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From children’s holidays to ethnic profiling: racism is deeply rooted in Dutch society

Edited by Floris Cooijmans

Towards the final days of summer, when the days are getting shorter, but long before the holiday season starts, you can already spot pepernoten (pepper nuts) in Dutch supermarkets. These small ginger cookies, which come in a variety of flavours, are associated with a Dutch holiday: Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is a figure based on the legendary Saint Nicholas, and the namesake of Santa Claus. He is a tall, bearded, horse-riding saint, who brings Dutch and Belgian children candy and gifts in the last weeks of November and the beginning of December. This seemingly innocent children’s holiday has been controversial for a long time, but the discussion around it has escalated even further in the last couple years. The centre of this controversy is Sinterklaas’ helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). This character, which helps Sinterklaas deliver gifts to children by climbing through their chimneys, is typically played by white people who paint their faces black or dark brown, put-on red lipstick, wear golden hoop earrings and don black afro wigs. Their appearance is completed by an outfit which looks like it draws inspiration from 17th century royal servants.

Many have pointed out that Zwarte Piet is blackface, a type of discriminatory caricature which makes fun of and dehumanises black people. Although there have always been critiques of Zwarte Piet who have stated that this racial stereotype is harmful and promotes racist attitudes (the earliest date from the 1930’s), until recently these critiques were always dismissed and dispelled by Zwarte Piet supporters. They stated that no harm was intended as the character was not supposed to represent an actual black person, but their dark skin colour came from the soot of the chimneys they had to climb through to deliver the presents. The origins of the afro hair, golden earrings and red lipstick are left out of this explanation.

The debate around this figure intensified in the last decade. Due to the tireless work anti-racism activists such as Quinsy Gario, more people became aware of the hurt Zwarte Piet cause Dutch people of colour. For the longest time, the vast majority of Dutch people resisted the idea Zwarte Piet was racist, but since last year about 50% of the Dutch public agree that the appearance of Sinterklaas’ helper should change. What has started as a conversation about a racial caricature in a fictitious children’s holiday, has transformed into something greater. While there are more examples of racism in Dutch society, such as children’s birthday songs or rides in the largest theme park, Zwarte Piet has become the centre of debates about racism in the Netherlands.

However, discrimination does not only happen on an inter-personal basis. The Netherlands has a severe problem with systemic racism as well. The list of them is as long as it is distressing. A Dutch court recently ruled that ethnicity is a valid criterion to select people for further checks at customs, for instance. This ruling, in essence, justifies unequal treatment of Dutch people of colour. But racial profiling does not only happen at the border. In the Netherlands young people with a non-western migration background are between four and seven times more likely to be suspected of a crime than youths without a migration background who commit similar crimes. Furthermore, the child benefit scandal, which led to the fall of PM Mark Rutte’s third cabinet, showed elements of systemic racism. Thousands of families, most of which had migrant backgrounds or dual citizenship, were incorrectly marked as fraudulent. This meant they had to pay back tens of thousands of euros to the tax office, money which people didn’t have, with evictions, divorces and even suicides as consequences. Fear of or hatred towards foreigners is also instrumentalised in Dutch politics. Far right party members have openly said that they will make sure there will be ‘’less Moroccans’’ in the Netherlands, or have speculated about a connection between race and intelligence and sit comfortably in parliament.

All of these forms of racism stand in stark contrast to the multicultural and multi-ethnic society the Netherlands has become. Some of the largest groups from a migrant background come from Suriname and Indonesia, former colonies of the Netherlands. Other major groups, such as Moroccan and Turkish people, were actively recruited as gastarbeider ( guest worker programme) in the 1960’s and 1970’s, to help stimulate Dutch manufacturing by providing cheap labour.

That the global wave of outrage after the murder of George Floyd did not skip the Netherlands is a sign that the younger Dutch generations, which are more diverse and highly educated than ever before, are ready to start transforming Dutch society. Eradicating all forms is racism will be a herculean task, but it must happen if the Netherlands wants to live up to the first article of its constitution:

‘’All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.’’


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