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‘Abduction of Europa’ (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Amsterdam - 1632 - fragment)

Friday, 28 November 2014

Black Pete and family life - Dutch society struggles with 'racist' December tradition

Jan Steen, Feast of St. Nicolas, 1665-1668, fragment
Dutch family tradition - The Feast of Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sint Nicolaasfeest), is a painting by Dutch master Jan Steen, which can now be found in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The picture, painted in the chaotic Jan Steen "style," depicts a family at home on December 5, the night celebrated in the Netherlands as the Feast of Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas. The focal point of the painting is the youngest daughter of the family, a golden-child, painted, in fact, in a golden smock and showing golden locks. She has behaved all year, and Saint Nicholas has rewarded her by stuffing her shoe with a doll and other treats, which she carries in her bucket. She is in stark contrast to her elder brother, standing to her right, who is sobbing, while another brother looks on, laughing. Apparently, the elder brother has been naughty, and his shoe, held up by an elder sister behind him, was left empty. Still there is hope for the sobbing boy. Hidden in the background, almost obscured by the draperies, his grandmother seems to beckon to him—perhaps she is hiding a gift for him too, behind the heavy curtains. While the mother attempts to coax the golden girl to show her the gifts she received, the father, seated in the center of the painting, seems to smile as he remembers his own childhood on this festive night. Further to the right a child can be seen holding a baby and pointing up the chimney, while a younger child looks on in amazement, as he has probably just been told that this was Sinterklaas' method of gaining entry to the house. Source 
For many Dutch children the main event of the holiday season is not when Santa Claus travels south from the North Pole on his red-nosed reindeer to distribute presents prepared by his magical elves. Instead, Dutch children eagerly await the day St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) travels north from Spain accompanied by his white horse and black helpers –  all conveniently named “Black Pete” (Zwarte Piet). Traditionally Black Pete is said to be black because he is a Moor from Spain. White actors portraying Black Pete typically put on blackface make-up and colourful Renaissance attire, in addition to curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. 

The Black Pete character is part of the annual feast of St. Nicholas, celebrated on the evening of 5 December (Sinterklaasavond, that is, St. Nicholas' Eve). The characters of Black Pete appear only in the weeks before Saint Nicholas's feast, first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (generally by steamboat, having traveled from Madrid, Spain). The tasks of Black Pete's are mostly to amuse children, and to scatter pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed (special Sinterklaas candies) for those who come to meet the saint as he visits stores, schools, and other places.

In recent years, the character of Black Pete has become more and more the subject of controversy in the Netherlands. The celebration is increasingly seen as racist since Dutch society has become more diverse and multi ethnic since World War Two.  A rapporteur acting on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (U.S. Professor Verene Shepherd) urged in 2013 in a letter the Dutch government to abandon this practice and even the St. Nicholas celebrations altogether. "Some practices, which are part of cultural heritage, may infringe upon human rights," said the letter: "Negative media and other cultural, social or traditional portrayals of persons belonging to minorities may constitute racism and may be degrading to members of those communities, in the present case persons belonging to black populations and people of African descent, and can perpetuate negative stereotypes within society." This raised some sharp responses. Right wing politician Geert Wilders called upon his followers to abandon the United Nations instead. 

Competing family lives  - Article 8 (Right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights reads:
1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Under the Convention any negative stereotyping of a group, when it reaches a certain level, is capable of impacting on the group’s sense of identity and the feelings of self-worth and self-confidence of members of the group. It is in this sense that it can be seen as affecting the private life of members of the group. (see S. and Marper v. the United Kingdom [GC], § 66, ECHR 2008, and Ciubotaru v. Moldova, § 49, 27 April 2010). 

On 12 November 2014 the Netherlands' highest administrative court refused to wade into the increasingly acrimonious national debate. With its judgement the Council of State overturned a lower court's decision that Amsterdam municipality shouldn't have allowed last year's festive arrival of Sinterklaas in the city because Pete "forms a negative stereotyping of black people." The Administrative Law Division was of the opinion that the powers of the Mayor when granting authorizations of events were limited to the maintenance of public order, i.e. “orderly community life.” The concept of public policy was not so extensive that its enforcement should take into account the avoidance of stigmatization or discrimination. The Mayor could not judge the substantive admissibility of public communications since the Dutch constitutional system did not provide for such a determination on the permitted content of an event or demonstration.

In its ruling the Council of State brings to mind the ECtHR’s case of Aksu v. Turkey (2012) about negative stereotyping of a group that, when it reaches a certain level, may imply positive obligations for a State to secure respect for private life (Article 8 of the ECHR):

“58.  The Court reiterates that the notion of “private life” within the meaning of Article 8 of the Convention is a broad term not susceptible to exhaustive definition. The notion of personal autonomy is an important principle underlying the interpretation of the guarantees provided for by Article 8. It can therefore embrace multiple aspects of the person’s physical and social identity. The Court further reiterates that it has accepted in the past that an individual’s ethnic identity must be regarded as another such element (see S. and Marper v. the United Kingdom [GC], nos. 30562/04 and 30566/04, § 66, ECHR 2008, and Ciubotaru v. Moldova, no. 27138/04, § 49, 27 April 2010). In particular, any negative stereotyping of a group, when it reaches a certain level, is capable of impacting on the group’s sense of identity and the feelings of self-worth and self-confidence of members of the group. It is in this sense that it can be seen as affecting the private life of members of the group.
59.  Furthermore, while the essential object of Article 8 is to protect the individual against arbitrary interference by the public authorities, it does not merely compel the State to abstain from such interference: in addition to this negative undertaking there may be positive obligations inherent in the effective respect for private life. These obligations may involve the adoption of measures designed to secure respect for private life even in the sphere of the relations of individuals between themselves (see Tavlı v. Turkey, no. 11449/02, § 28, 9 November 2006, and Ciubotaru, cited above, § 50).”
The Council of State held however – quoting the ECtHR ruling in the case of Swedish Engine Driver’s Union v. Sweden (1976) - that “neither Article 13 nor the Convention in general lays down for the Contracting States any given manner for ensuring within their internal law the effective implementation of any of the provisions of the Convention. The ruling said that opponents could instead file civil or criminal complaints against organizers — shifting the debate to other courts and possibly opening the door to such complaints from opponents around the country. Apparently the Court considers the filing of civil or criminal procedures in these cases not ineffective.

After the ruling of the Council of State St. Nicholas this year officially "arrived" in the country on Saturday 15 November 2014 in the city of Gouda. The city's mayor had announced that  some of the Petes in the parade would be yellow-faced "Cheese Petes" and "Cookie Petes." intending to accommodate the views of Black Pete opponents. But police arrested 60 people as protesters from both sides clashed in the presence of small children. As we may fear more violent opposition to Sinterklaas parades in the next years, mayors will already have to reconsider last November's Council of State ruling. Can they, in order to maintain public order, keep away from the controversial content of the Sinterklaas parades in future?

As a child I loved the Sinterklaas festivities. The area where I grew up in the 1960's was predominantly white. We used to sing about Black Pete, who does'nt harm anyone although (!) he is black as soot” (YouTube). Black Pete was the first  'coloured' person we had ever seen and touched (until we found out about the blackening make up). It took me quite some time to realise (and accept) that Zwarte Piet in modern society is not a harmless figure. Does that make me a racist or just ignorant? Sometimes it takes foreign eyes to appreciate your cultural heritage in a changing society. A commentator in The Washington Post recently wrote:
“[w]hat’s curious is the incredulity of many Dutch people when asked to confront the apparent racism of their beloved Christmas-time figure. Trying to tell a Dutch person why this image disturbs you will often result in anger and frustration. Otherwise mature and liberal-minded adults may recoil from the topic and offer a rote list of reasons why Zwarte Piet should not offend anybody.”
The Dutch seem to be slow learners on this issue. Probably because most of us have happy childhood memories about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. We are confused and angry to be told by 'foreigners' that what we liked as children was actually blatant racism. But when we replace 'Black' Pete for stereotypes of 'Gay' Pete or 'Jew' Pete or 'Roma' Pete or 'Handicapped' Pete, it's quite clear to most of us what's questionable about this part of our Sinterklaas tradition in today's society. 

In a way our national debate about Black Pete is mass therapy. The ruling of the Dutch Council of State can be understood as a message from judges not to bring issues involving cultural changes to the courts. In the end Dutch society itself has to solve this issue, preferably by non-violent debate. Which is good altogether. Yet I hope for future generations of children that we will invent a new St. Nicholas' Eve tradition, with lots of joy, excitement,  Pete's (all colours), and - most importantly - candy and presents.

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