THE CELEBRATION OF ZWARTE PIET – a thick-lipped, soot-skinned, unintelligent slave of St. Nicholas – has caught flak in the decades since the arrival of Afro-Caribbean communities into the Netherlands in the 1950s and 1960s.
Now, a new generation in the vanguard of Dutch Black identity is rising up to deconstruct what they see as the institutional racism rusted within the systems of Dutch education, labour, culture and politics.
Zwarte Piet (or ‘Black Pete’) made international headlines in 2011 when two activists, Quinsy Gario and Jerry Afriyie, were arrested during a protest at a Saint Nicholas and Black Pete arrival parade. Their crime: refusing to strip themselves of tee-shirts branded with ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’.
Billed as a feast for children, the parade sees members of the Netherlands’ majority-white population donning blackface to distribute gifts, in their folkloric role as helpers to a Santa Claus figure. But for many in the Dutch Kingdom’s Afro-Caribbean population, the parade is nothing more than a demeaning characterization of people of African origin.
Over the three years since their arrest, Gario and Afriyie’s Zwarte Piet is Racism campaign gave rise to panicked debates over the future of Black Pete, leading, eventually to a human rights showdown in an administrative court in Amsterdam, where they led several plaintiffs in suing the city for granting a permit for the parade.
But resistance goes both ways. Although the court ruled that Zwarte Piet had aspects of racial discrimination, and that the city’s permission of the parade could be in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the ruling was later overturned by the country’s highest council. Human rights, according to the Dutch Council of State, are not required to be weighed in a city’s consideration for parade permits – and the Mayor of the City of Amsterdam did not err in allowing Black Pete parades to be staged.
Another reprieve for anti-Pete activists – this time, through the United Nations – was also short-lived.
In 2013, Barryl Biekman, a strident anti-colonialism advocate and President of the National Monument of Dutch Slavery-Past, rallied for an investigation into the parade from the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.
Led by Professor Verene Shepherd from Jamaica, the Working Group’s mandate was to study issues of racial discrimination faced by people in the African Diaspora, and to make proposals for the elimination of racial discrimination against people of African descent. Her findings exposed the sensitivity of race in the otherwise politically-progressive Netherlands, and stirred furious debates in defence of the tradition.
Damning Black Pete as a “throwback to slavery”, Shepherd incensed the Dutch public by intimating that Black Pete perpetuated stereotypes of African people. Threats were issued to the Working Group, followed by attempts to discredit Shepherd in the media. The final report, which should contain the Group’s findings on racial issues in the Netherlands and the Dutch Caribbean, is set to be delivered in Geneva in 2015.
Shepherd is not alone. Cultural critic Egbert Alejandro Martina has long decried the parade of Black Pete as a racism ritual, calling it a celebration of “the thingification of Black bodies, the infantile dependence on and attachment to blackface, and the references to iconic colonial commodities”.
But it gets trickier, with Pete’s defenders pointing to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, where Afro descendants also don blackface for the Black Pete parade. To counter, Alejandro Paula, a former Prime Minister in the Netherland Antilles government and an author on the Dutch slave experience in Curaçao, argues that: “from the era of slavery and maybe even long before, it wasn’t black people but white people who determined the decisive norm of the social matrix of reference.”
Paula argues in his book ‘Denied Past, Debilitated Future”, that these “white-determined norms”, taken over by Black people, “shape the criteria for Afro-Curaçaoans to judge themselves.”
Discounting the human impact of Black Pete on Black communities in the Netherlands has been a key part of Pete’s defense on the Dutch mainland, but those affected are not backing down.
“We’ve lied to ourselves about our tolerance for so long that we don’t recognise discrimination any more. There has been structural exclusion of minorities for decades” — Jerry Afriye
This November 15, over 60 protesters were arrested at this year’s parade of Black Pete: among them again, Jerry Afriye.
Afriye has gone on record to say that when slavery was abolished in 1863 in Suriname, it was followed by ten years of apprenticeship to get the mainland “accustomed to colonial freedom.”
For him, the abolition of Black Pete cannot follow similar timelines.
Cover photo: Marianne de Wit