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Some thoughts on the anti-racism struggle and white privilege

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Starting last year an issue that was rarely discussed at this level was brought into the public. Black Pete, the servant of Saint Nicolas with a less than politically correct appearance accompanies him during the Saint Nicolas or Sinterklaas festival in the Netherlands from mid-November to early December. He helps the old man, carries his stuff, gives presents to the children and tries to make sure everything works out, which it doesn’t because Black Pete is so clumsy and silly (which entertains the kids). Sounds okay right? Well except that he does this in black face.

People aren’t always ignorant and anyone with some measure of knowledge regarding this (which fortunately are often more than I usually expect) quite quickly points out the racist characteristics in this. And for decades this has been done so, only to be dismissed, ignored or silenced. Driven underground, the narrative of its racist nature rarely came out into the open like the way it did last year and now again, much to the dismay of many of the predominantly white Dutch people that live here and in doing so it unleashed more than a tacit bid of racism. Especially since it’s people of colour specifically that are leading efforts to change it.

Quite frankly I think the name used for this issue, ‘the Black Pete discussion’ is absolutely insulting to what it really is. There is no discussion, only intimidation and harassment on a massive scale directed against its opponents. There is no real debate, no real discussion on the nature of the character, its origins or even a single thought from its proponents about the negative impact it has. There is on one hand the call for its change and the arguments about the racist characteristics of the character and stories of black people experiencing racism in varying forms relating to Black Pete and on the other the calls for maintaining the character backed up by the position that people should stop nagging, that anyone insufficiently Dutch (read: not white) has no right to object and should either shut up or ‘return to their own country’ wherever that may be. More than anything the claim ‘it’s tradition’ is used ad infinitum as if it justifies racism, the only comments from the characters proponents on whether it is racist or not is when they dismiss it, usually without any reason given except perhaps ‘it’s for children’ as if that makes it any different (it probably makes it worse).

To the foreigners, especially those from the USA who have a less than positive collective memory of the blackface performances, the issue probably seems mind boggling and from the columns that I read that seems substantiated. But having little of history of domestic use slavery, which was something reserved for the colonies, communities descending from slaves were marginal or negligible until immigration changed Dutch demographics post-World war 2 to a more diverse one. And despite its proponents’ sweeping claims of a centuries old tradition the character itself didn’t become wide spread until very recently. Not to mention its appearance wasn’t even blackface for at least half of its existence.

History

For those unfamiliar with the subject, Sinterklaas is indeed very old. In fact there is much evidence that points towards the festival’s origin in Germanic paganism and nature worship. It is connection with Germanic god Wodan, who rides a white horse (like Sinterklaas) and has two black ravens which accompany him that act as his spies and tell him about what is happening in the mortal world, much like what Black Pete does. It is presumed that originally the festival is linked with the winter solstice, just like Christmas and the use of Saint Nicolas (the protector saint of, among other things, children) was to Christianise the celebration and make the conversion of Germanic pagans to Christianity that much easier to swallow. It still carries or carried many pagan elements although many (especially in the Netherlands) have been eroded away. Until its standardization it has for example a greater resemblance to Halloween where in some versions men dress up in strange cloths making them unrecognizable and carry out a kind of game with the women and children, children and women were supposed to stay inside but the challenge was to still sneak outside and avoid being caught. Getting caught meant being birched with a bundle of twigs or a brome, which, is at least in many pagan religions, is a symbol of fertility (yes the implications are what they appear, it carries elements of a pagan fertility ritual). This form lasted longer in the countryside and still exists in some of the more isolated areas in both the Netherlands and Germany.

However when the celebration became more standardized in the cities, this version was modified to fit it more as part of raising children along the lines of reward and punishment lines of behaviourist pedagogy. The birch became a threat of corporal punishment for children who misbehave and were lazy (as opposed to the Calvinistic work ethic that was the norm) and those presents and sweats were meant for those who were worked hard and had other good behaviour. Saint Nicolas is in this version accompanied with a helper who among other things has the role of punishing and rewarding children. The Saint Nicolas festival isn’t just limited to the Netherlands, it’s celebrated in Belgium, Dutch speaking parts of France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria all celebrate it. However with exception to Belgium, the servant of Saint Nicolas differs in other countries. In Germany they have Knecht Ruprecht, an old bearded man who follows Saint Nicolas. In Austria, Switzerland, Hungary and some part of Italy it’s Krampus, a black creature with goat horns (also pagan) that abducts children who misbehave and an angel that also accompanies the Saint as well.

Black Pete came into the mythology in the Netherlands somewhere around 1850 as the black servant of the saint. But he didn’t take the blackface appearance until later as the caricature become more widespread in Europe and North America. Which In the Netherlands was less than a century ago. Once represented as in a kind of noble savage form, the black face introduced a different stereotype. Black Pete is an athletic, helpful, well-meaning but nonetheless extremely unintelligent character, which is a source of much of the comedy surrounding this character. Character traits that were common among other blackface appearances in history. He also spoke with a creole or Suriname accent. Many of the old songs are so reference the characters African organs, in one song for example the Dutch equivalent of the n-word is used specifically in reference to Black Pete. Over time these songs became uncommon and since the 70s the Suriname accent has become less prevalent after campaigning against it. At the same time the character also changed from just being one man two an whole army of Black Petes (yes they are all called Pete), which each their specific role denoted by their name. Navigator Pete, Music  Pete, Cook Pete, Professor Pete etc. Despite this changes the characters are still in blackface and still act in ways that conform to the unintelligent and clumsy caricature.

 

White privilege

I have to be honest that until not too long ago from writing this meant little to me. For a long time I dismissed this issue as not important, to me Black Pete was an interesting yet harmless remnant of a bygone time. Anyone saying otherwise was just a foreigner who didn’t understand that it was harmless, imposing their race based activism somewhere which came over from the united states and the Caribbean.

I followed the same line of logic during 2013 when it hit the general public (prior to it notoriety was confined). I, like 2 million other people liked the ‘Pietitie’, a Facebook campaign to keep black Pete black, we spoke out against changing Black Pete. When I look back to it I have a hard time really remembering what I felt, but I seem to have the same issue when I think back when I held anti-feminist views. Either way one might put it as a sense of being threatened by a group that I thought were in no position to demand what they did.

At the same time I was confronted with something that broke that illusion. First and most clearly of all I realized how viciously racist the defences were of Black Pete. Even then I was somewhere on the far left once neo-Nazis, nationalists, fascists and people replicating their dogma start defending your position it’s time to take a step back and think about what it is you are really defending.

What it unleashed was absolutely file, and there was no way I could deny that which I had known to be true yet had refused to consider. How racist our society is, something that as a white person you are generally not directly confronted with, or at least it is easy to dismiss our prejudges and assumptions about ethnicity and the status in confers. It was clear to me that the reason we thought they were wrong and we were right wasn’t because Black Pete isn’t racist but because we thought they were insufficiently Dutch, and because of that they should be silent and accommodating to us. ‘We gave them homes, jobs and welfare, so they better be grateful because we did so much for them. We are such a progressive and tolerant society, yet all those foreigners were just taking advantage of us and now they dared to request we stop using Black Pete, how dare they accuse us of racism. We rule this society, we should make all decisions, if we say something isn’t racist it’s not racist, if they don’t like it they should just go back to where they came from. So many children enjoy Black Pete, he brings presents, they laugh at him because he’s clumsy, not too bright and makes mess of things. Those foreigners should adapt to us, not we to them. Our land, our culture, our rules, that’s the way it is and the way it should be.’ So we gave our petition to the leader of the Party for Freedom, the Dutch nationalist party who ran an anti-foreigner, anti-Islam and anti-EU program, to protect our own people and our superior western civilization, culture and heritage.

From that point onward I completely abandoned any intent on defending Black Pete. Even if I had a hard time understanding opposition to Black Pete, I could understand that even if Black Pete wasn’t racist, those defending it, whether they liked it or not generally were one way or another. And this time I started listening to what ‘those foreigners’ many of whom weren’t necessarily foreign had to say about it and this made me change my mind. Not to mention I during that time started reading more into structural oppression and privilege. I understood that what I experienced wasn’t the same what black people experience and vice versa: they experienced things I can at best read about or listen too (which itself is something that rarely comes out into the open). I also learned more actual history of the character and the role caricatures like that played during the 19th and 20th century. What it means, represents and is meant to imply.

People say they think this whole issue is a bunch of nonsense, that black people and allies campaigning against this are just nagging and should find something better to do. They are at least in a sense doing what you would expect of them. They do not experience Black Pete like some people have to. They’re in no position to understand what it does to people. They are too privileged to know they are privileged and that is something many people don’t like to hear. I doubt many of my friends and people that I’ve known for years could understand unless they were willing to listen. That behind the happy memories of the 5th of December, when we received presents, when Sinterklaas and Black Pete came to visit our communities, there was a less pleasant story. One of ridiculization, bullying, confusion and children not daring to go to school because it was that time of the year again.

A story that when told is far too often ignored. People who say children aren’t conscious of skin colour, or that they don’t recognize Black Pete as caricature of black people are very wrong. Children are naïve, not stupid, children know even if you tell them Black Pete is black from the chimney sooth. I heard stories of children who were bullied because of their skin colour was like that of Black Pete. Children who came home crying because they thought they were unintelligent. Why? Because Black Pete is and they were like Black Pete and everybody (including the teacher) laughs at Black Pete. And that’s just the children. Adults aren’t left unspared too, whether it’s micro aggressions, terrible jokes or outright harassment, not to mention the apparently very common ‘heh mama look, it’s Black Pete!’ reactions from children to black people minding their own business in public.

But not all children enjoy Black Pete and I think that that is a message that gets ignored far too much. Because proponents claim we are ruining a celebration for children but what about the black children? Not too long ago Dutch metro online newspaper showed a video of a white child that was crying because supposed she didn’t like the cheese Pete, which is one alternative Pete proposed to join the coming entrance parade of Sinterklaas. celebration ruined, according to some people. One black activist was right to point out the racist logic of this. One white child crying, celebration ruined, hundreds of black children crying every year, celebration perfectly okay.

Anti-racism

I joined the anti-racism struggle on a different note, surrounding the now infamous viral video at the Party for Freedom rally in the Hague were Geert Wilders asked his jubilant crowd if they wanted more or less Moroccans, to which the crowd chanted ‘Less, less’. “We’ll make sure that happens”, he replied. It should be noted that together with several other parties, the Party for Freedom precedes over campaign in favour of police violence (a zero tolerance policy) directed against the poorer neighbourhoods in The Hague.

I later joined a rally late summer in Amsterdam concerning the mayor’s backing out of his original promise to change the character and recently a rally in Utrecht by university students campaigning against their rector’s participation in this tradition with its current form. In both cases I’m quite happy that it is black people carrying the forefront in both word and deed, although white people themselves are thankfully present too although they tend to be left-wing activist in some form (this should also extend to me I guess).

So far I must say the reactions evoked are generally unpleasant. In fact I learned harassment and death threats directed an known activists are a commonality one has to deal with. Something I until this moment am fortunate enough to having to deal with. Last rally were had to deal with hecklers mainly from hooligans from Utrecht and associates of various far-right organisations. The far-right in its many forms are indeed a vanguard with regards to the counter-campaigns and activism and this is giving them a platform with a very popular message. But in a twisted way they substantiate our claims. Interrupting, booing and hissing at the speeches, it goes to show that when they shout ‘whore’ and ‘black cunt’ as one of the speakers it usually strengthens the point that racism (and sexism) is a problem here. Usually comment tend to ignore our arguments and just boil down to angry drivel of people with varying levels or ignorance and racism. It is quite depressing.

Ironically I personally find these people to have ruined Sinterklaas more than changing Black Pete into something less of a caricature ever would. I’m sure I will remember this for years whenever it is Sinterklaas again even when Pete is something other than Blackface. Which is the whole point, we do not intent to ban Sinterklaas, we just want the Black Pete character to change into something that isn’t black face and inclusive to everyone, so that everyone can enjoy it.

But this campaign is also much more than just about Black Pete. It’s about the labels and language we use to describe those we (the white Dutch people) deem insufficiently Dutch. It’s about housing and employment discrimination. About laws that are aimed and black people. And if anything I hope it stays that way, racism in the Netherlands is more than just one character. Black people and other non-white Dutch or foreigners stand out in terms of poverty rates, living standards and crime figures. Racial profiling is common, discrimination in housing, education and employment is common too and it ties in with a lot of prejudges and structural racism that we, as a society, still exhibit. Nobody said multiculturalism is not without its consequences and in a time of economic depression, it is those who are marginalized who are the first to suffer and the first to face the brunt of anger even when they carry no blame to what happened. The Party for Freedom is becoming one of the biggest electoral parties in the Netherlands and behind it a defeated and weakened force of Dutch fascists is finding a new rallying point and home to gestate and spread their ideology. For the first time in ages ‘eigen volk eerst’, ‘our own people first’ is become a common political rallying cry of the white working class, the unemployed and increasingly also members of the bourgeoisie against the dangerous foreign influences and left-wing (social democratic) elites that sold them out. With wars in the Middle East and the increasing attractiveness of reactionary Islamism among Muslim youths it is a dangerous combination, even if the practical threat is marginal.

 

Meanwhile we are marginalized, labelled extremists for positions that several decades ago wouldn’t even differentiate us much from the mainstream left. Considered more dangerous than the far-right, short of Islamic fundamentalism. It goes to show what our society really is if our activism against racism, abuse of refugees, labour exploitation is considered a greater threat to ‘democracy’ than a group of people who attack and harass other people based on their ethnicity and religious beliefs. If that’s true than I don’t see why I should agree with this democracy. They are dangerous opinions, but in these times more than ever it is important to say these things and to stand up against injustice no matter under what flag or ideals if flies. Because if we, regardless of ethnicity, refuse to take a stand, then who will? After all “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And left unchallenged, a society will not change in any other way than what fits the interests of those who are in power. And those in power inherently don’t desire a society where everyone is equal in status and freedom.  

Discussion 6 Comments

  • Sarah Owens 16th Nov 2014

    Daniel, thank you for this. We would never, ever, hear about this -- or I should say that Michael and I would never have heard about this -- here in Salem, Oregon, if you hadn't told us. Michael says the equivalent here, now, is the native-American-led effort to change the name of the Washington "Redskins." Everything you wrote about the resistance to making obviously necessary changes to the "tradition" of "Black Pete" we see in the case of the "Redskins", and, both of us being raised in the southern U.S., and older, saw over and over in the 1960s and 1970s. Not that it's over. As Cornel West said, Jim Crow is not gone, he's just changed his name to James Crow Jr., Esquire.

    I think it shows a good amount of courage and humility to describe your own journey as it relates to "Black Pete", qualities not greatly in evidence in IOPS blogs, but very much needed. I hope you will continue to write and speak out on this issue, focusing as you have here on how the people of color experience this "tradition", and sharing your own journey.

  • Lambert Meertens 16th Nov 2014

    You can read about some of the raging discussion in this New York Times article.

    Note the surprise appearance of Russell Brand in the trailer of Our Colonial Hangover by documentary filmmaker Sunny Bergman, to be shown in this year's edition of IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. In this trailer she is shown wandering through a London park, dressed-up the traditional Dutch way as Zwarte Piet, blackface and all, registering the reactions of passers-by.

  • Peter Lach-Newinsky 17th Nov 2014

    Yes, thank you Daniel for a very well written and honest essay/blog.

    I think the wider political issue you touch on, the danger of increasing xenophobia/racism/fascism especially among the working class and marginalised, is a huge one. Perhaps it requires fresh, creative, subtle thinking and action among radicals and leftists that goes beyond traditional 'anti-fascist' black-white/good-bad action which just often seems to add to the problems IMO... satire, irony, humour might be worth exploring...Key question: is right-wing populism and xenophobia also a result of radical left failure to massively present an attractive, alluring, 'sexy' counter-narrative/vision that appeals to large segments of the population, and if so, how do we change that?

    • Daniël de Klerk 19th Nov 2014

      Thank for your comment Peter.

      Personally I think the main fault of right-wing populism (specifically for the Netherlands), besides the neoliberal doctrine crushing the labour movement is the abandoning of any real labour mainstream social democratic parties in Europe and basically copying the right's policies with a tad more progressive influence and paying token lip-service to single issue matters that important to some neglect the majority of the working class. On part of the radical left it's mostly bad PR, obscure single-issue politics and marginality. What made them great prior I feel was that more moderate yet critical leftism leveled the playing field and makes the people more receptive to more radical alternatives, and in turn it encourages stronger demands by Unions and parties. Then again it probably was a time of experimentation.

      The thing is we are presenting an attractive, alluring alternative. It just doesn't get much attention. Mostly because of what is stacked against us and primarily also what is stacked against the average joe. Capitalist logic dominates the collective narritive to the point that people don't even conceive a world outside of policy adjustment. More or less taxes, more or less welfare, more or less subsidies, more or less rent, more or less regulation, more or less EU cooperation and agreemens. There is litterally no world of politics outside of this. Any sort of fundamental critique get's either lost within radical circles, or is some over-acedemic person with a column in some magezine that has a limited audience. In this environement and with several different 'waves of immigration' settling in both first and later generations, the tension expected from this simple become a conduit to funnel for frustration, which is something the neofacists and right-wing populists exploit. Whe rarely get heard, when we do it's usually framed by the media as 'hooligans or extremists' doing ex often lacking vital info to paint us in a bad picture.

      However we are growing, if we have to believe the report last year by our state security service. Maybe not as vast as the right-wing populist vote but what we have over them is that we do in fact have something that can change things, even if we are limited. The right-wing populists are oppertunists, they won't change anything for the better. They usually just make things worse, the only thing they ever get through is some increased degree of racist policies. But working conditions usually don't improve if there is more police brutality, no does people spending power increase if we selectively cut welfare for non-white Dutch or w/e they can think of.

      We just have to keep fighting, keep organizing and keep educating both ourselves and others. And more importantly, do a better job spreading our message to those who can hear them. Even if they reject it at first (as they always do) it already a lot if they're even confronted with something that exists outside of the current narrative. However at this point the majority of people who hear our messages are predominatly those who exist on the target list of these neofascists. Which are mostly minorities, but also students.

  • Carlo Pifferi 20th Nov 2014

    Hi there; I don't fortunately know the specific of that silly character, it seems resumed by vintages propaganda comics of Mussolini regime, but racism is a matter of fact in european society and is mostly varigated and sub-widespread over the simply terms of intolerance for skin, sex and religion. The E.U. itself is an institution based in good wills but grown on racist supremacy due for the fundamental mistake generated in each country by local mid level educational system, that generates stereotypes and mistrust in other nationalities: you have to wait until university to learn that europeans are basicly a mass of nasty, racist warmongers. "We must have more influence in EU decisions", it's what every member country claims to his peoples, that obviously means equally to France or Germany and anyway further more than Romania, Croatia, etc..

  • Alex of... 20th Nov 2014

    to throw in a little satire from an American perspective, i'll suggest a Spike Lee Joint, Bamboozled. one of his lesser known movies. was maybe too hard to swallow for some, but i actually think it his best. torrent that shit.