Photo: WNV/Bryan van Hulst

Friday December 6 marked the closure of the annual celebration of Sinterklaas, the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus. Traditionally, the children’s festivity is an occasion for family fun and pleasure that unites a nation, but this year it has become a highly charged political battleground that is exposing a society increasingly more conservative and hostile towards people of color, while unleashing an unprecedented anti-racism movement that is empowering minorities and posing fundamental challenges to the Dutch establishment.

The story goes that on the evening of December 5, Saint Nicholas, a white elderly man wearing a red robe and riding a white horse rewards children with presents and sweets if they have behaved well during the past year. Unlike Santa Claus, however, his minions are not elves, but Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes — black clown-like figures that appear in colonial dress with afro wigs, as well as big red lips and golden earrings. Yearly, white Dutch people paint their faces black and dress up to enact Zwarte Piet for the spectacle and entertainment of the country’s white majority.

Unsurprisingly, in a country with a bloody and controversial — but often neglected — history of colonialism and slavery, the figure that epitomizes this legacy in its most blatant expression has been the subject of criticism for years.

Active attempts to ban Black Pete date back as early as 2003 when African, Surinamese and Antillean communities joined forces to demand that the House of Representatives to take action against this racist characterization of black people. At the time, Celestine Robles from the Dutch Global African Congress denounced the festivity for actively shaping negative perceptions of black Dutch people through the celebration of a “superior race” as embodied by Saint Nicholas in opposition to an “inferior race” as performed by the “silly slave/assistant Black Pete.”

With the rise of the far right and growing nationalist and xenophobic sentiments in the Netherlands, the issue was never taken seriously. The debate has nonetheless continued on the margins.

Things started boiling over when, in 2008, two artists from the Van Abbemuseum — a museum of modern and contemporary art — attempted to organize a march against the caricature, but cancelled it at the last minute due to numerous death threats and calls to burn down the museum.

In 2011, the issue took an even more violent turn when a handful of people decided to publicly protest the annual Sinterklaas parade. Wearing t-shirts with the words “Zwarte Piet is Racism,” they were all quickly arrested while activist and artist Quinsy Gario was publicly beaten and pepper-sprayed by the police. While international news outlets picked up the news item in shock, the local press remained largely indifferent and framed the protesters as provocateurs.

It had become evident that the criticisms launched against Zwarte Piet were hitting a nerve, exposing in the process the fact that black voices of dissent had no place in the public sphere. As a result, attempts were made to aggressively silence the growing opposition — not only at the hands of individual reactionaries, but also by the very political establishment that is supposed to include and represent them.

This repression of dissent, however, was only effective to the extent that it made people more radical and innovative in their efforts to turn the issue of Black Pete into a national concern.

Activists like Patricia Schor, for instance, began to organize for the banning of the figure in her children’s school and daycare center in Amsterdam. According to Schor, the issue of Black Pete is important because it directly connects to “other racist practices” in the Netherlands, “namely racial profiling, ethnic discrimination in the labor market, ethnic segregation in schools and housing and immigration and asylum policies.”

Nevertheless, a large majority of the country still sees Black Pete as a central and vital component of Dutch tradition and collective identity.

This became most apparent when 20 opponents of the figure, among them Quinsy Gario and Patricia Schor, recently demanded the municipality of Amsterdam officially ban Black Pete from the annual, state-funded procession in the city. Unlike previous efforts, this step made media headlines and provoked debate on both national television and social media.

The accusation of racism was initially received with disdain and mockery, which then turned into an occasion to unleash racist attacks and general fury after an independent U.N. investigator issued a letter urging the Dutch government to take positive action to change its tradition, further confirming that Black Pete is indeed “a living trace of past slavery and oppression, tracing back to the country’s past involvement in the trade of African slaves in the previous centuries.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte responded by saying that Black Pete, as his name suggests, is “simply black” and therefore not up for political debate.

Within a couple of days over two million people turned to a Facebook page to show their support and plea for protection of Black Pete as a part of Dutch “national heritage” — an astonishing number for a country with seven million Facebook users. Others went further and staged a public rally in favor of keeping the blackface tradition, which quickly turned violent when protesters physically harassed a black woman and told her to “get the fuck out of this country.”

With such a tense and polarized climate, the children’s festivity has quickly lost its presumed innocence and has instead become a political pawn in asserting a narrow definition of national identity and belonging that disallows any form of protest, particularly from racial and ethnic minorities.

In the eyes of many Black Pete opponents, both Dutch politicians and the mainstream press are to blame for failing to make space for the questioning of Dutch tradition and the role institutionalized racism –rooted in a history of slavery and colonialism — plays in maintaining it.

According to Dutch writer and cultural critic Egbert Alejandro Martina, this failure to make space for questioning is connected to the deeply inculcated belief that the Netherlands is a progressive safe haven.

“Even in the face of resounding evidence against it, the myth of the Netherlands as a generous, welcoming and tolerant country has proven unshakable,” he said. “The constant retelling of this myth has worked to strengthen the conviction that if a white Dutch person is benevolent, welcoming, tolerant and committed to a progressive liberal agenda, then any charge of racism against them is spurious, and a base act of ingratitude.”

Critical voices like Egbert’s do not appear in the mainstream press, but rather in the alternative platforms that have been emerging in the last few years — such as feminist and student collectives, social media outlets, blogs and online opinion-based news sites. While these are possibly the only spaces where their voices can be safely heard, people have not shied away from publicly protesting blackface during official Sinterklaas processions — despite state officials literally forcing them into silence.

“Wearing a T-shirt with protest slogans is allowed,” said Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard Edzard van der Laan. “But those who make noise will be asked to leave. It must be a nice party without public disorder.”

According to the Dutch media outfit Telegraaf, the police and even ordinary citizens were told to be on high alert and tasked to take out so-called troublemakers and those who dared to insult Black Petes during the procession.

Protesters had little choice but to accept the enforced conditions, making their stance even more powerful as they taped their mouths, wore protest signs on their clothing and turned their backs to the procession.

What began years ago with a handful of protesters had now turned into a large movement that — despite (or perhaps because of) the severe backlash and repression — was making political history. It had succeeded in politicizing and empowering disenfranchised minorities, fostering new connections among and between people of color and making space for second-class citizens to reclaim their rights and dignity in a society that — as international human rights bodies repeatedly confirm — neglects, marginalizes and dehumanizes them.

The white Dutch majority has also been forced to question itself, albeit in a very limited way. Public discourse has had to entertain the possibility of entrenched racism being present in Dutch society, and some outlets even introduced a new vocabulary — with terms like white supremacy, white privilege and structural racism — which activists and intellectuals have long been using to articulate their oppression.

For white allies of minority groups, recent events have also been a wake-up call that their society is not as liberal and tolerant as they thought it to be. As one white Dutchman said during a discussion on the issue, “I was raised to believe that Holland is a really progressive and tolerant country, and I always defended it. Now I am realizing that we might actually be very racist. It’s shocking.”

The space that has been paved by anti-Black Pete activists is now also empowering other marginalized communities to speak out against racism in the Netherlands.

The Chinese community was quick in creating a public outcry when a Chinese-born man performed an opera piece on the Dutch television show Holland’s Got Talent and one of the judges ridiculed him, saying, “Which number are you singing? Number 39 with rice?” A Facebook page against the racist slur now has 3,700 likes. Meanwhile, Dutch-Chinese women are leading the emerging movement and publishing blog posts, writing newspaper articles and appearing on public television to discuss the country’s long-endured anti-Chinese racism, forcing the Dutch establishment once again to rethink their identity as liberal progressives.

While Black Pete figures are still showcased in shops and advertisements, and Dutch politicians and media continue to evade their ethical responsibilities to combat racism, the Netherlands can no longer ignore the angry and dissident voices of people of color. Ultimately, this is a victory of the activist citizen and a dramatic change in politics-as-usual for a country that prides itself on open-minded values.

This article originally appeared on Waging Nonviolence and is reprinted with permission.

Photo: WNV/Bryan van Hulst