Emotions in the Netherlands in the first week of July 2014 were not only stirred up by the achievements of the Dutch football squad in Brazil but also by the visit of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent to the Netherlands, the presentation of the Annual Report on the Dutch human rights situation by the National Human Rights Institute (College voor de Rechten van de Mens) and by a judgment of the Amsterdam District Court. The common feature of the statement by the UN Working Group, the NHRI’s Annual Report and the District Court’s judgment was their reference to the “Black Pete” figure – the black servant of a white bishop, curiously descending from Turkey but now residing in Spain, and responsible for the annual delivery of children’s gifts on Saint Nicholas’ Eve (5 December) – as an inherently racist phenomenon.
Several commentators characterized this reference as an “overstreched” interpretation of human rights standards, in particular the prohibition of racial discrimination, given the “harmless” character of the annual Saint Nicholas events as a “childrens’ feast”. Indeed, many associate the term “racism” with a belief in racial superiority or deliberate acts of discrimination. And of course, it is difficult to see Saint Nicholas events, featuring Black Petes, as deliberate acts of discrimination. However, sometimes even deeply rooted cultural events may – unintentionally – involve forms of negative stereotyping or prejudices about people on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity. In the international debates on racism this is often called ‘casual racism’. Unlike overt and intentional acts of racism, casual racism isn’t often intended to cause offence or harm.
Doesn’t the lack of intent mean that casual racism isn’t really racism? One of the obstacles to having an open discussion about race is the tendency to downplay things as not “truly” or “really” racist. Such an attitude holds the risk of emboldening or encouraging prejudice. Racism is as much about impact as it is about intention. Acts of casual racism can marginalise, denigrate or humiliate those who experience it. Harm can occur even if conduct isn’t motivated by hate or malice.
It isn’t that difficult to imagine that the annual Saint Nicholas events involving groups of black servants (with frizzy hair and golden earrings) to a white male may remind certain groups in Dutch society of the era of colonialism and slavery. We should acknowledge that this at least can reinforce social barriers and can be experienced as an attack on the dignity of black people as an equal member of society.
It may be difficult to “prove” the link between Black Pete and the actual occurrence of prejudiced or discriminatory decisions regarding persons with a black or coloured skin. However, the experience of the Dutch NHRI in complaint procedures on the basis of the General Equal Treatment Act clearly indicates that discriminatory decisions against black persons – for instance concerning access to the labour market or entrance to bars and night clubs – are not uncommon in the Netherlands. Therefore, when it comes to shaping the form of Dutch cultural traditions we shouldn’t forget about those who are on the receiving end of discrimination. I would argue that on the basis of Articles 2(2) and 7 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination the Dutch government and local authorities have the obligation to take into account that cultural events do not incur forms of negative stereotyping that may harm members of certain groups in Dutch society.
The Amsterdam district court came to the same conclusion, although it took a slightly different route to reach it. The case concerned the permit for the annual Saint Nicholas parade given by the local authorities in the city of Amsterdam. Whereas the Amsterdam mayor had argued that a decision on this permit should be taken solely on public security grounds, the district court considered that a broader perspective was necessary. Referring to a decision of the European Court of Human Rights (Aksu v. Turkey), the district court considered that 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 concluded that in this sense such stereotyping can be seen as affecting the private life of members of the group (which is protected by Article 8 ECHR) and ordered the local authorities of Amsterdam to take this aspect into account when deciding on the permit.