‘Only American Neurotics Think We’re Racist’:

Debating Discrimination in the Netherlands

Tracy Brown Hamilton Tuesday, April 3, 2018

AMSTERDAM—Every second Saturday in November, according to Dutch folklore, Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, arrives in the Netherlands, having traveled by steamboat with Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, from their home in Spain. The duo remain in the Netherlands until Dec. 5, the name day of Saint Nicholas—a major Dutch holiday similar to Christmas elsewhere.

Blackface Pieten
A man dressed up as Zwarte Piet during a celebration marking the arrival of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, in Dokkum, Netherlands, Nov. 18, 2017 (AP photo by Peter Dejong).

The beloved Zwarte Piet character is said to be the Moorish assistant of Sinterklaas, and he is customarily depicted as a black man with curly black hair, clownish attire, red lipstick and hoop earrings.

Listen to Tracy Brown Hamilton discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. Her audio starts at 23:10.

Zwarte Piet, the story goes, keeps records of children’s behavior, and rewards children who have behaved well over the course of the previous year by placing small presents in the shoes they put out each night by their fireplaces and windowsills. Throughout the holiday season, Piets can be seen on television, at children’s parties and, often, in city centers playing in brass bands. They are friendly but silly, and children love them.

The Piets are, of course, Dutch adults in costume. And in a population that is overwhelmingly white, many take it upon themselves to appear in blackface. Children also like to dress as Piet, making nightly appeals to him for presents with traditional songs, many of which refer to Sinterklaas and his knecht, or servant—an unsubtle clue that Piet is actually a slave.

The Sinterklaas tradition has roots in the Middle Ages, when, in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, Nicholas was revered as the patron saint of children and a magical bringer of gifts. Following the Protestant Reformation, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas and was said to be a former bishop.

Piet, on the other hand, is a more modern invention. His first appearance came in a children’s book titled Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht, or “Saint Nicholas and his Servant,” published by a Dutch schoolteacher in 1850. Since then, he has become a holiday mainstay.

In recent years, however, the Piet character has been increasingly condemned as racist by voices both within the Netherlands and abroad. In 2015, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the Netherlands to put an end to the tradition, stating that although it “is enjoyed by many persons in Dutch society,” Zwarte Piet “reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent.” The committee said this was especially problematic in the context of broader race-related issues in the Netherlands, including “disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment faced by people of African descent” and “insufficient awareness within the Dutch society about slavery and the colonial past.”

In response to the U.N. report, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a conservative liberal, said Piet was simply part of Dutch folklore, something the government should not ban or interfere with. “Guys. Folk traditions, come on,” he told reporters. “What Christmas songs you should sing, how you celebrate Christmas and Easter—this isn’t what politics is about.”

By and large, the Dutch response to criticism of Zwarte Piet has been defensive, at times aggressively so. In 2011, a Dutch-Antillean activist was beaten and arrested in the Netherlands for wearing a t-shirt that read “Zwarte Piet Is Racism.” Last year, a group of anti-Zwarte Piet protesters riding in buses to an anti-racism march were stopped on a motorway by white nationalists and held for 45 minutes before police came to their aid.

In 2016, Margrite Kalverboer, the official ombudsperson for children in the Netherlands, received death threats after publishing a report stating that the Zwarte Piet tradition conflicts with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child because it promotes bullying. Children, Kalverboer wrote, “experience the combination of a number of typical characteristics and behaviors of Zwarte Piet as negative and discriminatory against people with dark skin.”

Meanwhile, prominent figures on the political right have sought to pass laws preserving the Zwarte Piet tradition in its current form. In 2014, the far-right populist Party for Freedom, headed by Geert Wilders, announced it would draft a bill to ensure Zwarte Piets stay black and that the lyrics of Sinterklaas-themed songs remain unchanged. “We want to protect our culture,” Wilders said. “The idea that Zwarte Piet, played by white people in blackface makeup, is a sign of racism is too ridiculous for words.”

Leading up to the 2017 elections, in which many believed Wilder had a chance to become the prime minister, he again proposed legislation to protect Zwarte Piet. Lawmaker Martin Bosma, a senior member of Wilders’ party, told the Dutch press that criticism of the Zwarte Piet tradition was “part of a larger story, in which we are constantly trying to define our culture and history along a politically correct yardstick.” Parliament rejected the bill.

The controversy surrounding Piet illuminates larger, ongoing discussions about race and racism in the Netherlands. These discussions have assumed greater urgency in recent decades, as the country has increasingly grappled with the challenge of accommodating non-Western immigrants, and as officials have come under more pressure to address the Netherlands’ colonial history and past involvement in the slave trade.

The Dutch response to allegations of racism is generally defensive, at times aggressively so. 

Until recently, such debates would have been difficult to imagine. The Dutch have traditionally conceived of themselves as “post-race,” or blind to race, and therefore incapable of racism. When faced with data showing that Dutch citizens and immigrants of non-Western ancestry are less represented in government, are concentrated in certain urban neighborhoods and face longer odds of getting a good education and finding work, a typical response is that this has to do with cultural differences rather than race.

But to those advocating for a more equitable society, these arguments appear to willfully ignore ample evidence to the contrary.

Buried History 

Until the mid-20th century, Dutch society was organized, in broad strokes, around different Christian denominations and political groupings, which had their own media outlets, schools, football clubs, political representatives and so on. This system was believed to foster a nation built on tolerance, in which no one group had complete control—a nation held together by a “divided we stand, united we fall” philosophy.

Following World War II, immigrant arrivals boomed. Guest workers came throughout the 1950s and 1960s from countries including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Morocco and Yugoslavia to help the country rebuild and industrialize, a phenomenon similar to what occurred in other European nations that had been devastated by the fighting.

At first, there was little effort in the Netherlands to assimilate these “guest workers,” as the government assumed they would eventually leave. The focus instead was on enabling them to stay connected to their own culture.

But many of the immigrants, especially Turks and Moroccans, remained in the Netherlands, eventually bringing their families with them. The Netherlands also experienced major surges of immigration after the decolonization of Indonesia in 1949 and Suriname in 1970.

In the postwar context, there were a number of barriers to developing a coherent state policy to cope with this influx. In general, officials were averse to even discussing the issue. The war had decimated the country’s Jewish population; only 27 percent of the country’s 140,000 Jewish people had survived, compared to 60 percent in Belgium and 75 percent in France. Meindert Fennema, an emeritus professor of political theory at the University of Amsterdam, says the trauma of reckoning with this reality “made the collective consciousness such that we were very sensitive to accusations of neofascism or racism.”

While the migration of non-Western populations to the Netherlands is often framed as a new phenomenon, it has actually been taking place for centuries, though in the past it was on a much smaller scale. For example, in 1596, according to researcher Dienke Hondius, 100 African men, women and children arrived in the Dutch province of Zeeland and were permitted to stay and work. In other cases, according to Hondius, Africans arrived as servants accompanying Spanish and Portuguese merchants.

Melissa Weiner, a sociologist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, has noted that despite this history, there is little public acknowledgment of the contributions people of color have made to Dutch society over centuries. “That all these immigrants are new is what Dutch people like to think, but that’s not true and that’s part of the denial,” she says. “They have found black people buried in churches in the 1600s. We know Rembrandt was painting black people in the 1700s. Denying this not only denies their existence and humanity, which is an element of Dutch racism, but also the ways in which they were contributing to the nation for hundreds of years.”

The Dutch Self-Image

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Netherlands revised its approach to immigration, emphasizing integration along with the preservation of immigrants’ and minorities’ specific cultural identities.

In the early 2000s, however, a backlash began to emerge, with populist politicians denouncing so-called Islamist culture and embracing a political discourse that emphasized a “clash of civilizations.” These politicians increasingly called for an end to “political correctness” and for a robust defense of Dutch culture.

Geert Wilders
Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders laughs with a supporter during a campaign stop in Heerlen, Netherlands, March 11, 2017 (AP photo by Muhammed Muheisen).

Today, assimilation for non-Western immigrants remains a challenge. To take just one example, a study released last year by the Institute for Social Research, a government agency, found that 40 percent of Dutch-Turks and Dutch-Moroccans did not feel at home in the Netherlands. The lack of employment opportunities was a prominent grievance.

Such studies, though, don’t often get much sustained attention in the Netherlands. To acknowledge disparities that could be attributable to race would fly in the face of Dutch society’s image of itself as modern, progressive and tolerant. Gloria Wekker, a Dutch researcher and author whose family migrated to the Netherlands from Suriname in 1951, writes in her book “White Innocence,” published in 2016, about “the dominant way in which the Dutch think of themselves” as being “a small, but just, ethical nation”—one that is free of racism.

Some Dutch academics contend that it would be simplistic to chalk this up purely to denial. Instead, they make the argument that race is not conceived of and discussed in the same way it is, for example, in the United States. H.G Siebers, an associate professor of cultural studies at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, has written of “the shock that many people like me, born after the Second World War in the Netherlands, experienced when having to fill in ‘race’ on the immigration form in the plane just before landing on a U.S. airport.” To Siebers, such cultural disconnects underscore the notion that “race and racism mean different things in different places and times, and that their salience may be variable.”

Nevertheless, certain public figures in the Netherlands have been increasingly willing to call out what they see as racism on the part of their compatriots. In 2016, Sylvana Simons, a black former television actress and presenter in the Netherlands, formed the Artikel 1 political party. The party’s name referred to a section of the Dutch Constitution that outlaws discrimination. Simons intended it as a rejoinder to the messaging of Wilders, vowing that her party would combat the structural racism she says is obvious in Dutch society. In 2017, she ran for a parliamentary seat, though her party won only 0.3 percent of the overall vote.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Simons’ campaign sparked an intense backlash. In a March 2017 interview, she described the violent threats and insults she received while campaigning. A video was produced depicting her as the victim of a lynching; its creator was ultimately sentenced to 80 hours of community service. Separately, Dutch football pundit Johan Derksen compared Simons to a monkey. The reaction to Simons’ campaign, she said, was the product of Dutch citizens “now being confronted with a part of their identity that they don’t want to be confronted with.”

Beyond overt attacks, the complicated Dutch relationship to matters of race manifests itself in other, subtler ways. For instance, take one central question in discussions about identity: At what point does a person become Dutch? A term referring to people of non-Dutch nationality, allochtonen, is often applied to third- and even fourth-generation citizens of migrant backgrounds, setting them apart from autochtonen, those considered to be purely Dutch.

Perhaps this fear of earning the allochtonen label explains why the Dutch can seem particularly disinterested in learning about their ancestry, despite the fact that 3.8 million of the country’s 17 million people descend from migrants, according to government statistics. In “White Innocence,” Wekker writes that one paradox of Dutch racism is that “the majority of the Dutch do not want to be identified with migrants, although at least one in every six Dutch people has migrant ancestry.” Wilders, notably, bleaches his hair to disguise the fact that he is of Indonesian descent.

In 2016, the government banned the use of the terms allochtonen and autochtonen, having determined that they were imprecise and stigmatizing. Yet they endure both in the media and in the popular imagination. Last year, a controversy erupted over an assignment in an elementary school asking students to determine whether a person was allochtonen or autochtonen based on statements such as “Kirsten has blue eyes and blond hair” and “Michael has ‘rasta’ hair.”

To acknowledge disparities attributable to race would fly in the face of Dutch society’s image of itself as modern, progressive and tolerant.

Indeed, as Wekker notes, the terms allochtonen or autochtonen are still powerful signifiers in Dutch society. “Within the category of autochtoon, there are many, as we have seen, whose ancestors came from elsewhere, but who manage, through a white appearance, to make a successful claim to Dutchness,” she writes. “Allochtonen are the ones who do not manage this.”

‘Only American Neurotics Think We’re Racist’

While the voices calling for the Dutch to reckon with racial disparities may be growing louder, they still risk being drowned out by those inclined to dismiss such an exercise as an object lesson in hypersensitivity. Bart Nijman, who writes for the popular and provocative blog GeenStijl—which means “no style”— has said he is fed up with what he considers imported “political correctness.” The very concept is nonsense, he wrote in a post in January—an “ugly Anglicism that has been transported from America to the Netherlands on the hot-air flow of social justice hysteria.”

In that particular post, Nijman was reacting to a news report about Zimbabwe presented by the Dutch public broadcaster Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, or NOS, which made reference to witte boeren, or white farmers. The choice to use the Dutch qualifier wit, which means white, to describe white farmers over the more commonly used blank, which means neutral and clean, may seem minor, but it triggered a response that highlighted the ways language can shape attitudes toward race in the Netherlands.

Nijman believes there is nothing wrong with using the word blank to refer to white people, despite objections from those who point out that the word’s use in this way carries the obvious message that nonwhite people are unclean. “It is about skin color indications, about external characteristics, not about intrinsic differences between people,” Nijman wrote in his post. “A black [person] can of course be just as clean as a blank person can be dirty and unclean.” Nevertheless, he added, native Europeans are blank, not wit.

This discussion is not new. In April 2016, the journal Onze Taal, meaning “Our Language,” which is published by the Genootschap Onze Taal, or “Society for Our Language,” an association that seeks to foster appreciation of the Dutch language, asked its readers whether blank was still a “correct term.” Of the more than 2,000 respondents, 91 percent said yes. “It is again an item stemming from politically correct thinking,” one respondent wrote, decrying the fact that use of the term was being criticized. “The native Dutch, who have always been blank, are now driven into the corner of racists.”

Barbara Applebaum, an associate professor of education at Syracuse University in New York, says it’s not difficult to understand why the Dutch cling to the term blank. “It is because whiteness is the norm, that it is so easy to think that the term blank can unproblematically refer to white people,” she says. “In this context, it refers to being ‘racially neutral.’”

Yet using the word this way is hardly innocent, she notes. “To assume that white people are racially neutral, unraced or even post-race, is to have the privilege to ignore how whiteness is the norm against which all other groups are measured,” she says, “and how whiteness functions to constrain groups who are not white.”

Two Piet protestors
People attend the ruling on a complaint concerning a parade featuring Black Pete, The Hague, Netherlands, Nov. 12, 2014 (AP photo by Peter Dejong).

If the terms used to refer to whiteness in Dutch culture are problematic, the terms used to refer to blackness are even more so. In 2015, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad printed a review of the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World And Me” that was accompanied by illustrations of figures in black face and ran under a headline that included a racial epithet. In 2011, Jackie, a glossy Dutch magazine, published a profile of the Barbados-born pop singer Rihanna whose title combined the same epithet with a misogynist one.

Eva Hoeke, the editor-in-chief of Jackie, ended up having to resign over the latter headline. In a Facebook post, she wrote that it was supposed to be a joke. “There was no malice behind it. … you hear [those words] all the time on TV and radio,” she wrote, adding that she thought it was “an acceptable form of slang.”

Hoeke went on to defend her editorial choice by claiming the term used in the headline came from America and is not offensive in the Dutch context. In other words, intention is everything. If something is not meant to be offensive, then it can’t be. After all, according to Rutger Bregmen, a columnist for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant who wrote about the backlash to this incident, “only American neurotics think we are racist.”

It’s a perspective that is widespread across the Dutch political spectrum. In 2013, the sociologist Jan Willem Duyvendak offered his take on the Zwarte Piet debate in De Groene Amsterdammer, a left-liberal Dutch current affairs magazine. “Without a doubt,” he wrote, “there is a big difference between Americans and Dutch in their level of color sensitivity.” In contrast to the Dutch, he concluded, “the racism-reproach is often made too quickly” by Americans, “and is above all too massive and too imprecise.”

But racism, of course, is not strictly an American phenomenon. Through their active participation in the global slave trade as well as their role in colonialism—elements of Dutch history that are often downplayed—the Dutch contributed in significant ways to abuses perpetrated against people of color and the global problem of racism more broadly. The Dutch were involved in the sale of hundreds of thousands of Africans. And Dutch soldiers committed widespread atrocities during Indonesia’s independence war.

Yet instead of wrestling with this past, the Dutch try to thread the needle, simultaneously celebrating their so-called Golden Age—the period from 1600 to 1750 in which they dominated in the spheres of trade, warfare, science and the arts—while ignoring its grimmer aspects. But sometimes they are right out there in the open. Perhaps the most striking illustration of this phenomenon is in the artwork on the Dutch royal carriage, or Golden Coach, used by the royal family. The carriage displays images known as the “allegories of praise,” one of which, the “praise to the colonies,” depicts slaves bestowing gifts upon the colonizers.

Reforming a ‘System’

Today, non-Western immigration is not slowing down, making it more crucial than ever to find ways to address racism in the country. In January 2017, the population in the Netherlands stood at nearly 17.1 million—110,000 more than the previous year. The overwhelming majority of that increase—88,000—was attributed to net migration.

The Dutch are inclined to celebrate their so-called Golden Age while ignoring its grimmer aspects. 

In early 2016, Rutte, the prime minister, said refugees entering the Netherlands had no choice but to assimilate. The Dutch, he said, would not alter their norms and values. “They have to make the adjustment,” he said. “We are Western Europe. We are civilized.”

Such simplistic statements aside, the government is well aware of the challenges inherent in promoting integration and equality. As the Central Bureau of Statistics notes on its website, “Young people with a non-Western ethnic background are still lagging behind compared to their native Dutch counterparts.” Yet when they point out examples of racism and discrimination, even Dutch citizens of migrant origin—to say nothing of new arrivals—are routinely dismissed as non-Dutch interlopers criticizing revered traditions that represent “Dutchness.”

As these debates play out, there are continued signs of underlying tensions. In May 2016, Glenn de Randamie, a black Dutch rapper in his 30s who performs as Typhoon, was arrested in the city of Zwolle because police found his car to be suspiciously expensive for someone of his skin color and age. The police later apologized, but that same year a poll revealed that 64 percent of Dutch voters approved of “ethnic” profiling by police if it would help reduce crime.

In order to counter such thinking, anti-racism activists in the Netherlands should encourage their compatriots to stop being defensive when the subject of race is brought up and to stop taking criticism personally, Weiner, at the College of the Holy Cross, says. “Instead, think about how the Netherlands is caught up in this racist system the way that all these other nations are, and now that people are pointing it out, figure out what to do about it,” she says. Her point is that even when racist behavior is unintentional, and framed as part of traditions that are seen as innocent by the majority of the population, ultimately people have the ability—and the obligation—to stop.

Though the task is a tall one, there is at least one data point that looks like good news. A poll released last November showed an overall decline in the number of Dutch people who insisted that Zwarte Piet was not racist—from a staggering 93 percent in 2014 to 85 percent three years later. Moreover, some publishers have begun to revise Sinterklaas song lyric books, replacing “Piet” for knecht, or servant, for example. And it is becoming more common to see Zwarte Piets referred to only as Piets, with faces done up in an array of colors.

This is but a small reason to be optimistic about the tenor of future debates about race in the Netherlands, buried amid so many other reasons to become discouraged. A more thorough dismantling of racist thinking in the country still appears to be a long way off.


Tracy Brown Hamilton is an Irish-American journalist living in the Netherlands. She has written about politics, education and social issues for The Atlantic and The Irish Times, among other publications.

From WPR World Politics Review, April 3, 2018, used by permission.