher of the Dutch language at the International school in Breda openly said on the news programme that children with a dark skin colour should be happy to be associated with Zwarte Piet, the blackface caricature! This racist phenomenon has been internationally and nationally condemned as infringing human rights by the United Nations, and the Council of Europes ECRI, as well as the Dutch Children’s Ombudsman, and the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, so it’s incredible that a school chooses to abdicate its responsibility towards its children. Blackface is never okay!
Mark Sawyer explains it well in his article for CNN: “Blackface is one of the most pernicious and painful stereotypes about people of African descent. It is also global. Blackface has appeared everywhere from Mexico to Japan, and it is always ugly, despite what those who put it on claim (…) blackface is always about mocking black skin and presenting stereotypical black behavior (…) The signs and symbols of demeaning black people are universal.They transcend continents, cultures and genres. At the same time, so are the denials. The people who traffic in them always have the same set of denials.”
In the Netherlands, anti-racism is nót a norm. We talk the talk, with our constitution, but it’s a meaningless document because it’s not adhered to. In fact, the racists get opportunity to promote their racism, whilst anti-racists are demonised, just as South African anti-apartheid activists once were in the Netherlands. The Dutch education system has a lot to learn and a long way to go.
Jennifer van Leijen