The time of year has again arrived in The Netherlands that we’re looking forward to our annual Sinterklaas tradition. Especially the children are looking forward to the arrival of Sinterklaas as this means candy and presents. What’s not to like about that when you’re a child?
For us adults it’s fun to see all this as we remember how it was for us when we were little. Every adult also knows someone who has helped as a Zwarte Piet or Sinterklaas. These are roles that are taken very seriously as we have fond memories of this tradition. Especially of Zwarte Piet who always was fun to be around, especially as that was the person you could get candy from (they often carry really big bags filled with candy).
Every year I also try to watch the official arrival of Sinterklaas on TV (or ‘intocht’ as we call it). There’s always a lot to see during that event:
Considering a lot of my readers are foreigners you are probably shocked at how Zwarte Piet looks. Especially with the blackened faces and red lipstick that’s used for the Zwarte Piet costumes, it’s very reminiscent of the racist blackface. For foreigners visiting our country this is often quite shocking and people are complaining that this is a racist tradition.
But when you say that Zwarte Piet is racist to one of my fellow countrymen you often just get a confused look. For them it’s not racist towards those of colour. To them it sounds as ridiculous as saying to an American that Santa’s elves is a derogatory tradition that mocks those with dwarfism. That would earn you an equally confused look from the American you said it to.
Why most Dutch don’t see Zwarte Piet as racist has a lot to do with our culture and history. So lets dive into our culture and history for a bit to create some context. One of the important things you need to know about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is that originally Sinterklaas wasn’t accompanied by a servant. Zwarte Piet was introduced in a story in 1845. When first introduced Zwarte Piet was just a background character, but this book is the basis for a lot of our current traditions.
One of the interesting things is that when Zwarte Piet was introduced slavery was already under severe pressure to be banned or was already banned. It’s in this period that you see some of the origin stories of Zwarte Piet dealing with slavery. Sinterklaas often plays the role of either protector against bullying or buys the freedom of Zwarte Piet. There was a very noticeable message in those stories that slavery is bad.
However, in the hands of the public this message was eventually lost. The common derogatory view towards those of colour was incorporated into how Zwarte Piet looked and behaved. He was depicted as stupid and didn’t speak in a language that you could understand. It’s this period that created the look of Zwarte Piet.
However, how Zwarte Piet behaved changed drastically when more immigrants of African descend arrived in The Netherlands. We Dutch realized that this depiction of Zwarte Piet was racist and derogatory towards those of colour. The Zwarte Piet that emerged from this was a competent, although a mischievous, helper of Sinterklaas. The Pieten are the ones that use their skills to make the yearly celebration possible so that Sinterklaas can give children their presents (they are our version of Santa’s elves). It’s this Zwarte Piet that we Dutch see: the smart and fun Zwarte Piet.
Another important detail is that blackface as seen by foreigners isn’t really a part of modern Dutch culture. The reason for this is that very few since my generation have been exposed to this. The only place I ever encountered blackface was in for example old Kuifje (Tintin) comics:
I distinctly remember that those depictions confused me as a child; it didn’t match with how people looked or acted. I never made the connection between Zwarte Piet and blackface until I heard foreigners talk about this. For us Zwarte Piet and someone of colour are two very different things.
But for other cultures blackface was, and still is, a very prominent symbol of racism. It reminds them of the days that those that weren’t white weren’t seen as equal. Also lets not forget that there’s still is a lot of racism in the world. Foreigners (or those of African decent) often see Zwarte Piet in this context. A very different context than the one from which we Dutch see our Zwarte Piet.
So I do understand where people come from when they say that Zwarte Piet is racist. I also understand why 92% of my fellow countrymen don’t see Zwarte Piet as symbol for slavery (or racist). To my fellow countrymen these claims of racism are seen as an attack towards a loved character who brings joy to children. As you can imagine that doesn’t tend to go down well and garners emotional responses like “Shut up! It’s tradition!”
What also isn’t helping is that the UN is investigating if this tradition is racist and should be abolished. Verene Shepherd, who is part of the workgroup investigating this, has already said that it is a throwback to slavery and says that this tradition should be banned. This didn’t go down well especially when she said that we already have two Santa Clauses and that one should be enough (page is in Dutch, an alternative for English readers can be found here).
What she’s referring to with the two Santa Clauses remark are both Sinterklaas and the Santa Claus Americans know; she thinks we have both traditions in our country. What she doesn’t know, and a lot of my fellow countrymen do, is that Santa Claus is derived from our Sinterklaas tradition. To us Santa Claus is just nice symbolism and decoration, it’s not part of our cultural traditions.
On both sides tempers are flaring on this matter. Personally I don’t think we should ban Zwarte Piet, although I don’t have any ideas for what might be a good solution to this situation. But we Dutch can’t just dismiss criticism from those that take offense to this tradition.
The Netherlands isn’t the only country in this world. Other countries and cultures are free to criticize us and we are free to criticize them. What I would like to see is some grace and rationality from both sides. And a willingness to at least try to understand each others viewpoints. That is how we can finally find a solution to this culture clash.
What I said here is just a small part of the history and context of Zwarte Piet. There’s far more that can be said and good starting points are the Wikipedia pages for Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas.
Update 24-10-2013 @ 18:26:
Apparently the UN investigation isn’t an official investigation. Verene Shepherd is a consultant and used UN letterhead to ask questions for a personal investigation under the UN name. The other three signers of the letter are also consultants and don’t have an official position within Unesco. This was confirmed in the media by Marc Jacobs who is the Belgium spokesperson for Unesco (linked page is in Dutch).