“Somebody else’s skin is not a costume”

“Somebody else’s skin is not a costume”

For the German version of this article click here: „Die Haut anderer Menschen ist keine Verkleidung“

Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) is one of the most important holidays in the Netherlands. But since the author Jan Schenkman introduced Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) as Sinterklaas’ sidekick in 1850, the celebration has left a stale taste. That is because Zwarte Piet looks like a caricature of a person of color with a black face, big red lips, curly hair and earrings. In many cases Zwarte Piet is linked to the racist practice of blackfacing: White people painting their faces black in order to play a person of color.

Zwarte Piet Verkleidungen. Foto von Danny den Otter, Haus of Make-up (http://www.hausofmakeup.nl/zwarte_piet_foto.htm) [Copyrighted free use oder CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Zwarte Piet Costumes. Photo by Danny den Otter, http://www.hausofmakeup.nl/zwarte_piet_foto.htm, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Especially kids love the holiday of Sinterklaas which takes place on the 5th of December every year. There are tv series, books and parades about and for Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Probably, this is one of the main reasons, why so many Dutch people don’t want to lose Zwarte Piet. Many people connect this holiday with their childhood and have a romantic afterglow of these days. In addition, some do not believe that kids can be racist or that the racist practice of Zwarte Piet has any effect on their youngsters. But there is another reason why this is such a controversial debate: Many white people in the Netherlands are afraid that they could lose – little by little – their culture and that other cultures would replace the original Dutch culture. Often, solidarity with Zwarte Piet is linked to xenophobic and racist resentments. However, those who want to abolish Zwarte Piet just aim to stop the racist character of this figure. What they do not want is to abolish the Sinterklaas-festivity itself.

Every year the emotions come to a boil as soon as Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands. This year, protesters were arrested during the traditional arrival of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. The police actions were criticized as too forcible and aggressive. Another example which shows the explosive character of the discussion is the Dutch TV host Sylvana Simons who has been harshly attacked by Zwarte Piet supporters when she criticized the blackfacing.

Devika Partiman has become part of the movement against Zwarte Piet in 2012. She works for Stichting Nederland Wordt Beter (Foundation “The Netherlands will become better”), an organization that fights against racism and for more education about the colonial past of the Netherlands. Additionally, the group is in charge of the campaign Zwarte Piet is Racisme (“Black Pete is racist”). About 18,000 people follow this campaign on Facebook.

In our interview with Devika Partiman, she tells us something about the debate surrounding Zwarte Piet, racism within the Dutch society and what role women play within the movement.

Die belgische Zeitung "De Standaard" berichtet über die Abschaffung des Zwarte Piet.
The Belgian Newspaper “De Standaard” reports about the Abolishment of Zwarte Piet. Photo: Lennart Krotzek

Belgium’s media and politicians have come to an agreement on the use of Zwarte Piet in public this year. TV channels and other public institutions will not show the typical black faced Zwarte Piet anymore. Why is that not the case in the Netherlands yet?

If I knew that, we’d have such an agreement as well! I think the ‘discussion’ has been longer and more intense in The Netherlands than in Belgium. Why that is, is hard to say – I only know my own country so it’s hard to tell apart any differences. One thing that matters a lot is that here a lot of schools and commercial organizations have been following the path of the ‘Sinterklaasjournaal’, the most watched television show about Sinterklaas – also responsible for the national parade. As long as they don’t pursue change, it won’t happen nationally. There’s a lot of finger pointing involved. Sinterklaasjournaal points to ‘the public opinion’ and wants to wait until that has ‘turned’ enough, as do politicians – ‘it is up to society to have this discussion’ – and ‘society’ and schools are more passively waiting for change from the institutions. So as long as everyone keeps pointing at each other for the solution, it’s gonna be hard to find one.

It seems as if the Dutch society were divided by the question of Zwarte Piet. Is that the case and how can we differ the groups?

It definitely seems that way – and I partly blame the media for that. Friction sells. So they’re happy to show the conflict, but not everything that is happening in the middle. It’s not like soccer, where you can just point to the Ajax and Feyenoord fans. So I don’t think you can differ the groups that clearly. Though obviously, here in Amsterdam the percentage of people who are ok with change is bigger than in smaller and less diverse places.

What solutions are discussed in the Netherlands, how would you evaluate them and what is your preferred idea?

There’s quite a lot of small initiatives, but the most popular ‘solutions’ are ‘Kleurenpiet’ with face paint in different colors, and ‘Roetpiet’ with black soot in stead of blackface. To me, any solution without the blackface characteristics which are the black face, red lips, earrings and last but not least the black wig is fine. As long as Piet does not refer in any way to a different ‘race’ than the person playing the character. And no, that doesn’t mean black people should just play Black Pete from now on.

Who do you think is responsible for abolishing Zwarte Piet? As you already said, the media often argue they would only react to changes in society and as long as society is in favor of Zwarte Piet, they won’t change their practice. On the other hand, at least partly the media creates the public opinion on these kinds of issues. Is it, after all, the government’s responsibility to take the next step?

I don’t think the government has to be involved as a ‘law maker’ – but I do feel that it is their responsibility to inform themselves and other people about the history of this tradition. To help explain why we are having this discussion now and also to remind everyone that democracy doesn’t always mean ‘majority rules’. I feel that the historical context is missing. And the government could help push this story at schools, but also in their own narratives, and in the media. But I wouldn’t say it has to be the government. Schools have a big role in this, as do the organizations that organize the yearly parades.

What role do women play within the movement against Zwarte Piet?

We don’t have a special role. During the first few years, the faces of the movement were men. This is slowly changing, also because of women speaking up about this. So now, whenever there’s events or other public appearances, attention is being paid to women contributors. It had a slow start but once the network of women got bigger, this has become very very easy.

Nevika Partiman (rechts)
Nevika Partiman (on the right)

Do you consider yourself a feminist?


How has feminism come into play within the movement?

Feminism has always been a part of civil rights and antiracism movements, it’s no different with the movement against Black Pete. As I said, women have really spoken up and are now a prominent part of the movement.

Zwarte Piet seems to be just another example of racism in the Netherlands and Europe in general. Where else do you see racism or racist structures?

The most obvious examples are the labor market and the police system. Several studies have shown that there is discrimination in the labor market. Which is specifically a problem for young non-whites looking for, for example, internships, but also in the rest of the labor market. And ethnic profiling by police force is a well-known issue – also recognized by the police itself. Besides that, I could name the nightlife. Discrimination at the door, especially for non-white males, is very prominent. They’re having trouble getting into clubs, et cetera. Another field is education. This is harder to grasp, but education is, and is getting more, segregated.

Few weeks ago Sinterklaas and his little helpers arrived in the Netherlands. Traditionally there is a big festival on this day. This year, some activists protested against the arrival because of Zwarte Piet. They were arrested by the police. Is this way of handling protests normal in the Netherlands? Are the authorities more huffish when it is about Zwarte Piet?

That was not normal at all. Amnesty wrote a very concerned article about it which explains happened pretty well and that human rights were violated. It shows that this topic is so personal to so many people – among them police men and women – that they would use unlawful tactics and violence against peaceful demonstrators. So yes, it felt like that was definitely due to us wanting to protest Black Pete in particular.

Trigger warning: Video shows scenes of explicit violence. 

Blackfacing is not just an issue in the Netherlands. Recently, there was a case of blackfacing in Germany again. The host of a TV show of a public broadcaster dressed as a black, elderly man from South Africa. He pranked the host of another TV show who was told the older man were the father of a white woman who had been searching for her father for a long time. How would you comment on this case?

Let me just say: Blackfacing is never ok. And it sure as hell is not funny. Somebody else’s skin is not a costume.

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