Netherlands: How rainbow-coloured became the new black

A heated debate around a centuries-old children’s festival throws a light on the complexities of integration and how the left should respond

Immigration has been high on the agenda of many European governments for some time with debate usually focused on the number of people entering the country and society’s ability to cope. However, in the Netherlands it is not numbers so much as the qualitative aspects of integration – how should new arrivals be integrated into Dutch society and to what extent can and should they adapt to its customs and traditions – which is now mostly the focus of discussion.

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Photo: Tropenmuseum / the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)

In the last two years this debate has taken a somewhat surreal turn, which has led to some interesting outcomes, as I found out in summer of 2013 at a seminar in Brussels where Quinsy Gario was one of the participants. Gario is a black Dutchman who describes himself on Twitter as “a performance poet, columnist, radio host and an award winning play-maker from the Dutch Caribbean”.

The seminar was about combating racism and xenophobia in the run-up to this year’s European elections. When Gario was given the floor, he took aim at an unexpected target: the Dutch folk tradition of Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet, in which Madrid-based St Nicholas and his Moorish black helpers (called ‘Black Petes’) travel to the Netherlands by steamship every year to shower Dutch children with gifts and sweets. Gario said that this tradition was racist; Zwarte Piet was a symbol of slavery and oppression and did not belong in a free and democratic society.

My first reaction was one of disbelief. How could anyone suggest that the centuries-old national children’s festival of St Nicholas was anything but good-natured, harmless fun? How could anybody mistake the cheerful folklore character of ‘Black Pete’ for an African slave? And, most importantly, given my impeccable progressive credentials, how could anybody suggest that the annual celebration, which I have been taking part in since I was a little boy, is racist?

But as Gario went on to explain in some detail how ‘Black Pete’ affected the perception of black people in the Netherlands, and how it made him and other black Dutchmen feel, I realised that my fondness for the tradition I grew up with might be clouding my judgment of this modern-day critique of Dutch race relations. I began to wonder whether there might be some merit to Gario’s arguments.

In the following months the ‘Black Pete’ controversy set the Netherlands ablaze (to fully comprehend this, you have to understand that St Nicholas is more important to the Dutch than Christmas). What seemed at first like the quirky obsession of a few hothead radicals became the subject of animated public and political debate. An online petition to “keep Black Pete” gathered over 2 million ‘likes’ on Facebook.

While most politicians on the right were quick to dismiss the anti-‘Black Pete’ campaign as political correctness gone mad, many on the left took a more measured view, perhaps realising that further escalation could have serious consequences for the already fragile state of Dutch community relations.

The 2013 St Nicholas celebrations went ahead largely as planned, but the issue flared up again this July when a judge in Amsterdam ruled against the city administration’s handling of the issue (the ruling was later overturned on appeal). It was left to two leading Labour party politicians, Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan and minister for integration and deputy prime minister Lodewijk Asscher, to try to defuse the situation.

In a series of confidential meetings Van der Laan and Asscher brokered a deal between the main protagonists. As a result, this year’s festivities saw a number of small but significant changes, such as the introduction of rainbow-coloured ‘Petes’ alongside their more traditional counterparts. This was not enough to satisfy the most radical of the campaigners, including Gario. But on the whole the innovations were well received. Perhaps not surprisingly, children led the way in welcoming the new arrangements.

Van der Laan and Asscher managed to strike a delicate balance between respect for a long-standing and cherished Dutch cultural tradition, and the acknowledgement that, yes, maybe there is something a little bit odd about a slave-like character taking pride of place in an annual children’s celebration in a modern western country.

Some have sought to portray the debate as a confrontation between a liberal, tolerant society on the one hand, and newcomers seeking to impose their own backward cultural standards on the other. That is a gross misrepresentation. It is true that the anti-‘Black Pete’ camp’s arguments can be a little bit over the top. But similarly, Dutch society should have realised much sooner that ‘Black Pete’ did not fit well with its self-ascribed reputation for tolerance and non-discrimination.

It looks like the Dutch have found a way out of their conundrum, at least for now. In time-honoured tradition, it was achieved by poldering – that’s Dutch for getting all interested parties around a table and thrashing out a compromise. So far, Labour has not reaped the electoral rewards, not least because, just as the St Nicholas debate was drawing to a close, a major row erupted over the removal of two Turkish-born MPs from the party’s parliamentary faction. But by getting the Netherlands out of its self-dug hole, Van der Laan and Asscher may just have given the party a fresh lease of life.

This post was first published as a contribution to the December 2014 edition of State of the Left – Policy Network’s monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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