Today I participated in a discussion on Zwarte Piet, Afrophobia and anti-black racism in the European Parliament in Strasbourg that was organized by Malin Björk, the Vice-Chair of the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left, and ENAR, the European Network Against Racism. Here below is the speech I gave.
First off I want to thank ENAR and Malin Björk for organizing a debate that the Dutch members of parliament are too afraid or too ignorant to organize in the Dutch parliament. That only the islamophobe Hans Jansen is present today is telling. Afrophobia and anti-black racism should not be contentious topics. But they are because they bring to the fore the lasting legacy of the European colonial endeavors not the least of which were the slave trade, chattel slavery and the plantation system in their colonies. It seems like Afrophobia and anti-black racism are topics that a lot of people are not ready for. Well too bad for them, because it’s time to confront and dismantle the obstacles that hinder black Europeans from full participation in European societies.
As the Euro skeptic parties gain momentum in their respective countries we’re seeing that they’re also paradoxically aligning themselves via that same Europe that they’re trying to dismantle. Today’s gathering of black thinkers and activists in return also shows the strength of European connections and solidarity. The solidarity on display today is one in which we counter the narrative of a homogenous, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, patriarchal and middle to upper class Europe.
It is in this context that we need to unpack the figure of Zwarte Piet not just as anti-black racism packaged as tradition, but also as a quintessential figure of smug ignorance. The term was coined by professors Philomena Essed and Isabel Hoving in their latest book Dutch Racism. The ignorance at display is one in which pride and pleasure is derived from ignoring and discrediting knowledge production on racism, anti-black racism and colonial legacies. What we’re up against are people who are protecting the status quo while refusing to acknowledge that the status quo is hazardous to the well-being of Black people in Europe.
When Ajé Boschhuizen, the creator, writer and executive producer of the Sinterklaasjournaal proudly exclaims that he created the Dutch version of Desmond Tutu, by having a black Pete don the robes and clothing of Sinterklaas, he’s displaying smug ignorance. For those who don’t know, the Sinterklaasjournaal is a nightly 10 minute long fake news show about the adventures of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet during the last two weeks of November and the first week of december. This is also produced and made by the only public broadcaster that was given a mandate to be as diverse as possible and tackle diversity issues on tv. Every morning during this three week period kids are shown this program at school and follow a specific lesson plan surrounding the tradition. This insult to Desmond Tutu, and black people in general, was presented as something that detractors should be happy about. And it’s embarrassing to admit, but a lot actually were.
From the beginning in 1930 the struggle against Zwarte Piet was not just about the colour or the clothing of the figure, but about the position of black Dutch people, and black people in general, in Dutch society. What is our role in the construction of the image of the nation? What we have come to see is that minority groups in the Netherlands have come to embrace the third way politics of dialogue when it comes to their own oppression.
In 1997 the Netherlands enacted the Wet Overleg Minderheden, a law through which minority based organizations were subsidized and given direct access to talk to ministers on issues that pertained to their ethnic groups. In essence what was supposed to be a tool to point out where the state was failing these minority groups, became a discussion group through which the minister would tell where the groups were failing. Respectability politics through the creation of mimic men, to use Homi Bhabha’s term on the class of colonial subjects that was created to carry out the oppressors demands while thinking that they were providing progress.
The state will never subsidize people to attack it and as long as these groups were part of the system they couldn’t become threats to the status quo. In 2011, after the freedom party, Hans Jansen’s party, came into power, the law was abolished and the funding for any organization that dealt with minorities was either drastically slashed or simply cut.
In this atmosphere I started Zwarte Piet Is Racism in 2011 as an art project to counter the prevailing image that people in the Netherlands had about the effectiveness of activism on black issues. Black activists in the Netherlands were, and to a certain extent still are, regarded as caricatures of themselves and part of the system because they were usually funded one way or another by the state. I have been subjected to taunts and abuse for the last three years and this last year the largest media corporation in the country, Hans Jansens’s freedom party and the Christian Democrats have for a large part been going after how I make a living. I seem indefatigable to them and so they’re trying to cut me down after realizing that demonizing and terrorizing me hasn’t stopped the discussion on Black Pete and racism. It has actually only emboldened more minority groups to stand up for themselves from Asian Dutch, to Moroccan Dutch to Turkish Dutch recently.
When the meetings with Eberhard van der Laan, the mayor of Amsterdam, and the organization that organizes the Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam started two years ago I was in a position to be unpredictable. This unpredictability enabled me to keep my objective clear of why I was sitting there. I will not negotiate about my rights and so, as I told them, the discussions for me were not about superficial things such as the color of the Piets. No, I was there to press on them the need for sincere acknowledgment of the racism presented through the figure. The solution can only come when the problem at hand is actually acknowledged.
I know that Jerry ‘Kno’Ledge’ Afriyie and I absolutely disagree on this point. The new Piets that he tried to introduce last year, during the commemoration of 150 years since the abolition of slavery, were poorly conceived and poorly timed in my opinion. The idea that a simple wardrobe change is what we’re after, such as Boschhuizen’s Desmond Tutu Piet and the various coloured piets, has only played into the hands of those who want this discussion on anti-black racism to go away.
When my presence at the mayors table was used in the mayors arguments in the court case that a couple of us brought against the permit for the parade I stepped away from the table. I refuse to be the token spokesman that enables white hegemony not to acknowledge its own existence and drag its feet in combating anti-black racism. I will not be the ‘black friend’ who gave permission for the continued manifestations of smug ignorance surrounding our colonial legacy.
And in that I think I’m in good company here. We’re all here for the greater good, with the exception of Hans Jansen of course, and today’s discussion is at the heart of power in Europe and at the same time on our terms. We’re not here for appeasement. We’re not here to go through the motions but to use our time and tools effectively. For me today is about a revolutionary black emancipation in Europe. We’re black Europeans and have made this our home. And at home we will protect ourselves.