Can Europe Make It?

In the Netherlands, the populist battle plays out over a Christmas figure

Wilders’s Freedom Party has held a consistent lead in the polls for over a year, and is now running head to head with Prime Minister Rutte’s party.

Yörük Bahçeli
27 November 2016
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Portrait of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.Wikicommons/Michel Zappa.November, 2006. Some rights reserved.As protests against Trump’s election rock the US, the Netherlands has been home to its own battle as authorities have detained and tried to silence activists protesting against the depiction of a Christmas figure in blackface. Black Pete, sidekick of Saint Nicholas who inspired Father Christmas, is portrayed by white men and women appearing in blackface with bright red lips and a curly wig. In a debate that has lasted years, critics seeing this as a vestige of slavery have accused the tradition of perpetuating racial stereotypes.

Though an unprecedented number of organizations have banned the portrayal of the figure in blackface following accusations of racism, the polarization that has resulted demonstrates how fraught the battle for Dutch identity has become as the country awaits a populist surge in its elections next year. Tensions flared up on November 12, when activists from the Kick Out Black Pete collective took to demonstrating at the national Saint Nicholas arrival festival near Rotterdam. Upon their arrival, about 200 protesters were detained, some violently, for attempting to defy a ban on demonstrations during the festival.  A week later, in the lead-up to another festival in the southern town of Geleen, activists were required to deliver only positive messages during the event and their signs were confiscated.  

Participants have deemed their treatment unconstitutional and an abuse of security measures limiting the freedom of assembly of those challenging racism in the Netherlands. A police unit posing in blackface attracted particular criticism.

“Black Pete tells me that a lot of Dutch White people feel superior and they don’t want to acknowledge what the Netherlands did in the former Dutch colonies,” said Morena Taborda, spokeswoman for Kick Out Black Pete. Taborda, who has suffered racism as a Black child growing up in the Dutch countryside, said: “those 3 weeks of so-called festivities were the most uncomfortable weeks of the year.”

 “As an adult, you can take many things, but as a child, it hurts you so much and you cannot do anything. I will never give up on behalf of the Black children in the Netherlands,” she added.

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A Rotterdam police unit posing in blackface. The tweet, deleted following widespread criticism,reads: "Who's sweet receives goodies, who's naughty gets the standby force. Task: Protecting Saint Nicholas during the arrival in Maassluis." Source: Twitter.Amnesty International has deemed the restrictions activists have faced an infringement of their freedom of expression. The organization said there was no reason to implement a demonstration ban during the national festival. “Even if there was a violation of a demonstration ban, it does not mean that the police should or can detain peaceful protestors automatically,” it said in its statement.

Kick Out Black Pete is set to demonstrate at another event in Rotterdam today, which has been approved by the local authorities. However, restrictions continue as the city’s mayor has said the group could only protest in a designated spot and could not hand out flyers to families attending the festival.

Unprecedented opposition

Despite these tensions, the figure is being removed from celebrations at an unprecedented rate. Debates this year started flaring up with a report by the Dutch child ombudsman. Following up on a UN report last year, she argued that the portrayal of Black Pete could lead to “bullying, exclusion or discrimination”. Dutch dailies later reported that she had received threats against her life.

Following the report, RTL, a leading broadcaster, together with the city of Amsterdam announced they would no longer portray Pete in blackface.  The decisions followed those taken last year by some of the most prominent Dutch brands.

But the turn against Black Pete remains top-down and has not taken root in local governments, who organize the annual Saint Nicholas celebrations. According to a recent poll by the national broadcaster NOS, most Dutch municipalities will continue presenting the figure in blackface.

Out of the 223 polled, only two municipalities are doing away with blackface completely, while 186 municipalities will feature Black Petes.

Cultural protectionism

Change has been slow to come, with many viewing the figure as an innocent tradition.

Halbe Zijlstra, the parliamentary leader of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right party, called the broadcaster’s decision “a really dumb move” ruining the tradition for children. The government has repeatedly stressed that Black Pete is a tradition that is not up to it to modify.

Others have said the changes made to Black Pete are undemocratic, with one group calling for a referendum. But more radical defenders hype the defence of Black Pete as a matter of saving Dutch identity.

"Saint Nicholas and Black Pete is a family celebration and after the 'murder' of Black Pete, the "Black Power" children's celebration haters want to kill Christmas, Easter," the far-right Dutch Popular Union said in a statement before its demonstration at the national festival two weeks ago.

“We have a simple solution: if you don't like our traditions, children's celebrations, culture, traditions, and history, pack your bags and get out of the Netherlands,” they added.

Unlike Kick Out Black Pete, the Union was able to stage a demonstration at the event as it registered with the local government and agreed to protest in a confined space. In parliament, Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party defend a similar position, stressing the preservation of Dutch culture. The party has made multiple proposals for a law requiring Pete to appear in blackface.

Many agree with this framing of Black Pete. #boycotRTL became a trending topic on Twitter following the broadcaster’s declaration. Then and during protests at the celebrations, users echoed the view that Black Pete is an integral part of Dutch culture that needs to be salvaged, blaming critics with spoiling a treasured children’s tradition.

Reactions are also thought to be deeply divided by race. Unpublished research by the Dutch government uncovered by a TV show has demonstrated that while only 18 per cent of ethnic Dutch want to see a change, the figure was 43 per cent for those of Surinamese and Caribbean descent, though the pool of respondents considered in such surveys has been a matter of controversy.

Responses and racial divisions demonstrate the difficulty of discussing race and identity issues in the Netherlands. Markus Balkenhol, a researcher at Meertens Institute, said responses to the issue are part of the culturalization of Dutch national identity since the 1990s. Since then, with the rise of the populist right, citizenship has become less a formal question and more about compatibility with Dutch “culture”.

Demands to do away with Black Pete kicked off at this time, as newcomers who made their way to the Netherlands from its former colonies during the 1970s sought their place in Dutch society as equal citizens.

“Much of this cultural protectionism has been against Muslims… but it’s broader than that, also something that Dutch citizens of African descent have had to deal with. Any critique is labelled as ‘coming from the outside’ and is sort of excommunicated,” Balkenhol said.

“The logic is that Dutch culture needs to be protected by any means necessary. Such a logic even makes racist responses to critiques of Black Pete seem acceptable,” he added.

Rocked by hostility towards migrants amid the refugee crisis and turmoil within its Turkish minority, the country’s largest – national identity and the question of who belongs in the Netherlands has been a hot issue ahead of next year’s parliamentary election.

Till recently, Wilders’s Freedom Party, which heads up the cultural protectionist discourse in these debates, has held a consistent lead in the polls for over a year, and is now running head to head with Prime Minister Rutte’s party. Its controversial pledges include a ban on all asylum seekers, mosques, and the Quran. Last week, prosecutors demanded a €5000 fine against Wilders for inciting hatred in his call for “less Moroccans” in a speech two years back.

Balkenhol said these issues are all united by “the sense that, whether minorities, the left, or the cultural elite, they want to take our culture away from us.”

An uncertain future

While the unprecedented removal of blackface from celebrations has raised hopes for some, activists are more cautious.

“Keeping the children’s fantasy alive depends so much on the national TV. If the TV does it differently, you’re almost forced to do it differently,” Balkenhol said in an interview prior to the protests, expecting a radical transformation in the figure’s appearance over the next couple of years.

But Taborda disagrees.  “I think we have a very long way to go, so I cannot say I am happy, or that I feel better. Honestly, I have a bad feeling about this,” she said.

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