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)
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.
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, videos, radio 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.