Dutch race hate row en­gulfs pre­sen­ter Syl­vana Si­mons

Malta Independent - - WORLD -

The images of a black Dutch TV pre­sen­ter’s face su­per-im­posed on the hanged bod­ies of vic­tims of a lynch­ing are too nau­se­at­ing to look at. And yet a video fea­tur­ing the mocked-up pic­tures has been widely cir­cu­lated on­line in the Nether­lands.

Syl­vana Si­mons has for years been a fa­mil­iar pres­ence on Dutch TV and ra­dio, and the at­tack on her has high­lighted a de­bate bub­bling in­side the Nether­lands far re­moved from its rep­u­ta­tion as a lib­eral tol­er­ant na­tion.

A for­mer pre­sen­ter on tal­ent show Danc­ing with the Stars, she re­cently joined the po­lit­i­cal party “Denk” (Think) and is run­ning in the next elec­tion.

But it was her crit­i­cism of the tra­di­tional fes­tive char­ac­ter known as Black Pete that un­leashed a back­lash of deaththreats and misog­y­nis­tic, racist abuse, which quickly es­ca­lated from un­pleas­ant to out­right shock­ing.

The video that cir­cu­lated on­line also fea­tured a song en­ti­tled “Oh Syl­vana” in­clud­ing the lines “why don’t you pack your bags... why don’t you go and em­i­grate”. But the song-writ­ers in­sist it was a party an­them about a Rus­sian wo­man and noth­ing to do with Syl­vana Si­mons.

The self-pro­claimed cre­ator of the video has now handed him­self in to po­lice, but the sen­ti­ment among a small but sig­nif­i­cant sec­tion of so­ci­ety ap­pears to be - if you ques­tion our tra­di­tions then you are fair game.

When a foot­ball show host sug­gested that Syl­vana was “run­ning around proud as a mon­key”, a col­league sug­gested he had meant to use the phrase “proud as a pea­cock”. But he was adamant: “No, she doesn’t look like a pea­cock.” Then a fa­mous ra­dio pre­sen­ter played go­rilla grunts on air and said “be quiet, Syl­vana”.

For many Dutch peo­ple Black Pete is an in­no­cent chil­dren’s char­ac­ter, a side­kick to St Ni­cholas, steeped in nos­tal­gia and an­nual fes­tiv­i­ties that cul­mi­nate on 5 De­cem­ber. For oth­ers he is an of­fen­sive car­i­ca­ture that per­pet­u­ates racist stereo­types that hark back to slav­ery.

The de­bate about Black Pete en­cap­su­lates a much broader anx­i­ety felt by those afraid of the chang­ing nature of their na­tion.

For San­dra Vi­o­lin, whose son dressed up as Black Pete at a pa­rade in The Hague, it is a tra­di­tion purely for chil­dren.

“He’s so proud to dress up like this. Ev­ery kid wants to be Black Pete. He’s just funny and gives out candy. Peo­ple shouldn’t turn it into some­thing neg­a­tive.”

But Hum­berto Tan, an em­i­nent Dutch-Suri­namese pre­sen­ter of one of this coun­try’s most pop­u­lar late-night talk shows, dis­agrees. “It’s cre­ated a chasm and I de­spise chasms.”

“I’m for the chang­ing of Black Pete. But when you say that, peo-

ple feel as though you’re at­tack­ing them, their coun­try, their child­hood.”

Hum­berto Tan says he has been sub­jected to racist com­ments and even death threats.

“It’s the politi­cians’ fault too. Our prime min­is­ter said ‘Black Pete is Black Pete’. They should be giv­ing us moral lead­er­ship but they’re afraid it will cost them votes.”

Geert Wilders has be­come one of the Nether­lands’ most pop­u­lar politi­cians, and he has po­si­tioned him­self as pro­tec­tor of Dutch cul­ture.

An anti-im­mi­gra­tion, anti-Is­lam pop­ulist, he is cur­rently on trial ac­cused of hate speech. In court on Wed­nes­day, he gave an im­pas­sioned speech and ar­gued it was un­ac­cept­able for the Dutch to be con­sid­ered racist for want­ing Black Pete “to re­main black”.

The best thing for Ms Si­mons, he tweeted, would be pro­tec­tion from her­self and for her po­lit­i­cal party to be dis­banded.

Quinsy Gario was ar­rested in 2011 for stag­ing a silent protest at a Black Pete pa­rade and be­lieves the hate di­rected to­wards Syl­vana Si­mons is noth­ing new. Only the tools of in­tim­i­da­tion are evolv­ing.

“There is a his­tory of black politi­cians be­ing ha­rassed and told to shut up,” he says.

“Ev­ery­thing that de­vi­ates from ‘white be­hav­iour’ is seen as threat­en­ing and some­thing that needs to be ex­punged in the most vi­cious word­ing pos­si­ble.

“The dif­fer­ence with the US or Bri­tain is that th­ese hate groups have un­til now been clan­des­tine, in the Nether­lands white su­prem­a­cist hate has al­ways been open and col­lec­tive.”

Syl­vana Si­mons was 18 months old when her fam­ily moved from the for­mer Dutch colony of Suri­name in Latin Amer­ica to the Nether­lands.

While she has no mem­ory of her coun­try of birth and con­sid­ers her­self Dutch, she told Trouw newspaper: “I no­tice there is a limit to my Dutch cit­i­zen­ship if I ex­press an opin­ion that de­vi­ates from the norm.”

Ap­pear­ing on a talk show this week, she told of how her chil­dren had seen the sick­en­ing video images of her head in a noose on so­cial me­dia. Her fam­ily had re­ceived threats, she said, and one per­son on In­sta­gram had threat­ened to burn her alive.

She has vowed to fight back by tack­ling racism through her po­lit­i­cal party.

But Hum­berto Tan is wor­ried about where the de­bate is head­ing.

“Lynch­ing from a tree, slav­ery in the US? I fear the pin­na­cle hasn’t been reached yet. I’m afraid of the tone of the dis­cus­sions.

“Peo­ple are en­raged on both sides. We need to stay cool in our heads and warm in our hearts.”

The al­ter­na­tive, he says, does not bear think­ing about.

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