Dutch race hate row engulfs presenter Sylvana Simons
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 here.
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. Ms Simons has been outspoken on racism, and has raised hackles by calling for the “decolonisation” of education and language use in the Netherlands.
But it was her criticism of the traditional festive character known as Black Pete that unleashed a backlash of death-threats 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.”