The Netherlands Just Had Its Annual Holiday Fight over Blackface
We went inside a protest against "Zwarte Piet," the Netherlands' most problematic Christmas character.
All photos by Christopher Pugmir
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
It’s not really Christmas until people in the Netherlands start arguing about whether the racist Christmas character Zwarte Piet—or Black Pete—is actually racist. The Zwarte Pieten are meant to be Santa's team of helpers, who—as their name not-so-subtly alludes to—are black. Piet's character is celebrated on Sinterklaas Day—an annual Dutch holiday on December 5, which heavily features white people dressing up as Piet by splashing on blackface.
At this year's celebration, angry pro-Piet supporters set up roadblocks on the streets leading into the small northern Dutch village of Dokkum, to block anti-Piet demonstrators from protesting the area's Sinterklaas parade. The standoff was framed as a battle between liberal elites, with their PC, no-to-blackface ways, and defenders of good, old-fashioned Dutch traditions.
A week later, there was another attempt at an anti-Piet demonstration in Dokkum to protest the group being barred from entering the town on Sinterklaas. I traveled to the event with the protesters to speak to both sides and find out why people are still wearing blackface in 2017.
Two big tour buses, nine police vans, and a dozen cars leave Amsterdam at 10 AM. At the front of the bus is Mitchell Esajas from the protest group "Kick Out Zwarte Piet." He jokingly introduces himself to me as today’s tour guide. "Two weeks ago we tried to go to Dokkum, but failed," he tells me. "So today we try again."
Redouane Amine, 29, was among the demonstrators who were stopped from protesting. "Last time felt like a slap in the face," she tells me. "The police really let us down. Instead of taking down the illegal roadblocks, they were hanging out with the pro-Piet bunch."
"The police should've been there to protect us, like they're doing today," filmmaker Sunny Bergman adds. "What's really annoying is that they lied to us. They said they’d escort us to Dokkum, but they didn't."
After driving for an hour, we make a short stop at a petrol station. A few locals spot some of the group's anti-Piet signs and clothes, and start swearing at them.
"I'm used to things like this," Fatin Bouali laughs, ignoring the angry white men. She shows me a message she received on Facebook. "Get the fuck out of the Netherlands," it reads. "We white people will cheer when you’ve gone."
She’s not the only one who's been receiving angry messages. When we stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch, I chat with Kevin Roberson, a vocal advocate against blackface, who attends a lot of protests, filming footage of demonstrators before putting the films up on YouTube.
Roberson tells me that he often gets anonymous calls from people calling him a monkey. He has also been added to a WhatsApp group made especially for him, titled "Kevin has cancer." His address has been circulated on several Facebook groups, and his email inbox is filled with hateful messages.
Later, back on the bus, Esajas stands up to address the group. "We’re moving into dangerous terrain," he announces. "If some idiot tries blocking the road, our buses will just run them over. This time, nothing is going to stop us." Thankfully, we get to Dokkum without having to kill anyone.
As we make our way towards the town center, our convoy is greeted by angry locals, some holding racist banners written in the local Frisian dialect.
Large groups of pro-Piet disciples spread themselves across the street, watching the buses move through. "Don’t let them provoke you," Mitchell reminds everyone. "We're here for a peaceful protest." Some inside the bus start waving to our fans.
We finally get out of the bus at 2 PM. With a police escort, we walk through a residential neighborhood with lots of detached houses. Some Dokkum locals wave warmly, but others pop out of their homes just to swear at us. Suddenly, we come across a man in blackface with his three children, also in blackface.
"As it's still the holiday season, we thought it’d be nice to dress up as Piet," the man tells a journalist from a radio station, while his kids look on uncomfortably.
The police walk us all the way to the market square, where the demonstration is supposed to take place. There’s a stage set up, and about 100 more officers waiting to meticulously check everyone heading into the square. On the stage, speakers and musical acts take turns entertaining a crowd of about 200 protesters, periodically yelling "No more blackface!" and "Zwarte Piet must go!"
Nearby, I spot a couple, Klaaske and Jo, looking on in disgust. "This is bullshit," Jo tells me. "Please explain to me what’s wrong with Zwarte Piet," Klaaske adds. "I don’t understand it."
Kees, a 50-year-old farmer, is equally confused as to why blackface is a problem. "I can’t believe my eyes," he says. "I’ve never seen things this dark. I love Zwarte Piet—he’s such a great guy. He’s happy, and doesn’t look like all those people there who are whining and bitching. There aren’t supposed to be so many dark people in the north."
Amina used to love Zwarte Piet, but she has recently been converted. "Just over a week ago, I was sad at the thought of the only black icon I know disappearing," she says. Amina was adopted and raised by a white family. "When Sinterklaas came, people kept throwing sweets at me and calling me Zwarte Piet—that really hurt. I think if you give most people time, they will eventually get it."
The protest ends at around 4 PM. My toes have gone numb from the cold. The police escort us back to the buses. When we walk through the streets of Dokkum, people step out of their homes again—the town still isn't tired of swearing at us.