Dutch blacking-up about to change

In ‘Racism in blue‘, I referred to an article I was writing for The Conversation. Here it is (slightly changed):

After decades of activism, the scales are finally tipping for the figure of ‘Black Pete’ in Dutch winter celebrations. Within a few years’ time, opinion has shifted from an utter failure to understand anti-Pete protests, to attempts at change. But how did the Dutch manage to be blind to the offensiveness of this type for so long? Is Dutch culture perhaps more racist than its progressive reputation suggests?

To start with the last question: yes, Dutch society is suffused with racism – as is western culture generally. Yet it is one of the fundamental characteristics of racism that it is perpetrated mostly unawares. Most racism – ‘everyday racism’, in the words of researcher Philomena Essed – takes the shape of casual remarks and unconscious judgments. In the Netherlands, one of the forms this everyday racism has taken in the twentieth century is Black Pete: ‘Zwarte Piet’.

Black Pete is part and parcel of the feast of Saint Nicholas, the country’s largest annual celebration. It elicits more eager anticipation and mobilises more public and commercial institutions than King’s Day and Liberation Day put together. The festival peaks on 5 December but officially starts halfway November already, and it takes possession of the shops as early as late summer. It is primarily aimed at children, and the memories it inspires are among the fondest childhood memories many (pink people?) have.

Black Pete’s position in these celebrations has never been fixed, but in the last few decades he seems to have been fulfilling the role of mediator. During the festivities, which have moral overtones of reward and punishment, it is Pete who mediates between the anxious child and the Godlike figure of Saint Nicholas. Whereas the latter evokes a degree of fear, Pete is approachable and loveable. This explains part of the attachment many Dutch feel towards Pete.


Photo by Nik Morris, ‘Zwarte Piet bij de Bijenkorf, Amsterdam’, 2012 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Clearly, however, depicting Black Pete is no innocent business. The figure has a dual ancestry as both servant to and antagonist of the Saint.

In many parts of Europe, Nicholas is accompanied by an anti-Saint or devil, making sure that both reward and punishment remain on the minds of their audiences. Sometimes, this devil carries a chain as a sign of his final submission to the power of good.

The chain returns gruesomely in the more recent tradition, beginning in the nineteenth century, that portrays Pete as an African man in the service of a European saint. Although dark servants in the Netherlands were not technically enslaved, slavery did very much exist in the overseas territories of the Dutch empire. It is this history that most activists point to as being silenced by the uncritical acceptance of Pete in his existing shape.

This shape is of course that of the ‘Sambo’. Whereas nineteenth-century depictions of Pete still show a ‘neutral’ man of African descent, in the twentieth century Pete merged with the international Sambo caricature, including red lips, golden earrings, and silly behaviour. The endurance of this figure always comes as a shock to Americans or Brits who thought of the Netherlands as a fair and open country. Anti-racism activists in the Netherlands have made grateful use of this cultural disjunction between the anglophone and the germanic world (blacking up also occurs in countries such as Belgium, Germany and Austria) by confronting their compatriots with the judgment of international experts, or even the British vox pop.

This approach, coupled with demonstrations and judicial action, seems to be having effect. Although there have been protests since the 1960s, these were never picked up by mainstream media or in national politics on the scale we are seeing now. This year, an unprecedented number of Dutch intellectuals and celebrities spoke out against the stereotype; national politicians have taken a stance; and sellers of seasonal sweets and decorations have deemed it wise to change their marketing strategy.

So why has Pete been able to mask as innocent for so long? Apart from the associations with childhood and friendship mentioned above, at least two factors play a role. Lacking a civil rights movement like the one in the US, including subsequent educational reforms, the Dutch have not learnt to recognise the racist Sambo character.

But various academic studies have noted a second factor: the cherished Dutch self-image of being an open and fair society. A large part of the Dutch public as well as the political establishment, including initially prime minister Mark Rutte, has responded to the criticism with outright denial. They refuse to let their fond memories be tinged with the hateful epithet of racism. Anger at ‘accusations’ of racism has been running so high that riot police had to be on stand-by for this year’s opening of the festive season.

A final note on where this tradition may be going. Because much of the critique has been focusing on blackface in the narrowest sense, there is now a tendency to erase representations of Pete as a brown-skinned man altogether – so not just (belittling) representations by pink actors. In children’s books, for instance, Pete is increasingly pale, and a large Dutch internet company has even completely eliminated Pete from its adverts, now only showing the old white saint.

These steps run the danger of replacing a racism of ridicule by a racism of marginalisation. Surely, it is not Pete’s colour which is racist, but the servile and subhuman features of Nicholas’s ‘cheerful little help’ that existing depictions have associated with that colour for so long.

This winter in racist Europe, I encountered a popular representation of a dark-skinned man, not as a slave or servant, but as King.


Three Kings celebrations in Alcalá, Spain, January 2016 (photo by the author, CC BY-NC-SA).

More on the ancestry of Black Pete can be found in Allison Blakely’s standard work Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society (Bloomington, 1993).


Racism in blue

I was writing an article about the way the fictional character called ‘Black Pete’, part of Dutch winter festivities, is changing under pressure from anti-racism activists, and I came across a cartoon that illustrates the present challenges very well.

Briefly, Black Pete’s role is to assist Saint Nicholas on his annual visit to the children of the Netherlands and Belgium. Anyone who likes to know a little more about this character can find it in this earlier post.

zoetnetpietenIt is a good thing Black Pete is changing. The concern I have, however, is with the way he is changing.

The central problem with the character as he has been portrayed over the past hundred years, is the association of a particular group in society – in this case people with African roots – with a set of negatively valued characteristics – in this case: silliness, clumsiness, docility, and interchangeability. To explain this last point: hundreds of figures are all called ‘Pete’, and if one is absent, another simply takes his place.

The association that chains this group of people to this set of characteristics has been fabricated by European colonisers, European-American plantation owners, and similar ‘white’ groups around the world to help justify slavery, colonial exploitation, and paternalistic re-education. Obviously, this chain needed to be broken.

At the moment however, this oppressive chain is still personified in the figure of Pete. Yet many people are attached to Pete, and would like to keep him as part of their winter festivities. So the challenge is to create a new Pete – which may also entail creating a new Saint Nicholas – in which this racist chain is broken. Therefore, one of these two things needs to change: either Pete’s identity as someone with African roots, or Pete’s presentation as a silly, clumsy, docile and interchangeable person.

Most producers of Pete & Nicholas plays and images in the Netherlands so far, have been opting for the former: Pete has been growing increasingly pale.

Yet I think we should seriously consider the second option (this is what I argued in an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw).

I recently came across an image that supports my argument. The image forms part of a Flemish cartoon, popular in the Netherlands:


from: Willy Vandersteen, De Gramme Huurling (1967-68)

In this cartoon, the main characters fly to Africa where they find a lazy, dirty, and bickering population with a defective grasp of language. At first, the locals try to cook the European heroes in their pots. But after liberating themselves, the Europeans build proper houses and schools for them, thereby risking their own lives. By the end of the story, the locals are grateful for their intervention. In other words: every racial stereotype present in Europe at the time is depicted, and apparently without irony. (Note that at the time of the cartoon, Belgium and the USA were saving what they could from their power and revenue in the Congo, where independence had been declared in 1960.)

But, you might say: the locals in this cartoon are not Black, they are blue! Yet does that remove the racism from this cartoon? Does removing the Black from Black Pete really solve the issue?


Black Pete

In the past, the argument has been made that the Black Pete issue is not really an issue since only ‘white lefties in Amsterdam’ can get upset over it. The widely read newspaper de Volkskrant recently published an article with that logic, interviewing people living in the Bijlmer suburb (‘Slaaf? Hij wordt niet geslagen’, 24 October). That it is an issue became abundantly clear during last Saturday’s demonstration (photos). Indeed, to suggest that those people who in this argument are called ‘black’, do not care, is an affront to those who have been questioning the Black-Pete phenomenon for a long time.

For a Dutch version see here. This column follows an earlier one on Zwarte Piet.


Bronzen Pete

The debate surrounding ‘Black Pete’, Zwarte Piet, the popular character accompanying Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) in the Netherlands, leading up to their celebration in December, has never been fiercer.


By Aloxe (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Dutch expats who try and organise a Saint Nicholas celebration abroad have had to deal with it for years. Within the Netherlands themselves, most people were only confronted with the fact fairly recently: to most people in the world, Black Pete conjures the image of the ‘coon’. This racist stereotype has been around from nineteenth-century minstrel shows and old postcards up to post-War Hollywood films (think of Jar Jar Binks).


Still from the cartoon “Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat”, Universal/Walter Lantz Cartoon Studio, 1941, from the website Authentic history, which publishes many more historical images and among others discusses Jar Jar Binks.

Because both the ‘coon’ and Black Pete tend to be played by pink, that is to say European-looking actors, the debate about Black Pete partly focuses on skin colour.

Yesterday, I visited the Chatsworth House sculpture collection. Among the Greek gods and the Roman emperors, suddenly there were these two bronzen busts. The website of the Musée d’Orsay shows a photograph of one of them (or possibly a sibling cast. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to reproduce it here).

It is Saïd Abdallah, a Mayac from the Kingdom of Darfur (but was not Darfur a sultanate at the time? I am no specialist, but the museum website might not be completely accurate here).

Both sculptures were made by Charles Cordier and displayed at the universal exhibition of 1851.

Saïd Abdallah and his companion stick out among the other sculpted persons on display because they look African, for example because of their dreads and the way their noses are shaped. But they are not Black. They are bronzen. Because bronzen statues are always dark (or become so after a while), skin colour ceases to be a determining characteristic of the portrayed person any longer. Unlike paintings, sculptures force the artist and their audience to remove their ‘colour’ glasses.

You will find the same in (single-colour) drawings. By Dürer, for example:


This is Katherina, who lived in sixteenth-century Antwerp. (This image and many more in the fabulous Bibliotheca Surinamica).

So, differences in skin colour disappear. But there is something of even greater importance to the approach Dürer and Cordier take. As artists, they focus on the individual posing for them: on their personal outward and perhaps also inward characteristics. Their works are genuine portraits. (For the sake of completeness I need to add that Cordier saw his models also as representatives of their entire cultures, and participated in the broader cataloguing-nations movement that has held sway over Europe since the eighteenth century.

One question that can be asked, is therefore whether Black Pete is not too exchangeable to ever make a genuine portrait of him (or her?).

A last note, which deals with exactly this issue of whether Black Pete has to be a man, can also be a woman, or is perhaps ‘neuter’:

The former ‘slave’ Saïd Abdallah has a name. The person who one day posed for Cordier in a French studio, is still known to the museums that put his bust on display, to historians, and to his visitors.

The second bust I saw yesterday is called the ‘African Venus’. Neither in Chatsworth House nor in the Orsay, the notices or the guides know who was the person behind the statue.

I would like to tell them that, for one thing, she is no Venus at all. She is, or was, a woman, a human being. And she was not just ‘African’. Very likely, she identified with a specific place in the world and in society, just like Saïd Abdallah. The European tendency not to see Africans as individuals reaches a new level in cases like these, and it continues there until today: the – female – muse has no name; let alone the African muse.

P.S. I later discovered the Black Art Depot Today, which tells us that the second bust represents Seïd Enkess. Her name, unfortunately, remains unknown to both famous museums.