Black Pete belongs in the museum
It’s a rainy Monday evening at the end of November. The Doelenzaal at the University of Amsterdam is full of people. At this time of the year the debate around the caricature of Black Pete is at its peak in The Netherlands. At this Monday evening people from various backgrounds came together, sharing the same understanding: Black Pete belongs in the Museum.
The event of this evening is from Moving Traditions, which is set up by the three organizations called Amsterdam United, University of Amsterdam and New Urban Collective. Mitchell Esajas, co-founder of New Urban Collective tells us that he stopped celebrating Sinterklaas after his mother was yelled at as ‘Black Pete’, several times. Today he organizes and participates actively in events that are trying to change this harmful Dutch tradition.
Black Pete is black grief
On the 5th of December the Dutch people celebrate their national holiday of Sinterklaas. They celebrate the life of Sinterklaas who died on December 6. Most people are familiar with this tradition as the American version Santa Claus and his elves. But in The Netherlands Sinterklaas is not accompanied by elves, but by Black Pete. Black Pete is a caricature of the helper of Sinterklaas who goes through the chimney of people’s houses to bring gifts to children. By going through the chimneys the stories goes Black Pete became black. This is the story of Black Pete. The story of white people in black faces.
To understand why people have problems with the caricature of Black Pete we have to go back to the time when it was created. In 1850, thirteen years before the slavery was abolished, there were servants in The Netherlands. These people were considered a lesser kind of human being. They were called The Moor and they had to constantly face problems of structural inequality. In this time black people were considered lesser human beings than the superior whites. There was philosophical, anthropological, and biological racism. This was suggested by so-called enlightened thinkers such as Voltaire, David Hume and George Hegel. These various forms of racism where translated into strip books such as Okidoki and Kuifje in which the black face character played the role of inferior human being. In return the character of black face in this literature served to produce a sophisticated culture in which whites where projected as superior. In this sense the Dutch culture became a culture of white supremacy. After the second world war The Netherlands agreed not to talk about race anymore. Because the Dutch people decided: ‘We don’t do race’, because ‘we see everybody as equal’. After the former colony, Surinam became independent the Dutch society changed. People from the former colony began to form a large part of the Dutch population. This changed the Dutch society as it became a multi-ethnic society. The ‘motherland’ became now the ‘motherland’ for people from former colonies as well and the concept of ‘we don’t do race’, had to be reconsidered. How true is the Dutch promise of equal rights? It’s easy to create a law which is equal for everybody, but it’s difficult to change people’s minds. If we look at the apartheid struggle in South Africa, we see that the law has changed in 1994, but apartheid is still in people’s minds. So it’s easy to say ‘we don’t do race’, but in reality we have to do race, because on an institutional level there remains a lot of racism. And of course there remains the presence of Black Pete.
Fight against Black Pete
The protests against the practice of Black Pete in The Netherlands started during 1950. Black people were demonstrating against the caricature of Black Pete, but it didn’t have a lot of effect on a national level. In 2011 the resistance fully enflamed again. From that moment on, the media showed their interest in the protest and every following year a protest was organized during the arrival of Sinterklaas and his Black Pete’s. Two weeks ago the police arrested 198 people during a protest in Rotterdam. A disturbing violation of what the Dutch consider their ‘sacred’ freedom of speech as different protests across the country were met with exorbitant violence by the police.
Zwarte Piet en ik
In 2011 Bibi Fatlala, a freelance documentary and filmmaker, made a documentary about black Pete in The Netherlands. The documentary has been broadcasted on national television and it shows different perspectives on the view of Black Pete. Bibi Fadlala explains that a lot has changed after making the documentary. ‘Today so much has been said’, says Bibi Fadlala. ‘Explanation is not needed anymore.’
When she is asked where we should go from here, her response was clear. ‘We shouldn’t explain the reasons anymore. We have to make sure we have the discussion all year and protest. We should find a larger form of protest, so the media can’t say it’s a small group that is against Black Pete anymore. We have to do something about the state and institutionalists who keep it like it is. And we have to fight our own battle.’
Patricia Kaersenhout: art as resistanceArt as resistance
Visual artist and cultural activist, Patricia Kaersenhout, speaks this evening about her work that became a part her own struggle against racism and inequality. One of her projects was against the historical curriculum that is taught in schools. She felt like she was not part of this western history and so she destroyed history books, cut pages out of them and took the holiness of these written books away. She reclaimed her position as a black woman from a history/ narrative she was not part of.
Another project of her was a performance that is called ‘the clean up woman’ at the Modern art Museum in Amsterdam. She would dress up as a cleaning lady and clean the space. Clean this white space. She wanted to make a statement because the higher you get in these kind of organizations, the ‘whiter‘ you get. During her performance as a cleaning lady, she noticed that even people she knew, didn’t recognize her.
Patricia Kaersenhout explains that it is important to take a lot of responsibility. ‘Black Pete is more than a symbol of a tradition. It is more than an issue of colonialism. We should raise the discussion to institutional racism, because Black Pete is not a black problem. It is a white problem.’
According to Patricia Kaersenhout the community of activists sees that there is a lack of solidarity. ‘People are busy with short term solutions’, she explains, ‘But you have to sacrifice yourself, because it is not about you, it’s a bigger thing. If you see this, you can go for a bigger goal. Stand up and think on how we can create a huge critical mass. Because people are not impressed if you come to a national entry with 300 or 400 people.’
The future of the movement
During the dialogue there was a panel discussion with four people. Students Adwoa and Archana who were part of the 198 protesters that got arrested in Rotterdam two weeks ago. Professor Anne de Jong, who was part of the protest in Weesp and cultural critic Simone Zeefuik. According to Simone a lot of people think it is unsafe to go to a protest. This is problematic, because the less participants at a demonstration the more dangerous it is for the people who are there. This year in The Hague she describes the demonstration as horrific. ‘During the demonstration we passed Nazi’s’, Simone said, ‘People were shouting at us from their houses, they were making monkey sounds, we saw people doing the Hitler greet. It was really bad. Nazi’s don’t see us as human. The police was there and they were there to protect us but the power of the police is based on a myth. These things make it difficult for people to be at protests, because they are scared.’ Simone understands why people decide not to go to a protest but what she finds problematic is when people tell each other not to go to a protest.
Anne went to the protest in Weesp this year. ‘I chose to step in and out of the struggle every time, because nobody assumes that I have an opinion about this.’ Anne finds it uncomfortable to say ‘we’, because she doesn’t think it is her struggle since she can decide when to choose for the struggle. ‘Put your white body in white spaces’, she says. ‘Your audience is that small town or that uncle. Do not, not speak about it because you don’t want to ruin the birthday party. I played a green/blue Pete and it still surprises me that people so strongly holding on to the black caricature. Racism is not only about Black Pete, but also about unequal power relations.’
Student Adwoa thinks the protestors have been criminalized. ‘We are a threat to a dominate culture. We are seen as outsiders and the media is framing this’, she says. ‘The whole opinion and facts around Black Pete have been thrown away. It is not only a decolonizing of color but also a decolonizing of image. If you try to decolonize, don’t only look at who is responsible for the information, but also who is in position to spread images. We should force our own images to protest against the dominant white society.’ Adwoa is sick of explaining to people why Black Pete is racist. ‘People can look up information,’ she says, ‘but people have an issue with removing all the details of the racist character. If you want to ban out slavery, why don’t we ban out the whole Pete and make it a new party?’