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English translation of the preceding article:

Working Together to End Racism in the Netherlands

At the initiative of Marlene Melfor, our leader of African heritage, Co-Counselors in Arnhem and Nijmegen, the Netherlands, held a listening project at a local municipal council meeting in which the figure of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) was being discussed. As Co-Counselors we believe we can contribute to ending racist traditions in the Netherlands. That is why we wanted to support two female politicians who had requested a discussion about the figure of Zwarte Piet.

THE DUTCH SINTERKLAAS CELEBRATIONS

Each year on December 5, a traditional children’s festivity is celebrated in the Netherlands. Children receive presents from the white noble saint Sinterklaas, who is assisted by Black Pete (Zwarte Piet). Zwarte Piet is usually a blackface white man or woman who wears clothing strongly reminiscent of that worn by the Black Africans who were made house slaves by the owning class during the colonial period. Zwarte Piet supposedly comes through the chimney to bring gifts and is portrayed as silly, awkward, and clearly inferior to Sinterklaas, the old white wise man.

The Sinterklaas celebrations evoke many feelings and tensions among both white people and People of the Global Majority. In recent years, people of African heritage have started to publicly question Zwarte Piet’s caricature. A public debate about whether or not to change the appearance of Zwarte Piet is being conducted in schools, the House of Representatives, municipalities, families, and social organizations. It often leads to the polarization of groups that are either for or against changing Zwarte Piet.

People who are against changing Zwarte Piet attach great value to Zwarte Piet as part of a centuries-long (since 1828) Dutch tradition. They invariably deny the relationship between the figure of Zwarte Piet and the Dutch history of slavery and thus ignore the pain that many people experience before and during the celebrations—for example, children and adults of African heritage receive catcalls [taunts] and are called “Zwarte Piet.”

Some people want the appearance of Zwarte Piet to be non-offensive. Others want, at all cost, to keep the same caricature. In areas where a lot of People of the Global Majority live, there is more thinking, especially by schools, about adjustments. For example, Zwarte Piet may be stripped of black make-up, earrings, a curly wig, big red lips, and the word “black” (zwart). He may be portrayed as less stupid and not speaking the way the inhabitants of the former Dutch colony of Surinam spoke the language of their Dutch oppressors. Each year the discussion shifts a bit, and more and more people become aware of the racism in the Dutch Sinterklaas celebrations.

OUR LISTENING PROJECT

After an appeal to our local RC leaders and white support groups, seven women signed up to participate in the listening project. We were a mixed group—African, Asian, mixed heritage, LGBQT, white, and of various religions and class backgrounds.

Prior to the council meeting, we had contact with the two female politicians—one a Person of the Global Majority and the other white—who had put the subject on the council agenda. We told them that we would be present as their allies that evening.

Right before the council meeting, our group came together, led by Marlene, to discharge on what we were going to do. Then we walked to the meeting together. We were warmly received and sat down as a group in a visible place. Both the politicians and the public consisted mainly of white people.

The council meeting lasted one hour. We listened carefully to the views of the various parties in the Zwarte Piet discussion. Several people noticed our attention, and after the meeting both politicians and citizens wanted to engage with us in conversation. We split up in twos and threes to listen, paying attention to “speaking order” so that all voices were heard. Co-Counselors of the Global Majority listened mainly to white people, and white Co-Counselors listened mainly to People of the Global Majority. People eagerly used our attention. The People of the Global Majority marveled at the clear attention of the white Co-Counselors, and also how it was seen as natural for white people to get attention from the Co-Counselors of the Global Majority.

Three attendees of the Global Majority were interested in RC and wanted more information. For the politicians who had put the subject on the agenda, our presence was tangible and supportive. Afterward they asked if they could call us if the topic were discussed again.

WHAT THIS BROUGHT US

Doing the listening project contradicted feelings of isolation, fear, anger, and powerlessness that come up each year during the Sinterklaas festivities. We saw the importance of working together as a mixed group and deepened our relationships. We were challenged to rise above fear and to act—to not let ourselves be slowed down. We experienced the power of listening and noticed that it makes a difference for everyone, including ourselves.

Nirupa Shantiprekash

Arnhem, the Netherlands

and Nicole Kienhuis

Nijmegen, the Netherlands

 

(Present Time 191, April 2018)


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00