The saga of the international group of protesters stuck in a Russian jail after being detained on a Dutch-flagged Greenpeace mission is a fairly standard story of where the Netherlands likes to see itself in the world. This on-going narrative has been shaken recently, however, when a UN Human Rights Council report included the Netherlands among a select band of international human rights abusers, including Sudan, Burma and Iran. A follow-up letter was sent to the Dutch government to address the issue. The crime? Racism, and an infringement of minority rights, all centred around a character beloved of generations of Dutch children and adults.
Now, anyone who has stayed for more than a short time in the Netherlands knows the shock that accompanies meeting the man who has attracted the ire of the UN for the first time. Mine was just before deciding to come and stay here – as I was walking through Amsterdam and fantasising about cycling everywhere generally living the cosmopolitan Dutch dream, I passed through Dam Square and seemed to slip through a hole in the time/space continuum: for before my very eyes I saw a grown man, in full blackface, with exaggerated red lips and afro wig, dressed as a page-boy, dancing around excited children as he showered them with traditional sweets and pepernoten.
Many Nederlanders just shrug and give wry smile when asked about ‘Zwarte Piet’, but for those unacquainted with the story of ‘Black Pete’ it doesn’t get much better: In Dutch folklore, Sinterklaas comes from Spain on the 5th of December with his Moorish servant (now euphemistically referred to as a helper) and visits children – Pete is the comedy sidekick and sweet distributor.
These sort of tensions in that strange intersection between cultural heritage, colonial history and multi-cultural reality are part of the modern European experience. British readers will be aware of the ‘Winterval’ storm that blows up almost annually at this most special time of the year: but the reaction to this UN reversal of the Dutch internationalist narrative has been pretty remarkable, with more than a week of media outrage, a Prime-Ministerial statement and more than 2 million people (almost 15% of the population) signing up to a Facebook ‘Pete-ition’.
Before the current controversy, there had been previous (tentative) moves to address this strange anachronism, with suggestions that ‘Black’ Pete could be replaced by Petes of many colours, or even a ‘Rainbow-flag’ Pete. The Mayor of Amsterdam suggested another compromise: simply taking the garish red lips and afro wig away, would take the furore with it. While demonstrations were held all over the country at the weekend it was hoped that would be the end of it.
Except it wasn’t – in a disturbing, if somewhat absurd turn of events, a section of the Hague crowd of pro-Pete demonstrators confronted a lone woman protesting the situation in the former Dutch colony of West Papua and accused her of being part of the Anti-Pete conspiracy – seemingly because of the colour of her skin. As Christmas songs were sung in the background, she was jostled, jeered and struck as some tried to wrestle a flag, mistaken for an American one, from her grasp, before she was eventually asked by the Police to leave for her own safety.
If Zwarte Piet were standing on the Malieveld, where the incident took place, he could almost hit the US Embassy with his pepernoten. He could also hit any one of the innumerable other embassies, government buildings and offices of global firms which are to The Hague what container ships are to Rotterdam. While that city proudly gets its hands dirty being a conduit for all the goods of the world, and the capital skips along to its own cosmopolitan beat, the Hague has an efficient, transnational hum. There is probably no city in the world with such international clout for its size, with the UN, International Court, EuroPol and a plethora of Dutch and Global multinationals choosing to call it home – that such a parochial and distasteful scene could unfold here is remarkable.
Tilly Kaisiepo, the injured party, decided not to press charges, pointing out that she was effectively on the same side as the demonstrators. The longer term blow will be most likely to the old Dutch tolerance cliché, especially in a climate where notorious bandwagoneers the PVV are riding high in the polls.
Kasiepo was protesting against the UN taking an undue interest in an on-going domestic issue, over more pressing human-rights abuses by Indonesia. Prime Minister Rutte’s response was measured, if tautological: (Black Pete is black, we can’t change that) less so was the reaction of the UK government when criticised by the UN regarding the controversial ‘Bedroom Tax’.
Both governments, however, will now be wondering if these are isolated cases or the ‘new normal’, as emerging nations begin to gently push back in the face of Western weakness in global institutions. And what about Black Pete? After this weekend, he’s probably on the lookout for a new PR company.
This article first appeared in The Holland Bureau
on 3 November 2013