To oppose a popular icon means isolation, rejection and hate mail. In the Netherlands there is a child festival called Saint Nicolas, which is centered around the arrival of a fictitious old man on his steamboat. Saint Nicolas arrives with an army of black painted white people called Black Pete’s. These Pete’s are fully black faced with bride red lips, black curly hair and golden earrings. Their classic behavior is clumsy and stupid, which is exactly how black people were portrayed in the American black face comedy shows 100 years ago!
Saint Nicolas or Sinterklaas is an old Dutch festival. It started in the late medieval period, when the Dutch would lay gifts for the poor in shoes at churches. On 6 December, the churches distribute these gifts to the poor of society. The person; Saint Nicolas appeared around the 17th century as an old Catholic bishop. Dutch painter Jan Havickszoon Steen, made two portraits of this festival which became famous. The painting show how a typical family celebrated this festival, with a good girl getting a gift while the bad boy gets nothing and is crying!
Black Pete (Zwarte Piet in Dutch) did not appear in the early festivals, until he was added in the mid 19th century. A schoolteacher wrote a book about Saint Nicolas and gave him a (black) servant in 1850. This servant became Black Pete over time. In those days, slavery was still permitted and white Dutch capitalists enslaved many Africans to work on their farm-fields in Suriname (Latin America). The Netherlands was an active player on the slave market and transported many slaves during the so called ”Golden Era”. Black slaves were send to the Dutch Caribbean islands and to Suriname. This country was conquered by the Dutch after the British seized New Amsterdam (New York). In 1674, it was agreed that the British could keep New York and the Dutch kept Suriname!
At first there was only one Black Pete. For about 90 years he stood by Saint Nicolas and aided him, by carrying the bag of toys and gifts for the children. To explain why Pete was black the Dutch came up with this silly story, that he was black because of the chimney. The story tells that Saint Nicolas and Black Pete travel on the roofs and deliver gifts through the chimney into the living-rooms, were the children put their shoes. This is however a smokescreen to hide the fact, that the appearance of Black Pete is typical black face of the late 19th century. After the second world war, more Pete’s were added to the festival. Now Saint Nicolas had an army of black painted white people, who work under his rule. They would do all the hard work, while Nicolas himself rides a white horse and sits in a comfortable chair, while visiting homes of children!
After Suriname became independent in 1975, many feared poverty in the new republic. A wave of blacks migrated to the Netherlands, which lay the seeds of today’s racism. Many white Dutch did not liked the idea that black people were coming to their nation because they hoped for a better life in the Netherlands. Racism was always a problem and the Dutch government did little to stop it. In fact most blacks ended up in poor neighborhoods and got low paid jobs. Many ended up living on social benefits as the 1980’s caused a rise in unemployment!
Few dared to oppose the fact that Black Pete was a racist stereotyping of a black person. Because even in the so called ”progressive” years, most Dutch would react very hostile if you would dare to criticize, the character of Black Pete. This is why the black Dutch population choose not to demonstrate against this obvious racist icon. However at schools many migrant children from Suriname were called Black Pete’s by white children. They were bullied with black face and grew to hated the date: 5 December, the day of the Saint Nicolas festival!
Not all black children were bullied with Black Pete, but many were and this is why the festival was not a happy time for them. Even adults were bullied by ethnic whites and called Black Pete’s, proofing that the icon is used for racist ”jokes”. Whites always claimed that black people should not see these ”jokes” as racism. This is the problem with the Netherlands, the white population of this so called ”progressive” nation does not wish to confront it own racist past, let alone its racist traditions. The era of mass slavery is called the ”Golden Era” and there is very little discussion about the Dutch part in the transatlantic slave trade. History books limits the crime of slavery to one chapter. You can compare it with how the Germans looked at their Nazi crimes between 1945 and 1965. For about 20 years after the war, Germany did very little to confront its criminal past. The Dutch do the same thing when it comes to their colonial crimes, they say it is the past and claim no responsibility as a nation!
Until 2011, Black Pete faced no real opposition. Black Dutch waited in silence until the festival was over and the black face character removed from stores. But then two black Dutch choose to start a project against the black face tradition. Quinsy Gario and a friend started a small protest, during the arrival of Saint Nicolas. After hearing that his mother was called the Black Pete of her company, Gario and a comrade painted the words; BLACK PETE IS RACISM on two t-shirts and stood next to the road as Saint Nicolas and his Pete’s were about to arrive. Dutch police was not happy with this silent protest of two black guys. They were violently arrested and removed by force!
This was the spark that lightened the fire. After seeing how brutal the police arrested Quinsy Gario and his friend, black activists and anti-racists choose to fight and use their democratic rights. White Dutch however were not pleased. On Facebook and Twitter they used racist remarks, to bully and intimidate those who dared to oppose Black Pete. The racists were supported by the radical right-wing; Party for Freedom ( PVV ) led by the populist; Geert Wilders. To support this racist icon, PVV members in some city councils appeared as Black Pete’s, to show that the Dutch right-wing stood with black face!
95% of all Dutch reject the idea that Black Pete is racist. They turn a blind eye to the racism that is fired on blacks and whites, who demonstrate against the popular icon. However many capitalist enterprises feared a negative reputation and choose to remove Black Pete from their products. This angered so many whites that many businesses received death-treats and hate-mail. Famous Dutch ( called BN’ers ) are also denounced as ”anti-Dutch” and ”traitors” by Black Pete supporters, if they do not support the tradition of black face. Outright hatred is seen on the streets, if a person walks with a t-shirt that says: BLACK PETE IS RACISM. This intolerance comes from white people, who’s dogmatism on this issue is as strong as Americans who believe that the Earth is only 5.000 years old!
However the more racist the white Dutch react, the more militant the opposition becomes. In 2014 there were 80 demonstrators at the arrival of Saint Nicolas, to oppose Black Pete. Racists intervened and tried to stop the protests. Police forces used brutal force to remove the demonstrators. The capitalist media claimed that the violence came from the anti-racists and black activists, while in reality it was started when white nationalists, PVV supporters and racists attacked the protesters. In response to the growing racism, this year over 200 anti-racists ( both black and white ) demonstrated against Black Pete, this time their numbers intimidated the racists and nationalists who did not attacked them!
Still the lack of support from Dutch society is sad. Too many refuse to see the racism behind Black Pete. Sure the character does not behave like a slave, but his appearance is based on a 1850’s look of white people on black people. The Dutch however choose to ignore this fact. They also ignore that black children are bullied as Black Pete’s and that many jokes on the work floor directed against blacks, also involves this controversial character. For black Dutch, Black Pete is not a childish character but a clear reminder of the past, when their grandparents were seen as inferior to the white Dutch. That racism is still alive proofs the hate speech of so many whites!
The Netherlands is portrayed as this ”liberal progressive” nation by American news stations. In reality, this is not the case. Right-wing conservatism is stronger then most foreigners think. Hatred of immigrates and people from Islamic nations is growing, thanks to the fact the poverty is on the rise, which populists blame on foreigners. Out of 17 million Dutch, over 1,4 million live on less then 17.000 euro a year. A growing number also needs to go to the Food Bank to get free food. This happens mostly to families who live on less then 1.000 euros a month!
Rising prices also leads to frustration. The cost of medical insurance is rising each year as greedy insurance companies raise their contributions. House rents clime too because corporations who own houses, are allowed to raise their rents by 4% each year. Many workers on a average income, see how their lose more money and keep less each month. Dutch politicians seem not to care, especially the liberal conservatives, social democrats and other bourgeois parties. The current ruling coalition of VVD (liberal conservative) and PvdA (social democratic) is deeply unpopular due to its austerity cuts!
Right-wing populists play on the massive rejection of the traditional bourgeoisie parties. The Netherlands lacks a strong workers party, the only left-wing force is the moderate; Socialist Party, which tries desperately to enter a capitalist government. Led by Emile Roemer, the Dutch SP has moved so far away from Marxism, it can no longer be called a socialist party. Social-democratic Party would be a far better name for this moderate party, which does not oppose Black Pete and keeps very silent on the issues of slavery and racism in the Netherlands!
Black Pete is a product of a time when the European people, saw the black people as inferior. They portrayed them as clumsy and stupid in comic books and theater shows. This is the traditional appearance and behavior of Pete, it has been for 165 years. Although the Netherlands removed black face stereotyping from comic books and commercial advertising, it remains alive in this ”Zwarte Piet” character. If the Dutch were able to remove fictional black face characters in books, why can’t Black Pete be removed? The problem is the same as those white southern Americans, who love their Confederate battle flag. Whites do not wish to see popular icons as racist, because they claim that traditions are more important then fighting racism!