So, this week it has been announced by the Amsterdam Court that the grotesque Dutch caricature Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is in fact racist. It’s not that this is news exactly but it is a major milestone in our fight against racist imagery throughout Europe and across the globe. This statement will send a much needed and long-awaited message far and wide with regards to the contemporary and popular usage of blackface and as someone who has been highly critical of this practice both via this blog and elsewhere on the internet, I couldn’t be happier with this result.
Having said all of this, one may find themselves asking following this monumental ruling, what should we expect next? Well – as always – I have a few ideas on how things will initially turn out and what we should :
1. To begin with, this ruling is specific to the presence of Zwarte Pieten at the annual Amsterdam Sinterklaas Intocht (the entry of Saint Nicolaas) and doesn’t immediately translate in the use of the image in other cities or for other purposes. However, the ruling does implicate that to use the image of Zwarte Piet in any way in public spaces is to promote racism. While the use of the image of a Zwarte Piet is not explicitly an illegal act, racial discrimination certainly is – even in the Netherlands – and therefore the use of a racist image by association could be construed as racial discrimination, thereby making it a punishable offense. In other words, following this ruling when Dutch people choose to promote the image of Zwarte Piet in a public sphere, with the knowledge that a court has declared it as racist, one should demand of them what they represent exactly.
2. Amsterdam is the first city to make such a declaration and as the capital of the country, we should expect other larger and multicultural cities to follow suit in time in their own ways. It will probably take longer for smaller towns – especially in the south and east – to truly accept this ruling, so ongoing campaigns shouldn’t pack up shop for the victory party just yet!
3. This ruling will be truly shocking, unexpected and unthinkable to certain members of Dutch society, so supporters of the decision should expect a negative and volatile backlash. This will especially be the case later this year when people begin to prepare for the Sinterklaas festivities between November and December. Of course, the Dutch are currently preoccupied with the World Cup, in their hyper-nationalistic haze, so will probably not register the gravity of this ruling until their funny little friend doesn’t show up at the Intocht in mid-November. Needless to say, there will be a lot of unhappy by-standers at the Amsterdam parade. This is of course assuming the Intocht organisers take the decision seriously.
4. All we can hope for now is that this ruling will be serious deterrent to anyone organising very public events during the Sinterklaas period and that Zwarte Piet will not be so prominent from now on. However, campaigners should not get their hopes up that he will disappear all together immediately. As mentioned above, more rural parts of the country will continue to promote and celebrate the image and moreover we should expect a serious counter movement to this ruling to contend with in order to prevent a backslide. In short, we still have a fight on our hands but now is the time to get serious and stop making compromises. It will continue to be a long process, especially if like me you are of the mind-set that the image Zwarte Piet is merely illustrative of a much larger social and institutional problem concerning racism throughout Europe. However, it is a fight we have to be prepared now as much as ever, that we each stand by.
5. Considering each of the above points, without continuing the dialogue and really campaigning for schools in the Netherlands to include more content on the legacy of Dutch colonialism and imperialism, we cannot hope for this ruling to take hold in order to lead to a real cultural shift. One only needs to look to the UK as an example, where the Golliwog has re-emerged in recent years as a popular image, in spite of public consensus in the 1980s of its racist roots and implications. In part, this is due to the lack of attention paid in British schools to the legacy of Britain’s participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and thus an entire generation has grown up not fully understanding sensitivities that should be paid to certain social issues, such as (institutional) racism or immigration. Consequently there has been a recent backlash against “political correctness” leading many to reject notions of what kind of imagery of messages may be harmful to non-whites in favour of protecting their own right to say whatever they please. If we do not want to end up like this, we need to strike while the iron is hot and emphasize didactic approaches within our campaigns. After all, this was never about causing mere offense to people and now is the time to hammer home what it has always truly been about.