As is the case in the last five or what years, the Netherlands is having a debate on Black Pete again. According to Dutch folklore, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands via steamship every November, rides into town on his horse, and is assisted by his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), to hand out gifts to children. It is one of the most important festivities in the Netherlands, highly commercialized, with an emphasis on making the children happy.
A Dutch tradition
Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary is a film about the blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet, a Dutch folklore character associated with the celebration of Sinterklaas.
This year the debate appears to have gained significance and the reactions among some white native Dutch people border on racism (or cross that border by a few lightyears). They want to defend their culture, which they call Dutch culture, against the critique on the racist aspects of the feast and attempts to do away with Black Pete. This shows that in times of conflict racist statements are made easily even though there is a taboo on it as well. More important probably then racist slur, is a racial discourse that attempts to safeguard the privilege of native Dutch whites as the norm, as the ones who constitute the Dutch moral community and Dutch culture, based on the idea of ‘we were here first, so do not mess with our traditions.’ Overt racist remarks (although clearly present in the debate and often legitimized by saying well this is the Internet, emotions are running high, I’m not a racist, but.., and so on) maybe taboo in general, the racial ideology present here is used to safeguard the positions of whites (which of course doesn’t mean that it divides society and black and white over this issue since people from both groups support the various standpoints).
Supporting the petition
An interesting thing in the current discussion is the so-called Pietitie. This is a Facebook page with an online petition calling to preserve the tradition of Black Pete. On their FB page they claim it is a page for people who want to stand up against banning the Sinterklaasfeest even though hardly anyone talks about that it; the critique is about the Zwarte Piet phenomenon. On the site for the petition the makers claim:
‘What a nonsense! Banning Black Pete? Never! Black Pete is Black Pete and should remain so. […] We, all Dutch people who are in favour of the tradition of Sinterklaas (including Zwarte Piet) note that this is a tradition that takes place in the Netherlands for years. Currently Zwarte Piet is never compared with slavery and it is nothing to do with discrimination! […] Black Pete should remain black/brown!”
Now clearly there are people who do connect Zwarte Piet with slavery and discrimination, if not they would not need this initiative. One is left wondering who constitutes the categories of ‘we’, and ‘Dutch people’ the petition is constructing here. Presented in the media as a spontaneous popular initiative on the internet the page got about 2 million likes in a few days; a record in Dutch Facebook history. However on Red Light Politics Flavia Dzodan shows something else is happening here:
I pointed out that contrary to media claims, the petition to leave Zwarte Piet unchanged was not a grassroots effort. The campaign was initiated by a marketing agency seeking to make a “test case” for their customers on the effective use of social media to gather public support. They are now advertising the campaign on their website as a “success” that proves their expertise on artificially influencing public opinion. Screen capture of this agency’s marketing (link here, but I am screencapping in case they change or remove it): in Dutch, a “portfolio” of this marketing agency’s customers where, at the bottom, there is a message in Dutch stating “The proof that social media works: from 0 to 720,000 “likes” in 20 hours”, followed by a link to the racist petition. (The number of “likes” at the time of this writing is at 2.1 million).