Race + The Netherlands: Exile

By Guest Contributor Marly Pierre-Louis

Photos courtesy of the author.

I was warned before moving to Amsterdam that there’s a term Dutch people use for kids which translates to “monkey.” They use it with all kids and it’s supposed to be a term of endearment. They literally have no context for why you can’t call a Black kid that. The thing is my son is exceptionally cute (just sayin’) and people are constantly cooing at him, especially older people. Sure, they’re all smiles and sweet sounds but are they in fact calling my son a monkey?! And if they are, what do I do about it? Curse them out in English? Memorize Dutch insults to sling at all offending grandmothers?

We were also warned that we should make sure to be vocal about our two-year-old not being involved with any Zwarte Piet celebrations at his daycare. Most schools not only have kids coloring in pictures of him but they may even consider having Sekani dress up as a Piet! Excuse my Dutch but WHAT THE F*CK!?

The Dutch are so adamant about their love for Piet that the indoctrination begins as early as daycare. When parents have tried to have their kids abstain from the festivities at school, it seems unfathomable to teachers who do everything from guilt tripping the parents, “Why do you want your child to be left out?” to turning the kid against their parents, “your mommy doesn’t want you to have fun.” I heard from a friend that a Black mother she knew went to pick up her daughter from school one day only to find her face painted Black. This is all problematic for so many reasons.

When Sinterklaas season began, I was fully preparing to go to war.

Last month, I found out that my son’s daycare did not include Zwarte Piet in their Sinterklaas festivities. According to their website, they believe Zwarte Piet to be a politically incorrect figure and would instead have a jester accompany Sinterklaas. I was so relieved. Imagine my horror when I went to pick him up one week and saw pictures of Zwarte Piet hanging around the classroom. I asked the teacher who was there whether the kids had colored them today and she said no, that they were from the previous year. I walked out not sure what to do. Did I have the power to demand that they take the pictures down? How could they think it was politically incorrect to include Piet in the Sinterklaas celebration but still hang his pictures up in the classroom?

When we first arrived to the Netherlands, we weren’t really sure how long we would stay. I thought we could be here for a year or two and then move to the Bay which is where we were initially heading before Amsterdam happened. I really love Amsterdam but it is a really white space and I’ve been spoiled by Black Brooklyn. It was really important to me that my kid grow up as part of a loving and supportive Black community. I felt that experiencing life as a Black person in America would equip him with survival skills that he wouldn’t be able to obtain elsewhere. I wanted him to intimately and intuitively understand the African Diaspora – our food, music, expressions, language, our joys and our pains, our triumphs, our burdens.

And then George Zimmerman was acquitted.

I came to the Netherlands voluntarily. Under the most privileged and cushy of circumstances. And yet, on July 13 and since, I’ve felt exiled. Exiled because surely this meant I couldn’t go back to the U.S. I mean as an activist and student of radical politics, I know the history of the U.S. I know sh*t is f*cked up in general and especially if you’re a person of color, a woman, an immigrant, queer, poor, etc. I knew that. The George Zimmerman trial however was a watershed moment for me (and then this happened: Marissa Alexander, Jonathan Farrell, Renisha McBride). Yes, because my son could’ve been Trayvon but more than that. It was quite simply the clear and unquestionable pronouncement that Black life wasn’t sh*t. And yes, I knew that already, but I experienced the knowledge differently as a mother.

My parents are Haitian immigrants. It was hard for them in the U.S. but they did what they had to do because they wanted something better for their kids. It’s the responsible of each generation to do better for the ones who come after, right? So how could I possibly return to the U.S.? Not only must we contend with homicide by the state but now ordinary citizens who feel threatened by Blackness can kill us. If something happens to my kid, I don’t think I have it in me to go on a campaign for justice … I would most likely become a) homicidal, b) suicidal, or at the very least, c) have a mental break.

I don’t want to have the conversation with him on how to avoid being killed. I don’t want to tell him to be small and invisible to avoid scaring those who might find him threatening.

So would it be better to raise him here? Where he will likely be the minority in his classes? Where his history or any history of Blackness will be erased in schools? But at least he won’t be anyone’s target for murder?

It’s nearly impossible to avoid the hundreds of Piet’s that descend upon Amsterdam from the time Sinterklaas arrives on November 17th until the actual holiday on December 5th. Initially, when I thought the Sinterklaas festivities would be limited to a weekend, I thought we could avoid the whole thing by going away or staying indoors. But this is a nearly month-long spectacle. Nearly all the stores in Amsterdam have some sort of Zwarte Piet related decor in them, ranging from full window installations to books, wrapping paper, candy, face painting kits and dolls.

So where in the world is it safe to raise a Black kid? I reject the idea that Blackness must equal struggle and oppression. That in order to gain his “Black” card, my kid must somehow learn to fight for his life. The fact is, I want him to have a chance at full humanity. And now, I have no faith he can achieve that in the U.S. But, the U.S. is our home. It’s where his grandparents are, it’s where my best friends are and where I left behind a supportive, dynamic, loving and powerful community. So I build that here right? And I’ve been trying. But I can’t shake this feeling of limbo. Of a sort of homelessness. I feel like I would be dooming him to a life of watching his back if we went back to the States. But I don’t know how long I can tolerate Zwarte Piet although there are those who say his days are numbered. And then again, it’s three weeks in the year, are all the freedoms and high quality of living we are offered here every other day of the year worth that?

  • Facebook User

    well written marley, as a mother of a black boy living in the US, I have the same fears. thanks for this!

  • Nade Sade

    Where is it safe?…Botswana, Angola, Ghana, certain parts of Nigeria, Senegal, some Kenya etc. … I hear what you’re saying but as a Nigerian currently living in the US, it irks me that Westerners, particularly Americans, have this view of the West as ‘the world’. This is not so.

  • Frank Ligtvoet

    An American filmmkaer is working on a documentary on Black Pete: http://blackpetethedocumentary.com

  • Tonya

    I don’t know. This is tough. I can’t relate to growing up in the US as a black female, I’m a black female that was raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

    I wouldn’t even say Toronto is totally safe to raise a black kid, however, I would be inclined to say it would be safer than the US. It’s sad that I can’t think of one place in the entire world where it’s completely safe is raise a black kid. The Netherlands I guess is safer in the extent of physical safety due to their lower crime rate per capita, but I don’t think that I would feel like I would want my black kid to be the far and few between in the classroom to watch all these white kids praising Black Pete and then not understanding why he would have to be exposed (even though he’s not participating) to something so insulting.
    Toronto’s pretty multicultural and I’ve always said that I would need to raise my kid in a place that has people that look like them. I don’t think I would be able to do it in the Netherlands. This is a tough call and it’s sad that as black people we have to think about where we are going to live on the basis of our race and thinking about safety (physically and mentally/emotionally)

  • nicthommi

    Well, the Netherlands is hard but I wouldn’t raise black children in the Bay Area either if you want them to have a good sense of community and a strong sense of pride in who they are. I have never experienced the magnitude of internalized racism that I experience here anywhere else in the country. I find it truly demoralizing and damaging to live here.

    • Andrea

      Yes. So yes. I’m black and in the bay as well…would love to support/talk more. If you’re interested, we can figure out a way to connect.

      • nicthommi

        Sure, I’d be fine with that.

    • Meadows-Choi

      I’m so late in this discussion. My husband is from that way too, he has your exact sentiment.

  • Derek Vandivere

    Well, the good news is that all the Zwarte Piet stuff has really been in decline in the last several years – I’ll hit 20 years in Amsterdam next month, and there was practically no change until maybe 4 or 5 years ago. A few of the major shops have stopped with the ZP symbolism, which makes me hope we’re just shy of the tipping point.

    Don’t know if you’re involved with Zwarte Piet is Racisme, but there’s a bunch of folks on there in similar situations who might be able to offer strategies or at least support. If you’re not already on the Facebook group, I’d recommend it. Just don’t read the comments.

    It’s interesting that you describe Amsterdam as a very white city – I think it was last year that it became over 50% allochtoon (by the definition that at least one parent was born outside of the Netherlands). It’s not so much that it’s such a white city, it’s that it’s so segregated (North Africans and Eastern Europeans in East and West, Surinamers in Southeast)…

    And now the crappy part of winter is done and it’s down to just hoping the canals freeze enough to go skating again!