~ By Marvin Hokstam ~
AMSTERDAM–University of the West Indies (UWI) professor Verene Shepherd who in 2013 spoke out against the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete), revealed over the weekend that she has since then continuously been the target of hate mail from people in the Netherlands who oppose changes to the embattled blackface character. Speaking at a Human Rights Day event organised by United Nations (UN) Jamaica on Sunday, she said that at a certain moment there was so much mail coming in for her that it crashed the university’s servers.
Shepherd was speaking as a former member of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD), when she blatantly said at the end of a visit to the Netherlands in 2013 that Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype of black people.
Vile cyber-racism addressed to Shepherd after she spoke out against Zwarte Piet.
In the Sinterklaas tradition, Zwarte Piet, who is supposed to be the black-faced helper of St. Nicholas, is played by white people who use black paint or heavy black makeup to blacken their skin and wear curly wigs, accented red lips and large earrings. The explanation is that his skin turns black from the soot from chimneys he climbs through to deliver gifts for children. Black people, of course, find that ridiculous as one’s skin colour does not turn fully black from climbing through chimneys. Furthermore, opponents have pointed out, the memory of this character is tied to the colonial history of the Netherlands, as the nature of the relationship between Black Pete and St. Nicholas is one of servitude and inferiority of blacks to whites.
“He is not just a nice, jolly man. Maybe at the outset of the ‘Sinterklaas’ [Santa Claus – Ed.] tradition people did not realise that people of African descent would have problems with it, but this is the 21st century and people have indicated that they have a problem with it. Then it is time to talk about a change,” she said then.
The response was immediate, harsh and laced with racism and with contempt from white Dutch people for the outspoken black UN envoy. Dutch people who revere Zwarte Piet as a treasured tradition voiced their disagreement with Shepherd in the vilest ways. She was told to mind her own business and stay out of theirs.
At the Human Rights Day event last week Sunday she said that her position had not changed. “The Zwarte Piet/Black Pete Christmas celebration that is supposed to be a children’s festival, teaches children racism from an early age,” she said.
She told her audience that she continued to be abused via the Internet by people in the Netherlands, and showed a series of slides of the types of letter in which she had been assaulted with racial slurs and images in which she had been ridiculed, some as recent as October 2017. “This image in which I have been ‘blackpietized’ speaks volumes. But I guess I am in good company, based on these images in European media,” she said as her audience watched in disbelief as she showed images that portrayed former US President Barack Obama, his wife Michele Obama, and French Guiana-born Christiane Taubira, the former French Minister of Justice, as monkeys.
Shepherd said that there was a time shortly after she spoke out in 2013, that she would get as many as 80 letters every day from people in the Netherlands. “My email account at the university had to be closed down for about two years because it crashed the system,” she grinned.
Shepherd’s speech did not just touch on the Zwarte Piet matter. As it was Human Rights Day on December 10, she also addressed other examples of what she called “the global environment in which we live today and the racist practices that still endure.” She mentioned cases that she worked on in Canada, Portugal, Sweden and Australia. “Australia and Canada are two countries that have been lauded for their multicultural and open-arms policies and strategies,” she said. She also spoke of the persecution of the Rohinhya people of Myanmar, the ongoing modern slavery practices that have been discovered in Libya and even broached the subject of discrimination in her native Jamaica.
Slide that portrays Shepherd as Zwarte Piet and former US President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and former French Minister Taubira as monkeys.