In the Netherlands, the populist battle plays out over a Christmas figure

Portrait of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.Wikicommons/Michel Zappa.November, 2006. Some rights reserved.As protests against
Trump’s election rock the US, the Netherlands has been home to its own battle as
authorities have detained and tried to silence activists protesting against the
depiction of a Christmas figure in blackface. Black Pete, sidekick of Saint
Nicholas who inspired Father Christmas, is portrayed by white men and women
appearing in blackface with bright red lips and a curly wig. In a debate that
has lasted years, critics seeing this as a vestige of slavery have accused the
tradition of perpetuating racial stereotypes.

Though an
unprecedented number of organizations have banned the portrayal of the figure
in blackface following accusations of racism, the polarization that has
resulted demonstrates how fraught the battle for Dutch identity has become as
the country awaits a populist surge in its elections next year. Tensions flared up on November
12, when activists from the Kick Out Black Pete collective took to demonstrating
at the national Saint Nicholas arrival festival near Rotterdam. Upon their
arrival, about 200 protesters were detained, some violently, for attempting to
defy a ban on demonstrations during the festival.  A week later, in the lead-up to another
festival in the southern town of Geleen, activists were
required to deliver only positive messages during the event and their signs
were confiscated.
 

Participants have deemed
their treatment unconstitutional and an abuse of security measures limiting the
freedom of assembly of those challenging racism in the Netherlands. A police
unit posing in blackface attracted particular criticism.

“Black Pete tells me
that a lot of Dutch White people feel superior and they don’t want to
acknowledge what the Netherlands did in the former Dutch colonies,” said Morena
Taborda, spokeswoman for Kick Out Black Pete. Taborda, who has suffered racism as
a Black child growing up in the Dutch countryside, said: “those 3 weeks of
so-called festivities were the most uncomfortable weeks of the year.”

 “As an adult, you can take many things, but as
a child, it hurts you so much and you cannot do anything. I will never give up on
behalf of the Black children in the Netherlands,” she added.

A Rotterdam police unit posing in blackface. The tweet, deleted following widespread criticism,reads: "Who's sweet receives goodies, who's naughty gets the standby force. Task: Protecting Saint Nicholas during the arrival in Maassluis." Source: Twitter.Amnesty International has deemed the restrictions activists
have faced an infringement of their freedom of expression. The organization said there was
no reason to implement a demonstration ban during the national festival. “Even if there was a violation of a
demonstration ban, it does not mean that the police should or can detain
peaceful protestors automatically,” it said in its statement.

Kick Out Black Pete is set to
demonstrate at another event in Rotterdam today, which has been approved by the
local authorities. However, restrictions continue as the city’s mayor has said
the group could only protest in a designated spot and could not hand out flyers
to families attending the festival.

Unprecedented
opposition

Despite
these tensions, the figure is being removed from celebrations at an
unprecedented rate. Debates this year started flaring up with a report by the Dutch child
ombudsman. Following up on a UN report last year, she argued that the portrayal
of Black Pete could lead to “bullying,
exclusion or discrimination”. Dutch dailies later reported that she had received
threats against her life.

Following the report, RTL, a leading broadcaster, together
with the city of Amsterdam announced they would no longer portray Pete in
blackface.  The decisions followed
those taken last year by some of the most prominent Dutch brands.

But the turn against
Black Pete remains top-down and has not taken root in local governments, who
organize the annual Saint Nicholas celebrations. According to a recent poll by the national
broadcaster NOS, most Dutch municipalities will continue presenting the figure
in blackface.

Out
of the 223 polled, only two municipalities are doing away with blackface
completely, while 186 municipalities will feature Black Petes.

Cultural protectionism

Change
has been slow to come, with many viewing the figure as an innocent tradition.

Halbe Zijlstra, the
parliamentary leader of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right party, called
the broadcaster’s decision “a really dumb move” ruining the tradition for
children. The government has repeatedly stressed that Black Pete is a tradition
that is not up to it to modify.

Others
have said the changes made to Black Pete are undemocratic, with one group calling
for a referendum. But more radical defenders hype the defence of Black Pete as a
matter of saving Dutch identity.

"Saint
Nicholas and Black Pete is a family celebration and after the 'murder' of Black
Pete, the "Black Power" children's celebration haters want to kill
Christmas, Easter," the far-right Dutch Popular Union said in a statement
before its demonstration
at the national festival two weeks ago.

“We
have a simple solution: if you don't like our traditions, children's
celebrations, culture, traditions, and history, pack your bags and get out of
the Netherlands,” they added.

Unlike
Kick Out Black Pete, the Union was able to stage a demonstration at the event
as it registered with the local government and agreed to protest in a confined
space. In parliament, Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party defend a similar
position, stressing the preservation of Dutch culture. The party has made
multiple proposals for a law requiring Pete to appear in blackface.

Many agree with this framing
of Black Pete. #boycotRTL became a trending topic on Twitter following the
broadcaster’s declaration. Then
and during protests at the celebrations, users echoed the view that Black
Pete is an integral part of Dutch culture that needs to be salvaged, blaming
critics with spoiling a treasured children’s tradition.

Reactions are also
thought to be deeply divided by race. Unpublished
research by the Dutch government uncovered by a TV show has demonstrated that while
only 18 per cent of ethnic Dutch want to see a change, the figure was 43 per
cent for those of Surinamese and Caribbean descent, though the pool of
respondents considered in such surveys has been a matter of controversy.

Responses and racial
divisions demonstrate the difficulty of discussing race and identity issues in
the Netherlands. Markus Balkenhol, a researcher at Meertens Institute, said responses to the issue are part of
the culturalization of Dutch national identity since the 1990s. Since then,
with the rise of the populist right, citizenship has become less a formal
question and more about compatibility with Dutch “culture”.

Demands to do away
with Black Pete kicked off at this time, as newcomers who made their way to the
Netherlands from its former colonies during the 1970s sought their place in
Dutch society as equal citizens.

“Much of this cultural protectionism has been
against Muslims… but it’s broader than that, also something that Dutch citizens
of African descent have had to deal with. Any critique is labelled as ‘coming
from the outside’ and is sort of excommunicated,” Balkenhol said.

“The logic is that Dutch culture needs to be
protected by any means necessary. Such a logic even makes racist responses to
critiques of Black Pete seem acceptable,” he added.

Rocked
by hostility towards migrants amid the refugee crisis and turmoil within its
Turkish minority, the country’s largest – national identity and the question of
who belongs in the Netherlands has been a hot issue ahead of next year’s
parliamentary election.

Till
recently, Wilders’s Freedom Party, which heads up the cultural protectionist
discourse in these debates, has held a consistent lead in the polls for over a
year, and is now running head to head with Prime Minister Rutte’s party. Its
controversial pledges include a ban on all asylum seekers, mosques, and the
Quran. Last week, prosecutors
demanded a €5000 fine against Wilders for inciting hatred in his call for “less
Moroccans” in a speech two years back.

Balkenhol
said these issues are all united by “the sense
that, whether minorities, the left, or the cultural elite, they want to take
our culture away from us.”

An uncertain future

While
the unprecedented removal of blackface from celebrations has raised hopes for
some, activists are more cautious.

“Keeping the children’s fantasy alive depends so much on the
national TV. If the TV does it differently, you’re almost forced to do it differently,”
Balkenhol said in an interview
prior to the protests, expecting a radical transformation in the
figure’s appearance over the next couple of years.

But Taborda disagrees.  “I
think we have a very long way to go, so I cannot say I am happy, or that I feel
better. Honestly, I have a bad feeling about this,” she said.

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