IS BLACK PIET STILL FUN?

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Photo: Wikicommons.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Photo: Wikicommons.

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.

Black Piets in de Bijenkorf.

Black Piets in de Bijenkorf.

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?

20 Comments

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20 responses to “IS BLACK PIET STILL FUN?

  1. Caroline Whiteside

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  2. Ina

    Michael and i have serious arguments about this. I really feel we should keep the tradition. It brings good memories to me. However Michael does not agree and argues strongly against. It is amazing how heated the discussions have been. Cheers and Happy Sinterklaas to you both and the grandchildren.

    • I think those childhood memories are what make the difference, Ina.

      From the point of view of outsiders, Zwarte Piet looks ridiculously racist, in the way that blackface minstrel shows have long been unacceptable in the US.and UK.

      Nederlanders who grew up with the tradition as children know they never associated it with any negative feelings towards real dark-skinned people.

      Hope you can take the heat out of those family discussions and have a happy Sinterklaas and Christmas!

  3. It’s a tradition that I grew up with all the way over in Sydney, Australia. As a child, Zwarte Piet was just a fun character with Sinterklaas. We sang songs and it was a lovely, celebratory environment – especially with little gifts, funny poems (gedichtjes) and pepernoten thrown down the hallway. My view now is that Zwarte Piet could definitely be interpreted as offensive but as there is no racist intention maybe a lighter approach is needed. I don’t quite get why portraying a character (as an actor) can be offensive because of the make-up or costume used. Stereo-typing and discrimination are of course off limits.
    regards Peet

    • Thanks Peet. I can’t see why a simple adjustment to Zwarte Piet’s appearance shouldn’t be an acceptable compromise to everyone.

      I suspect that the basis of the conflict has deeper roots, however. Those who defend the tradition resent other changes in Dutch society being ‘forced’ on them by immigrants from other cultures. The anti-Piet demonstrators see him as a symbol of other, more serious, racial discrimination in the Netherlands.

      Unfortunately drawing lines in the sand only entrenches the opposition on both sides.

  4. Rivka Van De Graaff

    Maybe on alternate years they could have a Zwarte Sinterklaas and a Wit Piet. To be equally offensive the side kick could be black with his face painted white. At least there’s some comedy in that idea that might be in keeping with the tradition.

    • Nice idea, Rivka. I googled images to see what happens in Dutch colonies like Suriname and Curacao. I found some shots where Piets were their natural colour and Sinterklaas had done some ‘whiting up’.

  5. inge

    When I grew up, in the 50’s most of my little friends where Indisch (dutch-Indonesian) and Surinam . I never made the association or connection with Zwarte Piet and their skin colour. But.. I am white so my perception might have been very different from theirs and I never thought to ask them if they were uncomfortable with it. I must say that I don’t like the way the pro and contra Piets are discussing this issue. Both sides very aggressive and sometimes really nasty. I think Zwarte Piet will and should evolve in the real chimney Piet, meaning if he is black because of the soot in the chimney he will have stripes and spots of blackish gray on his face. The colorfullsuit are okay to me, it is the dresscode of the pageboys of late 1700’s from well to do families. But the fat red lips and the afro and the golden earrings have to go.

    • That sounds very sensible to me, Inge.

      I read just today about similarly aggressive arguments going on in Sweden about Pippi Longstocking, who in a single line claims her father was ‘King of the Negroes’. Some (including author Astrid Lindgren’s family) are in favour of editing this out of the book. Other Swedes see Pippi as almost a sacred text and vigorously oppose meddling with ‘their culture’.

      A shame something that should be so innocent can inflame such passion.

      • inge

        When people say: this is tradition and it shoudn’t change at all for ever and ever, then it is not tradition but a dogma.
        I , for one, would love to see the “tradition” of New Years’ Eve in the Netherlands disappear in non- fireworks smoke! I’m sure you are aware of THAT discussion,:)

  6. Inge, somehow in Australia we’ve muddled on with our humdrum lives since ‘Cracker Night’ was abolished several decades ago. Hospitals and eye surgeons don’t miss it at all.

  7. Har Davids

    My family used to be white all the way, but with changing demographics in The Netherlands that’s no longer the case. I never noticed my less than white children, nieces and nephews feeling any kind of connection to Zwarte Piet. He, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder; if you think it’s racist, nothing will convince you otherwise. Ditto for the people who’re sure Piet reminds them of that black guy down the street. For the majority, whatever their ethnicity, Sinterklaas is just an opportunity to spend a pleasant evening together, exchaning gifts and silly rhimes.

    The anti-Piet brigade shouldn’t have played the race-card, they seem to be more interested in getting noticed than anything else. Whatever Piet was in the past, both Sint and he have evolved, and should continue doing so.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Har.

      That seems to be a ‘take-home message’ running through this debate; that traditions begin as products of their times and should continue to evolve with them. Let’s hope that the fun, generosity and family and community spirit of Sinterklaas lives on, whatever may change in the way the party is celebrated.

  8. Interesting article! I visited the Netherlands last weekend and was taking a stroll through Utrecht when I came across a group of Zwarte Pieten for the first time, enthusiastically playing brass band instruments. It was a fantastic encounter with children dancing and grown ups of all colours and creeds happily clapping along and taking some obligatory selfies with the colourful character. I had previously heard about the racist connotations associated with the tradition but I have to say, standing there in the middle of the festively lit street, tapping my feet to the upbeat tunes being played, my heart was filled with nothing but good old fashioned excitement for Christmas. At that particular moment, racism just didn’t come into it.

    • That sounds just the way it ought to be. But if there are people there who may take offence, however misguidedly, wouldn’t it be better to adjust the costumes so that the fun could go on with everybody happy?

      • I’m in two minds because I’m really not a fan of the overtly PC culture that is part of modern life…. Even typing this I’m worried someone will misconstrue my sentiment and label me a racist. However, I guess a good solution might be to introduce different colour Petes as you mentioned above. Multicoloured Petes sound like lots of fun!

  9. kevinmayne

    Great to give the subject an airing Richard. As a Brit in a multi-racial team I am astonished to find out how much “political correctness” now shapes my thinking and language compared to people from other areas of Europe.

    I wince when I hear things said that to me are openly sexist, racist or homophobic but come from valued friends and colleagues who would be mortified if they thought they would cause offence.

    However their eyes are being opened by the overt intolerance of the emerging right wing parties in the same countries who rant against correct behaviour to justify their own nastiness. The Netherlands Dutch speaking neighbours in Flanders have uncomfortable parties of the right going into various layers of government.

    I suspect the reaction of the majority to these nasties is our best hope for change, and if it means we get rid of “blacking up” as we did years ago in the UK it will not be missed.

    • Thanks, Kevin. I’m fairly confident that eventually they’ll just be ‘Piets’ – of any colour or sex, though I understand the resentment of those who feel a change to what they regard as a totally harmless, enjoyable and non-racist festival is being ‘forced’ on them by outsiders, newcomers and over-PC propagandists.

      I’ve heard the debate is much more vigorous in Nederland than in Flanders – is this true?

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