Who Are ‘The People’? Black Pete, Multiculturalism and the Struggle over Defining Dutchness

Accompanied by hundreds of police officers, Sinterklaas arrived in Maassluis at the beginning of November this year. While his tour throughout the picturesque town was broadcasted on national television (and attracted over two million viewers), the public news broadcasting station NOS kept everyone up to date on the presence of the riot squat, the protest groups and the arrests of activists by the police. What is supposed to be a festive tradition for children turned into an over-secured and over-regulated event. The Sinterklaas tradition and the controversial character of Black Pete continue to polarize Dutch society and the intensification of this polarization is worrisome not only in the light of the elections coming up on March 15th, but especially because expressing one’s opinion on the matter has by now become a dangerous act. Aside from police brutality against activists and insults and threats directed towards proponents of both sides of the debate, the issue recently received international attention when a video of Sylvana Simons (former Dutch TV presenter and currently politician who speaks out against racism and against the traditional image of Black Pete) circulated online, her face photo shopped onto the bodies of American lynching victims and on Black Pete characters.

Understandably, international media have paid attention to the issue as well, resulting in headlines emphasizing the damaging effects on “the image of the Netherlands as a liberal, tolerant country.” So how come that the imaginative character is so conflict-ridden? How come that it casts doubts on the image of the tolerant country of windmills, bikes, cheese and tulips? An article published by the BBC was circulated widely among those in my Facebook network and gave a brief explanation of why the Black Pete debate is creating a deep chasm in Dutch society. Shattering this myth of Dutch tolerance and peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society, the BBC quotes Simons who stated that “there is a limit to [her] Dutch citizenship if [she] express[es] an opinion that deviates from the norm.” Simons’ statements with regards to the Black Pete character have led those in favor of the character to put her in the Other-box together with the hypocrites, the migrants, the traitors and the foreigners[1] – it seems indeed that by taking a position on the issue she had to turn in her Dutch identification. As Stuart Hall writes: national identities “are formed and transformed within and in relation to representation.” (Hall 1995: 612) The character of Black Pete has become a signifier on which issues of multiculturalism and questions of inclusion and exclusion are inscribed.

Actively constructed symbolic boundaries serve to create like-minded communities whose members can now find comfort on social media platforms where the dominant discourse repeats itself like a mantra and feeds into the emotions triggered by the debate, widening the societal divide instead of attempting to bring people closer together. Studies of symbolic boundaries have shown how boundaries are drawn across different groups, in different contexts and at different levels, and explain how these can contribute to “creating, maintaining, contesting, or even dissolving institutionalized social differences” (Lamont and Molnar 2002:168).  Focussing on national identity in Australia, Timothy L. Phillips studies discourses within civil society to investigate the “set of symbolic codes categorizing the ‘Australian’ as against the ‘un-Australian’” (Phillips 1996: 115). He does so by using a fourfold model of symbolic boundaries of the national community to investigate how boundaries are constructed and who is in/excluded. Four categorizations distinguish on what side of the border people are: internal friends, internal enemies, external friends, and external enemies. This tacit knowledge of established boundaries, Phillips argues, shapes how people perceive and act towards “hotly contested national issues” that can “catalyse public discourse around national identity” (Phillips 1996:118). The Black Pete debate certainly is one of such issues, and while the issue has only reached widespread attention recently, the institution of the symbolic boundaries it echoes are far from novel as debates on multiculturalism and identity in the Netherlands are likely to have existed since the post-World War period where guest workers and people from former colonies set foot on Dutch soil (HWWI 2007).

In 2007 the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR 2007) published a report in which it describes that in the past decade processes of globalization, Europeanization, individualization and multiculturalization have contributed to the revival of the importance of the question of national identity. It concluded that the latter in particular “became the point of crystallization of the quest for a Dutch identity” (WRR 2007: 11). Frank Lechner (2007) in his study on Dutch national identity explains how, in the 1990s, there was a shift in the focus of integration policies which transitioned from focusing on “the well-being of individuals and their groups’ claim to distinction toward the needs of the nation as a political and cultural unit” (Lechner 2007: 362). In the same vein, the WRR report’s findings indicate that integration policies in the Dutch multicultural environment came to be presented as a “zero-sum game: migrants need to choose for the Netherlands and take distance from their home countries and other loyalties” (WRR 2007: 14). Jeffrey C. Alexander (2001), in his study on civil participation and multiculturalism notes that these sort of policies aim to impose ‘civilizing’ or ‘purifying’ processes that demand individuals to take distance from their ‘primordial qualities’. Described as an almost Goffmanian process, those in the process of assimilation are able to juggle between different acts depending on whether they dwell in the public or private realm: they can shift from being “‘different’ and ‘foreigners’ to being ‘normal’ and ‘one of us’” (Alexander 2001: 244). The WRR hypothesizes that this integration policy could have had counterproductive effects for findings show that many people do not always ‘feel at home in the Netherlands’, that there is a degree of social tension between ethnic groups and that there are incidents of withdrawal and radicalization – all contributing to a loss of trust in society as a whole.

Boundaries between Us and Them have thus grown stronger over the past couple of years and especially the opposition between what Phillips calls ‘internal friends’ and ‘internal enemies’ has attained a degree of fixity. Briefly looking over articles, interviews and videos after a random online search for multiculturalism and integration in the Netherlands indicates that the binary discourse around these social boundaries has long existed (see Alexander 1992). And throughout this time, culture has been central to the construction and maintenance of these boundaries for it produces identities and structures of meaning “through which individuals learn how to relate to themselves, others, and the world around them” (Giroux 2002: 353).

Considering a large part of Dutch society has now taken up the role as the protector of Dutch culture and identity, protector of certain sets of values and meanings, it is surprising to me that our Prime Minister attempts to avoid having to deal with this hot potato. During a press conference in 2013 Mark Rutte stated that “Black Pete is simply black, there is nothing I can do about this”, and during a press conference last year he again dismissed the issue by saying “guys… folk traditions… come on… What songs you sing, how you celebrate Christmas or Easter… That’s not what politics is about right?” But just before stating that politics is not about folklore, Rutte said something else. He did so while, in the same breath, acknowledging that while the debate might seem to revolve around an imaginative character it conceals societal issues the country struggles with at large “because Black Pete also came to represent a much deeper discussion on racism and discrimination.”

With the character of Black Pete at the focus of political mobilization, it is evident that forms of heritage – or culture in general – can move in and out of the political realm and can change from having an objective significance to becoming a, what Harrison calls, “touchstone around which people can muster their arguments and thoughts” (Harrison 2009: 191). Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher acknowledged this and, in an interview with Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland, indicated that it is the role of politicians to engage in moral leadership, to indicate in what directions society should move and that “the quality of democracy is also determined by how we deal with minorities.” Humberto Tan, a well-known presenter of one of the most popular late-night talk shows, equally indicated that especially now – with the intensification of the Black Pete debate, increased polarization of society, creating fertile ground for Wilders’ Freedom Party to find foothold – politicians “should be giving us moral leadership.”

While I am certainly worried about where the Black Pete debate will take us, I think it is important to understand that largely repressed issues have resurfaced in this debate that are crucial to discuss in order to be able to make multiculturalism a successful project. It is necessary to engage with new approaches that are able to create a society in which, instead living alongside each other, we learn to live with each other in a society where integration is no longer presented as a zero-sum game. This way, perhaps, Dutch multiculturalism can extend beyond the supermarket shelf and the inner-city snack bars it has been confined to.



Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2001. “Theorizing the ‘Mods of Incorporation’: Assimilation, Hyphenation, and Multiculturalism as Varieties of Civil Participation.” Sociological Theory 19(3): 238-249.

Giroux, Henry A. 2002. ‘Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics: Stuart Hall and the #Crisis# of Culture.’ Cultural Studies 14(2): 341-360.

Hall, Stuart. 1995. “The Question of Cultural Identity.” Pp. 596- 634 in Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Harrison, Rodney. 2009. “The Politics of Heritage.” Pp. 154-196 in Understanding the Politics of Heritage, edited by H. Rodney. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

HWWI. 2007. “Country Profile No.11: Netherlands.” Retrieved from: http://focusmigration.hwwi.de/typo3_upload/groups/3/focus_Migration_Publikationen/Laenderprofile/CP11_Netherlands.pdf

Lamont, Michèle and Virág Molnár. 2002. ‘The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences.’ Annual Review of Sociology 28: 167-95.

Lechner, Frank J. 2007. ‘Redefining National Identity: Dutch Evidence on Global Patterns’. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 48(4): 355-366

Phillips, Timothy L. 1996. ‘Symbolic Boundaries and National Identity in Australia.’ The British Journal of Sociology 47(1): 113-134.

WRR. 2007. Identificatie met Nederland. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

[1] On social media platforms, those who speak out against the traditional image of Black Pete are generally referred to in his way.


Post by Sam Hurulean, Header image via De Volkskrant.


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