Sylvana Simons got her start as a soul music VJ on the Dutch version of MTV. She went on to anchor the evening news in the Netherlands, and performed on the local version of Dancing with the Stars.
Simons, 45, is black and was born in the former Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America. Her family moved to the Netherlands when she was just one. She’s spoken out against the Dutch Christmas tradition of Black Pete, in which Santa’s helper is often played by a white person in blackface.
That prompted someone to make a satirical music video about her, in which dancers in blackface sing, “Oh Sylvana, why don’t you pack your bags and leave this country.” After that, someone photoshopped pictures of her face onto old archive photos of lynching victims from the American South.
“I’ve also received emails and written letters in which people described how they would like to see me killed, raped, burned alive,” Simons told reporters in a rare interview in early December. “It’s been an ongoing thing for the past two years.”
So Simons filed a police complaint, quit her media job — and went into politics.
“I have made this conscious decision to enter politics because I feel we are not just fighting racist people one by one,” Simons says. “What we need is a change of the system. We live in a system that has been designed hundreds of years ago, not to serve everybody, but to serve the dominant white race.”
Simons is running for parliament in the Dutch elections this March. At first, she announced her candidacy with a new Dutch political party called Denk, or “think.” It’s one of the first parties in Europe founded by recent immigrants to represent their interests.
Denk’s candidates include a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf, people of Turkish and Moroccan descent and black people like Simons. All of them say they’ve felt left out of Dutch politics, especially now that the far-right, anti-Muslim leader Geert Wilders is surging in the polls.
“People of color are not recognized as proper Dutch, and there is where the anger is, from people who are seen as second-class citizens, while they were born here,” says Sandew Hira, an economist and historian who leads the International Institute for Scientific Research, which studies colonialism and is based in The Hague.
Denk, founded two years ago by two Dutch-Turkish members of parliament, says it wants to establish a national racism register to track hate speech, build a slavery museum in the Netherlands and ban portrayals of Black Pete.
But the new party has already had some internal disputes.
Over the Christmas holiday, Simons announced a surprise split from Denk, to start her own party. She told the Dutch media she wants to widen her political platform to fight for gay rights and fair hiring practices, and that Denk’s other members weren’t receptive. Denk’s leaders did not reply to NPR’s request for comment.
Obstacles to integration
On a typical Sunday morning in a small Dutch town, parents cheer for their children on the sidelines of a youth soccer game. One of the dads points out his son playing for the visiting team, in blue jerseys.
“The blue team is from Haarlem, a bigger city, and the orange team is from [the smaller town of] Voldendam. If you look, the orange team, they’re only Dutch,” father Bulent Ozturk says. “And the blue team, they’re all foreign — Turkish and Moroccan kids, mainly.”
The Ozturk family has lived in the Netherlands for three generations, yet they still call themselves foreigners.
“I can’t explain what it means to be Dutch. Holland is a very small country. It doesn’t really have an identity,” Ozturk says. “You could easily be talking about German or Danish identity, because they’re similar. I guess you can start talking about windmills and clocks and tulips.”
Ozturk’s parents arrived from Turkey some 50 years ago, in the 1960s, as guest workers. At the time, Dutch companies were recruiting workers from rural parts of Morocco and Turkey.
“They came to do jobs that Dutch people wouldn’t like to do or they couldn’t find people to do. So they were very welcome,” Ozturk says. “But I don’t feel at home here anymore.”
He says he plans to vote for Denk in the country’s mid-March election.
“It’s a shame that we don’t vote on a political basis, but on a race basis,” Ozturk says, shaking his head.
About a million of Holland’s 17 million citizens are immigrants or their children or grandchildren — a potentially powerful group at the polls.