Zwarte Piet: Blackface in the Caribbean

November 19, 2012 — 40 Comments

A year ago, I remember reading for the first time about the Dutch holiday tradition of Sinterklaas. I happened across the Slate article written by Jessica Olien, an American new to the Netherlands at the time, where she described her first encounter with Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piet celebrations, which she calls “Holland’s favorite racist Christmastime tradition. She puts it pretty bluntly,

In Holland, Santa doesn’t have elves. He has slaves.

For those who do not know, Sinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus. But According to the background story, Sinterklaas is a Turkish bishop who arrives in Netherlands via steamship from Spain every late November. He is assisted by Zwarte Piet, or literally, “Black Pete”. Every year, hundreds of people dress up as Sinterklaas’ helpers by painting their faces black, coloring large red lips on their faces, and donning curly black afro wigs and gold hoop earrings.

Sinterklaas Arrives in Curacao in 2012. Photo by Karen Attiah

When I first heard about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, I was 2 parts shocked, 1 part disgusted, 1 part angry, and a dash of saddened to learn that such a stereotypical image of black people was not only allowed, but celebrated. Even the word “celebrated” doesn’t do it justice. Since coming to live in Curacao, I’ve learned just how ingrained Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is to the collective Dutch culture. It is a huge children’s event. My Dutch friends tell me that growing up, most children believe Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are real. There is a Sinterklaas news channel that documents his journey into the Netherlands. Famous Dutch national actors play the different Zwarte Piets. Every year Sinterklaas parades into a different city, greeted by thousands of families with eleborate ceremonies. Its like Santa Claus on steroids. All for the kids.

A toddler in a Zwarte Piet hat waits for Sinterklaas to arrive in Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Even more peculiar to me, is the fact that here in Curacao, a former Dutch colony of mostly African descendants here in the Caribbean, celebrates Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet as well. I went to the Sinterklaas arrival this past weekend in Willemstad, and when I saw local black Curacaoans painting their own skin darker, their own lips redder and bigger and donning the Zwarte Piet costumes, I was equal parts surprised and confused.

Sinterklaas parades into Wilemstad Curacao, flanked by a helper playing “Zwarte Piet” dressed in blackface. Photo by Karen Attiah

The parade was HUGE. Well, as huge as a parade can get for a small island. Okay, the parade was island-sized huge. Hundreds of parents brought their young children out early Saturday morning to wait for Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piets to arrive to Curacao. Kids were dressed up in Zwarte Piet hats.  And arrive he did. Curacao’s Sinterklaas was not on a white horse, but a pony led cart in the Brionplein area of Otrobanda, on the edge of Curacao’s famous harbor. The celebration was a bit like Christmas meets Carribean carnival. I have to admit, if I was a child, the celebration is a blast. Drumming Zwarte Piets performed on drums, while dancing Zwarte Piets entertained the crowd with acrobatics and choreography. Other Zwarte Piets toss out candy for the children, while Sinterklaas sits on his big throne on the stage and watches the show entertained by the Zwarte Piets and their acrobatic skills.  Young performers danced and sang to welcome Sinterklaas to Curacao. Here in Curacao, Sinterklaas is greeted by a mayor, and addresses the crowd in Papiamento.

Local Curacaoans don black facepaint and curly afro-wigs to play “Zwarte Piet” Photo by Karen Attiah

But how can an island that boasts a population of 85% African descendants celebrate a character that for many is reminiscent of the offensive minstrel shows of Black Sambo? How can parents line up every year to watch community play Sinterklaas’ goofy, mischievous helpers, who always screws up something with the presents, and requires an overseer Piet to to supervise the rest of them? How can Curacao, an island where many locals blame Dutch neo-colonialism and slavery for the island’s problems, still celebrate what many think to be one of the most racially insensitive traditions out there? It was eerie to feel like I was watching a 2012 Holiday Minstrel Show, in the Caribbean. Watching Zwarte Piets dance and be goofy while Sinterklaas runs the show reminds me of this clip from the Cotton and Chick Watts Blackface Comedy Routine from 1951. (Forward to the 2:45 mark)

I’ve had conversations with Dutch people here on the island about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and many of them cannot find anything wrong with it. In fact many have gotten downright angry and defensive at the suggestion that Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature for black people. Common responses:

There’s nothing offensive about it. Zwarte Piet isn’t black, he’s Moorish! ( Okay, that makes it all better if Zwarte Piet is a North African Muslim.)

Children love Zwarte Piet! It’s not like we hate him or looked down upon. All the kids want to be like Zwarte Piet. They are a little more afraid of Sinterklaas. Do you want to ruin the children’s fun? (Using children to justify maintaining Zwarte Piet is the most common. But it is the adults who create the tradition and perpetuate it, right?)

Zwarte Piet isn’t a slave, he’s a helper! It is not a race thing. (If he is just a helper, does it matter what color he is? Why is he black? *Note* Holland tried to introduce non-black Piets in the past, using other colors. People did not receive it too well and that was the first and last time they used colored Piets)

Zwarte Piet is black because he got dirty from falling down the chimney, not because he is black! (Then why aren’t his clothes dirty? And why is Zwarte Piete’s hair always a black and curly Afro wig? Did the chimney change Zwarte Piet’s hair? Did it make his lips bigger and redder too?)

It can’t be racist. Black people and locals here in Curacao paint their faces blacker too. And they sometimes they paint their skin whiter to play Sinterklaas! (Doesn’t make it okay.

Americans are just too sensitive! You have no right as an outsider to judge our traditions if you don’t know the story. And if 95% of the Dutch population sees that there is nothing wrong with Zwarte Piet, then who cares what the other 5% say. Don’t Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and the slaughter of Indians? That’s worse than Zwarte Piet! (Usually if the conversation has come to this point,  it signifies the end of the hope of a productive dialogue.)

Zwarte Piet Enthusiasts in Curacao for the arrival of Sinterklaas. Photo by Karen Attiah

Zwarte Piet would never happen in the States, my friends say. Others ask how it is possible for Curacaoans to also celebrate a character that is so demeaning to black people, while at the same time claiming that they desire to be free of Holland and its neo-colonial attitudes towards its former colonies.

I asked a local Curacaoan blogger Jermain Ostiana, about the Sinterklaas celebrations. He been quite vocal on Twitter about what he calls the “coonfest” that is the Zwarte Piet celebration here in Curacao. He told me that last year, the only form of protest against Zwarte Piet was a banner hung on the walls of Fort Amsterdam. “Nobody is going to risk sticking their necks out here, its sad but true here.”

Curacao is the same island where the controversial Dutch comedy “Only Decent People” that depicts Surinamese women, as loud, fat, oversexed, ghetto welfare queens opened to crowds. The producer of the film offered free tickets to large dark skinned women here in Curacao. And people bought in. This is also the same island where little media attention has been paid to the fact that a major motion picture about Tula, the slave who led Curacao’s biggest revolt in 1795 is currently being filmed here. This is also the same island where on the 2 year anniversary of Curacao’s autonomy from Holland on October 10th, which was a national holiday (Dia di Pais), there were basically no celebrations.

Could it be that social, political and cultural apathy has allowed the Zwarte Piet caricature to thrive here in Curacao? I hope that is not the case.

Yes, Zwarte Piet is colored black. But it is more than just the skin color. The black curly hair, oversized red lips, and goofy character is not unique to “Dutch tradition”, but rather were/are common mockingly stereotypical images for dark skinned people that have appeared in various narratives for children, from Herge’s The Adventures of TinTin comic books in Belgium in the 1930s, “Black Sambo” in Britain in the late 1800s, and Jim Crow and the various minstrel shows in the Americas. The reason why Zwarte Piet resonates with “outsiders” or alloctoons is because they have seen Zwarte Piet before. We have seen the exact same character to represent non-white people in other historical narratives. Zwarte Piet actually is nothing new. In most other places, that character has been recognized to be a relic of a racist time long gone by (or so we think) and is no longer in use in public. Why Zwarte has been fiercely guarded and protected by people living in the Kingdom of the Netherlands to this day in the name of “tradition” baffles many people.

A Zwarte Piet In Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

 

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40 responses to Zwarte Piet: Blackface in the Caribbean

  1. 

    *deepest sigh ever*
    We owe this colonized behavior mostly to the Catholic church, Dutch educational system. Aruba Bonaire Curacao that is.

    St Maarten, Statia, Saba if I’m not mistaken because of their connection with (ex British)islands and their Afro-Caribbean awareness do not tolerate ZP.

    People be pro enhanced autonomy and independence (2009 48%) but its impossible to link that to a high degree of Black consciousness that could call for a ZP boycott. African is still a taboo word, Afro-American/Caribbean/Latino struggles remain untold here and most probably that’s a ‘good’ thing for the ruling Black and white elite.

    Masha danki for your words, may they wake some influential media people up in Curacao.

    • 

      Thanks Jermain,

      Yes it does seem as if there is gap between the enhanced autonomy/independence rhetoric and action. As a person of both African and American background, where black people fought and struggled for freedom from slavery and colonialism, the (in)actions of local people here does speak to me of a lack of consciousness. Perhaps looking more into the comparative histories of other islands is appropriate.

      A theory: In Britain, the abolitionist movement was stronger than it was in the Netherlands. Perhaps those former British colonies thus were more politically equipped to engage in meaningful resistance, i.e. Jamaica. Former Dutch colonies are perhaps much less politically equipped as a result of the historically weaker abolitionist movements?

      The role of the church could be examined too, that is an interesting point.

  2. 

    There is always someone who criticise what is not of their concern . Why does n’t she criticise Santa for using the poor midgets as his servants ? How about thanksgiving…….. and so on !!

    • 

      I don’t understand your point. How is Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet not of my concern?

      I also don’t understand why Thanksgiving is always brought up as a reason Americans cannot comment on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. If you want to criticize our national holidays, I’d suggest Columbus Day. Not very nice to celebrate the man who brought a lot of suffering on indigenous people.

      We live in a more globalized world now. Images, “traditions” cannot be kept in one part of the world in a bottle from the rest. If there are blacks around the world who are concerned about their representation in a society, they have every right to voice it.

  3. 

    The people that talk about racism have a very low self esteem. Me myself I’m not white. and I don’t have a problem with it !!

  4. 

    LOW self esteem !!! LOW !!!!

  5. 

    As a black person living in the Netherlands, this is one of the most difficult times of year for me. It is not just about the coloring of the skin, it is about the stereotypes of the blacks and whites that is perpetuated year after year. The white man is somehow superior and good and holy, while the black man is basically and idiot that is best used for entertainment purposes only. Many white Dutch people still don’t get that!
    Thank you for putting into words exactly how I (and so many other blacks) feel. Many traditions have had to change and with Holland being a melting pot it is time that the Dutch address this tradition that is degrading to a whole section of the population. What has always been done does not mean what is right! There is a difference. Things will only change when we can have honest discussions/dialogue (no anger) about these things!

    • 

      thinkaboutit,

      Thank you for your comment. When I bring up the Zwarte Piet issue to my Dutch friends here, many of them say, “But the black people I know don’t have a problem with Zwarte Piet, some of them even dress up!” Do you know other blacks in Holland who don’t seem to have a problem with dressing up as Zwarte Piet? How do you engage other white Dutch in Holland about the Sinterklaas “traditions”? Is it just that the opinions of those who oppose the current tradition are ignored/silenced?

      Also, as a black person in the Netherlands, how do you feel when you hear that the local black population in Curacao celebrates Zwarte Piet every year and also engage in blackface?

  6. 

    Honestly, many high profile blacks in this country say that they have no problem with it. They were brought up with it and they have had great fun with it. I think they do not understand the subtle messages black children receive from this practice. When I try to talk to my white Dutch friends about my feelings, like your experience with your friends, they justify it and are very defensive. Those who oppose it in my opinion are not in the positions necessary to do anything about it and as you can see by the comments some have made on your blog, many people believe that if you have a problem with it you are too sensitive or you have a low self esteem. Many Dutch people fool themselves into believing that because it is fun for kids, it makes it okay. I think it is a subtle way of reminding and reaffirming to blacks and whites alike, their position in this country and society.
    As for people in Curacao celebrating it, I am not surprised at all. I am originally from St. Maarten and that does not happen there because we understand what the stereotype means and we are hugely influenced by America and other surrounding Caribbean islands. Curacao in my opinion has always been hugely influenced by Holland and I think that they are blind to the effects of this so called tradition because of that influence. I also think that somehow they do not recognize themselves as Africans whereas we know that all blacks have there roots in Africa.
    I had the opportunity to visit Ghana with my Ghanaian husband and I believe that if all blacks would go back to their heritage and experience the richness of African culture, they would be proud of their African roots and this will help them want to achieve great things. “If you don’t know where you have come from, it is hard to know where you are going!”

  7. 

    I found out something interesting you might like to know. There is a petition to stop the “Zwarte Pieten” from being a part of the Sinterklaas tradition in Dutch schools. The man who initiated it is hoping that if this gets done, the general population will understand and follow along. As he so eloquently says, it is not to ban the celebration/tradition but to get rid of the “black face” as a part of it. Interestingly enough, he says that the “black face” was only introduced to it about a century ago.
    Anyway, I signed it and forwarded to my friends. Maybe you would like to sign it too.

    The petition is “Dutch Ministry of Education: Get Zwarte Piet as a blackface tradition out of Dutch schools” on Change.org.

    It’s important. Will you sign it too? Here’s the link:

    http://www.change.org/petitions/dutch-ministry-of-education-get-zwarte-piet-as-a-blackface-tradition-out-of-dutch-schools

    Thanks! Maybe one step at a time and one voice at a time, we can make a difference!

    Alice

  8. 

    Thanks so much for this post. I am a American who just visited Curacao and saw some of the leftover performances from this festival. Your blog post crystalized how disturbed and confused I was by these performances and I look forward to reading more on your blog about the situation on the island which I find fascinating.

  9. 

    Very Interesting read and some Great photographs.
    Greetings from the Island of Cyprus.

  10. 

    If you don’t like the customs of a country return to your forefathers country. It’s that simple why whine constantly.

  11. 

    Thanks for this v. Interesting article. Of course the justification of “tradition” is baseless – some traditions are kept, some allowed to die out – and this tradition is pure racism!

  12. 

    I don’t understand the fuss. Yes, we were slave shippers. We bought and sold them. We didn’t catch them though. That was done by other black tribes. But seen throug the eyes of that time there was nothing wrong with slavery. The church told everyone that blacks were off a lower standerd. More like cattle.
    Am I proud ore ashamed of what we did? NO.
    As an American, are you ashamed for Thanksgiving where you remember the butchering of the Native American people?
    Are you ashamed when you invaded Irak, bible in the left hand, rifle in the other.
    Telling the whole world about chemical weapons but at the same time thinking about all the oil in Irak.
    When you go back in the history of things,people ore countries there are nice things and not nice things.
    But I really think as a Black person i’d rather live in the Netherlands than in the States.
    Having said this, I am white, blond and blue eyes, sorry. I had nothing to do with how I look and what I am otherwise I would be a Stone eagle.

    • 

      “As a black person, I’d rather live in the Netherlands than in the States”. You have no idea what you are talking about.

      Come a little better than the “You have Thanksgiving!” response. It’s old and tired. You bore me.

      I have plenty to criticize about the United States, and because I care about my country, I would say it. But this post isn’t about my country, is it?

      • 

        The Zwarte Piet is racisme movement is a hype. Their facebookpage,active since 2011, has attracted more than 6400 likes. A facebookpage promoting het Sinterklaasfeest in its current form has attracted more than 430.000 likes. Since yesterday.

        A poll on national television today showed, that 89% of the people, wants to hang on to Zwarte Piet. A look at the political background of the respondents showed that the majority of the voters of all political parties in parliament today, oppose change.

        Ik have never challenged the citizenship of people, who oppose this tradition. But I regard it unlikely, that the feelings of people who are offended by the tradition, counts for more than the feelings of the people who are fed up being confronted by accusations about our cultural superiority. The simple fact is that in general we respect the right of all people, to honour their cultural or religious traditions. We just expect others to show us the same courtesy.

      • 

        So basically: “Most Dutch people don’t want to change it, and support it, therefore it must not be racist because we don’t see ourselves as racist. Also more of us feel this way, so we don’t care what others have to say or why they have to say it.” That’s basically how I read it.

        I’m not going to go back and forth on this with you, as clearly we just will not see eye to eye. But you know I just hope there will come a day when nations can change and begin to accept and not ridicule people who are different. 200 years ago in this country, slavery was accepted. 100 years ago, immigrants from Asia, Italy, and Ireland were treated horribly. 100 years ago, shows and characters much like Black Pete were a form of entertainment. 60 years ago, blacks couldn’t vote. Now in the states there are long overdue debates over team names and logos offensive to Native Americans. Traditions change. Laws change. Cultures change. It is a simple fact of history. I hope that there is a point where nations can take a hard look at themselves and become more inclusive and progressive when it comes to respecting people of all races, colors and cultures. Im sure you cannot disagree.

      • 

        In the Netherlands the feelings and view points of people of color are not being silenced and marginalized. Even the Zwarte Piet is racisme activist get plenty of time on national television. The Zwarte Piet discussion is a hype, that returns every year. The fact is that so far they have not managed to get much support for their views. As a matter of fact their public appearances have rallied support for Zwarte Piet, thanks to their intolerant behaviour.

  13. 

    Ofcourse Americans don’t understand the Sinterklaas tradition. They don’t know Sinterklaas never promoted slavery or the superiority of the white man. It’s no part of the mans character. Historically Sinterklaas actually freed slaves.

    The American view of Sinterklaas is largely biased by their own history. Since the USA have a tradion if bigotry, it’s a country based on the succesful genocide of native Americans, they show high sensitivity for the fate of minorities. Even, when they are not oppresssed, like on Curaçao.

    And the rest of the world need to follow America’s line of reasoning, since we know Americans are ‘morally superior’ to the rest of the world.

    • 

      Many responses to your post.

      These are typical responses that I hear over and over again when someone brings up Zwarte Piet.

      1) You don’t know our history
      2) Americans are biased because of their own history and are oversensitive to race
      3) WHAT ABOUT NATIVE AMERICANS/THANKSGIVING

      None of these responses really critically engage any issues at hand.

      First of all, though I was brought up in the states, I am a woman of color whose parents are from Africa. Does that make my opinion more or less valid to you? Shouldn’t an African view matter, since Zwarte Piet, with his dark skin, red lips, and curly hair have been caricatures of African people for hundreds of years, not just in America, but in Belgium, London, and other former slaveholding nations.

      For the record, there are a multitude of voices in Holland, Curacao, and other countries that are against this tradition and the activists who are in Hollands deserve the credit for bringing this to international attention. Do those voices not matter? Are they not Dutch?

      The thing that supporters of Zwarte Piet fail to realize when they cry “Its our tradition and it’s different from Americans” is that both the US and Holland share histories of building empires off of the economic profitability of slavery, along with other European nations. The dressing up in blackface tradition is not only Dutch, but common forms of entertainment in slaveholding nations. All nations that owned slaves are nations built on the oppression and dehumanization of other people. The issue of Native Americans I shouldnt have to even address here, but right now there are national debates and dialogues happening about the U.S.’s treatment of native Americans. It’s a step in the right direction.

      What people from the outside fail to understand is, other nations have recognized that using racial caricatures as forms of entertainment are no longer acceptable. Not only has the Netherlands been slow to change, but rather is holding on to these traditions fiercely. I grew up as a kid learning that the Netherlands was a tolerant, friendly nation that took in people from all over the world and treated everyone equally. I think for many people like me, Zwarte Piet flies in the face of that image.

  14. 

    In the Netherlands Zwarte Piet is hardly challenged, not even by inhabitants with African ancestors.While you base your opinion on the international blackface tradition, these people know that the Sinterklaas tradition is not racist. But maybe do history and intent not matter much to you. But it does explain, why the protest isn’t prominent.

    I won’ t defend the former reputation of the Netherlands. In all honesty, it’s not clear to me who told you the Dutch took in people from all over the world. That was never true.

    What is true is that, relatively speaking, the Netherlands are a tolerant country. Racism is a problem everywhere, also overhere. That isn’t exclusively a problem of the ‘white’ man. Especially antisemitism has grown after people with a muslim background came to our country.

    Actuallly, the whealth of our ‘current empire’ is not based on slavery. After the second world war, our country had little to show for it. Being occupied by the germans cost us dearly. Our current whealth is based on the succes of the European Union and hard work.

    • 

      For people who are in the Netherlands I would direct you to of people I have spoken to: http://zwartepietisracisme.tumblr.com/,https://processedlives.wordpress.com/,and triunfodisablika.com, websites and blogs of Dutch-Caribbean writers and activists who have been challenging discrimination and racism for years in the Netherlands. And there are many more. Do they not count as Dutch to you? Is Zwarte Piet hardly challenged or do people choose to deny/not hear the criticism? I think it is the latter. I would challenge you to actually listen to opinions and perspectives outside of your narrow circle.

      Also you failed to answer my question: As a person of color, of African descent, who feels offended by the caricature, that does not seem to matter to you. The feelings and view points of people of color being silenced and marginalized, is an unfortunate example of racism and cultural superiority.

  15. 

    You know the people who shouts the most about racism are the biggest racist themself ,and yes i am from Holland Thank you

  16. 

    Natuurlijk moet zwarte Piet blijven ! Oude en leuke traditie dat alle kinderen – blank of zwart – leuk vinden.

  17. 

    I wonder if you ever thought it possible that coloured people acually like to celebrate Sinterklaas and simply don’t see it as racist? Recent polls say that about 90% of the Dutch don’t want to change the appearance of Zwarte Piet. That 90% is not all white. The ten percent who doesn’t like Sinterklaas the way it is, isn’t all black.
    The fact that anti-Piet-people are constantly dismissing and denying is that Zwarte Piet is some sort of superhero for Dutch kids of all skin colours. Piet was never a slave, all Piets are getting paid a rather nice salary, the Head-Piet is probably even close to the Balkenende-norm. 🙂

    All Zwarte Piets are cool. Many kids desperately want to grow up to be a Zwarte Piet. Young adults of all colours regard it as an honour if they can be a Zwarte Piet visiting schools.

    I wish all the Piet haters could just for a moment forget all the negative associations and enjoy the immense love and joy and friendship and creativity Sinterklaas brings. ‘Sinterklaas is not just about giving presents to kids, it’s also making ‘surprises’ and it gets a large part of the nation writing poems.

    Poems, I mean, really.

    • 

      There are some people of color who do not see it as racist. But there are plenty of people of color in the Netherlands and in the Caribbean I know that do not want anything to do with Zwarte Piet, and also refuse to have their children take part. So it is not fair or right to speak for all people of all colors.

      But There are nice parts to the holiday. I’ve been a part of some celebrations and the poems and gifts and chocolate are nice. So my question is, why the black skin paint, red lips, curly hair, and fake Suriname accents (from some of the accounts I heard)? Does changing that really change the spirit of it? Would kids who don’t know much else other than what adults tell them really care if Piet was of another color? Kids just want entertainment, candy, and fun. This is adults wanting to keep things the way they are because “its the way they are.”

      • 

        Indeed, it’s not fair or right to speak for all people of all colours. Still, the figures I mentioned do mean something. There may be ‘plenty’ of people who feel offended by the tradition, but with a pro Zwarte Piet percentage of 90, there must also be plenty of coloured people who don’t find Zwarte Piet racist. BTW, a recent poll in Belgium has the same outcome: http://www.nieuwsblad.be/article/detail.aspx?articleid=DMF20131023_00805494 . Also, I found this lovely article about the (black, painted white) Sint on Bonaire. He also wanted to be a Piet, and he became Sinterklaas: http://www.trouw.nl/tr/nl/4492/Nederland/article/detail/3532399/2013/10/24/Op-Bonaire-schminkt-de-Sint-zijn-huid-elk-jaar-gewoon-wit.dhtml

        It’s not that the pro-Piet people want to keep things the way they are just because. Zwarte Piet has evolved already over the years. The exaggerated big red lips are now just red lipstick, they don’t have fake Suriname accents any longer (or maybe one or two still have if you hire a very cheap Sint & Piet for your party). And also, the dynamics between Sint and Piet have changed. Actually changed dramatically over the last, say 20 years. Sint is more and more becoming a very old man who would be completely lost without the Pieten, and Piet has become way more clever, inventive and in most of the (many) tv programms and films about Sinterklaas, it’s a Piet who saves the day. Like I said before: he is superhero stuff. People who have dressed up as Piet only confirm that, kids look at Sint with respect and a bit of shyness, but they look at Piet with absolute adoration. My son has been a Piet at primary schools, and it nearly brought him to tears.

        Piet is evolving, and it’s a natural process, and maybe in 50 years time Piet will have a hazel skin and blue hair and the ability to fly, fine.

        And if a small group has problems with how Piet is portrayed and want to discuss that, fine, let’s set up meetings with city councils and school boards and let’s discuss the matter and see if there’s some middle ground.

        But what is not fine:
        – Shouting on live tv at six in the afternoon: ‘Sinterklaas doesn’t exist! Sinterklaas doesn’t exist!’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0emRIRZNatc)
        – Getting the UN involved with claims about human rights as if we’re suddenly trading slaves once more
        – Not-very-clever UN ‘consultants’ telling us we’re a bunch of filthy racists and why do we need two Santas (http://www.eenvandaag.nl/binnenland/47551/_zwarte_piet_terugkeer_naar_slavernij_en_moet_stoppen_)

        What’s also not fine:
        – Dutch white trash and neo-nazis posting horrible racist things on Facebook, Twitter and other social media
        – The foreign press using that as ‘proof’ that all Dutch white people are very, VERY racist and are about to re-install slavery.

        Um. Sorry for the ridiculously long reply?

      • 

        Long replies are okay! I appreciate well- thought out posts.

        I have read about how the story has changed over the years, and how Piet’s story/role has changed. But still then, why keep the red lips, black skin, and curly hair? Is it so central to the entire Sinterklaas tradition.

        I think that would be the way to start, having a discussion and seeing where there is a middle ground. Admittedly, my dutch is poor/virtually non existent, so I can’t follow all of the debates. Clearly this is a very emotional issue for both sides involved–anger on both sides, and both sides see the other’s responses as illogical.

        I understand that the whole celebration is a huge, huge deal for people in the Netherlands/Belgium, more than people here in the States can understand. From the Dutch people that I lived with for almost a year in Curacao, the time brought back happy memories of childhood, fun, friends, family and food. I actually think there are some really nice traditions involved with the holiday (I got a nice poem too) . I saw how parents took their kids to the parades and how fun it was for the whole family. I understand that.

        What I would hope is for people to take a breath and understand that while for many, Zwarte Piet with his black skin, curly hair, and red lips represent happy, warm feelings of holiday, family, and chocolate, for others this figure represents a painful past where black/African people were made fun of as goofy servants that took care of their white masters. I can speak for myself personally, when I saw the Zwarte Piets, I actually felt real, tangible shock/pain. I still feel that way now, even having read a lot about the history of the tradition and seeing it for myself. Again for a group of people a symbol can represent happiness/pleasure, for others that symbol can represent pain, and in my opinion, that is the basic human element underwriting the extreme emotional responses on both sides.

        Since a lot of my Dutch friends would bring up the American holiday of Thanksgiving, maybe this can be an example: As a kid I would go to school around Thanksgiving time and we would have fun activities where some of the class would dress up like Pilgrims and other kids would dress up like Native Americans. I think I remember making a little Native American headdress for arts and crafts and dressing up like one. I didn’t know anything about American history at the time. I grew up and started learned about America’s brutal history of violence and exploitation of the Native Americans in school. In recent years, I’ve learned how many Native Americans and those who identify with them refuse to celebrate the holiday because it attempts to paint the picture of the relations between early settlers and Native Americans as all friendly and warm and bubbles and unicorns. Now, while I still think the holiday is a great time for family and friends to get together to enjoy time together, I would never dress up like a Native American again, nor would I ever allow any future kid of mine to dress up like that because I know it is hurtful to people. I hope that there will be a time when the holiday can just be a holiday without the dressing up, or perpetuating a false/hurtful story about a group of people.

        Then again, most of the most dearly loved holidays in many societies have to have some “story” that becomes ritualized and replayed over and over. In the cases of the Sinterklaas/Thanksgiving holidays, while for many the days inspire pride in Dutch or US national history or identity, both countries have histories of brutally oppressing people of color, and those effects are still seen today.

        I agree with you that it is damaging to the conversation for the venom, harassments, racial insults, and even death threats to some people who have challenged Zwarte Piet. I myself have had some insults thrown at me as well. I know also it doesnt help to paint ALL Dutch as bigots, because I know that that is a very, very sensitive issue and people will automatically end in defensiveness. I suppose all one can hope for is for people to calm down, take a breath, think things through, and be willing to listen to each other.

        Long reply on my end! 🙂

  18. 

    This year has been a watermark on Zwarte Piet. The discussion has now gone over the border of anyone denying that there is criticism. Things actually are actually being changed, very little but that is still a small victory. The same points are being regurgitated again, but it is clear now that Piet will change.

  19. 

    It would be racism if Zwarte Piet was not welcome in The Netherlands for his and her looks. One more pigmentful man said he rather like to see a blonde ZP with blue eyes on RTL news. I am not a PVV voter, but Geert Wilders would be the first person who could play the role of Pete. After reading this story above, i believe it can be confusing for people, only to see the reaction of the adults who ruin a nice fest. What happened long the past was being noticed in books by someone long time ago. It was St. Nicolas bisshop of Myra that had set the Morish children slaves free. He handled against rules of the church and stood up for these slaves! Together with the Morish children he escaped from Myra to Spain via the Netherlands. St. Nichlolas was St. of the Maritime and Saint of the children! That we adults (specially in the Netherlands) know or should know. For children it is only a fest where they get presents when they are good. (There are no bad children, no matter what ethnic background someone has, we Dutch know that and St. Nicholas knew that as well!). Anyway, the discussion in Netherlands has risen up again and things will seem to look bit different. (dont know in which way yet). And black and white are no colors. Not say i am white, and that someone else is black. Because i am not white, and someone else is not black, we all have a color, and i have less pigment then some anti-ZP’s.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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