By Markus Balkenhol Progressive Dutch were shocked when they read the racist commentary swamping critics of the Zwarte Piet figure in recent weeks. “It’s time this whining negro gets a new owner,” and “they should let him pick cotton as a punishment,” or “In Sint’s bag off the Munt tower with Quinsy Gario” were, by comparison, among the more harmless racist execrations that were flung at Gario and other critics of the figure. With indignation, many proponents of the Zwarte Piet figure who understood themselves as non-racist were quick to condemn this outburst of racism. A handful began to wonder whether there may have been a point to the critique, after all. Yet the racism spilling across public media continued to be seen as an exception, representing only a few ‘actual’ racists who were in no way representative of larger proportions of Dutch society. The racist comments were understood to be altogether disconnected from the Sinterklaas celebration as such, and their racism was seen as completely out of sync with the benign family tradition they held so dear. Many have told me that they had never seen anything wrong with the family tradition, but that they were taken aback by the reactions.
To my mind, the point about critiquing Zwarte Piet is precisely to show the continuities between the racist reactions in the public media and the not-so-benign family feast: the feast paves the way for these reactions by enacting racial hierarchy. Consider the ease with which links are not only made, but – and this is crucial – understood between the black person uttering critique, the figure of Zwarte Piet (“Zeurpiet”), and a long tradition of racial caricature. It is not self-evident to propose that Gario ought to pick cotton, that he get a new owner, or that he be thrown off the Munt tower ‘as a punishment’. A lot of discursive work has gone into making these links possible as speech acts. Contrary to what is often claimed, however, this was not the work of anti-racists who pointed out the inherent conflation of blackness and subordination. This conflation had already been in place, as is evidenced precisely by the ease with which an imagery of blackness and subordination snaps into place. For me, the critique is therefore not confined to a particular figure, but to a broader phenomenon of which Zwarte Piet is a symptom.
This phenomenon is clearly racism in its broadest sense, but it points in particular to the way in which racism has become entrenched in the Netherlands. Like elsewhere in Europe, a paradoxical situation has emerged in which making racist remarks is taken as a sign of progressiveness.
In the postwar period, the shock of the Holocaust has led Europeans to regard race as merely a social construction that has no base in ‘reality’ – it is scientifically unfounded. Initially an anti-racist stance of sorts, the denial of human difference based on racial categories has now led to a denial of the existence of racism. As David Theo Goldberg has argued:
For Europeans, race is not, or really is no longer. European racial denial concerns wanting race in the wake of World War II categorically to implode, to erase itself. This is a wishful evaporation never quite enacted, never satisfied. A desire at once frustrated and displaced, racist implications always lingering and diffuse, silenced but assumed, always already returned and haunting, buried but alive. Race in Europe has left odourless traces but ones suffocating in the wake of their at once denied risinous stench (Goldberg 2006, 334).
Europeans – white Europeans, that is – have convinced themselves of living in colour-blind societies that somehow have collectively moved so far beyond race that racism is not at all possible anymore. As a consequence, racist slurs are paradoxically seen as further proof of postracialism: look how far we’ve moved beyond race, we can even make racist jokes!
This became painfully clear in one of the latest episodes of a new Dutch satire show called Volgende Week (“Next Week”). In the show, the subject was the widely watched Sinterklaasjournaal (“Sinterklaas’s news bulletin”), which “reports” the latest news about Sinterklaas. Like every year, the bulletin reported that something had gone wrong on the Saint’s steamboat journey to the Netherlands which could potentially forestall the Saint’s arrival in the Netherlands. This time, the Saint’s stick had been left in Spain. Volgende Week offered a satire on this disquieting news in which they picked up the debates about the Sinterklaas tradition in the past few weeks. What might happen to the Zwarte Pieten, they asked hypothetically, if they indeed had to turn back to Spain? In lieu of an answer, Steven Spielberg’s iconic scene of a brutal whipping during the Middle Passage was shown. The implication was that the Zwarte Pieten would be “punished” like the enslaved Africans on the Middle Passage for having forgotten to take along the Saint’s stick.
The racism in this satire is as blatant as it is complex. At one level, the satire rehearses exactly the racism inherent in the comments referred to above, in which the conflation of blackness and subordination is immediately understandable to everybody. On another level, one needs to bear in mind that this show is meant as a ‘satire’, and it therefore needs to be unpacked as such. Satire is commonly understood as an
“artistic form, chiefly literary and dramatic, in which human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, parody, caricature, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to inspire social reform”.
As opposed to mere mockery, satire is thus critically addressing the norm. It is articulating a critical stance that is directed in particular at positions and institutions of power. With their take on the Sinterklaasjournaal, Volgende Week does no such thing. Instead of critiquing a dominant position in which Zwarte Piet is seen as unproblematic, it mocks the ones pointing out the problematic conflation of blackness and subordination reproduced in the image of Zwarte Piet. There is often a thin line between satire and mockery, but Volgende Week has crossed that line quite unambiguously.
This mockery demonstrates precisely what the racist comments have demonstrated before: that in spite of all the arguments to the contrary, the ones holding the Zwarte Piet figure so dear are quite capable of making a link between Zwarte Piet, subordination, and blackness. The fact that the ones responsible for the mockery in Volgende Week have immediately offered their apologies distinguishes them from the racist commentary only in degree, not in kind. Perhaps it bears repeating that to make racist jokes is not a sign of postracialism, progressiveness, or conviviality. It is racism.
Markus Balkenhol is voormalig PhD student bij de afdeling antropologie en werkt nu als postdoc bij het Meertens Instituut en bij de Universiteit Utrecht
Essed, Philomena, and Sandra Trienekens. 2008. “‘Who Wants to Feel White?’ Race, Dutch Culture and Contested Identities.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31 (1) (January): 52–72.
Goldberg, David Theo. 2006. “Racial Europeanization.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 29 (2): 331–364.
———. 2012. “When Race Disappears.” Comparative American Studies 10 (2-3): 116–127. doi:10.1179/1477570012Z.0000000008.
Hesse, Barnor. 2011. “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Postracial Horizon.” South Atlantic Quarterly 110 (1) (January 1): 155–178.
Lentin, Alana. 2012. “Post-Race, Post Politics: The Paradoxical Rise of Culture after Multiculturalism.” Ethnic and Racial Studies: 1–19. doi:10.1080/01419870.2012.664278.
Lentin, Alana, and Gavan Titley. 2011. The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age. Zed Books.
 “Het wordt tijd dat die janknegerT weer een eigenaar krijgt” (http://wijblijvenhier.nl/21293/racistische-reacties-anti-zwarte-piet-betoog-quinsy-gario/). “Voor straf zouden ze hem katoen moeten laten plukken” (http://forum.fok.nl/topic/2027963). “In de zak van Sint van de munttoren met Quinsy Gario” (http://www.powned.tv/nieuws/raar/2013/10/sinterklaas_niet_ok_want_zwart.html). There have also been numerous and much more concrete death threats.
 Many scholars have argued this point, see for example Goldberg (2006; 2012), Lentin and Titley (2011), Lentin (2012), Essed and Trienekens (2008), Hesse (2011), to name a few.
 This phenomenon has been termed ‘hipster racism’, a form of racism in which the deep conviction of one’s own progressive conviction makes even racial slurs permissible. See http://www.racialicious.com/2007/01/15/the-10-biggest-race-and-pop-culture-trends-of-2006-part-1-of-3/.