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Fencing the Black body within: The blackface debate in the Netherlands


Published onNov 09, 2020
Fencing the Black body within: The blackface debate in the Netherlands

“Look, a Negro!” The circle was drawing a bit tighter.1


The last months of 2013 saw the powerful eruption of the otherwise occluded question of racism in the allegedly postracial Netherlands, and the emergence of Black people and voices in the Dutch mainstream public sphere. Racism was debated in the established print, on social media and national television (and appeared in the international media), turning effectively into the most discussed topic in Dutch society. This heated controversy focused on Zwarte Piet, that is central to Dutch folklore. This figure is ubiquitous in public culture around the time of the most awaited annual Sinterklaas festival.

Zwarte Piet is the Dutch caricature of the Black, with characteristic black face-paint, dressed in the attire of a colonial African domestic (enslaved) servant, with an Afro-wig, as well as pronounced red lips, golden earrings and a burlap bag. Traditionally Zwarte Piet speaks broken Dutch with a Surinamese accent. Zwarte Piet is a racialized representation shaped in the nineteenth century – still before the abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies – when it was introduced to the Sinterklaas festivities in the Netherlands, a much older tradition dating back to the Middle Ages.2 The Dutch blackface is therefore a product of the European imperial enterprise. It is a representation of “the Black African” as joyful in her/his docile servitude to “the white European,” analogous with other darky iconography such as the North-American minstrel shows, the German Sarotti-Mohr and the British Golliwog.3

The Sinterklaas festival revolves around the holy white elder man Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), who, having departed from Spain, arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat in mid-November, accompanied by a retinue of his jolly Black servants. Zwarte Piets have the task of distributing gifts and sweets to children – according to the tale, through chimneys. Upon arrival Sinterklaas parades through the city mounted on his white horse, while the jolly and clumsy Zwarte Piets walk along entertaining the crowd of children and adults who have been eagerly awaiting their passage. There is traditionally a national parade, which is broadcast to the whole country by public television, but there are also parallel parades across the country. In both national and local parades, public authorities expect the Sinterklaas’ boat to officially welcome the holy man and his Black servants on land.

Amsterdam, notoriously the heart of the Zwarte Piet controversy, hosted more than seven hundred Zwarte Piets at each parade in the years up until 2013. Their stay lasts three weeks, until the main party on December 5, on the eve of their departure. In this period the country is in uproar with daily rituals around Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, involved in adventurous and blunderous attempts to have gifts ready on time for the party. In this period, Zwarte Piets hang in shop windows, figure on wrapping paper, cookies, cakes, sweets, daily television programs, daily primary school activities, films…. Practically all public and private institutions, from schools to businesses, organize their own farewell party. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are overwhelming presences in the lifeworld of Dutch children and adults.

This article will point to distinctive features of racism in the Netherlands, which will support the analysis of the 2013 events. 2013 deserves attention for it marks the moment when the discussion of Zwarte Piet broke into the mainstream public sphere, turning effectively into the most important and mediatized topic of debate, which involved the Dutch political (and legal) authorities. This analysis will reveal the mechanisms through which the political and media establishment racially framed the controversy around Zwarte Piet. My aim is to identify the continuous operation of the racial grammar inherited from the empire, through which the white Dutch established order contains Black people and voices. The article delineates the workings of racism within the very racism debate. Its focus is in the Netherlands, but it is grounded in the broader context of contemporary neo-liberal racisms in Europe harboured in denial, titled by David Goldberg as European postraciality.4 This concept articulates with Fatima El-Tayeb’s characterization of European racelessness, as a forceful disavowal of racism in a continent haunted by the ghost of race.5 This article will trace this haunting, in word and space.

The Black bodily enclave

The geographical mapping of the South within the Netherlands is well documented. Black people are concentrated in economically depressed parts of Dutch cities that carry a bad reputation. The Black Dutch subject belongs to the wider group of niet-westerse allochtonen, or non-native non-Western subjects. As a rule, they will not be found in positions of power and will not circulate in the places that configure its geography.6 I will argue that this confinement establishes the positionality of the Black body as a body within an enclave. I am hereby positing that the enclave is constituted by fencing the Black body within. As a bodily marker, the enclave is not only encountered as a bounded space, but moves along with the racialized body.7 The Dutch Black subject carries the boundary that separates her/him as she/he traverses public space. This confinement materializes when the Black body emerges as a physical presence, in space, or a metaphoric presence, in discourse. Prior to this confinement, the Black body already existed as the figuration of captivity.

Black is power. In the attic of a white family’s large mansion there was a jar containing a black doll; black means power, health. Image via Louis Philippe Römer.

The writer Egbert Alejandro Martina rescued this poignant image8 from the Dutch colonial archive to discuss the enduring representation of Blackness in the Netherlands. The black doll stands for female sexual objecthood; it embodies strength that calls for containment for it might overturn white supremacy. On the other hand, its possession might benefit its owner, imbuing them with her power. Martina highlights the significance of chattel slavery to this imagery. Organized by the logic of property relations, chattel slavery is premised on “the ‘accumulation’ of black bodies” whereby “the subjected Black female, becomes the quintessential ‘slave.’” Following Ann Laura Stoler,9 Martina posits that in the Netherlands too “the ‘civilized body’” (as well as national belonging and racial membership) has been defined by “middle class morality, nationalist sentiments, bourgeois sensibilities, normalized sexuality.”10

Black sexuality …, was (and arguably still is) imagined as savage, uncontrolled, and excessive. …. Not only was Black sexuality perceived as debased, but … also as a potentially harmful force on the racial and national purity—as such, Black sexuality needed to be restrained. 11

It is therefore the imbrication of race, class, gender and sexuality that produces the Black subject as a desirable object and threatening other to the (postimperial) nation. The Black subject is the constitutive outside to Dutch nationality imagined upon the idea of a social bond between equals. The Black subject only exists as a violent erasure and through a forceful containment—as object, as property. She/he is a token of the “racially coded, spatio-affective borders” to the Dutch nation and citizenship.12 This border was effectively imperial before it turned national. It has been established through the practice of keeping the Black subject outside of metropolitan territory under colonial rule. It has been actualized as border to the orderly nation-state through the mounting surveillance of Black bodies within the nation and rejection of Black non-nationals through draconic immigration policy.13 I draw upon this legacy encapsulated in the Black doll contained in the jar to address the positionality of the Black body in contemporary Netherlands as the bodily enclave.

Geography of absent and enclosed Black bodies

Tracing the legal and socio-historical imperial practices from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the historian Dienke Hondius14 demonstrates how the Dutch Staten Generaal (States General) strictly regulated the entrance of enslaved and free Black Africans to the Dutch metropolis far into the twentieth century. Hondius cites Seymour Drescher on this issue: “Conceptually as well as legally, the operative distinction in northwestern Europe between slavery and freedom was geographical and racial, and it remained so” positing that “[t]he extent to which the political and legal processes of slavery – decision making, overseeing and financing – remained situated within European cities becomes generally unnoticed and remains under-researched until today.”15 Consequently, slavery was (largely) absented from the historical canon and the common sense about the imperial enterprise.16

Through such archival research, it becomes evident that the Dutch invested in keeping Black people outside of the motherland’s geography and imagination. The Black (colonial) subject only effectively entered the archive of the empire around the question of the abolition of slavery. After the legal abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies in 1863, gradualism was the chosen route for the provision of rights to freed Black Africans, who were considered “not ready” for emancipation. Not only did the Dutch States compensate former slave owners, they also created a provision of ten years work “under supervision” before warranting actual freedom.17 This gradual institution of freedom is reflected in the slow change of legal status of Black Africans, from being property to being children, and later in the nineteenth century to being (second class) citizens.

The Dutch empire shaped a system of racialization in dialogue between European metropole and colonies. In the edited volume Dutch Racism, David Goldberg posits that this dialogue “cemente[d] the metropolitan sense of self-elevation and magnified self-worth.”18 Despite the historically built “reputation as a modern bastion of liberal hospitality, a generous host to political exiles fleeing from repressive regimes,” alongside “a liberal and sometimes anarchic [tradition],” Holland has also been characterized by “a conformist even culturally stifling tradition.”19

Goldberg further points out that in the aftermath of World War II, Dutch historical self-representation was whitewashed in order to conform to a liberal image in a way to obscure wartime anti-Semitism and the ill treatment of Jews - also in the post-war (as documented by Dienke Hondius elsewhere).20 Haunted by that memory, “the Dutch were quick to embrace European reluctance to categorize or refer to humans in racial terms.”21 This “antiracial consensus” and “international reputation for liberal tolerance” are thus fashioned by a regime of selective memorising (and forgetting) and “are maintainable in the face of unjust social conditions only through a series of less visible conceptual and social repressions and restrictions.”22

According to this antiracial consensus, the archetypal expression of racism is anti-Semitism. This conception enabled the pervasiveness of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism, which are tools for reinforcing European identity as white and Christian. These categories of otherness as foreignness to Europe have been intimately connected throughout history, from the Middle Ages, through the Inquisition and colonialism.23

This imagination shaped a sense of European space and self that manifests itself in an asymmetrical public memory, which is ordered, in narrative and space, according to a racialized hierarchy.24 Its social function is to soothe the (sleeping) historical consciousness of the white subject of Dutch nationhood.

Gloria Wekker coins “white innocence,” the process of fabricating the Dutch self-image of purity (which is both moral and racial) within the context of colonial violence coexisting with contemporary racism and xenophobia.25 According to her this signifies “the fundamental impossibility to be both European, constructed to mean being white and Christian, and being Black/Muslim/migrant/refugee.”26 El-Tayeb extends Wekker’s point by positing that this “racialized understanding of proper Europeanness” assigns “Europeans possessing the (visual) markers of Otherness” the permanent condition of “aliens from elsewhere.”27

In the Netherlands, the marker of exclusion remains the non-Western non-native (niet-Westers allochtoon), which is an everyday term used in the media and political discourse.28 Wekker denotes the potency of “the assimilation model of mono-ethnicism and monoculturalism,” contending that those who cannot “phenotypically ‘pass for’ Dutch,” that is, who are not white, “do not succeed in enforcing their claim on Dutchness or have it accepted as legitimate.”29 The Dutch non-white, termed “allochthonous,” pay a high price for conditional acceptance into the nation; she/he has to stay put in an enclave.

This fencing condition has an impact on the current debate about racism. In the last 20 years, the Netherlands has been characterized by insidious everyday racism and the repressive imposition of an insistent homogeneity against an otherwise undeniable and expansive demographic and cultural heterogeneity.30 While fully operative today, racism is deemed literally inconceivable, and the borders of its speakability are policed. Several scholars have indicated that the ignorance of racist expression is institutionalized and actively maintained through denial.31 Goldberg writes for instance:

The anti-antiracism at work here ... is thus predicated on a handful of refusals and denials. First … there is the refusal of any charge of systematic racism, the denial of its structural underpinnings […whereby racism is taken as a] individual anomaly. Hand in hand with this is a deep silence regarding the history of Dutch colonialism and slavery, and specially their contemporary legacy. … A deeper and more subtle denial is signalled here, namely, of relationalities. There is a refusal of any connection between Dutch colonial history and contemporary racisms in the Netherlands, indeed, between Dutch colonialism and its racist articulations, as if colonialism had no racial, let alone racist, resonance.32

Goldberg describes the confluence of the above tropes as the Dutch expression of postraciality: that is, an insistence that racism is not relevant to the 21st century.33 Sara Ahmed’s analysis is fitting here when she indicates that: “Thinking beyond race in a world that is deeply racist is a [sic] best a form of utopianism, at worse a form of neo-liberalism.”34 This expression of a (moral) aspiration turned into social diagnostic, makes it impossible to address social and physical death induced by racism (institutional violence) and the normalized forms of what Philomena Essed termed “everyday racism.”35 The insidiousness of petit racist events grounded in systemic racism happens “[a]longside … the almost total absence of antiracism – as disposition or programmatic practice – within dominant social institutions, most notably the academy.”36 Not only is the Dutch intellectual landscape homogeneously white, its colonial Western academic traditions remain unchecked.37 “In a society so taken with its own tolerance to outsiders, to the non-belonging, the [academic] network furnishes the invisible community gates.”38

In the Netherlands, critical race scholarship was effectively murdered in its cradle.39 The privileging of some epistemologies and the silencing of others is accompanied by an economy of white privilege, whereby academic jobs, membership to networks and research funding go to those either embodying whiteness or abiding by it. Both Eurocentric epistemes and a white academic elite reproduce coloniality. In the face of this, a new wave of Black critics, whose condition is generally highly precarious, exists outside academia.40 With a robust intersectional agenda, they speak from the position of racialized subjects, disturbing and disrupting heteronormative European citizenship and belonging. Queering ethnicity, they make use of other grammars to challenge the European narrative of postraciality to forge non-normative living forms and community ties, establishing their claim to space and culture amid a hostile Dutch public sphere.41

Zwarte Piet: Black abjection and Dutch entitlement

Racism is both a symbolic and a material regime that produces (social) death, which is shaped around the abjection to Blackness. This regime, that is constitutive of Western modernity, positions the Black (conceived as slave, as anti-human) in antagonistic relation to civilization.42 In the Netherlands, national popular culture centres on the performance of Black abjection: Zwarte Piet.

Goldberg argues that the survival of this racist clownesque figure, and its raising to the status of national mascot, has been guaranteed by the massive symbolic investment that the Dutch have placed on tolerance as a national defining character. This trope is fundamental for the imposition of a regime of truth that sustains the national tradition.43

I further contend that the most distinctive feature of institutional racism in the Netherlands is its tightness. The system is impervious due to the unshakeable belief in the good will and good faith of institutions, regarded as true representatives of the interests of all citizens through a balanced consensual process (the Polder model),44 and their power in instituting the normative model of citizenship. The Black subject is outside of this norm, which provides authority to the bourgeois white male associated to an imagination of neutrality, wisdom and sobriety. This allegory – harboured in whiteness as a cultural Western norm – shapes the hegemonic national identity. The Netherlands is imagined as a nation ruled by reasonable white men with our best interest in mind. Furthermore, we are upheld as a community of equals rather than a closely managed collective of subjects differently bestowed with power and (degrees of) citizenship.45

I also qualify institutional racism in the Netherlands as tight as in airtight, given the intrusive character of public policy of a welfare state (shaped according to a racial capitalist order), which attempts to monitor, surveil and manage all aspects of the lives of racialized subjects.46 The imagination of a benevolent postimperial nation ensures a generally docile populace in the face of such invasive state policy, and the very intrusiveness and (covert) violence of such state practice guarantees the silencing of (racialized) critics.

Important imperial tropes inhabit this imagination, namely: the trading mentality (epitomized in the VOC – Dutch East India Company) as a guide to the imperial enterprise built upon the commerce of goods; the minor role of the Dutch in the transatlantic slave trade; the absence of colonial wars. Equally important in the shaping of national imagination, as previously discussed, is the heritage of World War II, whereby the Dutch emerge singularly as victims of German occupation and heroic dissidents to it.47 This national memory carries profound historical gaps.

Such tropes of success through trade, non-involvement in racial violence and victimhood shape the national imagination. They feed the common sense that, in contrast to other former empires, the Netherlands does not house the imperial debris that is racism and actually could not possibly manifest itself as racist given its status of victim of Nazism. This common sense is actively maintained.

In Dutch Racism, Philomena Essed and Isabel Hoving48 contend that the dismissal of racism is asserted with a sense of cultural superiority and moral righteousness through ideological repression. They denote the aggressive silencing of critique to Zwarte Piet through ambushing (Black) critics, and indicate that this process epitomizes what the scholars characterize as Dutch entitlement, namely the native demand for gratitude from minorities and the resentment that follows when it does not happen. These textual tropes and symbolic dynamics are at the heart of the performance of Zwarte Piet, as well as of the debate about it. The Zwarte Piet controversy typifies what Noémi Michel characterized “the postcolonial politics of raceless racism,” to indicate “the constant negotiation of the weight of the racialized colonial past in the present.”49

The racial grammar and Black dissent

2013 hosted the 150th year anniversary of the formal abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies. It would not be a year like the others.

There has been consistent protest against the figure of Zwarte Piet for at least the last forty years.50 Barryl Biekman is one of the iconic advocates of this resilient movement, which built on the dispute for the celebration of the abolition of slavery. Protests, mainly by mothers, have targeted schools and the political establishment, and have been consistently ignored and relegated to the margins. In 2011 at the national Sinterklaas parade, the peaceful protesters Quinsy Gario and Jerry Afriyie wearing T-shirts saying Zwarte Piet is Racism, were forcefully restrained by police and arrested. This event received much attention through social media. Since then, the protest gained impetus, which lead to the events around the parade in 2013.

Then a confluence of factors helped give public prominence to the question of racism. In October 2013, the Council of Europe released its yearly report on Racism and Intolerance in the Netherlands,51 which received marginal attention in the newspapers. Shortly after, a group of citizens filed a complaint against the municipality of Amsterdam for granting the permit to the parade due to the racist figure Zwarte Piet. This group was received in a public hearing, which was transmitted live to the whole municipality.52 This event, which gathered several Black persons in support of the claimants in the City Hall – an otherwise white space – again drew attention in the media.53 Shortly after, the National Ombudsman appeared on national television criticising the political establishment for the dismissive reactions to the findings of the Council of Europe. He named the political climate in the Netherlands racist and xenophobic.54

By then the “news” of racism in the Netherlands was finding its way to the international press. In fact, since the murders of the right wing politician Pim Fortuyn (2002) and the filmmaker Theo van Gogh (2004), the positive international appraisal to the Netherlands has changed substantially. As Wekker posits: “Its new claim to fame is no longer its proverbial tolerance and hospitality to foreigners and refugees, however contested that notion always already was in circles of Black, migrants, and refugees themselves.”55 Yet, the Dutch white elite, from right to left, still cling onto the myth of tolerance, with the annotation that even Dutch tolerance, taken to be generously unbounded, has its (own) limits.56

The political establishment refuted the ombudsman’s findings as unfounded and exaggerated; the media focused their attention on the Working Group of United Nations experts’ letters to the Dutch government, who requested clarification on Zwarte Piet, such as the “provi[sion of] information about steps adopted by [the Dutch] Government to address the wider concern expressed by African people and people of African descent regarding the Black Pete figure as a stereotyped image stirring racial differences as well as racism.”57 The chair of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, Verene Shepherd, a Black Jamaican woman, declared to the Dutch media that Zwarte Piet is a throwback to slavery and should go.58 This declaration sparked a public outcry; Shepherd was targeted by public hatred (through print and social media); the Dutch government issued a request for clarification to the UN; and a petition (titled Pietitie, or Piet-ition) was launched on social media by an Advertising Bureau, for the maintenance of Zwarte Piet – followed by a demonstration in The Hague “for Zwarte Piet and the Dutch withdrawal from the UN.” The petition gathered two million signatures in two days, quite significant for a country of less than seventeen million inhabitants. At that time, the news was already dominated by the topic of Zwarte Piet, Dutch cultural heritage and racism.

This sequence of events represented the incursion of the voices and bodies of Black people into the centre of the public realm. It enacted the symbolic and bodily disruption to the hegemonic racial regime. The white establishment – across the political divide – labelled such dissidence as not only threatening, but also as breaching the norm of morality.

I will zoom in on extracts of a singular document, which performs as a textbook example, of a strategy to deter antiracism and contain the perceived Black threat. This document, which presents most tropes that typify anti-Black racism in the Netherlands, is also relevant because it had a great impact on public opinion. This is a letter authored by the late Eberhard van der Laan (of the Labour Party), the mayor of Amsterdam, in which he communicates his decision to disregard the complaints about granting a permit to the Sinterklaas parade with Zwarte Piets. This letter, dated October 30th 2013, delivered to each of the twenty-one claimants, was published in the most authoritative national paper (NRC Handelsblad) and fragments of it showed in several local and national media outlets.

Elsewhere I call this letter a document of White Power for it manifests the authority of the white male political establishment, embodied in the mayor, and orients the gaze of the reader-citizen. It provides a canonical reading of the racism debate.59 Itself an intervention in the Zwarte Piet controversy, this letter engages in “the struggle over the name-ability of racism” within a context of alleged postraciality. It affirms who may and who cannot name racism and under which terms.60 Above all, it gives evidence to the different weight of the subjects involved in this controversy, which challenges its characterization as a debate, albeit having been (re)presented as such – by the white establishment.

Mayor Eberhard van der Laan’s Letter61

The letter opens with a reference to the procedural-bureaucratic reason to grant the permit to the Sinterklaas festivity with Zwarte Piets, and the legal reason. However, the aim of the mayor is to provide reasons of another order to legitimize his decision, namely reasons of a moral order. I have made bold principal statements in extracts of the translated version of the original Dutch letter. They expose the tropes that I wish to foreground and analyse.

Dear Members of the City Council,

The appeals committee of the municipality of Amsterdam has considered the twenty one [sic] complaints filed against the issuance of the permit for the arrival of Sinterklaas on 17 November 2013. The appeals committee has advised me to declare the complaints unfounded, because the committee is of the opinion that all the requirements for granting a permit have been met. In addition, the committee has not, at the moment, legally established that the figure of Zwarte Piet is racist. I have taken on this advise [sic], along with some additional points, which I will clarify below. To wit, the license for the arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam has not been withdrawn.

In this letter, racism is framed as a matter of the feelings of those who consider having been hurt.

The most salient objection raised concerns the figure of Zwarte Piet. The aggrieved parties argued that the event in its current form is racist. I am aware of the feelings of the aggrieved parties, however, I am also aware of the feelings of the people who love Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas is argued to be an innocent party that belongs to the core of Dutch culture, which is shaped by a majority; it is a “beloved tradition.” The recurrence of the trope of love as the counterpart of racism is a colonial remnant. Zwarte Piet’s belongingness to children’s world (that is also an important aspect of Dutch self-image as a cosy little country) allows the imagination of innocence to work hand-in-hand with white supremacy.62

Sinterklaas is a traditional children’s festivity; a fairy tale and a play, in which virtually everyone participates. It is a dear and beloved tradition. In Amsterdam alone it brings 3 to 400,000 people (mostly children) together.

According to the mayor, whether Zwarte Piet can be associated with slavery remains a question. The figure has “evolved,” in its behaviour, into a clown with its own agency. This emphasis on behaviour, and in particular, jolliness, mitigates the foundational power ruling the association between a racialized figure and its (white) owner/master.

That tradition has different origins. Parts of the tradition are hundreds of years old. In the 19th century a stereotypical Black person acting as a servant, who could be associated with slavery, entered the stage. The tradition is (thus) far from static. In the last fifty years, due to pedagogical concerns, Zwarte Piet has stopped being a bogeyman. Moreover, Zwarte Piet evolved from the stereotypical submissive ‘Black servant’ to the cheerful ‘clown’ who no longer speaks broken Dutch. He could be someone who doesn’t need to have an Afro hair or thick lips, who is not necessarily naturally Black, but whose face is clearly painted, for example, to suggest chimney soot. In the play, Zwarte Piet is the one who makes and solves problems.

The mayor denies that Sinterklaas with Zwarte Piet is racist. It is, rather, a fraternal festivity binding the community. However, when outside of the festivity people are called Zwarte Piet (which is, according to the mayor, a racist expression), this can cause pain. Here again racism can only be fathomed as a matter of hurt feelings.

The festivity itself is in its current form cannot (usually) be termed as racist; rather, in essence, it brings people together. Yet (the history of) the festivity can give rise to racist expressions. For example, when dark people are referred to as Zwarte Piet in everyday life. The point is that such expressions cause pain.

He shows kindness to people who experience such pain, offering solace but no solution. This (empty) gesture, which aligns with what Sara Ahmed coined as “modes for declaring whiteness,” confirms his status as a good man. Ahmed characterizes such declarations as “non-performative” for “they do not what they say.” The act of declaring “a bad practice” (racism) is already considered “a good practice;” it is deemed performative. However, there are “no conditions at place” to make this act into an antiracist intervention. Through this “fantasy of transcendence” through declaration, the racialized regime is kept running and white moral authority is reassured.63 The letter illuminates the conundrum of postraciality and the accompanying threat for the struggle against racism. On one hand, it associates the mayor with the virtue of antiracism and, on the other, empties race of its materiality and the conditions in which it operates, while discrediting critique of racialized antiracists and undermining the radicality of antiracism.64

Where such painful experiences occur and—due to the history of slavery—partly arise from aspects of the Sinterklaas tradition, at least in its history, there is reason for us to see if we can solve this problem. This is because we may expect empathy from each other when determining and solving problems.

In the letter, Van der Laan determines that primarily the volunteers who prepare the parade and dress up, the Sinterklaas committees, for they stand in for “the Dutch people,” actually decide what happens to Zwarte Piet.

‘We’ is not a mayor, who grants a permit for a parade; even more since this is not a local, but a national issue. However, more importantly this is not be [sic] a governmental matter, nor should it be. Due to its very nature, the question regarding the (un)desirability of an adaptation of a folk tradition is a question for the people or society at large. From that point of view, the full-scale debate happening right now is exactly what is needed. Consequently, it is primarily down to all Sinterklaas Committees, which consist of volunteers who are rooted in society, to draw conclusions from this debate. The only thing ministers and mayors, Parliament and local councils can do is to try their best to help facilitate the smooth running of this discussion, to help make sure that Sinterklaas is a party for all. This also goes for an international organization as the UN.

He then indicates that content-wise, he follows the opinion stated by the actor who plays the chief of the Zwarte Piets on national television: it is a fait accompli; Zwarte Piet will stay with us. Again, the relationship between Zwarte Piet, thus racism, and slavery is softened. Since Sinterklaas committees are composed of “reasonable” and “empathic” people, we are persuaded that we can “safely” leave this task to them. Repeatedly, the mayor indicates who belongs to the category of “good people,” who counts, who decides.

After consulting the College and City Council, I would like to follow, as regards the contents of this discussion, the lead of Head Piet Erik van Muiswinkel. He writes: Of course, Zwarte Piet should stay, but we must continue to make Piet less black and less of a servant (NRC Handelsblad October 22, 2013). Speaking broken Dutch, Afro hair, thick lips, earrings and subservience confirm the links, felt by many, with slavery and should therefore be avoided.

How black Zwarte Piet can continue to be remains to be seen. Zwarte Piet with blond hair, Piets who are overly made-up, Piets with sooty faces, or other coloured Piets—everything is possible.

Subservience can also be counteracted, more than it is now, in many different ways. Questionable lyrics can be taken out of Sinterklaas songs. That task can safely be left to the imagination of the committees.

According to the mayor, gradualism must come first; here Van der Laan makes clear, by associating Sinterklaas with childhood ingenuousness, that Zwarte Piet lovers are good people while critics meddle with their innocence.

In all this, gradualism is paramount. This is first and foremost necessary for small children (between the ages of three and eight years), who might be led to confusion by too rapid and radical changes. This is also necessary because many well-intentioned people, who have warm feelings towards the Sinterklaas festivity in its present form, would find it difficult to see their festivity and childhood memories being tampered with. That befits also to the nature of the discussion. As regards this discussion, it is now difficult to foresee when we will see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Strikingly, the mayor deems a period of five to ten years to turn Sinterklaas into a party for everyone. Gradualism in such matters is haunted by the history of the gradual abolition of Dutch slavery.

Would it not be good to make joint efforts to ensure that 1) the next step is taken as soon as possible and that 2) in, for instance, five or ten years [sic] time the Sinterklaas festivity has turned, in fact, into a celebration for everyone?

The mayor further qualifies critics and protesters as immoral because “they hurt children.” He typifies protest as a lack of respect, and demands “tolerance from protesters,” that is to say they should not demonstrate. He disciplines critics and the debate between these two types of people. The mayor ends his argument with a restatement of his authority on the grounds of his moral consciousness.

Each party involved in this discussion, nearly 17 million people, basically, has honourable interests. It is of the utmost importance that the debate does not continue at the expense of the children, for whom this is all about. The freedom to demonstrate is a rather sacred right in our country however, tolerance is also required of protesters. Barring what can be said about the matter in legal terms, disrupting the Sinterklaas parade clearly is, in moral terms, a bridge too far. This also holds, in my opinion, for deliberately upsetting small children by publicly declaring that Sinterklaas does not exist. … Finally, in social intercourse we should approach each other with respect, regardless of anyone’s opinion about the figure of Zwarte Piet. Discriminatory remarks are evidently not permissible.

In closing, racism is turned into an opinion that should be tolerated. The mayor assigns himself and other public authorities the role of facilitators in a civil dialogue on racism rather than the duty to enforce antiracism in the public sphere.

In 2012 I had, on behalf of the College [of Mayor and Aldermen], three conversations …. Even though there was mutual understanding and the discussion about the modification of the figure Zwarte Piet continued amongst [the parties involved], it still has not, as we know, yielded a solution. …. I am pleased that each party is willing to continue the conversation.

For brevity’s sake, I will not tell the rest of this story in detail, except to mention that the Sinterklaas committees decided to keep Zwarte Piet in the parade but with increasingly less evident colonial markers: that is, for the then upcoming parade, without the golden Moor earrings – traditionally a token of enslavement.65 This gesture has been framed as a demonstration of the willingness of those in charge of Dutch folklore to accommodate the demands of those feeling hurt by it. This performance of white benevolence is a vital moment in the systematic construction of Dutch consensus upon a white norm.

Ahead of the 2013 parade the mayor of Amsterdam called fathers and mothers to keep an eye out for possible protestors in order to guarantee that “the party would not be disturbed.”66 The police was in a state of alert throughout the country for “possible rioters.” According to the press, in Groningen, the city where the official national parade took place, police officers accompanied the parade disguised as Zwarte Piets. Protestors, mostly Black persons, were tolerated, albeit under surveillance, and warned to stand quietly. By then critics had been the target of widespread hate in the media and several received death threats. Those who courageously dared to demonstrate in that climate of intimidation wore Zwarte Piet is Racisme (Black Piet is Racism) t-shirts, turned their backs to the parade and demonstratively taped their mouths shut.

The political establishment remained aloof in condonation of the criminalization and intimidation of Black dissent and dissent of colour. As Zwarte Piet rose to the status of the epitome of Dutch white nationality, confronting the figure would threaten the popularity of politicians. It is also critical to note that Zwarte Piet is at the centre of the Dutch end-of-the-year festivities’ commerce, mobilising “commodity racism and the spectacle of the ‘other’” for mass consumption.67 Racism is fundamental to the capitalist economy, and is therefore a political and electoral project.

In early 2014, ahead of the now recurring high profile racism debate around Sinterklaas, and on the eve of local elections, the mayor of Amsterdam received the yearly award for “a remarkable achievement in the field of public communication,” as he was found “a model of clarity and understanding.” According to the awarding organization, “the mayor lifted the discussion on Zwarte Piet to a higher level.”68 The award is titled Machiavelli Prize.

Fences of the enclave

It was you who gave us the courage to appropriate an alien, hostile, all-white geography because you had discovered that “this world [meaning history] is white no longer and it will never be white again.”69

The high-profile racism debate around Zwarte Piet is both different and new as Black people and voices forced it into the mainstream Dutch media and political establishment under a regime of postraciality, while breaking open such spaces of Dutchness and nationhood. At the same time, this debate shows strong lines of continuity with the racial grammar that has been in place since the times of the Dutch empire, and associates with other grammars of racial Europeanization.

The 2013 letter of the Amsterdam’s mayor served as archetype for this grammar. It relies on the colonial archive in order to put current matters in the right place. This (b)ordering of racialized subjects and matters of racial justice enforces the authoritative rule of the white male upon the Black populace and Black dissidents in particular. Not only is this letter exemplary, though not unique in a public sphere deeply embedded in such racial grammar, the letter is also placed at the top of the scale of public authority through an economy of visibility in the established media, of public praise and reward.

The following tropes of this racial grammar emerge as text and subtext to the mayor’s letter, namely: typecasting of Black dissent as outside of the Dutch norm, chastising Black subjects relegated to the margins of Dutchness, marking the denouncement of racism as excessive, imposing racial gradualism rather than racial justice, positing the white subjects of Dutchness as guardians of Dutch tolerance, branding anti-Black racism as innocent performance and finally placing Black subjects under both narrative and physical surveillance. These tropes are in dialogue with the foundational dehumanization of Black subjects, turning Black people into objects for white pleasure.

The Sinterklaas tradition in its current configuration is an invocation of, and invitation to, racialized pleasure. One of the main arguments used in defence of Zwarte Piet is that Sinterklaas is a “fun” and joyous occasion for children and by getting rid of the figure we are denying children a source of pleasure.70

Borrowing from Susan Willis, Martina argues that “blackface is a metaphor for the enslaved African as commodity.”71 Thus, Blackness and Black bodies are relegated (if not confined) to the realm of representation and performance. This thing-fication of Blackness allows for the confinement of Black subjects to the role and place of subservience to whiteness. Martina posits that the Black body as domesticated thing is fundamental to this economy of desire. He contends that “Sinterklaas exercises control over unruly blackness” which is disciplined into the figure of a jolly servant.72 It is because pretu ta forza that it must be owned, contained and displayed.

The threatening dimensions of black male sexuality are effectively neutralized by the feminization and infantilization of Zwarte Piet. The discourse of infantilization, which was central to the beliefs that legitimized slavery as an institution of benevolent paternalism (as embodied by Sinterklaas), shape Zwarte Piet. Even though Zwarte Piet is infantilized she/he remains by way of the fiction of black sexual excess the subject of erotic fascination.73

Zwarte Piet is the very materialization of the Black body as enclave. At the same time, the debate centred on Zwarte Piet enforces this economy of racial containment and discipline of racialized and sexualized, unruly and excessive bodies. It is the Black subject who cannot be denied entry to Dutch territory, the Black subject that refuses to remain antithetical to the narrative of Dutchness, who has been confined to her/his bodily enclave. 2013 (re)presented an extraordinary moment of the public display of the racial grammar that has been in place since the times of colonization. The narrative, its history and geography, that gain shape through this framing is maintained through (the threat of) violence; it is robust and self-regenerating. It took courage from Black people under surveillance to reappropriate their bodies, racialized for entertainment, personifying the killjoys of national racial pleasure and blemishing white space.

White no longer.

Preview Image Credit: @Vesa Linja-aho


I am grateful to Melissa Weiner, Egbert Alejandro Martina, Noémi Michel, Bel Parnell-Berry, Stefanie C. Boulila and Alana Helberg-Proctor for their careful reading and invaluable suggestions to earlier versions of this article. This article is a revised and expanded version of the paper, which I presented at the conference Returning the Gaze: Blackface in Europe, organized by the European Race and Imagery Foundation, in Amsterdam, November 8, 2014. I thank the organizers for having included my work in that fantastic conference. A previous Dutch version of this article was presented as: Patricia Schor, “Het Verhaal van de Witte Macht,” (paper presented at Radar Rotterdam Conference Racisme in Nederland, Rotterdam, March 21, 2014), I thank Marjan Boelsma for the trust bestowed on me as speaker at the conference. Bernard McGuirk and Rui Gonçalves Miranda’s kind invitation to the University of Nottingham allowed me to develop my thoughts on the enclave, see: Patricia Schor, “Dutch Enclaves West – non-West/Black: framing the racism debate” (paper presented at the International Colloquium: Enclaves North and South, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, March 22, 2014). Some of the arguments here have been developed recently, see: Patricia Schor, “Sweet Forgetfulness of Empire - From Canada to the Netherlands with Love,” (Speech at the Academisch Forum - Loving Day 2016, Academisch Cultureel Centrum, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, June 11, 2016),

Dr. Patricia Schor teaches Humanities and Social Sciences courses at Amsterdam University College and is an affiliated researcher to the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies (cluster Ethics and Political Philosophy) at Radboud University Nijmegen. She received her PhD from Utrecht University on the afterlife of colonialism in Portuguese postcolonial literature and theory. In her dissertation she critically analysed the imagination of Portuguese colonialism as a benevolent encounter with “the African” (racialized “other”). Dr. Schor has published on anti-blackness, the afterlives of slavery, coloniality and the articulation of race and space, security and public order, across the Atlantic. She is a recipient of the 2017 Endowed Chair in Portuguese Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her most recent (co-authored) publication in English is “White Order, Corporate Capital and Control of Mobility in the Netherlands,” in the 2018 edited collection Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom. She is an anti-racist activist in the Netherlands, with a consistent engagement with sister movements in Brazil, Portugal and other European countries. For her publications, see her academic profile

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