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Happy Blackface Season!

November 12, 2011

This Saturday marked the arrival of Sinterklaas in The Netherlands. Sinterklaas, a holiday celebrated on December 5th, has long been The Netherlands’ biggest gift-giving holiday. In the weeks leading up to it, the figure of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas, historically associated with the Bishop of Myra) arrives in the country and, in the nighttime, visits people’s homes to leave little presents and special seasonal treats. Sint, however, does not travel alone: he has a large entourage of Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters), characters dressed in colorful 19th century costumes and (wait for it) blackface.


While you take a moment to compose yourself, let me tell you a little about my history. I’m as Dutch as they come. I was raised in The Netherlands, by Dutch parents. Sinterklaas was a major event throughout my childhood. On the day of Sinterklaas’ arrival, we would watch the televised parade and then go to our local one. Several nights a week, we would leave our shoes near the chimney, sing songs for Sinterklaas, leave a carrot for his horse, and rush down in the mornings utterly delighted with the prospect of treats and little gifts. On the evening of the 5th of December, we would spend time singing more songs until suddenly,  there would come a knock on the window. Screeching, we’d run outside and discover that there was a big bag of presents sitting outside. Even as an adult, I often have the televised arrival parade on in the background, I’ll put treats outside my flatmates’ doors in the middle of the night, and my family still exchanges gifts around December 5th. I love the tradition of Sinterklaas to an embarrassing degree. Realizing the racist connotations of Zwarte Piet has not in any way soured this love; the response when I speak out against it, however, has. Criticism of the depiction of Zwarte Piet is not accepted in general (I should say, White) Dutch society.

Any American (and I’d wager anyone not Dutch) would immediately understand that the depiction of Zwarte Piet is stereotypicalcaricatural (is that even a word? It should be), and racist*. The afro wigred lips, and big gold hoop earrings are all incredibly reminiscent of minstrelsy. The comparison stops there, as the American and Dutch histories with slavery are so very different, but the superficial similarities in depiction definitely remain. But the Dutch will defend themselves with a variety of arguments: Zwarte Piet is not really black, he’s just blackened by soot from the chimney which he travels through to deliver presents; Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’ friend, equal in every way, so it can’t possibly be problematic; it’s tradition; children love the character, so this depiction won’t be harmful in real life; I know a Black person who doesn’t mind, so it can’t be a problem. And if any of these arguments fail to convince whoever is speaking out against Sinterklaas, they’ll be told that they’re acting ridiculously, that they hate joy, that they want to take away childrens’ happiness, that they want to slaughter our culture and tradition, that they simply don’t understand, that maybe they themselves are racist, that The Netherlands’ history with race and slavery is different than that of other countries (better than other countries’) and that therefore it’s just not problematic. These latter allegations can be found in almost all comments to any blog about Zwarte Piet and racism. Just do a wee Google search and let your mind boggle.

I know I won’t have to convince any American readers that Zwarte Piet is very problematic. But perhaps this post will one day be read by a Dutch person and will help them think through the issues surrounding Zwarte Piet. It’s for that reason that I’ll try to deconstruct and disarm some of the arguments against Zwarte Piet’s racism.

 Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’ friend and equal
Though there are many different stories about the origins of Zwarte Piet (developed from the character of a devil, the raven familiar of a Norse god, and a slave, to name but a few), there are many issues surrounding the relationship between Piet and Sinterklaas that cannot be denied. Though in recent years Sint’s behavior towards Piet has certainly become more balanced, he can still often be seen and heard scolding his Pieten and their silly behavior, telling them to perform certain actions, mocking them gently. The power in this relationship is definitely still more with the old White man, though perhaps not as much or as overtly as it was when I was younger. Zwarte Piet may no longer be presented as Sinterklaas’ servant, but the character certainly still fills that role.

 It’s tradition
You may be aware that Europe is currently overrun with right-wing politics and rhetoric. Politicians like Geert Wilders maintain their popularity by constantly asserting that our culture and traditions are under threat, mostly from Islam and Moroccan/Turkish immigrants, but they’re not picky about to whom they direct their polemic. They will also viciously attack any native Dutch people who speak out against racism and who try to be allies to marginalized groups. They see traditions as completely static and inherently true and right, rather than concepts whose contexts change and evolve with their time. This is not to say that everyone who uses the tradition argument votes right-wing/Wilders, but it does follow a thought pattern which is currently defining our political and social environment. It also used to be tradition that people of different Christian denominations, of different religions, different races, and different classes did not marry each other. It used to be tradition that women always took their husband’s name after marriage and stayed home to take care of the children. We decided, due to different cultural and social developments, that these were bad traditions and we shouldn’t adhere to them. There are many other traditions about which we made that same decision. But when it comes to Sinterklaas, we (that is to say, Dutch people in general) are refusing to even engage in dialogue. If I were to ask why, I’m not sure I’d like the answer.

 Children love the character, so it can’t be harmful
The first part of this statement is certainly true. Zwarte Piet acts silly, accomplishes major acrobatic feats, and brings presents and treats. Who wouldn’t love such a character? But there’s also a dark side (pun not intended) to the character. Children are told that if they’ve been naughty, Piet may put them in his big bag and haul them off to Spain: not  in a fun YAY BEACHES AND SUNSHINE way, but in a “Spain, where you won’t see your family for a year” way. People who play Zwarte Piet at primary schools are told beforehand that they need to be very careful with the little kids, always kneel and get down to their level, smile and talk sweetly, in order not to scare them into fits of hysteria and tears. I know this from experience because I, like so many other Dutch people, played the part of Zwarte Piet when I was in secondary school. And when I forgot these warnings, children did cry. They did shriek. They were afraid of me in a way that I can’t completely chalk up to being afraid of the consequences of having been naughty. They were afraid of the dark face, of my utter “difference” – or so I feel. Naturally, I can’t prove this. But as a person who’s walked around in white skin all her life, with all the privileges that come with that, I simply can’t imagine they would have cried if I’d just been wearing the costume.
Children adapt easily to situations. It’s not the blackface which gives these children such joy. To assert such a thing would be completely ridiculous. It’s what Piet represents, the gifts and the silliness, that draws them to the character. If we were to take the black face out of Piet, in 5 years children wouldn’t know any differently, and I’m pretty sure they’d love Piet just the same.

I have a Black friend who doesn’t mind, so it’s okay
This can be a valid point. Any White person who tries to keep their privilege in check needs to listen to the people who are actually (potentially) affected by issues surrounding race, and often just needs to shut up and listen. As a result of my comments about Zwarte Piet, I got an email from a friend that really made me think. This friend noted that in the grand scheme of racism, of all the messed up things The Netherlands has done in its past and still continues to do, Zwarte Piet may just be an easy cause taken up by the academic, left-wing, politically correct elite – the “philosophie du jour” – which I find to be a really insightful and true remark (I also tick all those three boxes, so I was sent into a spiral of self-reflection after reading her email). She also noted that the figure of Zwarte Piet has by now become so outré that he’s so far removed from his (potentially… likely) racist origins that he’s become nearly mythological. This is also a valid point. I guess that in the end, this particular argument is all about debate. There are people of color who speak out against Zwarte Piet, who are neutral on the whole think or just don’t mind, or who like the character and don’t wish to see it changed. Where I, as a White person, fit into this debate is something I’m still trying to work out. As an ally, I try to support or speak with marginalized or oppressed groups. I certainly attempt to avoid speaking for them, but that may be exactly what I’m doing here and I’m open to that sort of criticism.

 Our history with racism and slavery is unique and not that bad
This first part is also very true, but not in the way most Dutch people think. I am 28 years old, which means I was in secondary school from 1995-2001, and in that period I never learned anything about the role we played in the global slave trade. It simply wasn’t in our history books. We learned about the VOC (Dutch East India Company), certainly, but only in the context of our Golden Age. We learned about South Africa, but all the blame for Apartheid went to the English. We learned about the coolies in Indonesia, but that was really Indonesians abusing Indonesians and had nothing to do with colonialism or us. We learned about Suriname and Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Sint Maarten, but we mainly learned that these places would probably have been better off if they’d just stayed completely under our colonial rule. We are masters at glossing over our own bad patches of history. The Netherlands got a slavery monument only recently and its installment was hotly contested. History books have only recently started to acknowledge the role Dutch traders played in the development and perpetuation of the transatlantic slave trade.
What sets our history with slavery and racial oppression apart from that of other nations is not that ours has been better, but that we have until very recently completely refused to acknowledge the terrible things our ancestors did and reflect on these issues. The refusal to have a public debate about Zwarte Piet (and this particular argument) appears to be a continuation of this mindset.

 Zwarte Piet is black from soot
BULL. SHIT. BULLSHIT. When you go down a chimney, you don’t magically grow an afro. You don’t magically get giant red lips. And gold hoop earrings don’t magically worm their way into your ears from the chimney walls. Your legs don’t become black (well, clad in black tights) and your costume doesn’t stay completely clean. The sheer ridiculousness of this argument is almost insulting to human intelligence.
But this argument speaks volumes about our mindset. It indicates that there is, somewhere deep down in the unconscious, an understanding that Zwarte Piet’s current depiction is, in fact, problematic and racist. So we have started to change some of the myth surrounding the character. This argument both insults me and gives me great hope. Because I have no problem with Piet in his regular costume (but without the black tights) and a couple of smears of soot on his face. And this may be the direction we’re slowly but surely heading in. Perhaps we could even get Piet and Pieternel – a lady version of Piet. Because despite the fact that many women play Piet, they’re always presenting as what is, in the end, a male character. This isn’t a problem per se, but a little diversity never hurt anyone.

Despite its many issues, I love my country and my culture. I never want to see the Sinterklaas tradition disappear. I wouldn’t argue even that we need to get rid of Zwarte Piet, but rather that we reflect on why we’re so reluctant to even discuss the fact that this figure may be problematic and why we refuse to listen to people who say that the depiction Zwarte Piet hurts or is harmful to them. This reluctance (well, flat out refusal, really) is, I would argue, symptomatic of our general attitude towards dealing with our problematic (colonial) past, the repercussions of which are still felt by people around the world today. I believe that in order to become a more fair, equal, and just society, White Dutch people need to become more self-critical and self-reflective; they need to sit down and listen to people who are trying to explore and take to task problematic elements in our culture. And while they’re at it, they need to start exploring the concept of White privilege. But that may be too much to ask right now.

Finally, I’d like to thank my mom. When I first told her I was writing this post and rejecting the character of Zwarte Piet as it currently is, she wasn’t thrilled. She loves the tradition of Sinterklaas, she raised me and my sisters to love this tradition, so naturally any criticism towards that tradition could end up feeling like I was criticizing her character, her parenting, her likes and dislikes. But we ended up having a good discussion about it and even if I didn’t convince her then and there, I’d like to think that I made her reflect on this topic a little more than she previously had. And don’t worry, mamma. I’ll never stop loving Sinterklaas.

*These images come from popular comic strip “Sjors and Sjimmie.” They’ve been acknowledged to be racist, but most people refuse the similarities in the depiction of Black people in the strip and in the depiction of Zwarte Piet.

David Sedaris on Zwarte Piet in “Six to Eight Black Men”
Good article on the tradition and controversies

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. EAM permalink
    November 14, 2011 2:54 pm

    Thank you for writing this post. I’ve been writing about Zwarte Piet and the role it plays in the white Dutch imagination for some time now and I always release a sigh of relief when I encounter other voices. We are so rarily heard. As to the argument “I have a Black friend who doesn’t mind, so it’s okay” I, as a Black man, always say first that most Black people have no idea about the stereotypical representations that were used to confine Black people to a certain role (the mammies, coons, sambos, tragic mulatto, jezebels, pickaninnies). Secondly, the whole point of the colonial discourse was to “normalize” the power imbalance; we were socialized within a Eurocentric cultural model, fed a Eurocentric narrative and were made complicit in our own subjugation. We were made to believe that we were good for nothing. Thirdly, we all bought into the myth of “individualism” and the meritocracy. The myth goes that people will judge you on the basis of your “individual” merit when in fact most members of marginalized groups are judged as members of said groups – not on the merits of their individual character.

    I don’t experience this post as you speaking for people like me. A good ally confronts racism even when the members of the targeted group aren’t present. I need to trust that white people will have my back even when I’m not in the room. You have highlighted a racist element in a tradition; you spoke up against racism, not for the marginalized group. Again I thank you for this post – after having read mostly utterly racist remarks it was so comforting to know we have white allies out there fighting against racism alongside us.

  2. November 14, 2011 10:07 pm

    Thank *you* for this comment. It’s always tricky to find the right balance when writing such posts. And though I agree that among people of any background or race there’s quite some lack of knowledge about the insidious ways colonialism has worked and messed up people’s minds, I would like to just note that the friend I mentioned here is definitely not lacking in such knowledge. So there is a defense of Zwarte Piet among not just a large group of White Dutch people, but also among a variety of Black Dutch people from various (former) colonies, which I don’t think is something we need to dismiss out of hand. I think the only way to come to terms with and fix our current mess is to have public debates in which everyone gets to speak their minds and provide good argumentation. I’m all for good argumentation from all sides, just not knee-jerky “it’s culture, if you don’t like it then GTFO” stuff.

    Speaking of speaking one’s mind, though, did you happen to see Flavia Dzodan’s post on the arrests that were made during the parade in Dordrecht last Saturday? It’s a little mind-blowing. http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/11/14/if-you-protest-racism-during-black-face-season-in-the-netherlands-you-will-be-beaten-up-and-arrested/

    • EAM permalink
      November 14, 2011 10:50 pm

      Yes, I read her post. It’s a very good piece. I was shocked to read that she received a lot of very abusive comments. I have to say that Quinsy and I are friends so I received a firsthand account of what happened. As I wrote earlier, we all need to decolonize our minds. I don’t find it surprising that Black people who have been socialized in a Eurocentric cultural model, who are constantly told to conform to white ideals of success and beauty, don’t mind Zwarte Piet. Especially in the Netherlands where there isn’t such a thing as a “Black consciousness” school of thought. There were Jewish collaborators during WW II as well – but do the actions of those few level down any criticism raised against Nazi Germany? The way that Zwarte Piet is currently portrayed is structured on racist, stereotypical ideas. These ideas are wrong. Period. Whether some Black people have no problem with them or not is besides the point. Some Black people have no problem with the word “neger” either but that word isn’t as neutral as most people would like to think.

      The metanarrative of a society is there to enforce a normative way of thinking. We learn to think within certain pre-determined categories. Very few – even those who are knowledgeable – learn to think outside of the box.

  3. Elfe permalink
    November 15, 2011 2:40 am

    It is really strange: I am a very black African woman with natural hair and I have been living in the NL for 10 years.
    I read your post because I needed to understand why I do not find this tradition racist. I was shocked by the police brutality especially in this country where police is not brutal.
    The “slaves” or “helpers” are you refer to them are not ridicule: these are pages not clowns and they are wearing nice clothes, they are not parading around half naked with a bone across their nostrils like some savages (or like Josephine Baker and her banana skirt). So to compare a tradition you do not like to a politician is very wrong. Like “Tintin in the Congo” the Zwarte Piets are a reminder of the past. Although I am a francophone I live in this country because it is far less racist than France and my color has never been a problem to find a job whereas it is a problem elsewhere: in Europe people from working class background have a harder time to find a job because due to a lot of socio-economic issues they don’t do as well academically as people in the social classes above (and this is true even in Northern Europe). I know it is very insulting for Blacks in America to see White people with their face painted in black (but it took me to live in the US to understand why: a period when black were not even allowed to play their own role in theater). Although the Dutch were very active in selling slaves, I do not think that they had slaves in The Netherlands. So compare things that are comparable.
    Like the rappers who have decided to own the N word we can just ignore this tradition if it annoys us, personally I could not care less. Being African I don’t see the Zwarte Piets as Blacks (they don’t look like me or like any African I know) but as Arabs and indeed they are Moors so let the Arabs tell us whether it is a racist tradition or not. To feel insulted by them you really need to have a really poor self esteem. Sorry for being politically incorrect. I think an Hermann Cain (who is exactly what racist White people want us to be) is much more damaging for us than thousands of Zwarte Piets.

  4. March 20, 2012 10:41 pm

    Can I just say I love this article? I read the ‘6 to 8 black men’ thingy quite a while ago, and it just didn’t sit right with me, I didn’t like the tone at all. But this post is very, very, reasonable.
    I have to say that I hadn’t thought about zwarte pieten and them possibly being racist before end last year, which I suppose has something to do with them almost being mythological, them usually being very fake-black, not knowing that it was caricature, and me only slowly becoming more aware of issues like these. (oh and like EAM said ‘in the Netherlands where there isn’t such a thing as a “Black consciousness” school of thought.’ more ‘general’ racism, I suppose).
    Zwarte Pieten maybe only being a bit dirty because of the chimneys sounds like it might be a thing that could happen, although, on the other hand, maybe not. But talking about zwarte pieten like this might be a nice way to talk to children about racism.

  5. November 29, 2012 10:34 pm

    Reblogged this on Not Your Average Nan's Writing and commented:

    Sinterklaas is next week, so when would be a better time to reblog this old post? I know it doesn’t make the people in my life happy when I say this stuff, but I still stand by it.

  6. December 1, 2012 1:45 pm

    Wonderful article! I’ve been thinking about Zwarte Piet and racism for a while now, and here’s my opinion on how I think it could change.

    How I think about Zwarte Piet, and how changes should be made:

    I do agree that Zwarte Piet is racist, and needs to change, the question is how. And how to make the Dutch in general understand the very necessity of this change.
    What is most important to realise with how much (positive) sentiment Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are valued by the main public. Almost everybody loves them deeply (and I do too), their roots lie so deep in Dutch culture and tradition, that every attack on them is being felt as an attack on Dutch identity and culture.

    Second, one must realise that Zwarte Piet is seen as a positive figure. A role model so to speak, who is fun, and friendly. Sinterklaas is often seen as the strict, and slightly scary old man, where Zwarte Piet is much easier to associate with for kids. This makes it extremely hard for Dutch people to see the relation with racism. People who aren’t (intentionally) racist, and don’t see themselves as racist, and often have a positive image of black people do not like to be called racist. And rightly so, because they aren’t really. They just honestly don’t realise they are being racist (which is often hard to notice of yourself anyway).

    There are also a lot of children who don’t associate Zwarte Piet with a black person at all. I for one never did. The first time I realised there might be a connection was when I was about 12, and saw a discussion about the subject on TV, and even then I was pretty confused about why black people would feel offended, because surely Zwarte Piet wasn’t a black person at all, it was just soot from the chimneys.
    What I want to demonstrate with this example of my own experience is how incredibly hard it is to see how people can feel offended by something you only see (for as long as you remember) as something extremely positive, that you look up to.

    However, the caricature of the ‘Morish’ black man with rings in his ears and big red lips IS racist. It is not intended that way, but it is. And it does hurt people, so it needs to change. Zwarte Piet cannot be banned, or completely changed at once. That’s like banning Christmas trees, or replacing them with ferns or something. It’s also disrespectful towards the tradition. So I think change needs to happen gradually.

    Maybe we can start by replacing the entirely black faces with a lot of soot in the first year, but keeping the wigs and red lips, and a little less soot in the year after that. The next year the hair could be changed to different, fun colours as well. A year later there can be subtle experiments with other things as well. There are amazing possibilities for the make up. Piets could become more varied and fun even. But the main point is that every change has to be very subtle, cause people have to adjust to it. Also the kids shouldn’t notice that Zwarte piet suddenly is completely different. Cause in the end, it is about the kids. Societies don’t change overnight, and people in general don’t like changes, especially to things that are Sacred to them, and Sinterklaas and Piet are sacred.

    If the changes are subtle, and gradually enough, people won’t even notice them, and get used to it without a feeling of loss. If the government makes sure those subtle changes are made each year during the Arrival of Sinterklaas and in schools (perhaps malls as well, although I don’t know how that’s organised), the rest will follow. And in 10 or 20 years the Dutch will be laughing, or crying about their silly, and bizarre racist depiction of Piet from the past.

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