The Netherlands’ favourite topic of dinner party/water cooler conversation around December 5th is “Is Zwarte Piet racisme?” (Is Black Pete racism?)
It took me some time to make up my mind on this one.
On the one hand, Zwarte Piet is nothing but a fantasy character – the cheerful, clownish and, importantly much loved blackface helper who for many years has accompanied the Dutch Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) on his mission to hand out toys and sweets to generations of Dutch children.
But white Nederlanders blacking up to play the servants of a white master? Is this acceptable in a modern, multicultural nation renowned for its sensitivity to the feelings of minority communities? Isn’t Zwarte Piet a colonial hangover, leading Dutch children, black and white, to subconsciously regard those with dark skin as inferior and subordinate?
The protest movement against Zwarte Piet is growing in both numbers and stridency, leading sections of the ‘old Dutch’ community to become more vehement in defending their ‘right’ to a cultural tradition. In Gouda this year, violent scuffles broke out between police and demonstrators as Sinterklaas and his zwarte Piets arrived for the annual children’s festival.
Mevrouw T loved Sinterklaas as a child. A highlight of her year was a visit to Amsterdam department store de Bijenkorf to see the puppet Zwarte Piets climbing ropes. She’s delighted to see that they’re still there. She encouraged me to take this photo to show to the grandchildren in Australia. It doesn’t matter two hoots, nor should it, that our grandchildren are themselves not entirely Caucasian.
Where’s the harm in it? Surely no child watching mechanical dolls in 18th century costumes slowly climbing up and down their ropes would associate them with any real people walking the streets of Amsterdam today, let alone with the Dutch history of slavery. And even if they did, isn’t the image of Zwarte Piet positive? These people are friendly, magical, acrobatic and clever; we want them to be our friends.
The Sinterklaas ‘tradition’ is surprisingly young. While the story of a child-friendly St Nicholas dates back hundreds of years, the Dutch version is based on a children’s book written in 1850, as slavery was coming to an end. Zwarte Piet as a character was invented even later than that, though his costume resembles that of the servants favoured by rich Netherlanders in the 18th century.
In recent years there have been attempts to modernise the Piets. Some official city parades have included Piets of different colours – white, green and yellow (Cheese Piets) as well as black. Other Piets have only partially blacked up; the explanation being that the black on their faces is acquired by coming down the chimney to deliver presents. (Piet’s teflon clothes collect no soot. Shut up! This isn’t a story with logic.)
But suppose the residents of our apartment complex decided to run a Sinterklaas party and invited me, as a foreigner, occasional actor and children’s entertainer, to black up and play a Zwarte Piet. Would I feel comfortable doing it in front of my neighbours, a fair number of whom are ‘persons of colour’? No, I would not. If anyone were offended I’d be mortified and would immediately apologise.
I expect the Zwarte Piet tradition to undergo substantial change in the course of the next decade. Naturally I’d much prefer this to happen by Dutch people gradually feeling uncomfortable about an outdated image and adjusting it so that the Sinterklaas festival can still be celebrated without causing any offence to anyone.
My fear is that if the anti-Zwarte Piet movement becomes more aggressive, those who feel an emotional, even quasi-religious obligation to defend Dutch culture from attacks by ‘recent arrivals’ will also dig in, deliberately playing up the racist overtones of Zwarte Piet to affirm their ‘Keep Your Dirty Foreign Hands Off Our Festival’ message.
Over to you. Is Zwarte Piet an offensive, outdated vestige of bad old colonial days or harmless fun for kids and an enjoyable part of Dutch cultural tradition?