Wishing you a happy white 2023
Amara Boumann examines the worrying trend of racist incidents in Netherlands following a New Years hate crime in Rotterdam
Martina Canullo / Panoramic
Content note- mentions of racism
Writing these words, I’m only a couple of days into the new year and so far, 2023 has been great. I moved to the other side of the world, I started living on my own for the first time in my life and I made some new friends. I thought I was completely up to date with everything that has been happening back home in the Netherlands after countless Facetime calls with family. Had I known that the slogans “vrolijk blank 2023” (“happy white 2023”), “white lives matter”, “zwarte piet deed niets verkeerd” (“black pete did nothing wrong”), and the infamous ‘fourteen words’ by late neo-Nazi David Lane (“we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”) were being projected onto the Erasmus bridge in Rotterdam during the national New Years Eve countdown, my 2023 would have started a little differently.
Had I known that some of my fellow Dutch citizens would rather have a future without me, my family and all the other 4.7 million ‘Dutch with a non-Western migration background’, the start of the new year would have left me feeling scared, sad, and confused. While I am unfortunately not surprised by the sentiment behind these public racist displays, what scares me most about them is that they seem to have become tolerated, or gone unpunished enough to allow for them to be blown up on a massive bridge in the middle of Rotterdam.
In my lifetime, this public display of extreme right-wing ideas in the Netherlands is unprecedented. Whereas previously this mainly happened online, the separation between the online and offline worlds seems to be becoming increasingly blurred, according to Willem Wagenaar. One of the main causes for the growth of the right-wing movement in the Netherlands is the annual “zwarte pieten discussie” (black pete debate). Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a black character, often portrayed by white people who paint themselves black (making this a form of blackface*). Zwarte Piet has Afro-hair, thick red lips, and big golden earrings. He is the servant of Sinterklaas, an old white man in a dress, who visits our country every year to bring children presents. While black people in the Netherlands have been addressing the problematic nature of Zwarte piet since 1927, large-scale action was ushered in with the establishment of Kick Out Zwarte Piet (KOZP) in 2014. KOZP is a movement which organises action campaigns calling for ‘visible change of the racist figure black pete.’ On the national level KOZP has achieved great success. Every year there is a national Sinterklaas arrival in the port of a preselected city, where Sinterklaas enters the country on a boat with his horse and his ‘Pieten’. These ‘Pieten’ are now painted or have soot smear on their faces instead of being painted black. In a number of local communities, however, Zwarte Piet remains part of the celebrations. Many justify the traditional movement by arguing Zwarte Piet is not racist but is part of a whimsical children’s festivity that should not be reformed. They believe that changing Piet’s appearance would irreparably damage this long standing Dutch tradition.
Amara's Sinterklaas celebrations in 2010
While organisations such as Nederland Wordt Beter and KOZP brought attention to the racism that accompanies the Sinterklaas celebrations, they also drew attention to the term ‘blank’, which is used to identify white people in the Netherlands. They argue that the term ‘blank’ is problematic, because like the word ‘neger’, it is stained by the colonial history. The term blank is used to refer to white people which conserves the historical power inequality between black and white people because of the connotation with purity and neutrality, making everything non-’blank’ impure. Furthermore, black people are referred to as ‘black’ people, so ‘white’ would just be a more logical antonym. While the mainstream media is adjusting quite well to the change of referencing, the Dutch public is not. For many this is just a case of old habits die hard, for some the term ‘white’ is stained as well hence they are hesitant to change their wording, and others simply refuse to change because to them this is yet another part of “their” culture that is changing on the hands of the multicultural society.
Unfortunately, the government also plays a part in empowering the opposition of anti-racism movements. Examples of this can be found in the Netherlands during anti-zwarte piet demonstrations. Just three months ago, KOZP organised a demonstration in the municipality of Staphorst, where Sinterklaas is still celebrated with “real” or older Zwarte Pieten. Frustratingly, the peaceful demonstration ended before it could even begin. KOZP-activists were stopped and treated violently by opponents. The police interfered, but instead of arresting counter demonstrators they shut down the approved anti-Zwarte Piet demonstration. KOZP-leader Jerry Afriyie said that yet again they were deprived of their right to demonstration and the authorities failed them in favour of a group who does not grant them their rights, referring to the blocking of anti-Zwarte Piet demonstrators on the highway A7 in 2017, after which the pre-approved demonstration was prohibited, and no counter demonstrators were arrested on site. On his Instagram (@therebelthepoet) Afriyie also called out mainstream media for their reporting and framing of the situation. By using terms such as “intimidation” and “agitation”, the media downplayed the situation: KOZP was violently attacked by opponents. Calling it a “confrontation” makes it sound as though both parties had a hand in this situation, while only one group was the aggressor. Framing like this is not limited to Dutch media, but is a worldwide phenomenon.
I can’t say I’m optimistic for the future. Considering the success KOZP and Nederland Wordt Beter have booked already and the ongoing growth of their movement, I believe there will be a time when Zwarte Piet will cease to exist and blank will be replaced by white. However, I fear these changes will coincide with the growth of the anti-racism movement, right-wing extremism, and an increase in violent situations like the ones we’ve seen in the new year.
*Blackface is an example of the history of oppression, dehumanisation, and stereotypes of black people