Last week an administrative court in Amsterdam ruled in favour of the plaintiffs who contested the licensing of the 2013 Sinterklaas Parade in Amsterdam. The plaintiffs argued that granting the organizers of the Sinterklaas parade a permit constituted an infringement of their right to respect for private and family life, since the figure of Zwarte Piet, which plays a huge role in the public Sinterklaas parade, is a negative stereotype of Black people.
The plaintiffs argued that Foundation Sinterklaas Parade Amsterdam, which organizes the parade, could not have otherwise organized the event without the permit the Mayor granted. Because Mayor Van der Laan had not fully considered the objections to Zwarte Piet in his decision to grant a permit, he was summoned by the court to reconsider the licensing of the 2013 Sinterklaas parade. The decision was heralded, as Chandra Frank notes, as “an important outcome of years of protesting and activism by those opposed to Zwarte Piet.” Even though, I could understand why Black folks were happy with the decision, the reasoning upon which the court ruling is based bolstered White supremacy.
“The logic behind white domination is to prepare the black man for the subservient role in this country. Not so long ago this used to be freely said in parliament, even about the educational system of the black people. It is still said even today, although in a much more sophisticated language. To a large extent the evil-doers have succeeded in producing at the output end of their machine a kind of black man who is man only in form. This is the extent to which the process of dehumanization has advanced.”
If racism is institutional in the Netherlands, then why do ‘anti-racists’, keep looking for racism in the familiar places? Cataloguing highly locatable racist comments may point out the ubiquity of racist expressions, however, it does nothing to illuminate the work that racialization performs. Black folks and non-Black people of colour hardly need reminding of the scale of overt racism in the Netherlands. The question is, then, who is the intended audience of such cataloguing? Besides, targeting individual (online) commenters and writing them off using ableist and/or classist terms not only strengthens the idea that racism is an individual, psychological, and interpersonal ‘issue’, rather than a constitutive, systemic, and cultural feature of the social body of the Netherlands, but it also suggests that it is OK to challenge racism with ableism and classism. If racism is woven into the very fabric of the social body and its institutions, then why are certain institutions exempt from scrutiny? Continue reading “The Machinery of Dehumanization”→
What recent events have yielded is that a lot of White Autochtoon Dutch folks, when facing the charge of racism, feel that it is their self-image—as good, non-racist (and thus “innocent”) citizens of a tolerant country—and their moral character, in particular, that are being threatened.
The outward appearance of benevolence, tolerance, and innocence has been central both to the Dutch national self-image and to the political manufacture of the White Autochtoon Dutch identity. The Dutch have become so invested in the image of their being tolerant, “good” people that to many the unrelenting stream of reactionary and racist comments directed at anti-blackface campaigners came as a “complete surprise.”
The Sinterklaas parade is the biggest annual festivity for children in Dutch cities, by mid November, when the wise old white man Sinterklaas arrives on land joined by his blackface servants, the Zwarte Pieten. A crowd of adults and children wait anxiously on the passing of Sinterklaas and his jolly black servants, carrying burlap bags filled with sweets and presents. In 2012 the Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam included more than 700 Zwarte Pieten.
In 2013 Quinsy Gario filed a complaint against the permit the municipality had given to the Sinterklaas parade in the city of Amsterdam, due to the racist character of Zwarte Piet, and urged others to do the same. I was one of the 20 other persons that responded to this appeal. On October 17, we were requested to attend a public hearing in the City Hall of Amsterdam, whereby each of us was invited to elucidate our individual complaints to an official Committee of Legal Affairs that would decide on the case.
At the hearing I read aloud the text that follows. Egbert Alejandro Martina kindly revised the English version of the text. Jan Michiel Aeilkema kindly revised the original text in Dutch, further down.
The Sinterklaas tradition in its current configuration is an invocation of, and invitation to, racialized pleasure and I want to consider seriously the dynamic between racism and pleasure, or the concept “racism as pleasure,” embedded in the Sinterklaas tradition. Racism is reproduced over time through pleasure, through embodiment, and through, what Robin Bernstein would term, “dances with things.” People take pleasure in dressing up, and acting, as Zwarte Piet. As such, pleasure plays an important role in the psychological investment that gives Zwarte Piet its cultural currency. Moreover, one of the main arguments used in defence of Zwarte Piet is that Sinterklaas is a “fun” and joyous occasion for children and by getting rid of the figure we are denying children a source of pleasure.
There is something fundamental when one engages in social struggle that is daring to believe in real transformation.
A short while ago I watched a wonderful documentary about the US Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, where a historian defined it not as a struggle of good against bad or evil, but of good against normal. This poignant statement transported me back to the Netherlands year 2013, where and when public institutions sponsor and host the largest children’s party that centres on the figure of the holy white elder Sinterklaas accompanied by a retinue of jolly black servants: the Zwarte Pieten. This is normal or, at least, its presence is so insistent in the Dutch public sphere that the line between common (as frequent) and normal (as acceptable) is easily—and purposefully—blurred.
I didn’t want to write about the artist Makode Aj Linde, since a lot has been written on him already. Besides, womanist-musings wrote an excellent critique on Linde’s “performance art piece,” to which I can add very little. However, then I came across the following statement on a Dutch language website:
“Sweden is still way behind the Netherlands with regard to the multicultural society. In fact, people think that blacks are cakes…”
Compare and contrast:
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw any stones.