Anti-‘Blackface’ activism in the Netherlands backfires: traditional ‘Petes’ more popular than ever

On December 5th the Dutch celebrate the traditional children’s holiday of St. Nicholas (‘Sinterklaas’). Family and friends gather around to dress up, exchange gifts and candy. In the weeks leading up to this day, tensions rise across the country. Until recently these tensions derived from the prospect of meeting ‘Sinterklaas’ — usually a neighbour or family-member who dresses up totally ‘unrecognisable’ in a white beard and red cloak. Sinterklaas en his helpers, Black Petes (‘Zwarte Pieten’) enter the country by steamship in November, appear on television and come down your chimney during the night to leave a gift in your shoe. (Or so children are told.) ‘Sinterklaas’ is probably a more popular holiday in the Netherlands than Christmas.  

During the last eight years the tensions surrounding this holiday have changed to less cheerful ones. ‘Anti-racists’ movements (with a largely white following) have declared ‘Black Pete’ a racist symbol that should be abolished. Sincere attempts by media, schools and event organisers to (gradually) change the appearance of ‘Black Pete’ to ‘Rainbow Pete’ or a more ’chimney sweeper’-look have not appeased the ‘progressive’ activists, who by now insist all celebrations should follow their code of conduct: no more ‘Pieten’ at all. Loud protests against ‘Piet’ amidst crowds of young children have become a typical part of the ‘celebrations’. Many parents keep their children home or organise local festivities, ofcourse risking being targeted by the activists. 

Put on the spot

It appears that this year the Dutch, especially residents of more rural areas, are fed up with the ’Black Pete discussion’, in which the anti-racists activists are strongly favoured by the mainstream media and cultural elites. Opinion polls show that now more than 70 procent of people want to keep ‘Piet’ as he is: black. The support for ‘Piet’ has risen for several reasons. Many feel they are being put on the spot and intimidated by a minority that not only mischaracterises ‘Black Pete’ as a ‘symbol of slavery’, but also accuses those who reject the demands and allegations as ‘racists’ who belong to the ‘extreme-right’ and should be called out.

Historicallly, the story of ‘Piet’ has many roots. No convincing evidence has been presented that ‘Piet’ was originally a slave or used as a symbol to represent inequality between races. Nevertheless, like many social justice issues in our time, the figure of ‘Black Pete’ has been reduced to a problematic and hurtful symbol of oppression and division. That the leftwing activism itself has accomplished exactly this divide doesn’t prevent the Dutch media and even academia from further stoking up the flames of discontent on both sides. Defending ‘Black Pete’, and Western traditions in general, is now regarded as taking a far-right position. 

‘Kick Out Zwarte Piet’ (KOZP) — an organisation funded by the Open Society Foundation — is the main force behind the ‘anti-Piet’ movement. Leading figures in KOZP are Jerry Afriyie, Mitchell Esajas and Quinsy Gario, who at first introduced their efforts as ‘art projects’ but quickly switched to Antifa-style tactics and even using militant Black Panthers symbolism. 

KOZP was listed by the Dutch intelligence services (AIVD) as an extremist organisation, but later removed from this list. This year KOZP send letters to shopkeepers and small business owners in the city of Den Haag, where Sinterklaas arrived this last weekend, urging them to not associate or cooperate with the traditional version of the holiday: “We will be actively visiting the sponsors that do,” the letter wrote. Local governments did nothing. Small initiatives that expressed discontent emerged:

It was precisely because of these intimidating methods that a few dozen citizens decided to block the highway for KOZP activists travelling by bus in 2017. They were on their way to the small Dutch city of Dokkum, where lack of safety measures for planned protests had alarmed parents. The latter were later tried in court for restraining a legitimate protest and received relatively high sentences, up to 240 hours of community service. This group is now called the ‘Blokkeerfriezen’. They have received massive support from all over the country. The fate of ‘Piet’ is uncertain at this point, but he will certainly continue to play a significant role in the battle between progressive utopianism and national identity.