It's this time of a year again; it’s December and it is coming along with Christmas traditions. I was an exchange student in Argentina when I first heard about the Sinterklaas tradition. While I was talking about “Nikolaus”, my Danish friend talked about “Juleaften” my Belgian friend started talking about the tradition of “Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet”. “The people paint their faces black, make their lips look big and red, put on an afro, golden earrings and a costume and walk around the city and give candy to children”, she explained. “Wait a minute, that sounds weird, are you sure we understood you the right way?”, we wanted to clarify. But when she showed us the pictures, we realized that blackface was a thing that was “normal” in Belgium and the Netherlands. My Belgian friend tried to justify “But it is culture, you don't understand, we grew up with it!”
Saint Nicholas has been celebrated for at least 700 years in the Netherlands and traditionally is based on a 4th-century bishop. There was no slave character involved until 1850 when Jan Schenkmann invented a children book that defined many of today's traditions. Black Pete was inspired by a slave and his character is based on a stereotypical description of black people in the 19th century. In the story, Sinterklaas (the Saint) and his servant/helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) come by boat from Spain to distribute presents to children. Black Pete is portrayed as a scary character who punishes children and takes them away if they misbehave. Mark Walraven explains that songs written before World War 2 often called Black Pete Sinterklaas’ slave. “In the end, Black Pete always comes across as a little stupid, clumsy and one who talks strangely and doesn’t speak proper Dutch.” Black activists warn that children were thus raised associating black people which the scary black Pete character.
An old white man plays Sinterklaas and Black Pete is also played by a white man who dresses in minstrel clothing and paints his face black. As Dr. Adrienne Keene explains, the problem is that “you are pretending to be a race that you are not and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so”. In the United States, it has “been clearly established that blackface is something that's at best in bad taste and at worst an act of unflinching racism. So, by participating in the act, people are admitting that they don't care who they offend or what symbols of oppression they perpetuate.”
“The majority here in Holland refuses to talk about Black Pete” because the vast majority of the Dutch population still supports the tradition. Sinterklaas is celebrated in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Northern France, and some places with Dutch colonial influences. Some places have already deemed “Black Pete”. In Curacao protests against Black Pete have resulted in celebrating the tradition with “rainbow Pete”. In Suriname, unanimous parliamentary action in 2011 banned Black Piet from public spaces and schools because “this celebration has a racist element and doesn’t belong in our community. It should be abolished,” as politician Ronald Venetiaan explained. In Canada, an African-Canadian committee threatened to protest against the New Westminster Sinterklaas events in Vancouver. The organizers had to cancel the events because the Dutch community did not want to abolish the racist performance of Black Pete. “We can’t celebrate Sinterklaas without Black Pete. You can’t pull these two apart”, the organizer Tako Slump explained. Also here in Brazil, in Holambra, a city with high Dutch influence, Sinterklaas is still celebrated.
In 2011, a group of human rights activists led by Quinsy Gario created a project aiming to initiate a dialogue based on facts, because they sensed “a want of historical knowledge about the figure of Zwarte Piet”. They demand that people ‘study the origin of the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet and ask yourself the question if that is still acceptable in today’s world.” The group went to the Sinterklaas arrival in Dordrecht to protest with banners and T-shirts reading “Black Pete is Racism” and “The Netherlands can do better”. While they were peacefully protesting Gario was soon “violently thrown to the ground, held there and repeatedly kneed in the back, dragged away and pepper-sprayed, even though he didn’t resist”.
The arrest was video recorded and the original YouTube video went viral. The arrest was reported as a violation of Gario’s human rights and the video was shown in Italian, Indian, French, Norwegian, and US newspapers and websites - but not on Dutch television. During anti-racism protests against the Black Pete tradition in 2014, “60 people were arrested for demonstrating in unauthorized areas, and 30 for disturbing the peace". On national TV, Gario stated “Black Pete ridicules our heritage. This is a slave caricature; why are we teaching it to our children?”. At the time many people in the Netherlands were surprised and shocked because they had never thought of Pete as racist. Few Dutch people know their own history and thus do not understand the connotations of the tradition - this is what is called unintended racism.
In the Netherlands the tradition continues to be supported and only recently “when foreign media started covering the tradition, it became apparent that Black Pete is not “just a funny folkloristic character” but in fact, a blatantly racist stereotype.” as Joost de Vries explains. The sides have divided and in 2018, even Nazi salutes, Nazi flags and Nazi slogans were used by white supremacists during Sinterklaas parades throughout the Netherlands. In Eindhoven, about 250 white extremists “threw eggs and beer cans at people peacefully protesting the parade” and the Black Pete tradition.
Even Dutch newspapers like De Telegraaf defended the tradition saying it was “an integral part of a Dutch custom that has been one of the country's most important traditions and vital to our heritage”. They delegitimized the protesters by stating Black Pete is “simple and innocent children’s festival that has been unjustly attacked and from which no one need feel excluded” and that “it has never been proven that the “Black Peter” figure incites discrimination or racism or any kind of negative image of people with dark skins”.
The problem is that it is often the offending group that sets the guidelines for what is offensive to subjugated groups. The dominant group is acting on their hegemonic privilege; “because I don't feel offended by it, you shouldn't either”. The problem arises when things are taken from less dominant cultures “for fun or fashion, perhaps, and out of a place of ignorance rather than knowledge of that culture” and in ways that members of that culture find undesirable and offensive - as is the case with this tradition. There is an intrinsic power dynamic in this process which oppresses others directly or indirectly. And clearly anti-racism groups like “Black Pete is Racism” and “Kick Out Zwarte Piet” are telling us that it is time for a change.
Supporters of the tradition say Black Pete is just the “friendly helper” of Sinterklaas, while the anti-Pete side points to the colonial relationship of a white master and black servant. Supporters of the tradition will tell you the tale that Black Pete is not even meant to be a black man at all. Instead, he is black because he went through the chimney soot. But this does not explain why he speaks with a Caribbean accent and looks just like a racist caricature of a 17th-century house slave. The supporters of Black Pete will say “it's not about him being black, he could be of any color”. But the stereotypical representation of Black Pete and his appearance refers directly to the Dutch history of colonialism and slavery - a fact that is widely neglected by Dutch society. The Netherlands was deeply involved and grew prosperous by engaging heavily in the transatlantic slave trade before it abolished slavery in 1863. In paintings of the time, enslaved people are shown in paintings wearing colorful, Moorish clothing similar to Zwarte Piet. The pro-Pete side argues that Black Pete is a tradition and that the others have to accept that. The opponents will say that Dutch society is no longer a homogeneous white society and that traditions need to adopt to new circumstances.
Supporters will say it’s a children’s tradition and has no racist intent, it is “harmless” and what the Dutch people grew up with. “The Dutch tend to argue that Black Pete is a Dutch thing, and other people outside the Netherlands don’t understand our culture,” says Mitchell Esajas, co-founder of Kick Out Zwarte Piet. “But it is part of an international tradition of racial stereotyping.” The fact that many foreigners are shocked when they are confronted with this tradition, should cause some reconsideration about the tradition.
Further, if it was just about the “children”, then Black Pete supporters should consider that reports state that children of color experience more racial slurs and bullying during the Black Pete season. “Probably every black person in the Netherlands has been called a “Black Piet” at least once in his or her life. Especially in the weeks prior to December 5. “It hurts, it always has and always will,” says Marthe van der Wolf. “Growing up celebrating Sinterklaas I felt excluded as my face didn’t need to be painted… After all these years I have finally figured out why it is distressing to me when referred to as Black Piet. And now that I know, I can’t express this, for I would upset white people’s feelings.”
Imro Rietveld, who was bullied during the month of December each year for his color said that “some people are afraid to speak out against Black Peter because they are worried about being ridiculed or even losing their jobs”. Moreover, Jessica Silversmith explains that it is all kind of Dutch people who complain about the tradition - not only Antilleans or Surinamers and that “Nobody is against the Sinterklaas celebration or is calling people who celebrate it racist. But it is time to consider whether this is offensive, whether there actually are racist ideas underlying Zwarte Piet.”
Esajas and Gario, the founders of “Black Pete is Racism” have been able to convince some cities and schools to ban blackface and also the Dutch police announced it won’t allow Piet costumes at its holiday parties after 2020, - but this is far from enough. It's time for a change in the Netherlands!
*Laura Hülsemann is the Brazil Correspondent for Frank Creations. She is a German student of the Bachelor “International Relations and Organisations” at Leiden University. At the moment she is doing an exchange with the Institute of Philosophies and Humanities (Instituto de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas) at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. There she writes a column about international affairs in the Human Rights Journal “Humanista” and specializes in Human & Women Rights, Brazilian & Colonial History and Journalism. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org