In 2011, performance artist and poet, Quinsy Gario (thirty-two), was arrested for public disturbance in the city of Dordrecht in the Netherlands for protesting at the traditional annual Sinterklaas parade. There he stood amongst others including, a journalist, two academics, and a couple of supporters, protesting against the fictional character of “Zwarte Piet” by wearing a self-made t-shirt written “Zwarte Piet is Racism.” Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a blackfaced figure known as the servant-helper of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). He functions as a Dutch equivalent to Santa Claus, except that this old-white-bearded-man comes earlier than Christmas day bringing along with him more trouble than gifts, a colonial holdover masked with sweets.
His “Zwarte Piet is Racism” protest quickly gathered support from activists, academics, documentary makers, and performance artists, inside and outside the country, catching the attention of even the United Nations. Quinsy says that at first it received such large attention, not because of the absurdity of his news-making arrest but a photo picked by the country’s most popular newspaper, Telegraaf Media Groep (TMG), that referred to him as a “laying-on-the-ground Piet.” That inappropriate and arrogant way of poking fun at an issue of racism and police violence represents the brush-over-the-shoulder attitude many in the Netherlands have towards the experiences of people of color.
Often, this attitude is of direct denial and accusation; one that I also got to personally experience while in the Netherlands. I remember once asking a member of staff if it was possible to talk to someone about removing the blackfaced decorations from the cafeteria of the international college I attended. Without any politeness, I was faced with fierce objection: “They will stay where they are, this is our tradition.” From then on, I started to take notice that when a person of color decides to speak up, it is often perceived as something aggressive, an overreaction to Dutch culture. “If you are offended, it’s because you want to feel offended,” said the cafeteria lady, walking away red-faced, concluding the end of our discussion.
This Dutch cultural tradition often prescribes that no one and especially people of color should dare say that Zwarte Piet is offensive. This is because, “Oh, it’s only a tradition!” and “Oh, but he is only black because he fell in the chimney!” and “Ah, why would you ruin such an innocent tradition, what about the children?!”
Quinsy recognized this Dutch overprotection of Zwarte Piet in the wave of hate he received after the protest, which he claims was “astonishing and at times, just as intended, paralyzing.” In his account, he explains this perception of aggressiveness regarding the 2011 Zwarte Piet protest arrest in a nutshell:
What was also bizarre about the incident is that afterwards the police department tried to justify it [the arrest] by saying that “we could have become dangerous.” This assessment was based simply on the fact of our black skin and the proximity of Siri and Steffi to blackness because they had been seen with us. In the country where racist columns are printed as if they’re normal, my t-shirt, which had the word racism on it, was deemed “dangerous.” When looking at the current debate around police brutality and ethnic profiling, our arrest in Dordrecht in 2011 was ahead of its time.
Despite his public protest, Quinsy eschews the label of activist, seeing himself more as a performance artist and poet working within a larger movement of people pushing for social progress:
For me, it’s the youth workers who talk to kids and empower them that are my heroes; it’s the social workers who go into homes and work with families who are developing better communities; it’s the politicians who listen to their constituents and fight for them through policy changes or laws that make a difference; it’s the academics who analyze the society we’re in and give us tools to better articulate what we’re going through, who are pushing the envelop. I’m a cog in that system, but wouldn’t be talking to you if all that around me weren’t happening as well.
As an artist, he explains that he has an inclusive goal for his performances:
I want to get them activated and animated. I want them to leave the space and wonder what they can do themselves. How are they going to take what I shared with and change something in their daily lives. The worst thing that could happen is that somebody leaves the room thinking, “That was nice.” No, my work is explicitly about transformation and communicating the necessity for inclusive thinking.
Quinsy leverages his performance space “to push and twist worldviews, turning minds upside down. That freedom is what I love about what I do.”
In Europe’s climate of immigration, terrorism and xenophobic paranoia, Quinsy is a rare voice calling for self examination and unity. Ayiba’s Q&A with him, printed in part below, exposes the Netherlands regressive affinity for tradition and its direct human impact.
How does Zwarte Piet tie into contemporary Dutch public opinion on topics like immigration and racism?
Zwarte Piet is seen as something so quintessentially Dutch that people don’t want to give it up. The idea of blackening oneself up or the images that are simply everywhere from the end of October until the beginning of December is so ingrained in so many people’s understanding of Dutchness that letting that go is seen and felt as an actual material loss. The historian John Helsloot has written about that sense of loss and calls it “cultural aphasia.” Not exactly the postcolonial melancholia that Paul Gilroy has written about, but slightly more unfeeling towards those who see and feel differently about the figure and Dutch society and history.
In that sense, this concept of unfeeling is very much present when talking about immigration and racism. If somebody from the dominant culture doesn’t feel it, it doesn’t exist. If somebody from the dominant culture has not written about it it’s not important knowledge. The joke used to be that the Netherlands had sixteen million head coaches for the national football team—that should be changed to twelve and half million racism experts.
Dutch society is known and acclaimed for having a history of “tolerance.” Do you think those accolades are merited?
No. I think the Netherlands has been extremely effective in convincing itself and the world that its pragmatic approach to social issues was “tolerance.” […]
What we’re seeing is that the understanding of bodies is all about usefulness and productiveness. Once a body is deemed not useful anymore or not useful at the onset it will be tied up in so many bureaucratic loopholes to frustrate living to the fullest. The response to migrants and refugees fits into a historic response that the Dutch have always had, ‘What’s in it for me?’ When the Sephardic Jews, like Spinoza, came over, only the ones with money got in. All the others were turned away. The global financial and economic market as we know it today was pioneered by the Dutch and the East India Company where ordinary citizens could buy shares of and thus receive dividends based on the terrorization, subjugation, and oppression of other nations. The Dutch were the first slave traders and perfected the trade routes. There’s nothing historic about Dutch “tolerance.” No, let me rephrase that. The only thing historic about Dutch “tolerance” is that it’s been able to sell itself and the Western world that lie for the better part of four hundred years.
How has your color and immigrant background growing up in a predominantly white and Dutch environment influenced your opinion of Zwarte Piet?
Well, that’s the thing. I grew up in a predominantly black and Caribbean environment. I came to the Netherlands in 2002 to study at the University of Utrecht. And during those crucial teenage formative years I was surrounded by a variety of images of the possibilities for black people. On St. Maarten black people were the business leaders, the politicians, the medical professionals, the artists, the television presenters, the teachers, the bus drivers, the hotel managers. You name it and I could see a representation of myself as a person of color. I could see people who looked like me in positions of power.
When I moved to the Netherlands that wide range of visual imagery of the possibilities for people of color in this country fell by the wayside. Whiteness surrounds you from almost all sides and pretends to be invisible. After getting involved through my Zwarte Piet Is Racism art project I was lucky enough to be pointed towards empowering imagery and histories of people of color here in the Netherlands. Now I’m working towards making those images and histories mainstream.