An organisation called Nederland wordt beter (The Netherlands is getting better/The Netherlands will be getting better) recently put up a flyer and sent out a press release for organizing a Piet 2014 photobooth. With the photobooth they wanted to present a Zwarte Piet for the next generation. On the flyer you saw a woman dressed up as Zwarte Piet with sooth marks on her face and in the full piet regalia. In discussions online the organization revealed that it was a comprise. They regarded the discussion on the racist nature of the figure over and wanted to give a solution for the Zwarte Piet issue.
When the photo made by the artist Frouwkje Smit, who recently made a project around a piano on Bonaire that is as close to the colonial civilizing missions as we can get today, was put on facebook most people were not amused. As Patricia Schor, one of the guests on our last show wrote:
I can hardly believe my eyes. I am appalled. What on Earth happened to this campaign? Are you people simply naive or are your minds so deeply colonised that you believe that racialisation ends in one’s face and that there is some kind of equivalence between representing a black-enslaved and an enslaved white? What on Earth makes you believe that you must compromise with racism? Let me be clear here: the enslaved is not anyone but they are very particular human beings marked by race. These same social and cultural marks are attached to racialised bodies targeted everyday by institutional racism in the Netherlands. It is a profound and serious mistake to believe in this kind of interchangeability of positions; serious because it feeds Dutch myopia to contemporary racism. Please come to your senses people and do not show at Keti Koti 150 (-10) with this racist surrogate.
What happened to the campaign is that the organization has been passing itself off as the initiators of the artproject Zwarte Piet Is Racisme and exhibition Zwart van Roet while they’re not. Raul Balai, of design studio Het Ijzeren Gordijn, and Jerry Afriye, also known as Kno’Ledge Cesare, who are behind Nederland wordt beter are not interested in looking critically at what they’re attempting to change. They are itching to claim the spotlight as the ones who solved the problem of Zwarte Piet. But they lack the intellectual rigor of critical race thinking to tackle the figure or the courage to call it racist. The fact that they aren’t aware of critical race theory, postcolonial theory or gender studies wasn’t an issue when they weren’t in charge of determining the ideological backbone of what they were doing. Now however it’s glaringly obvious that they have no clue about what they’re putting out into the world.
Two months ago Jill Filipovic of the Guardian wrote that people involved in social justice attack each other because of scarcity. She was speaking specifically of the online feminist discourse. To a certain extent she has a point. In the Netherlands there have been scores of black empowerment organizations that have been brought down because of infighting and because of the crabs a barrel mentality; everybody is fighting for that top spot and will pull each other down to attain it.
When he first saw the shirt Balai told me that he wouldn’t publicly support the message of and the thinking behind the shirt. He still hasn’t. It was only after the shirt took off that he wanted to be associated with it and then only in a way that wouldn’t hurt his graphic design business. During the exhibition Zwart van Roet he tried to launch his own t-shirt and claimed that it would be better if my shirt wasn’t present in the exhibition space. Because of the arrest my name had become toxic, according to him and Femmy ‘Jimmy Rage’ Dawkins, and therefore should not be mentioned as the initiator and producer of the exhibition so as not to scare off possible visitors. Believing him and wanting the best for the exhibition I agreed. I even spoke to a journalist of the now defunct newspaper De Pers under a pseudonym.
Filipovic notes that people in social justice movements are deeply personally invested in them and thus therefore react strongly to things they feel are wrong. And she’s right. I initiated Zwarte Piet Is Racisme because of a very personal and yet not unique experience. It fueled my tenacity and creativity of how to tackle a subject that people had been having discussions over since 1930. On June 1st 2011 I put on a t-shirt with the words Zwarte Piet Is Racisme (Black Pete is Racism) and decided to do something about it in my own way. That led to my arrest on november 12 2011 and the many invitations to speak on the project and the figure.
In 2012 I was invited to think of something that could be at the Keti Koti exhibition surrounding my art project. I conceptualized a Zwarte Piet Helpdesk where people could come to get advice and tips on how to talk to their surrounding around the figure. People would get a hand out version of a timeline made for the exhibition Zwart van Roet and a shirt. What happened is that Balai made a flyer in which Zwarte Piet was heavily featured. I vetoed it and he got angry. On July 1st he threatened me with physical violence at the festivities as the booth was being set up. Afriye decided to stick up for him in the subsequent weeks and I dissolved the working relationship with Afriye, who had initially become involved with the project as a fan.
At that point he also got angry and tried to Mobutu me in September 2012 by announcing that I was no longer involved with the project on a fan Facebook page, that up until that point we both could post through. I was now blocked and couldn’t respond. When I tried to counter via my own Facebook page I received a phone call telling me not to respond or I would lose a booking at the Bijlmerparktheater where I would be performing at later in the year. In december Bijlmerparktheater organized an event with Afriye that was conceptualized by me after telling me that they had cancelled the event. That Balai and Afriye were going to get angry was to be expected, that others would step in and help them was unexpected. But then again when people are thirsty and come upon a fata morgana they end up drinking the sand.
Back in December 2011 when I was invited to meet the mayor of Amsterdam about the figure in March 2012 I invited Balai and Afriye along. They presented this idea of Zwarte Pieten as people with smudges on their face to me and I told them it’s a bad idea. It still upholds the colonial idea of symbolic and cultural black subservience. The same can be said of different colored Zwarte Pieten which still upholds the idea of the elevation of whiteness above the coloreds below. In July of 2012 when we were invited back by the mayor to also talk to the organizing committee of the parade and the actor Jeroen Krabbé, who plays Sinterklaas in Amsterdam and you probably know as the bad guy from The Fugitive, they attempted to present this solution again. I noted during the meeting that it’s a question of understanding the racism behind the figure, not just the facepaint, and acting upon it. In 2012 the Amsterdam Sinterklaas parade featured a record breaking 730 Zwarte Pieten.
Trying to compromise with people who have been uncompromising in their staunch silencing of voices that object to the figure and oppose the glossing over of colonial history through the figure in the Netherlands is not a solution. Giving them a way out of thinking critically about their role in the perpetuation of black subservience is actually doing more damage than that record amount of Zwarte Pieten. Through their association with the opposition of the figure, or their dad’s work in the case of Balai, Balai and Afriye have been granted speaking privileges that they are abusing. The same can be said for Black Americans who think that they can come to the Netherlands and Europe to tell people from the African Diaspora how to be black simply because they come from the land of civil rights and the Black Panthers. It’s cultural imperialism and not helping. I was told that during a public event last year Afriye even said that white plantation masters also suffered under slavery and the colonial system.
I agree with Filipovic when she says that we shouldn’t be in competition with each other, because who would want to compete with an organization headed by somebody who says things like that and has a guy, Roelof-Jan Minneboo pictured above, on the board who would call his white skin colorless. They’re clueless and as dangerous for emancipation as Jacobus Capitein was.