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Zwarte Piet Watch

AS WE GO live, this year's St Nicholas's Day (5 December) - celebrated as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Belgium, and roughly equivalent to Christmas - is upon us.

Poster: 'Zwarte Piet is racisme'\

A poster: "Zwarte Piet is racism"

St Nicholas, similar in appearance to Santa Claus but wearing a bishop's mitre, carrying a bishop's crozier and sometimes riding a white horse, is traditionally accompanied by a racist stereotype character, a sidekick named Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete"). He's a "comical" servant or slave, usually portrayed by a white Dutch person in blackface. Often Sinterklaas has a crowd of Zwarte Piets in attendance.

In recent years, peaceful protesters demonstrating against the racist portrayal of Zwarte Piet have been met with violence by counter-protesters, usually around the time of the traditional "arrival of St Nicholas" in mid-November.

Two years ago, a large group including football hooligans attacked a demonstration by anti-racist campaigners of the Kick Out Zwarte Piet (KOZP) group in Eindhoven. In 2019 there was a meeting of KOZP in a former school in The Hague. A crowd gathered which broke windows, damaged cars and attempted to set fire to the building before police arrived. Many editorials have appeared in regional newspapers in recent years deriding anti-Zwarte Piet protesters for being "annoying."

The "Zwarte Piet" phenomenon, and especially issues around the reporting of it, has prompted NUJ Netherlands Branch to respond. (NUJ Netherlands Branch, for journalists based in the Netherlands who write mostly for English-language outlets, is a Branch whose members are mostly freelances.) The NUJ Code of Conduct, which has been an inspiration to members taking action on the Zwarte Piet issue, includes a clause stating that journalists should not produce material "likely to lead to hatred or discrimination" on the grounds of (among other things) "a person’s race, colour or creed".

As NUJ Netherlands Branch member and NUJ Black Members' Council member Marvin Hokstam noted, "When I see national media reporting people in blackface as innocents who were accosted by annoying anti-racism protestors, it makes me think 'What does it say about your country?'" Marvin noted that AFRO Magazine, the Afrocentric news and opinion platform in the Netherlands, is taking a stand on the issue, as is anti-Zwarte Piet movement Kick Out Zwarte Piet in all its anti-racism endeavors and its intentions toward media that give a platform to racism. He added, "We will issue a statement to call on media houses to do better. Because media consumers deserve better."

At a meeting of the NUJ's National Executive Council (NEC), a motion by NUJ Netherlands Branch was passed:

  • The NEC notes that the character of Zwarte Piet, who accompanies Sinterklaas, is predominantly portrayed by someone in "black face", and this continues to be enjoyed by many who consider it to be an innocent tradition.
  • Each year there is increased debate and controversy around Zwarte Piet, requiring journalists to cover the topic and arguments.
  • The NEC reminds all those covering Zwarte Piet of the NUJ Race Reporting Guidelines which state that journalists, "should not originate material which encourages discrimination on the grounds of race or colour."
  • The NEC supports journalists in Continental Europe in their efforts to encourage non-discriminatory reporting of Zwarte Piet and those trying to raise a discussion about his role in the Netherlands and Belgium in the 21st Century.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which saw demonstrations across the Netherlands in the summer of 2020, seems to have had an impact on attitudes to Zwarte Piet. A survey by news website Een Vandaag from June 2020 showed support for "traditional Zwarte Piet" had fallen from 89 per cent of those surveyed in 2013 to just 47 per cent in that year. Zwarte Piet isn't all that "traditional" by the standards of ancient midwinter customs. He was invented by schoolteacher and author Jan Schenkman for his children's book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (approximately "Saint Nicholas and his servant boy") in 1850.

The coronavirus lockdown was seen by many as an opportunity to do things differently this year. Many towns and cities, as well as the organisers of the "national" arrival of St Nicholas in the Netherlands, had events at secret locations with no in-person live audience, filmed for small children to watch live at home. Coronavirus regulations had given police forces extra powers to ban or disperse the gatherings or (counter-)demonstrations that habitually form around KOZP protests.

This year again saw the usual parading figures from the Saint's entourage in Renaissance-era servants' outfits, but at many events they were now referred to as just "the Piets" and references to their colour were avoided. The "funny" voices that white Dutch people in blackface often adopt while playing Zwarte Piet had gone. The traditional big fake gold earrings and thick lipstick were out too. Piets in blackface were rarer this year.

Most big events (including the Amsterdam Sinterklaas "arrival" and the national one) featured "Piets" with no make up on their their faces other than a light smearing of soot, as if they'd just come down the chimney to deliver presents. Some Dutch public libraries also reportedly removed children's books featuring Zwarte Piet this year.

The "Chimney Pete" variant on display in Amsterdam and other communities was successfully introduced some years ago and took hold in Antwerp, the biggest city in Dutch-speaking Belgium, where Zwarte Piet was also a thing. A recent survey of attitudes to traditional Zwarte Piet in Belgium showed even less approval for the "traditional" version of the character in Belgium, down sharply from an already lower baseline than in the Netherlands. (Belgium celebrates St Nicholas's Day a day later, on 6 December.)

Nonetheless, there were still ugly incidents in 2020. A group of around 60 KOZP activists who had arranged a legal march in the Dutch city of Maastricht this November had to be escorted to a "place of safety" by a walking cordon of riot police after a crowd or around 1000 "opponents" pelted them with fireworks, stones and eggs.

Rapper Akwasi, who is of Ghanaian descent, and who made comments about the Zwarte Piet phenomenon during a Black Lives Matter rally in Amsterdam in June, wasn't at his home in Weesp when a group of racists in blackface turned up at his door at around the time of this year's arrival of Sinterklaas. Akwasi's wife was at home: fortunately neighbours were able to chase the group away. MPs branded the visit to Akwasi's home "pure intimidation".

Marvin also noted that NOS Teletext news service (Yes! Teletext still exists in the Netherlands!) reported on "skirmishes between supporters and opponents of Zwarte Piet" on 21 November in the Dutch city of Venlo.

The report portrayed racists in blackface as innocent people who were the victims of "pestering" by KOZP anti-Zwarte Piet protesters. This was despite the province's police division making it clear in a media statement on the day that "The KOZP demonstration in Venlo today went well!" and that the four people arrested for mistreatment, threats and public violence in the clashes were "bystanders, not part of the KOZP group."

NUJ Netherlands Branch and NUJ Black Members' Council continue to monitor developments, especially the media's reporting of - and commentary on - protests around Zwarte Piet.

Marc Wadsworth, Chair of the NUJ Black Members' Council, told the Freelance, "The BMC believes it's an abomination that the racist 'black face' stereotyping of people of colour still goes on around Christmas time in the Netherlands and Belgium. Such things have no place in the 21st century This is something we have raised with Brussels and Amsterdam NUJ branches and our NVJ Dutch sister union and will continue to campaign on."