Dutch race hate row engulfs presenter Sylvana Simons

By Anna Holligan
BBC News, The Hague

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Sylvana Simons was a well-known broadcaster on Dutch TV and radio before she entered politics

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".

Sensitive issue

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.

Image source, Anna Holligan
Image caption,
Black Pete parades are still held in The Hague (above) but they have been replaced in Amsterdam by "Chimney Petes"

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

Read more about Black Pete in the Netherlands

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."

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Image caption,
Humberto Tan believes politicians have failed to provide moral leadership

"I'm for the changing of Black Pete. But when you say that, people 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 South America to the Netherlands.

Image source, Twitter
Image caption,
Appearing on Dutch talk show Pauw this week, Sylvana Simons said one of the reasons she was going into politics was to "tackle the system - racism is a system"

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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