Black face is racist, right? Well, it seems the memo did not reach the Netherlands. So, I wanted to find out why the Dutch do not think this is racist! I went to see Black Pete with my own eyes; here’s what I experienced and felt.

Most people around the world realise Black Face is racist. Although, every Halloween and Christmas period, there seems to always be at least one person that decides to wear Black face to a party. However, in the USA or Britain, they are usually rare examples. Whereas, in some countries, Black face is an annual tradition. A tradition that is dividing a nation and continually causes heated debates and protests.

In the Netherlands, during Sinterklaas parades, Black face has become an accepted Christmas tradition for some. Whereas, it as a reminder of The Netherlands colonial past and the systemic racism to others.

Essentially, every year, white Dutch people put on black face paint, red lipstick and afro wigs to look like Black Pete. Fun times for some, racism to others.

Black Pete has been in The Netherlands Sinterklaas festivities since 1850. However, despite Black Pete’s racist Black face appearance in animations, books or even on White people during parades; the people of The Netherlands are still debating whether Pete’s Black face appearance should continue or be left in history books.

However, this debate has become increasingly heated as far right football hooligans have started threatening, harassing and assaulting anti-Black Pete protesters.  

During my time on the internet, I had seen a particular Black face picture floating around the internet for many years; but, I was not sure what it came from.

I had even written about the Halloween or Christmas parties where people had worn Black face and shocked social media. However, luckily enough I had never seen Black face in real life. 

However, when I heard of the The Netherlands Black Pete Christmas period controversy, I decided I needed to see and speak to these people myself. Could they persuade me that their tradition was not the racist Black face caricatures and characters that I had seen on TV, Film and Cartoons in USA and UK?

Examination of the history of white depictions of black people exposes the deeply ingrained stereotypes that are inherent within and promoted through the Sinterklaas and Black Pete tradition as it has been and is celebrated.  The physical characteristics portrayed in Zwarte Piet are the standard western stereotypes of Black peoples as expressed through imagery and performance.  Black Piet is an expression of numerous classic Western prejudices against black peoples that depict inferiority. He conveys the position of both a servant, and the child that exemplifies the paternal/ childlike imagery of the colonizer to the colonized, the missionary to the converted, and the master to the servant.

Izalina Tavares- Humanity in action.

My Experience

Although the documentary is only a short, I was able to experience a lot in a short period of time. We filmed the Sinterklaas arrival parade weekend in The Netherlands. It was hard to show the full extent of such a divisive issue in less than 10 minutes. With that said, I can walk you through my own experience.

Windmill, black man, Black man in glasses,

This, was my second trip to The Netherlands. However, like most people who visit Holland outside of 17th November to 5th December, I was unaware of the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet aka Black Pete ‘tradition’ and history.

Thus, my image of the Dutch like most people, is one of a friendly and fairly liberal people. Pretty much summed up by Tulips, windmills, legal prostitution, cannabis cafes and good footballers. I did not think the homeland of Edgar Davids, Ruud Gullit and many of great black footballers, would also have a present-day Black face tradition.

The Parade

The first Sinterklaas parade we went to was in Zaanstad. It was the host town for the televised arrival of Sinterklaas aka Saint Nicholas, a very pretigious event in the Dutch calender.

However, dutch broadcasters had already stated that they would only be showing images of chimney Pete. However, a court in Haarlem had stated they did not have to make any more changes to Piet’s appearance.

NTR said the character of Zwarte Piet – the helper of Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas as he is known in Dutch – would this year only have soot smudges on his face for his official arrival in November.
“The NTR respects both tradition and change, but it is our public duty as an independent public broadcaster to reflect these changes in society,” the broadcaster said on Wednesday.
“Therefore the Black Petes this year will have soot on their hands and faces because they came through the chimney.
“They will have different types of hair and will not be wearing golden earrings.”

The Guardian

Despite, the activists coming from different backgrounds and having different end goals. Most anti-Zwarte Piet activists demands are:

‘Citizens’ initiative Majority Perspective demanded that all Zwarte Pieten participating in the national arrival be stripped of stereotypical characteristics and behaviors, which they consider to be racist. The foundation wanted the Pieten not to wear any makeup to change their skin color, not to wear gold earrings and not to have red lips. The Pieten’s subservient role is also no longer of this time, according to the foundation.

Janene Pieters

Thus, Zanstaad was not only the official arrival but one of the biggest examples of The Netherlands’ Sinterklaas parade tradition and its conflicted controversy.

Amsterdam had already ruled that their parade on the following day would only feature Chimney Pete. However, each town/city is currently free to decide their own Black Pete stance.

As we arrived at the parade in Zaanstaad, more people than I am accustomed to were staring at me on the road and out of their windows. A Dutch lady walking her dog, even decided to pull me over to speak about the parade to me. 

Even though she only spoke dutch, I could tell she was very passionate about the issue of Black Pete. However, I could not understand on which side of the argument she was on. Although, once we reached the parade,  other people’s allegiances became a lot clearer. 

We walked down a beautiful Dutch street, with small picturesque houses on either side and windmills off inn the background. Yet, within this tranquillity, proudly placed on someone’s window was a teddy bear and cartoon version of Black Pete.

Seeing the imagery of Black Pete in people’s windows was fairly disturbing. Pete’s cuddle exterior did not diminish his racist past and connections. If Pete had a brother, his name would be Golliwogg. However, no amount of cartoons, teddy bears or images would prepare me for seeing the pro-black Pete white supporters that were in Black full face.

I saw the pro-black pete protesters front and centre at the opening for the children’s parade, at that moment I felt annoyed, angered and disrespected. Yet, even more so, I could see the first stages of the indoctrination of Dutch children and normalisation of racism. For instance, the Black Pete’s were friendly and gave out sweets, how many children do not like sweets?

With this emotion in my mind, interviewing the Petes was quite a challenge. Especially, when English was not their first language and I do not speak Dutch. However, despite my own feelings, I wanted to understand why they would continue the tradition despite it being considered so offensive for many Black people around the world and within The Netherlands.

Personally, I try to give people an opportunity to let me understand their thinking and potentially grow my own knowledge of their world and our society. In this case, it meant being confronted by something I found deeply racist. 

During the interview, the key defences they used were “it is tradition” and “it is for the children”.

Tradition

As I said in the documentary, the tradition of Black Pete has been well documented to have come from racist propaganda and tropes, much like all Black face. Pete was seen as a scary figure to punish naughty children. Pete was also shown as goofy, clumsy and in need of Sinterklaas aka Saint Nicholas’s guidance. Many of the racist tropes perpetuated about Black people in the 1800s and onwards. 

Although, in recent years those tropes have been dropped one by one. Even to the extent that Pete’s signature big gold ears have been dropped by some (but not all). However, this only further makes people question why if people can drop some of the racist stereotypes that Black Pete represents, why can’t they drop them all?

Many things in society have been traditions. Many of those things were not positive, such as slavery, anti-Semitism, colonisation and sexism. Tradition is not a definition of how benevolent something is. Often it is more of a reflection of history. Therefore, when that history is steeped in racism and colonialism, it is best to leave said ‘traditions’ in the history books and create a more inclusive future for all to enjoy. 

“It is for the children”

As I briefly mentioned earlier, the position of the pro-Black Pete protesters was very important to their cause. As the children walk towards the parade, the first image they see before Sinterklaas arrives is the smiling big red lips and black face of Pete.

The Petes represent parental nostalgia and the giving of sweets lures the children into developing the same love for the character that their parents have.

This nostalgic indoctrination is why so many Dutch people do not see an issue with Black Pete. As one of the anti-Black Pete protesters explained to me, even in the Dutch colony of Suriname, they celebrate Black Pete, despite its majority Black population,

“If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.” 

Carter Godwin Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro

I believe children are born blank slates. They have no knowledge of the world, outside of what their parents and society will eventually tell and show them. 

At the parade, the children I saw were equally happy to see and received sweets from Chimney Pete(the version of Black Pete that only has a little bit of soot on his face). However, those same children would be happy to see Mr Blobby, Sonic, an elf, Rodger Rabbit or any of character giving out sweets. Why? Because children love sweets and whatever their parents say is a fun character. Remember, we have to literally tell children “do not take sweets from strangers!”

Therefore, preserving Black Pete is not for Children. It is for the parents that want to pass on their nostalgia to their children. However, Studies have found that Black Pete negatively impacts Black Dutch children.

One of the go-to arguments of the pro-Black Pete side is that quarrelling about it ends up spoiling the entire celebration for children. But if this were really about the children, surely the Black Pete supporters would have paid more attention to a report published two years ago by the children’s ombudsman. It clearly states that many children of colour find the Black Pete season very troubling: during those weeks they’re more often confronted with racial slurs, usually by other children who call them Black Pete and poke fun at them.

Joost de Vries- The Guardian

Other reports have found that once children were older than 7, Black Pete simply stops being a random character, he becomes a reflection of Black people and thus potentially impacts the mental health of Black dutch children and adults.

Yet, more poignantly, I saw this with my own eyes when we went to another parade outside of Amsterdam.

Tilburg Cancelled Protest

Zaandam, had a lot of police presence and both sets of protesters were fenced off from each other. Thus, the parade had minimal conflict. However, we had seen images of anti-black people protesters being attacked in Rotterdam and Einhoven on the same day. So, we decided to join them to see for ourselves.

We decided to join the anti-Black Pete protesters at Tilburg. However, before we could even set up our camera the protest was over. The protesters had been told by the police that they could not guarantee their safety and thus would not allow them to protest at the actual parade. Instead, all they could do was protest outside of the Tilburg train station.

Yet, outside of the station, the protesters were still unnervingly and dangerously close to the often masked hooligans and counter protesters that the police had to protect them from. If I was to describe them, then they would have strongly resembled football hooligans.

This assumption was supported by NL Times, which reported that dozens of hooligans were arrested for attacking the anti-black Pete protesters and 2 people were held for using Nazi Salutes.

Six people were arrested in Eindhoven, with some charged for violent crimes. Police referred to the troublemakers as “a group of football hooligans that sought out confrontation with demonstrators from activist group Kick Out Zwarte Piet.”

NL Times

At Tilburg, I did not see children swearing at protests, I saw adults. It was not the violent actions and intentions of children, that meant protesters needed a police escort to get home. It was adults, using the issue of Black Pete as a rallying cry for far-right racism. 

Whereas, at Eindhoven, the activists said even some children were being coerced into singing racist songs and throwing eggs at the protesters.

One of the Kick-Out Black Pete protesters told me someone told her she should be “raped and thrown in the sea”. Are these the words of people protecting children’s traditions? 

Even, during my short stay, I still managed to receive a series of hateful tweets.

After the shortened Tilburg protesters, we were lucky enough to join the Kick-out Zwarte Piet protesters on their bus ride home. This, was when I saw them react to the news that the police had arrested some hooligans who were planning to attack them at the parade. They were visibly concerned for their own safety and so was I.

The lift of a protester is one of danger and harassment. It can be a lot more than simply holding a sign, chanting songs or signing a petition. Protesters are routinely trolled online, harassed, threatened, stalked and assaulted.

At the end of the documentary, I interviewed Naomi, one of the Kick-Out Zwarte Piet organisers. I asked her how she managed to find time to unplug from the reaction and harassment, she said she was still looking to find the answer to that question.

Naomi also explained that the protesters were being asked to help organise protests in towns and cities all over The Netherlands.

Whereas, some Dutch people think it is the young people from ‘Amsterdam coming to towns causing trouble’. It is in-fact, local people asking for help in mobilising and organising their resistance against this racist tradition.

However, many of their protesters ended up being cancelled by the police, due to safety concerns.

At Tilburg, I saw peaceful protesters being confronted by angry, aggressive and potential violent hooligans. Once again, posing the question, is the defence of Black Pete really for children or tradition?

My Final Thoughts

The documentary, could and should have been far longer. The issue needs more weeks to gather testimony and interviews. However, I think we achieved a lot in a short period of time.

Hopefully, one day the production company will release a longer version, which includes more of the testimony from the anti-Black Pete protesters. So that people can understand the harassment they have faced. As well as to see that they too just want their children to be able to enjoy the Sinterklaas festivities without the glaringly obvious racist character of Black Pete ruining their experience each year. 

I do understand this. When someone tells someone a character, film, show or saying they used to love is racist, it comes as a shock to a person’s ego and moral compass. Some people end up thinking that by liking said racist entity, they must be racist as well. Thus, some people will fight back and deny a problem exists. 

This should not be the case. People should realise that they were indoctrinated as a child and now they have an opportunity to make sure their children do not follow the same path. Thus, proving they are not racist, despite being seduced into loving a racist character.

Both I and the protesters I spoke to acknowledged that The Netherlands is a very nice place with friendly people. However, holding on to racist traditions like this only holds it back from being an even more inclusive and welcoming place for all.

Thus, there are some traditions that show the unique history of each nation’s culture. However, there are other so-called traditions that only act as yearly reminders of a nation’s darker past; whilst stopping them from having a brighter future.

By Antoine Allen. You can tweet or follow me on @Antoinespeaker on Twitter and Instagram.

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