This past December Potsdam’s Dutch quarter hosted a Sinterklaas celebration that involved Zwarte Piet characters in blackface. Though the organizers were made aware of the controversial issue and alternative proposals were made by various bodies, the organizers refused to abandon the racist practice. It soon became clear that the local and international critique of blackfacing had to be taken into consideration and Potsdam’s local authorities had to react. As a follow-up to the protests against the continuation of this debatable tradition, Potsdam bekennt Farbe, a local alliance for tolerance, non-violence and peacefulness, invited a number of local politicians, the organizers of the Sinterklaas celebrations, initiatives and organizations opposing racist practices to come together and find solutions. We welcomed our invitation to the table and the city’s interest in finding ways to not only address racism but to outspokenly act against it.
Unfortunately, so far neither Potsdam’s mayor Jann Jakobs, nor the organizers of the Sinterklaas celebrations, Förderverein zur Pflege niederländischer Kultur in Potsdam e. V. (organization for the maintenance of Dutch culture), have joined these discussions, though Mr Jakobs did meet with some members of organisations in private sessions. In spite of their absence, the other actors exchanged their differing, rather two-sided opinions during the months that have passed. The goal is to change demands into actions, but consensuses are still hard to find.
On the one hand, there are voices – we are among them – emphasizing that racism is a historically grown phenomenon that can be traced back to the earliest days of colonialism. It once served to enslave other people, to treat them as less than human and it still serves as a guarantor of white privileges. The Zwarte Piet character, who is actually (white) Sinterklaas’ servant, is a clear reflection of colonial-racist domination. The racist practice of blackfacing has a long tradition in Germany, in spite of which it is often argued to be unoffending, because offense was not intended. However, only in the last couple of years, many instances of blackfacing have reached public attention and well-deserved critique for their harmful reproduction of degrading sterotypes: Günther Wallraff’s impersonation of a refugee, ZDF’s famous show “Wetten, dass…” invited white people to dress up as Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver, a whole range of mocking carnival costumes, etc. Blackfacing is a form to stage race and, at the same time, to produce race. It is dangerous if the only public images of Black people are negative, laughable and degrading. White audiences might mistake the blackface performance for real blackness.
Racism as a form of common knowledge is reproduced in various other domains as well: It is strongly anchored in school curricula (history or geography classes still talk about “discoveries” of New Worlds as if these areas had previously been unpopulated). Racism and socially and culturally ingrained discrimination still show their ugly faces in instances of racial profiling, limited access to housing for people of colour and in representations in the media. Or, in the case of the Zwarte Piet figure and the Sinterklaas celebration in the city of Potsdam, in the practice of blackfacing. To move towards postcolonial justice on an institutional level, a politics of recognition and to propagate equality rather than exclusion, there is a clear demand to assess in advance that public events are free of discriminatory aspects and if they are not, hold them legally responsible.
On the other hand, however, some people who sat on the table with us are still convinced that affronting the Dutch guests, who come to Potsdam for the celebration, by changing their traditions would be a much worse offense than discriminating against Potsdam’s own Black community and Black visitors. Explanations that traditions are never static, but are constantly changing and evolving to meet demands of a similarly changing society were repeatedly dismissed by these people. No mind was paid to the fact that the Sinterklaas celebration has already majorly changed in the course of the last 150 years, as becomes, for example, obvious when one regards that allusions to child punishment in case of their bad behaviour have been removed from the mythology of the celebration without eliciting responses that called this an affront to the tradition.
The alleged offending of the Dutch guests clearly dismisses the presence of a multiplicity of voices in the discussion culture of the Netherlands and speaks of an antiquated perception of Dutch society as homogeneously white and also completely in favour of the blackfacing tradition. There is an admittedly large on-going support for a continuation of the blackfacing tradition in the Netherlands, but major voices from the Black community and well beyond have spoken out against it and have caused a discussion on all levels of society. Results of this discussion have been modified appearances of Piet during Sinterklaas celebrations in Gouda and an increased awareness of the discriminatory nature of the Zwarte Piet figure among many people who had previously not considered the repercussions for people of colour.
One argument which seems to blind people for questions of justice is the celebration’s economic benefit for Potsdam and a fear that the celebrations would have to end altogether if the blackfacing act would be discontinued. As instances in the Netherlands and other communities around the globe, as for example in Suriname, Canada and the United States have shown, this fear is completely unfounded. In the discussions and in a letter to the celebration’s organisers we repeatedly stressed that we had no interest in putting a stop to the Sinterklaas celebration in general and instead welcomed the intercultural event, and had found fault only with the figure of Zwarte Piet and his framing. An issue that was unfortunately not adequately transmitted to and by local press and consequently many of Potsdam’s citizens have the false idea that activists would want to put an end to the popular event.
We concluded that many of these discussions strongly showed a great insecurity in dealing with racism which is – taking some liberties by making assumptions – most probably the consequence of a lack of knowledge and possibly even empathy. This is, to some extent, understandable, because a person who represents the norm, who unquestionably obtains civil rights, who is used to being listened to, who has never been denied a job because of his or her whiteness etc. does not have the experience of being racially oppressed and has never questioned their privilege because it is invisible to them. The mechanisms of racist discrimination are often subtle and difficult to dismantle. A few issues that re-appeared often during the discussions where questions about who was allowed to define racism. Another recurring question was whether it was the intention or the effect of an action that mattered more. Additionally, the reluctance to actually agree that blackfacing was a racist practice repeatedly popped up.
Political and cultural bodies have had to address racism extensively and academic discussions have provided definitions, which, if taken as basis for the discussions in Potsdam, would help to clarify and lessen insecurities when dealing with the topic. Many of the proponents of a traditional Sinterklaas celebration mistake their personal belief in equality and their disapproval of racism by the likes of right-wing agitators and Neo-Nazis as a protection against possibly supporting racist practises. What they fail to see is the structural character of racism in which one cannot but become entangled in its destructive practises of discrimination and the granting of privilege. Neither guilt nor denial are therefore beneficial responses. Rather, an awareness for and a need to actively dismantle and change the structures which reproduce racism are called for.
The alliance Potsdam bekennt Farbe has suggested organising an event that would address the question of whether blackfacing is actually racist or not to regain the Sinterklaas celebration’s organisers’ interest in the conversation. We feel that questioning whether blackfacing is racist and organising such an event for a majorly white audience misses the point of the criticism completely. It dismisses the validity of the criticism by People of Colour and does not address the elementary question of structural racism.
At the moment it is unclear what form the celebration will take in 2015. We hope that the city of Potsdam will refuse to continue to fund festivities that include and reinforce racist and discriminatory practices. We do, however, wholeheartedly support a Sinterklaas festivity that addresses changes and challenges of the 21st century and commits itself to doing away with remnants of more explicitly racist times. The most promising and positive development of the roundtable discussions is an actual written proposition for anti-discriminatory legal requirements for anyone conducting public events. Potsdam’s administration declares its interest in it – even though bureaucratic processes can, apparently, not be accelerated and are long winding and difficult to follow for laypersons. If this legal amendment came to pass, Potsdam could not only be proud of itself, it could actually be the forerunner for many other cities by taking such innovative steps toward social justice!
Potsdam, do you want to be known for your riches built on partly racist celebrations or do you want to be known for your innovative legislation and actually lived tolerance and respect?