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DEBATING ZWARTE PIET ONLINE

An Exploration of the Zwarte Piet Debate on Twitter

 

“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned,
Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes,
Until the basic human rights are guaranteed to all, without regard to race, […]
Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven,
Until that day, the African continent will not know peace.”

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, General Assembly, 1963

 

HOW IT GOT STARTED

We are two students in the MA African Studies at Leiden University. As part of the course "Language and Communication in Africa", we decided to dedicate this website to the exploration of the debate on Zwarte Piet that has recently been re-activited on Twitter in 2019.

With this blog, we aim at identifying trends in the way Zwarte Piet is portrayed and debated online and at presenting how social media can contribute to the decolonization of such a tradition. We want to shine light on the ways the online and physical world are fundamentally intertwined.

Lastly, and most importantly, we intend at participating to the wider discussion on the skewed representation of Africa and Africans in Western culture and media. Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature which ought to be questioned.


Welcome to our blog -  Enjoy our writing - Keep the debate going. 

 
 
 
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#1 Talking about Racism in the Netherlands

Updated: Dec 6, 2019

Pointing Racism Out in the Netherlands


Across Europe, the Netherlands is perceived as an open-minded and welcoming territory. The Dutch display and try to sustain this tolerant image. However, despite this innocent appearance, like most of Europe, the Netherlands is a country dealing with a past of colonization, deeply rooted racism that is not enough talked about in the civil society and in institutions and a growing xenophobic popularism across regions.

Experience has shown that is it when these elements are not fully acknowledged that racism can develop with ease and directly affect people. Under the guise of secularism and the defense of Western national identities, racist or discriminative practices are justified and even legally formalized.

Let us take one recent example. On August 1st, 2019, a burqa ban was applied in the Netherlands. Any form of face coverings is forbidden on public transport and in public buildings. Unsurprisingly, it follows years of rampant islamophobia. And, it was directly criticized by Tendayi Achiume, the UN racism expert, in October[1]. Indeed, it constitutes an offense to gender equality and a racist attack. Yet, it still reached the Dutch law.

If this example shows the application of systematic and institutional racism, it must be noted that it is not a singular event. All over the Netherlands, decolonization is still an ongoing process.


The Decolonization Debate


Decolonization is often understood as this historical process of emancipation of colonies from the colonial metropolis and of dismantlement of colonial empires, that occurred after World War II and that is still current with cases like Hong Kong or Puerto Rico. It is a process that takes different forms – from wars to political negotiations. And, it should theoretically end with the independence of the country or state and the termination of oppression and interference.

Nevertheless, this concept of decolonization has taken a broader meaning in the contemporary era. Indeed, since the publication of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature in 1986, decolonization describes a wider phenomenon. It is about an active process of resisting to, challenging and undoing a deeply rooted colonial mindset that is a legacy of the history of exclusion and racism. This mindset continues oppressing minorities and the descendants of colonized communities and disseminates a Euro-centric view of the world through institutions (be they universities, governmental institutions or media for instance).

The pervasive racism Europe is facing today is a by-product of this legacy. In that sense, when organizations are fighting for anti-racism, they are addressing decolonization and attempting at changing this closed Euro-centric perception of the world by deconstructing stereotypes and advocating for inclusive systems. Since the past few years, this fight has been notably vivid online.


The Power of the Online World for Decolonization


Decolonization takes a new dimension when taken online, and especially on social media. Nowadays, with the increasing digitalization of the world, the Internet affects more people than it ever did. People are relying on the internet and on social media to get and produce information. Social media also have a growing importance in the lives of people. They mean something to them and shape the way they live on a daily basis.

For decolonization, social media enable the popularization of the concept and the emergence of new debates. They have become useful and powerful tools for the advocacy of decolonization and anti-racism.

For instance, on November 19th, 2019, the #stopracism was trending in the Netherlands, after the national soccer team issued an anti-racist statement, following a racist incident in Den Bosch. The player Ahmed Mendes Moreira, from the Excelsior Rotterdam, was then victim of racist slurs, which stopped the game for a few minutes. According to the player, the insults were referring to Zwarte Piet, the black sidekick of Sinterklaas[2].

This trending hashtags enabled people to discuss the issue online and share ideas. It enabled people to talk about racism in a country that is mainly avoiding the topic. It is exactly what is interesting with the online world and social media. Social media give a space for controversial and taboo issues to be discussed and debated. But, of course, the rules and the impacts of the discussion and debate differ greatly from their physical form because of the nature of the medium used.


[1] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/racism-expert-slams-dutch-burqa-ban-191007185707738.html

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/08/01/europe/netherlands-burqa-ban-scli-intl/index.html


[2] https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2019/11/dutch-national-football-team-takes-social-media-stand-against-racism/

https://www.rtbf.be/sport/football/etranger/pays-bas/detail_le-parquet-neerlandais-enquete-sur-un-incident-raciste-en-d2-sur-la-pelouse-de-den-bosch?id=10368375



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