The Dutch And Zwarte Piet (Black Pete)By Collin Maessen on comment
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).
I have never heard of Zwarte Piet although I have to say that he/she looks a lot like a golliwog doll (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golliwogg). My grandmother was very fond of golliwogs but they went out of favour in Australia when I was a child because people felt that they were racist. Recently they have made something of a come back and I see these dolls in shops again. I don’t have an opinion on whether they are racist or not but my grandmother has a rather large collection of them.
Never heard about golliwog dolls, until you mentioned them. They don’t directly remind me of Zwarte Piet, although it does look to have a similar style as the more traditional chocolate and cookie shapes that we have of Zwarte Piet.
With the golliwog I see one very good reason why people saw it as racist (from the Wikipedia page):
That would do it for making people drop it. I’m not aware of any racial slurs that are derived from Zwarte Piet. But with some of the similarities between Zwarte Piet imagery and golliwog dolls this could be a contributing factor for the response from Brits.
Yes, the similarity to golliwogs could well be a factor in the response by Brits and others to your Zwarte Piet.
bless your grann, and its not racist!
It is very important to note, that only the FACE is black, the rest is covered white skin. Only his face is exposed to the charcoal in the chimneys, and that is also the reason why he wears gloves, and covers the rest of his body.
It should make sense to expose some of his white skin like the legs, or a bit of the arms.
But since Sinterklaas wants the Zwarte Pieten to wear luxury clothing (because he has a lot of money), most of the skin is covered with nice suits that match in style with Sinterklaas.
The answer that a lot of Dutch currently give that Zwarte Piet is black because he goes through chimneys is a modern interpretation. Like I mentioned when he was first introduced in the book Sint Nicolaas en zijn Knecht (Saint Nicholas and his Servant) he was someone of colour. Zwarte Piet is depicted as a dark person wearing clothes associated with Moors in it.
We also should not forget what happened later with the racial stereotypes that were prevalent in our country. How Zwarte Piet was depicted wasn’t exactly flattering towards those of colour, and that only changed recent. Somewhere around the middle of the 20th century (I don’t know the exact date when this shift happened).
For us these connotations and history are often lost as we only know the modern version of Zwarte Piet. And that’s a vastly different one than the derogatory version that existed before the current incarnation. Though some of the symbolism is still there in the current version and that’s what critics see.
It’s not how we see it nowadays or mean it towards those of colour. But they have a point with their criticism and because of that we can’t simply dismiss them due to our modern interpretation of Zwarte Piet.
Denial and motivated reasoning are strong in the Dutch regarding zwarte piet.
(And more seriously, there is a clear tendency to not try and understand what those opposing the current incarnation of Piet are complaining about. Instead dismissal as Zeurpiet.)
It would be interesting to record similarities between AGW denial and “zwarte piet is a racial stereotype” denial.
One has to keep in mind that AGW denial has serious financial backing, “zwarte piet is a racial stereotype” denial not so much (advertising companies may object to change the traditional imagery, but that is probably more about uncertainty accompanying change to a new imagery, than it is about their ability to advertise once a new imagery is settled).
Some insights might be gained.
I don’t think the initial response has to do with denial. Probably more with viewing it as an attack towards a beloved character with a good dash of not willing to listen and motivational reasoning. But it can certainly go towards denial when the history is pointed out.
Companies aren’t the dominant factor in the resistance to any changes in how Zwarte Piet looks. The resistance stems from that this is a very much loved Dutch tradition: the Sinterklaas celebration. Basically Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are as much loved as Santa Claus is in for example the United States. I think you can imagine the emotional response you would get when someone was critical about that tradition.
I like Zwarte Piet and don’t take offence with how he looks (thanks to our culture and that I grew up with it), but I’m damned well aware of the history and how others see it. That’s why I want to listen and see what we can do to resolve this issue. It’s also why it frustrates me that emotions reign which undermines progress towards a resolution.
Sure it is denial! The denial that it is a racial stereotype runs deep. Any suggestion that it might be the case is (in typically blunt Dutch way) shouted down. “We are not racists! The people who take offence should go back to their own country!” One can discuss reasons for this denial of course. CC Anology: “Probably more with viewing it as an attack towards a beloved burning of fossil fuels (read: cars, home heating) with a good dash of not willing to listen and motivational reasoning. But it can certainly go towards denial when the science is pointed out.)
Look here: http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2686/Binnenland/article/detail/3531694/2013/10/23/Geen-twijfel-Zwarte-Piet-stamt-af-van-kindslaven.dhtml
Some people object to this depiction of zwarte piet. Many Dutch plainly refuse to consider why some people object. They do not even consider the question that they might be wrong themselves. I call it denial.
I was actually pointing out that “CC”-Denial and “Zwarte piet is a racial stereotype”-denial are different, in that the former has industrial backing while the other has not. If comparing both kinds of denial this should be kept in mind.
Resolving the issue is easy. Make cosmetic changes to zwarte piet. That’s all. Now, convince those that feel a Dutch tradition is under attack to do that… The strongest argument I can think of is the following: If you want a Dutch tradition to survive in the present age, you should make sure that everyone in the Netherlands is comfortable with the tradition. (Now good luck! However, I expect you would find a lot of people arguing that “those newcomers” should not interfere (or better “go home”).)
Please, don’t underestimate the denial and ignorance in Dutch society!
This is what I said:
Take a good look at what I’ve made bold in the above quote. I was simply pointing out the this doesn’t have to start out with denying anything. It can simply be that someone is not aware of the meaning and history of certain imagery. Just give someone the benefit of the doubt till proven otherwise (I do the same when I engage others on climate change).
Motivated reasoning and denial can certainly crop up, an example of at least motivated reasoning is present in this comment section. Roel gave a modern interpretation for the look of Zwarte Piet that’s often told nowadays. And that was after I mentioned the origin of Zwarte Piet in this blog post.
Sure, you said “initial response” and I brushed that away. True. But given that discussions about Zwarte Piet seem to be happening about every year now, I am not sure how much of the present agitation can still be labelled under initial response.
I guess I see a lot of people not wanting to listen to the arguments of those having problems with zwarte piet for reasons to do with cultural/ideological identifications. I see parallels to climate change denial there as well. You apparently extend the benefit of doubt way longer than I do. That’s fine.
Don’t forget that children do grow up and when they stumble on these exchanges it’s a bit of a shock for them and very confusing.Yes, most adults by now should be aware of it but there’s always the odd case that for some reason isn’t familiar with the subject.
It’s because of this that I judge people on how they handle the information I give them. Just like in the public exchanges on climate change calling someone a denier from the start, without checking if it was just not knowing or a misunderstanding, entrenches people. This can be easily be counterproductive to your intended goals of informing people (I go in more depth of what I mean by this in the guest blog post ‘Collin Maessen on why language matters‘).
But yeah, there’s indeed a big problem with not wanting to listen. And I wish people wouldn’t instantly react and reject criticism. Confusion I can understand, that’s fine as long as you want to listen and understand the criticism.
Colin, I am not unsympathetic to your stance in this. However, I do notice a really vile undercurrent in the zwarte piet discussion. This can be exemplified by
(Yes, Elsevier I know… But the discussion thread is interesting. They disagree with each other more than they usually do. Note this gem: “Nederlanders zijn van nature niet racistisch.” 😀 )
I’ve read the blog post that’s referenced in the Elsevier article, it sickened me.
The Facebook comments in your second reference I’ve seen on for example nu.nl. And some mild example of that on my own facebook feed, although not even close to being that bad.
That’s why I made this closing statement:
Anyone saying anything close to what you linked to would be escorted off my website. I want to see more rational exchanges and I’m not planning on giving that level of vitriol and hate a platform.
“What I would like to see is some grace and rationality from both sides.”
Agreed. However, in the post above that appeared to be (to me) about the UN vs Netherlands. Regarding the discussion within NL I see vitriol coming mostly from one side. If you have counter examples that I have not stumbled across, let me know.
“Anyone saying anything close to what you linked to would be escorted off my website.”
I wasn’t expecting anything less than that!
“Don’t forget that children do grow up and when they stumble on these exchanges it’s a bit of a shock for them and very confusing.”
The thing with children is that they are growing up! I see no problem there. They will be shocked as they should be (part of the process). And I don’t think they will object to zwarte piet with an extreme make-over.
What remains: Zwarte piet modelled on Moor/Black (child) slaves/stereotypes. Some members of (former) immigrant communities taking issue with this depiction (others agree as well). Huge part of the Dutch taking issue with the issue takers and making all kinds of stuff up (or repeating the stuff) to show that zwarte piet is not a racial stereotype (denial, Dutch are not to blame). Some much smaller part of the Dutch (I guess politically motivated) telling the issue takers to go home to their own country. Nice…
Analogy: Climate discussers making all kinds of stuff up why humans are not to blame. Subsection of those actively making stuff up for others to repeat because of political/ideological reasons (And some because of industry backing).
Btw, apologies for letting of some steam here because of frustration with discussion levels elsewhere.
Well this post wasn’t exactly intended as an UN vs the Dutch post. What I said about the UN was just an example of a critic badly handling the situation, which then threw a lot of oil on the proverbial fire. Especially when people found out it wasn’t an official UN investigation.
I also don’t have a problem with modernizing Zwarte Piet in such a way to get rid of certain symbolism. But I hope we can do it in such a way that keeps the charm of Zwarte Piet intact.
Although with the amount of vitriol in the comment sections of the nu.nl article ‘Amsterdam-Zuidoost stemt tegen intocht met Zwarte Pieten‘ (Amsterdam-Souteast votes against Sinterklaas arrival with Black Petes) I have my doubts that we’ll manage anything soon.
Also there’s no problem whatsoever with ‘venting steam’, what you said was perfectly on-topic and reasonably. Which means it was well within my Community and Discussion Guidelines.
I don’t think you know what “blackface” means. The Tintin image in this post is not of people in blackface, it’s a (rather stereotypical) rendition of people in the Congo, which, admittedly, does look similar to people in blackface.
Blackface means using black or brown makeup to look like a stereotypical caricature of a black person, which is exactly what Zwarte Piet is, complete with an afro wig and red lips.
I do know what blackface is. The thing is that the term blackface is also used to refer to drawings or other quite stereotypical/racist depictions of those with a dark skin tone. I’m using this meaning.
If I’m not mistaken the style used for Tintin is called “darky”. But I didn’t go into this as I wanted to keep this blog post a bit short. Plus the term darky is even less known in Dutch culture than blackface (this article is both aimed at Dutch and English speaking foreigners).
My intent was to make people think and spark a discussion on the causes and how we can resolve this. Yes, I glossed over this detail, but it isn’t the only one. That’s why I included some links for people to give them a start place for learning more.
Hi, i read the comments here. I’m glad it’s on a different level.
Frankly i don’t care how zwartepiet looks like. But i do mind, if my children (4 & 8) recognize Piet as their neighbour. That would spoil the fun. And well,…we can’t dress Piet up as a clown. There will be, always,…a group offended if he has black or brown tone.
Making him blue or orange? Well,…i still tell my children Piet listens at the chimney if they behave,….going down our chimney bringing them presents (like Santa does), dark seems logical to me. Also the switch from dark to blue or orange is even for chlidren big.
My children don’t connect Piet to any inhabitants from any country they see on the street, we do tell them they are from Spain, yet they know nobody in spain looks like that. Blackface or darky, depictions they have never seen them. I understand why bringing it up, but without internet or wiki or google, many people would not know how “it” looks like. Only those with interest in history maybe do (like me).
I’m sad Sinterklaas has no elves, but that’s the way it is. Sinterklaas (Sint) is more real than Santa in a way. Santa can fit a small chimney less half his size, he can fly with a sled, has a rednose rendier. That’s how he can bring all the present in 1 night. Our Sint is more down to earth, and comes with a steamer from Spain bringing all kids (Netherlans / Belgium etc) presents in 1 night, and he needs help from Piet to do so, no magic to help.
In our factory were i work, children of my colleague from Holland / Germany / Marocco / Turkey we all love to celibrate Sinterklaas together. I think that’s the importent thing here. We have about 24 childeren each year. I would realy get angry if anyone spoils their fun.
Are we “grownups” realy not mature enough to look past by color and history instead of the now and present? I think the people reading this topic do.
Please look at it not as color or history, but from a children’s view.
What they know about color, is that God give us all different colors.
What they now about history is what we teach them.
And i will teach them about the Dino’s / Neanderthals / Euphrat & Tigris / Egypt & Mayans & Olmecs & Inca’s / Greece / Rome & Germanic tribes / Jesus & Budda / Knights & Armour & Crusades / Witch burn / VOC / Easter Island / Darwin / United States / Japan & the Art of war / Slavery / 1st world war / 2nd world war / Pasific War/ 1st A-bomb / cold war / moon race / Voyager 1 / Mars rovers / large hadron collider.
Finaly i hopefully teach them … how to live together and how not to make the same mistakes they did.
Respectfully yours, from The Neterlands.
I disagree with the comments about children disregarding skin colour. My lived experience is that such a thing is untrue. I grew up in Brabant and hated the Zwarte Piet tradition (although I did love Sinterklaas) because I was bullied for being of African descent and called Zwarte Piet (and other derogatory terms usually reserved for black people) by other children. They pointed to my curly hair, my darker skin and the fact that I had fuller lips and literally taunted me from the age of 3-4. It didn’t help that when it came to November/ December time Zwarte Piet usually made a comment about how we matched.
It made me very uncomfortable in my own skin, and year in year out made me feel excluded from everyone else. On top of that, I didn’t feel comfortable discussing the fact it made me feel uncomfortable because everyone loves Zwarte Piet. It was only leaving the Netherlands, and discussing it with other ex pats that I realized that I am not the only person that felt that way growing up. I wish I could say its changed, but I had a chat with my 5 year old cousin the other day and he was upset because a school bully has convinced the rest of the class that Zwarte Piet is his father.
So I am personally all for changing Zwarte Piet. No child should feel inferior because Zwarte Piet (no matter how revered) is at the end of the Sinterklaas’ servant and inferior to the white sinterklaas.
Well there are a couple of very important caveats that do come into play here. Young children really don’t care about skin colour (this is the group I’m referring to). They might be a bit confused, or scared because it might be something they haven’t seen yet. However, they just tend be curious and when when handled correctly it shouldn’t be an issue (nor when they get older).
However, if this isn’t handled correctly. Like in the case parents not properly educating their children, or not intervening when something happens, then this can become a problem. Children can be extremely mean if somewhere along the lines this isn’t handled correctly. Which then can easily turn into bullying when bullies notice that they have something that they can use.
This is also where the lack of awareness from adults on these issues of skin colour and how Zwarte Piet is perceived by others comes into play. Like you mentioned with the remark made from Zwarte Piet that you match with him. That’s not OK and legitimizes some of the behaviour you mentioned.
I have to say though that I’m lived that nobody interfered when you, or your cousin, where bullied with this. That’s not how someone should be introduced to this tradition or experience it for years. No matter what anyones opinion is on the tradition.
The current suggestions for changes are, I think, a good step. Although the kleurpieten just don’t look like a good idea, they are just too silly. The rest looks like a good practical solution.