Zwarte Piet And The Dutch Culture Wars

Zwarte Piet by Sander van der Wel

Zwarte Piet by Sander van der Wel

A little over a year ago I wrote about Zwarte Piet and the controversy that had flared up surrounding him. Though the aim of that article was to give some context to foreigners about the history of Zwarte Piet and why the responses are so emotional when Zwarte Piet is critiqued.

Completely understandable that the first reaction is based in emotion as we adults have fond memories of Sinterklaas’ helper. We are after all talking about the person who throws candy at you and is the one who hands you your presents.

It’s also understandable that counterarguments are raised towards the critcisms about Zwarte Piet. Like how there was a strong anti-slavery message in some of the early origin stories. But this doesn’t change that there are some serious unsavory parts in the history of Zwarte Piet.

One example is that at the beginning of the previous century Zwarte Piet was depicted as stupid and didn’t speak Dutch properly. It’s also from this period that the current look of Zwarte Piet emerged that foreigners take offense to:

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It’s these responses that shocked me when I first heard them years ago. They’re also the reason I wanted to understand why it shocked people. I didn’t like what I learned about how foreigners see some of the symbolism used for Zwarte Piet. Just the symbolism behind the makeup alone made me understand that Zwarte Piet needs to change. Blackface is not something I want to be used for Zwarte Piet and be despised because of.

Minstrel Poster Billy Van WareBut a lot of my fellow countrymen don’t know what blackface is. They don’t know that blackface is a symbol of racism. It reminds those of colour of the days that they weren’t seen as equals.

What makes this problem worse is that most of my fellow countrymen don’t seem to be able to go beyond an emotional response to the criticisms raised against Zwarte Piet. They see it solely as an attack on a character they love and because of that don’t try to understand why he’s considered offensive.

What has happened the past year because of this I can only describe as a culture war. Emotions are flaring on both sides and both sides are becoming more and more entrenched. Reasonable and polite exchanges are extremely rare, most of the time it’s gut reactions and a lot of yelling at each other.

One incident of note happened when the Dutch grocer Albert Heijn decided to not include Zwarte Piet in their advertisements (translation). This caused Zwarte Piet supporters to boycott Albert Heijn, despite them still selling candy with depictions of Zwarte Piet that most foreigners would find offensive.

A similar backlash happened when it leaked that the retail store HEMA was considering not using any depictions of Zwarte Piet in 2015 (translation). When HEMA announced financial issues this was met with the predictable cheers and hope that HEMA would go bankrupt (though the financial issues aren’t related to the boycott).

We also have people of colour, or other immigrants, working to outright ban Zwarte Piet. The attempts of banning the arrival of Sinterklaas (Sinterklaas intocht) and the parade in Amsterdam also didn’t help. The legal kerfuffle around the parade in Amsterdam of last year is still going on (translation). We’re even at the point where one of the biggest Sinterklaas festivities companies doesn’t work anymore in Amsterdam-Zuidoost due to real safety concerns (translation).

What worries me the most is how this is fueling anti-immigrant sentiments. This always rears its ugly head during Zwarte Piet discussions, I’ve lost count how often I’ve seen variations of “it’s our culture, if you don’t like it then leave.” Which is one of the ‘milder’ statements.

Wilders-2010-croppedSo it wasn’t a surprise to me that the political party PVV led by Geert Wilders started capitalizing on this. I’ve already written about how this party wants to ban the Quran, proposed a hijab tax (which Wilders called a “head rag tax“), or bar those with multiple citizenship from voting. With the latest development being Wilder proposing a Zwarte Piet law (translation).

If this law would be accepted (which I seriously doubt it ever will be) a Sinterklaas intocht would only be allowed if “Zwarte Piet has a solid black or dark brown face, red-painted lips, black curly hair and gold earrings, and is dressed in a velvety suit with knickerbockers and wears a hat with a colored feather.” This would be a huge step backward with trying to find solutions to the current cultural problems.

Despite all this I’m hopeful that we Dutch will find a solution to this culture war. As I’m writing this I’m watching the national broadcast of the arrival of Sinterklaas in the Dutch city Gouda (yes, this is the city where the Gouda cheese comes from). This year the national arrival of Sinterklaas has white Zwarte Pieten as helpers (translation). They’re also using Zwarte Pieten in soot makeup and other colours. Considering that this is the national arrival of Sinterklaas, and broadcasted live on TV, this is a very big change.

The arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam will use Zwarte Pieten without the gold earrings and the bright red lips. The most noticeable change Amsterdam made is that Zwarte Pieten will use soot makeup instead of the solid brown or black. What inspired this change is the story that Zwarte Piet is black due the soot from the chimney that he uses to enter your home to deliver your presents.

Across The Netherlands Sinterklaas committees are promising changes (translation) that they’re going to make the coming years. Of course this will not happen without its fair share of problems. Or some fierce resistance from the Dutch that don’t understand the underlying issues.

However, these changes have made me hopeful that we will find solutions for the objections to Zwarte Piet. So that I, and future generations, can still indulge in this very Dutch tradition.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.