The Sinterklaas events began early this year in the Netherlands. Not the holiday festivities themselves, but rather the ritual of national humiliation that takes place in defense of the blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete.” In advance of the general election on March 15, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) announced plans to propose new legislation mandating that Sint Nicolaas’s “jovial” helpers wear traditional thick brown or black body paint, bright red lips, and Afro wigs, rather than “politically correct” alternatives like rainbow colors. Other MPs quickly expressed outrage at the proposal, but Wilders’s party is the exception that proves the rule when it comes to defending Dutch “heritage” against charges of racism. Fearing the PVV’s growing electoral clout, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the ruling center-right Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) published a stern open letter to the nation in the major newspapers, demanding that citizens and immigrants either conform to “Dutch norms” or get out of the country. Rutte’s letter was widely criticized across the political spectrum as pandering; less remarked upon, however, was his comment that those who call “ordinary Dutch people racists” for their support of Zwarte Piet “spoil everything.”
As Dutch people of color have become increasingly vocal in denouncing Zwarte Piet as racist, protesting in the face of arrest, 70 percent of the population reject changing Zwarte Piet. Most Dutch people insist upon its benign intentions and the un-Dutch oversensitivity of the critics to a “harmless” children’s holiday, which nonetheless must be fiercely protected from politically correct killjoys. That Zwarte Piet was plainly the Sint’s racially subordinate servant in his folkloric roots is implausibly explained by attributing his impeccable facepaint to chimney soot. As historian Sandew Hira asks, “How can a Dutch chimney be so different from all other chimneys that a white person can go down and come out the other end as an African?”
Often it is not the offending phenomenon itself but its defense that proves most revealing. Intent is claimed to be the sole measure of racism and, conveniently, intent is in the eye of the doer. In 2015, Dutch media professionals (overwhelmingly white) saw fit to print the n-word in the headline of a review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and two other books. When The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah published a critical story, the NRC Handelsblad, a prestigious major daily, expressed muted regret about the headline’s effect on English-speaking readers but insisted nonetheless that the intended Dutch audience would not have been offended. Since the Netherlands fashioned itself as a progressive gidsland or “guide country” after the 1960s, with Amsterdam championed as “the world’s most liberal city,” racism is declared to be a distant relic of the past, or confined to such backwaters as the United States.