By Angelo Schuurmans
“There is no racism where I come from!” I said resolutely to my African American friend, Morayo. “Are you sure?” She asked. Not only was I sure, I was proud to say it. Now, as a Dutch expat living on my third continent, the ignorance of my previously held views has been exposed, and their memory tends to haunt me.
In hopes of celebrating my cultural identity a couple years ago, I organized a party in Los Angeles to celebrate the birthday of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) on December 5th. Much like Christmas in the United States, Dutch kids are especially excited to receive lots of presents and candy. Unlike Santa Claus, who rides in on a sleigh from the North Pole, Sinterklaas arrives on a boat from Spain. He arrives with an army of helpers called “Zwarte Pieten” (Black Petes). Black Pete wears a colorful page costume, an afro wig, bright red lipstick and golden earrings and is played by a Caucasian painting their face black. My mother mailed a package with traditional Saint Nicholas candy from home and I made cut-outs of Saint Nicholas and Black Pete for decoration.
“So, no racism in Holland, huh?” Morayo said after one look at the Black Pete cut-outs.
My reaction was immediate. Black Pete is so entrenched in our culture and is such a critical moment in our childhoods, that I had been completely oblivious to its broader message. I had never even linked Black Pete to a person of color. I had never considered that he is a black servant that arrives on a boat with an army of other black servants: a boat that is captained by a white man leader.
I was ashamed for not being more perceptive. Racism and discrimination are just as prevalent in the Netherlands as they are in Ferguson, New York and the rest of the world.
My naiveté is shared among many proud Dutch citizens. In school we learn about starting the first multinational in the world issuing stock (Dutch East India Company). We learn about gaining immense wealth from the overseas sugar and spice trade and about our historical, artistic and scientific achievements during the Golden Age. With such a proud heritage, we overlook the darker side of our nation’s history. In the early 1600s, the Netherlands established the Dutch West India Company, which later became responsible for the biggest part of the almost 600,000 slaves transported from Africa to Asia and the Americas. An estimated 75,000 slaves died due to horrific circumstances on board. The ones that survived faced slave labor on plantations that were often financed by Dutch bankers.
There is one annual event organized to remember the abolishment of slavery in Holland. It’s held in a very small park in Amsterdam and nobody really knows about it. This week the government took away their secure funding (50,000 Euro a year), and now this singular remembrance might completely disappear.
With such a profound contribution to one of the darkest periods in human history, you’d think that many Dutch would turn a critical eye to such weary government cuts, and to the tradition of Black Pete. Prime Minister Mark Rutte instead tries to abstain from commenting on the issue (Black Pete), claiming it’s a tradition of the people that doesn’t need political guidance. He dismisses the fact that the arrival of Saint Nicholas gets celebrated nationally in government-funded schools. Publically, he has even stated that “Black Pete is black and you can’t change that” and “my friends in the Dutch Antilles (where there’s a large population of black people) are happy they don’t have to use black paint, it takes days to wash off.” Geert Wilders, leader of the PVV conservative party, takes it one step further by proposing a law to leave Black Pete’s characteristics unchanged.
When Carol Thatcher, journalist and daughter of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, referred to an Australian Open tennis player as a “golliwog,” she was sacked from the BBC show and scrutinized by the media, who demanded an apology. The golliwog doll, like the use of blackface in American theater and film, has been widely recognized as an offensive tradition over the years. Black Pete should be a similar offense. But just like how the Netherlands held on to slavery in their colonies about sixty years longer than other European countries, today an average of 83% of Dutch still do not consider Black Pete potentially discriminating. In fact, last year a Facebook page entitled “pro-Black Pete,” aimed at protecting the tradition, gained over two million likes in less than 48 hours.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission and the Council of Europe’s Anti-Racism Commission officially concluded in 2013 that the tradition of Black Pete is offensive to ethnic minorities. Now what started as mere incidental screams of protest have turned into national demonstrations that are becoming larger each year. Unfortunately, the debate is derailed by questioning trivialities, for example: Is the caricature derived from an actual Moor or some pre-colonial black mask? But given the history of slavery in the colonial era, are these questions even relevant? Wouldn’t we be better off painting the faces of our children with all the colors of the rainbow?
The supporters of Black Pete are ignorant about their nation’s part in history. They don’t comprehend the fact that their ancestors helped carve a stereotype of white superiority onto mankind. A stereotype that has weakened, but is still vividly alive today. The white man put the black man on a boat and denied them their humanity. And even though these monstrous mistakes were made long before our time, African descendants all over the world still experience racism and its severe consequences every single day. An annual celebration that includes a boat arriving with hundreds of Black Petes, who are there to serve their white Saint Nicolas continues this exact same message of white supremacy our ancestors helped create centuries ago. To support or allow this, out of ignorance, in 2015, is criminal.