Race + The Netherlands: Resistance, Lost in Translation

By Guest Contributor Marly Pierre-Louis

I’m an activist and, one way or another, wherever I am, I always find my way to movement work, or it finds me. So when my partner and I uprooted our lives in Brooklyn for him to pursue a job opportunity in Amsterdam, I was excited to get involved. I figured since we’d be living here for the indefinite future, might as well jump in the mix. What were the issues? Who were the oppressed? And what were they fighting for? I met with organizers and did my research. Initially, I was disappointed at what seemed like a lack of collective struggle and as a result a lack of movement work. I didn’t detect a culture of resistance. But surely there was conflict in a society that celebrated a figure like Zwarte Piet.

In fact, there’s been more activity than ever before concerning Zwarte Piet, particularly in the last couple of months. In the Dutch mythology, every year Sinterklaas, more of a religious figure than our Santa Claus, rolls through the Netherlands from his home in Spain. Accompanying him are his servants known as Zwarte Piets or Black Piets. These characters are white adult men and women with their faces painted Black, red lipstick, gold hoop earrings and a black curly wig. Zwarte Piet is clumsy, subservient and unintelligent; a regular coon. In October, Quinsy Gario, a prominent anti Zwarte Piet activist who was arrested in 2011 for protesting the Sinterklaas parade (Trigger Warning: Police violence) while wearing a T-shirt that read, “Zwarte Piet is Racisme (Black Piet is racism)”, publicly denounced Zwarte Piet on a popular Dutch talk show, as racist and hurtful. Dutch Twitter went MAD, and an ugly, racist underbelly of the worst kind was revealed:

(Trigger Warning for pictures under the cut)

Translated: “Am I worse for thinking about the word ‘tree’ and ‘hanging’ when I hear the name Quinsy.”
“We shouldn’t be discriminating. Out with black pete, out with all blacks.”

A week and a half later, I attended a public hearing that invited testimony from anyone who felt, like Gario, that Zwarte Piet should be banned from the parade. There was a “pack the court” call over Facebook, the first show of solidarity and organized resistance that I’ve witnessed since I’ve been here. I went to the hearing not knowing what to expect. Even after Google translating the details on the event page, I had no idea what it was really about. In all honesty, I thought it was a hearing for Quinsy’s case. So as soon as I arrived, I jumped on the first person who I heard speaking English – ironically, another Black American woman and she broke down what she understood.

In the end, 21 people would share their stories. The room set up for the public streamed the hearing on TV screens, but I never actually set foot in this room because it was packed with so many Surinamese and Dutch Antillean folks that the crowd spilled out into the hallway. The entryway where I stood was filled with people, leaning in, all the way in, trying to hear what was streaming from the screens. In the hallway, people had their phones out, and watched the live stream playing on YouTube.

Even though Amsterdam’s population is upwards of 700,000 people, residents still consider it small — –a village really — and the Black population, even smaller. I had the distinct impression that many of the people present knew each other, and even if they didn’t, there was a communal affection that I hadn’t seen since leaving Brooklyn. Under the circumstances, people were surprisingly jovial and warm, the crowd intergenerational and multi-ethnic.

Residents follow a public hearing on the implications of Zwarte Piet. Image via AT5.

Out in the hallway, the media conducted interviews, while inside the room, people listened intently, often shushing those of us in the entryway. Periodically, the crowd would react to what was being said in the hearing alternating between laughter, applause, and jeers. In these moments, my new friend and I would either exchange looks of resigned confusion or look pleadingly for a kind soul to interpret for us. And even in the midst of this community, that on some levels felt so familiar, folks of color resisting injustice and supporting each other, I felt like an outsider. I couldn’t laugh with them, nor could I get angry with them. As small pockets of people in the hallway, discussed intently, I looked on from an emotional distance with a hyper awareness that I wasn’t a comrade in this struggle. I was an onlooker.

A couple of weeks later there was a “pro-Piet” protest in The Hague where an angry mob surrounded a woman of color, bullied and cursed at her. She eventually had to be removed by police escort.

So there’s movement. Necessarily ugly and aggressive movement. There’s just one big problem for me though: I can’t read, understand, nor speak Dutch. I mean, I understand a bit and I’m taking a class, but I’m definitely not learning enough to keep up with the pace of social dialogue. My conscious and awesome Dutch friends are constantly posting news articles, blog posts, shows, videosradio interviews, and commentary on social media and I just can’t follow any of it.  It’s terribly frustrating. It’s an odd feeling to feel connected to a movement but then be unable to fully engage with it. The urgency and significance of so much is lost in translation – both the spoken language and the historical context.

Compared to the activist circles that I come from, movement work here, if you can call it that, is really, REALLY nascent. So the shape of it is yet to be seen and there isn’t much critical analysis. From what I have gathered, in Europe, ethnicity plays a significant role in identifying who has power and who doesn’t. This has been one of the hardest things for me to fully understand. In the U.S. the race divide is fairly straight forward comparatively. In Amsterdam, Moroccan and Turkish people face the brunt of the ethnicity based, anti-immigrant discrimination. Interestingly enough, while there is no engagement with the concept of intersectionality in the movement work here, intersectionality is a big part of what makes racism so complex here. For example, a woman from Eastern Europe might benefit from a level of white privilege but still experience discrimination based on her ethnicity and her status as a migrant.

By comparison, racism is structural in the U.S. We have mass incarceration, school to prison pipeline, stop-and-frisk policies, and time and time again we are being murdered as a result of racist stereotypes. Our struggles are well documented, intensely studied and passionately debated. Not the case in the Netherlands. I’m not saying structural racism does not exist here. But I am saying that since so much of the work around it is new, the framing of racism falls squarely on Zwarte Piet.

I’ve heard stories of racial profiling and other examples of discrimination but it’s hard for me to get a grip on the scope of things when everything is in Dutch. I’ve heard that much of it is concealed in the language itself. For example, the Dutch term “allochtoon” is used to refer to non-Dutch people. The problem is, even Surinamese Dutch people born and raised in the Netherlands are called allochtoons! “Neger” (negro? ni**er?) is a word used to refer to Black people as is “donker” (dark) but I’m still not sure whether or not these are terms used maliciously nor would I be able to refer to me.

It’s been difficult trying to understand my role in all this. Where I fit. What I can contribute. It’s made me really aware of how identifying as “the oppressed” can actually become a comfortable space and the measure of privilege that being “native” to a place can provide. In the U.S. I understood my oppression intimately and I could respond to it viscerally and immediately. Here, I have to go through Google Translate just to understand news articles. And if you’ve never used Google Translate before, it sucks! It might as well be translating Dutch to Japanese. Radio shows and TV interviews are lost on me.

As a member of the Diaspora, I identify with the struggles of Black and Brown people all over the world. But does that make this my struggle? Am I a member of “the oppressed” here? I mean, Zwarte Piet infuriates me but outside of that, I haven’t experienced neither overt racism nor violence here. I’m also sheltered by my class privilege.

In fact, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the level of peace that laying down the burden of American racism has afforded me. But people of color here feel genuine frustration and pain over their treatment and representation in this country – it goes far beyond Zwarte Piet. I’m also conscious of the fact that as an outsider I have to be careful how I engage with the movement work of others. I used to cringe (read: fly into a rage) when white gentrifiers would “discover a problem” in Brooklyn and then start trying to fix it. Social issues don’t exist in a vacuum and I do not intend to be anyone’s doe eyed, ahistorical fixer. So where does that leave me? Am I an ally? A witness? A bystander?

I think at this point, I feel most comfortable as an ally. Which is ironic considering my general ambivalence towards the role of “allies.” The fact is I have no interest in picking up the burden of others but at the same time, I’m completely incapable of shutting up. I’m no bystander. Especially because I have a kid. It’s important for me to model what I want for him – which is to always, always resist injustice. As a writer, I have to say something. And as the world becomes smaller and smaller, chances are there’ll be others arriving to the Netherlands, imagining a progressive and tolerant utopia having their own WTF moment come November. Here’s hoping they find this article first.

Marly Pierre-Louis is a writer, activist and community cultivator currently biking through the rain in Amsterdam. She is interested in the intersections of race, gender and urban spaces.

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  • Pingback: Race + The Netherlands: Exile | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture()

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  • Derek Vandivere

    Dodo, I think your post is what’s wrong with all the discussion we’ve had this year. Everything focuses on ‘it’s not a slave costume, so he’s not a slave’ or ‘I never thought Piet was a bad guy.’ The history of ZP (which has a whole bunch of stuff mixed up in it) and your experiences with ZP are, I think, irrelevant to how (say) Quinsy or I experience the tradition.

    It would be much more effective to talk to folks and understand how and why we find the tradition hurtful, then to think about what you find important about the tradition as it stands, and try to find a way to change the tradition in a way that keeps everyone happy.

    But if the most important thing about ZP is that he’s in blackface (and not, say, that he gives strooigoed to the kids), then Dutch society needs to take a long, deep look at itself.

    (Sorry to repeat myself, I keep thinking that if I get just the right phrasing, I’ll break through to people).

    • Dodo

      You might as well have not read a single thing I wrote as you immediately state that I’m whats wrong with this whole debate when I tried to show an understanding of how the dutch people look towards their tradition. But you yourself make an unclear point of what the whole deal about ZP is if it’s not his background, costume or ‘blackface’.
      I can understand that the whole issue might be hurtful for you but it also feels like you push what the rest has to say in a corner. I might be white and so can not experience certain things but I can understand how it feels to be hurt because of appearance (just as I stated in my previous comment). Dutch people are not really accepting of ANYTHING out of the ordinary and I’ve endured more than enough bullying, name calling and death wishes to have my fair share.
      The most important thing about ZP is not the colour but that is the point of discussion right now. I never regarded ZP as ‘black’ until it blew up in the media and now it’s the only thing people seem to focus about. I stated that I wanted to find a way everyone is happy and I think that might happen gradually but I also tried to explain that if everyone jumped on the bandwagon shouting ”all dutch people are discusting rasicts that are unaware of their actions” that we might get defensive? I do not have a problem with ZP becoming less ‘black’ but I do have a problem with how the whole issue is debated. It becomes more and more of a they vs them and it’s tiresome.

      • Derek Vandivere

        Dodo, I was more thinking about the long series of editorials in de Volkskrant trying to prove through the history of the costume that ZP is or is not racist. My point is that your personal recollections and feelings about ZP aren’t really relevant to me when I think about how I react to ZP.

        What I meant about the blackface comment: there are many Dutch people who insist that they’re not racist, and at the same time say that the most important thing about ZP is the fact that he’s a racial caraciture – that is, that he wears blackface. That makes me think that a lot of Dutch people think that the most relevant characteristic of non-white folks is the fact that they’re non-white, which to an extent is racism defined.
        Oh, just for reference: I’m melkfles wit, and have spent half my life in the States and half in the Netherlands.

      • Derek Vandivere

        Dodo, I was more thinking about the long series of editorials in de Volkskrant trying to prove through the history of the costume that ZP is or is not racist. My point is that your personal recollections and feelings about ZP aren’t really relevant to me when I think about how I react to ZP.

        What I meant about the blackface comment: there are many Dutch people who insist that they’re not racist, and at the same time say that the most important thing about ZP is the fact that he’s a racial caraciture – that is, that he wears blackface. That makes me think that a lot of Dutch people think that the most relevant characteristic of non-white folks is the fact that they’re non-white, which to an extent is racism defined.
        Oh, just for reference: I’m melkfles wit, and have spent half my life in the States and half in the Netherlands.

  • Maham

    Also thank you for this! I’m a radical struggling in Europe, too, in a small university town in Northern Italy. Community for engagement is nonexistent here; I have even provoked this conversation about Zwarte Piet to my Dutch classmate, and met a wall. Lack of interest in discussing, informing me, understanding my context of racism coming from Philly. Would so appreciate you continuing to write about your interactions with movement in Amsterdam, as it informs me on how to engage my community. Desperate for conversation!

    • moniyer

      Hi Maham! I’m about to move to Milan and am really interested in trying to figure out how to keep advocating for social justice while living in country that’s not my own and where I’m just learning the language. Having a dialogue with you (and with Marly) would be really nice!

  • Wendy Lopez

    go marly goooooo! awesome article.

  • disqus_ok9xndxFPu

    I wonder if Zwarte Piet is salvageable at all… It’s often next to impossible to completely excise a beloved cultural tradition, and I wonder if working to transition Zwarte Piet to a more fantastical form– say, give him purple or dark blue skin and getting rid of the frizzy wig and red lips, depict him with elf ears or something– might be more straightforward than simply protesting his existence at all. The Persian have Hajji Firuz, who looks to be in blackface but is supposed to be covered in soot– without the red lips and hoop earrings, they could easily make Black Peter into something along those lines…

  • Derek Vandivere

    Just a few points:

    “Zwarte Piet is clumsy, subservient and unintelligent” – not quite right. He’s definitely the servant, but he’s often depicted as being more capable and on the ball than Sinterklaas.

    That woman who was attacked at the pro-Piet demonstration in The Hague? She was actually protesting something comleted differenet (wow, this is annoying, there’s a popup graphic covering the text field, so apologies if I make tyops here).

    On teh question of ‘allochtoon,’I’ve often been told that I’m not really an allochtoon as well.

    At the official íntocht’of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam, Quinsy and the rest of the group had a silent protest, turning their backs on the Zwarte Pieten. A young friend of mine was told ‘die, n*gger’ during that protest.

    And nobobody in teh wind ensemble seems to understand why I’ve backed out of playing at a Sinterklaas concert this weekend …

    • Millie Mwihaki

      The woman in the Hague was asking the U.N to pay attention to the atrocities happening in Papau New Guinea, instead of the U.N investigating Zwarte Piet. She was attacked nonetheless by racist Pro-Piet protesters. They didn’t seem to care why she was there, they attacked her due to a mob mentality.

  • Keisha

    Thank you for this. As a Curaçaoan/Aruban (Dutch Antillean) girl born and raised in New York, there is a huge dichotomy on how I view race here as opposed to the Netherlands and to the Dutch Caribbean. A lot of it stems on how race and ethnicity is viewed. If you speak to people of color in the Netherlands about a case like Trayvon Martin or Stop and Frisk, often times they see that as racism. But in the Netherlands, with a film like Alleen Maar Nette Mensen or even Gario’s arrest in 2011, there is a divide amongst Black Dutch on whether those are considered racist acts. It has a lot to do with how race/ethnicity stemmed from a colonial complexity. There were clear cut signs of struggles for people of color in the US, Civil Rights Movement and Black Panthers etc., to overcome overt racist policies. This never happened in the Netherlands (or to the rest of Europe) because everything still operates under a loose version of a colonial mentality and there weren’t racist laws, such as Jim Crow, present. You can be a very successful Black person and still have a position of privilege but there is still this sense of “knowing your place” that is prevalent among many people in the Netherlands. And by “knowing your place”, it literally translates to Moroccan/Turkish people (also Muslims in general) receiving the brunt of discrimination and Dutch Antillean and Surinamers receiving discrimination but on subtle terms. But all are considered allochtoons (foreigners/outsiders) even though Dutch Antilleans are still part of the Kingdom and are Dutch citizens by birthright.

    And it is true that a lot of it is coded within the language itself, which coincidentally makes it extremely hard to translate. For instance, the term neger technically falls between meaning Black and N*gger. It can be considered offensive in certain contexts. So it is really refreshing to see people of all ethnicities/races getting together to protest Zwarte Piet, something that went from just a couple of people two years ago to hundreds of people today.

    Thanks again for writing this, it is refreshing to see change finally happening there.

    • Marly Pierre-Louis

      Thanks for your insight Keisha!

  • http://molecularshyness.wordpress.com jen*

    ummm…somehow some spam got attached to the end of this post. Might want to edit that?

    • aboynamedart

      Not seeing it on my end. Could you describe/screencap so we can take it to WP?

      • http://molecularshyness.wordpress.com jen*

        Now that I’m home I don’t see it. At work, there was a great deal of print below the author notes. Could’ve been a momentary WP glitch. Sorry for the interjection.

  • the_miekster

    Some interesting people for you to follow that debate more frequently in English (and have already had their November WTF moment) are @redlightvoices, @wearebots and @chadinamsterdam. The former two also have extensive blogs that may clarify some things for you.

    Also, to clarify: officially ‘allochtoon’ is strictly used for third world immigrants including the second generation (yes, we have a separate word for this), though in practice you see it is used for immigrants of color and their descendants (depending where they are from, the Indo-Dutch for example are not seen as allochtoon, nor are Japanese immigrants) but not for white immigrants from for example Eastern Europe, or even Black Americans.

    FYI Noor Labansdochter was RTing that comment, she is firmly anti-ZP and gets personal threats for her stance on ZP regularly.

    • Derek Vandivere

      Well, allochtoon is *defined* as anyone with at least one parent born anywhere out of the Netherlands. I’ve got melkflesbenen (translation: I’m pretty pasty) and a t-shirt that says allochtoon. The way it’s *used* is pretty much as you describe. They contort themselves with ‘non-western allochtoon,’ for example, but then they include people from Mexico or South America in the category. It’s the same kind of squirmy convolutions they go into when they try to say ZP is black from soot…

      FWIW, most of the folks involved in Zwarte Piet is Racisme are looking for the tradition to change, not to vanish. Get rid of the blackface and replace it with soot (or some other color), get rid of the wig, and people are pretty much good to go.

      • Marly Pierre-Louis

        Is there a united agreement on that? I think removing the soot would be suffice for some people but I’ve talked to others who think removing the black face would not get at the underlying racism that created the character to begin with.

      • Marly Pierre-Louis

        Is there a united agreement on that? I think removing the soot would be suffice for some people but I’ve talked to others who think removing the black face would not get at the underlying racism that created the character to begin with.

        • Derek Vandivere

          It’s not 100%, but most of the folks involved in the FaceBook group are agitating for “Roetepieten” or “Kleurenpieten” – roetenpieten with smears of ash as if they’d gone down the chimney, and kleurenpieten have facepaint in different colors. There are some folks that want to get rid of the whole thing and not replace it with anything, but I think that’s a pretty small minority (of our minority that wants to change it).
          Personally, I think getting rid of the blackface, the afro wig and the big red lips would suffice – I think the earrings and the costume are okay. And leaving in some hints of the history are maybe a good thing as a talking and learning point – Lord knows the Dutch need it.

          • Marly Pierre-Louis

            I just attended the Sinterklaas celebration at my sons daycare. They did not have a Piet in blackface but they had images of him hanging all around the classroom and sang songs calling him Zwarte Piet. Even though the Piet was not in blackface, had no earrings, nor lipstick, I still felt extremely uncomfortable with the entire thing. I just don’t think that losing those pieces of the character will make everything ok. But I do agree that it may have to be a short term compromise.

      • the_miekster

        Allochtoon is actually only used for people from third world countries, if you are Japanese or American for example, statistically you are not considered allochtoon. Americans will generally be referred to as expats, even when they are not technically expats. Strangely, people from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles are viewed as allochtoon while people like myself, with parents from the former Dutch East Indies, are not viewed as allochtoon. The whole term allochtoon needs to go.

        I think we’re the only country in the world that has a distinction between first world and third world immigrants

    • Marly Pierre-Louis

      Thanks for this. Just recently found the blogs of @redlightvoices and @wearebots.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Thanks for this interesting read about the difficulties behind engaging in social justice work in a foreign country.