As is the case in the last five or what years, the Netherlands is having a debate on Black Pete again. According to Dutch folklore, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands via steamship every November, rides into town on his horse, and is assisted by his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), to hand out gifts to children. It is one of the most important festivities in the Netherlands, highly commercialized, with an emphasis on making the children happy.
A Dutch tradition
Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary is a film about the blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet, a Dutch folklore character associated with the celebration of Sinterklaas.
This year the debate appears to have gained significance and the reactions among some white native Dutch people border on racism (or cross that border by a few lightyears). They want to defend their culture, which they call Dutch culture, against the critique on the racist aspects of the feast and attempts to do away with Black Pete. This shows that in times of conflict racist statements are made easily even though there is a taboo on it as well. More important probably then racist slur, is a racial discourse that attempts to safeguard the privilege of native Dutch whites as the norm, as the ones who constitute the Dutch moral community and Dutch culture, based on the idea of ‘we were here first, so do not mess with our traditions.’ Overt racist remarks (although clearly present in the debate and often legitimized by saying well this is the Internet, emotions are running high, I’m not a racist, but.., and so on) maybe taboo in general, the racial ideology present here is used to safeguard the positions of whites (which of course doesn’t mean that it divides society and black and white over this issue since people from both groups support the various standpoints).
Supporting the petition
An interesting thing in the current discussion is the so-called Pietitie. This is a Facebook page with an online petition calling to preserve the tradition of Black Pete. On their FB page they claim it is a page for people who want to stand up against banning the Sinterklaasfeest even though hardly anyone talks about that it; the critique is about the Zwarte Piet phenomenon. On the site for the petition the makers claim:
‘What a nonsense! Banning Black Pete? Never! Black Pete is Black Pete and should remain so. […] We, all Dutch people who are in favour of the tradition of Sinterklaas (including Zwarte Piet) note that this is a tradition that takes place in the Netherlands for years. Currently Zwarte Piet is never compared with slavery and it is nothing to do with discrimination! […] Black Pete should remain black/brown!”
Now clearly there are people who do connect Zwarte Piet with slavery and discrimination, if not they would not need this initiative. One is left wondering who constitutes the categories of ‘we’, and ‘Dutch people’ the petition is constructing here. Presented in the media as a spontaneous popular initiative on the internet the page got about 2 million likes in a few days; a record in Dutch Facebook history. However on Red Light Politics Flavia Dzodan shows something else is happening here:
I pointed out that contrary to media claims, the petition to leave Zwarte Piet unchanged was not a grassroots effort. The campaign was initiated by a marketing agency seeking to make a “test case” for their customers on the effective use of social media to gather public support. They are now advertising the campaign on their website as a “success” that proves their expertise on artificially influencing public opinion. Screen capture of this agency’s marketing (link here, but I am screencapping in case they change or remove it): in Dutch, a “portfolio” of this marketing agency’s customers where, at the bottom, there is a message in Dutch stating “The proof that social media works: from 0 to 720,000 “likes” in 20 hours”, followed by a link to the racist petition. (The number of “likes” at the time of this writing is at 2.1 million).
(screenshot via Red Light Politics)
The line at the bottom reads ‘Proof social media works. In 20 hours from 0 to 720.000 likes!’ This was also tweeted by the CEO of Xtra Digital Agency Chris Meeusen where Kevin van Boeckholtz and Bas Vreugde (who set up the FB page) work.
In a few interviews the initiators claim to be surprised by the overwhelming reactions which is plausible because in their wildest dreams they would not have guessed this becoming the most popular Dutch Facebook campaign so far. They work for Xtra Digital Agency; a firm that works on e-commerce, social marketing and online campaigns. Their apparent success is used again in their own marketing wherein they try to show how effective marketing on social media can be. Of course with them as the experts and kings of facebook marketing; Pietitie proofs just that under the guise of ‘saving Black Pete‘.
Below, in the comment section Bas Paternotte added a few interesting details (read the whole comment, including his questions). ThePostOnline (where BP publishes) calculated the media value of the FB page: 900.000euro. The value of the profiles of the people who like approach 25 million Euro. These sums of money cannot be cashed in immediately, but if they support a product on their page, this will be of value.
What is happening here is called commodifying dissent. Nothing new here of course except that commodification I think usually pertains to a process in which marketers commercially re-appropriate attitudes and practices that oppose status quo (such as aspects of popular culture). Here however a symbol, a practice, that is very much connected to the status quo of race relations, minority vs majority politics and racism in the Netherlands is used to sell a particular service: using social media for commercial ad campaigns. As said, Sinterklaas is a highly commercialized feast and it is not so surprising marketers step into the debate. Of course not as such but through a form of guerilla marketing commercial intentions are disguised by a mode of activism.
An important critique on commodifying dissent is that this type of dissent never opposes the status quo but reinforces it since the dissent becomes part of mainstream conformity and consumerism through its commodification. In this case it leads to exposure for a commercial agency that is, among other things, specialized in online campaigning. Furthermore as commidified dissent usually does, it strengthens that status quo. The strong conclusion by Flavia Dzodan is not surprising:
To sum it up, a business is making money out of enforcing anti Black racism and exploiting the legacy of slavery. And yet, two million people will willfully adhere to this campaign claiming it “represents them”, obviously ignoring that each time they support it, they are merely a number for a corporate enterprise to make $ out of the whole ordeal. Then, a rather significant number of those two million people will viciously attack anyone who opposes them either using the gaslighting described above or, when that doesn’t render the desired results (i.e. silencing opposition), sending open threats of violence (beatings, rape, “I will find you and teach you a lesson” etc etc).
The myth of tolerance in The Netherlands is nothing more than an empty word to hide abuse and terror for anyone who dares resist. The “tolerant” ones, either making money out of enforcing racism or hiding behind gaslighting and rhetoric violence, willing to say anything to maintain the status quo. This is what a culture of abuse looks like.
A challenge nevertheless?
One might wonder if the success of the Pietitie is not only an affirmation of the status quo but, despite my considerations made above, also of a growing challenge to that status quo. The debate about Black Pete is going on for years now, at least is far back as the beginning of the 1990s. The anti Black Pete activists and intellectuals have gained momentum for their cause, have been able to reach mainstream media albeit with considerable racist backlash and ridicule. But these strong counter-reactions are a sign of movement and success as well; in the past one could easily ridicule them and go on. And now, to the agony of many, the debate goes on and on. It does not go away and will not go away because there is a new generation of Dutch intellectuals who will not accept people telling them to just go away, go back where they came from and who claim to be part of the Netherlands and to have a say in how the Dutch moral community as much as the any other (white) intellectual.