Dear Dutch People: Zwarte Piet is racist

zwarte piet is racist blackface

An examination of the Dutch holiday Sinterklaas, and my reasons for saying that the use of blackface for Zwarte Piet is racist and wrong. 

Nothing says Christmas like chestnuts roasting on an open fire, reindeers with red noses, and… BLACKFACE?!

Every year I am disgusted by holiday celebrations that take place every December in the Netherlands, in which locals literally paint their faces black in order to depict “Zwarte Piet”, the fictional companion of Sint-Nicolaas (Santa Claus is largely based on this character).

This might tick my Dutch friends off, but it needs to be said: the current iteration of Zwarte Piet is RACIST and WRONG. I discuss why and provide more context in my new video.

blackface zwarte piet

But I’m shocked that in 2016 we’re still having this conversation. BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT COSTUMES. WE ARE NOT HERE FOR YOUR AMUSEMENT. BLACKFACE IS NEVER OKAY.

Have you ever seen or heard about this? What are your thoughts? Do you think Zwarte Piet is racist? Or do you think the use of blackface in this context is okay?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am super passionate about educating others about the socio-political aspects of travel.

I make these videos and write these blogs to initiate dialogue and encourage others to seek other perspectives.

So please, if you’re feeling this video (and even if you’re not!) I would appreciate it if you like and share, especially with your Dutch friends, and make sure you subscribe to my Youtube channel. Let’s discuss!

************************

I first debuted this video on Facebook, and the response has been very mixed.  I got a number of comments that respectfully dissected my assessment of this practice, but I also got a great deal of vitriolic comments that were extremely inappropriate.  Some disgruntled people called ME racist for saying that Zwarte Piet is racist.

Amongst those comments, I had a good number Dutch people citing that Sinterklaas has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. Quite respectfully, I would tend to disagree, and here’s my reasons as to why:

ABOUT THE DIFFERENCES/SIMILARITIES BETWEEN SINT-NICOLAS/SINTERKLAAS AND SANTA CLAUS/ CHRISTMAS:

“As I found in my research, the North American figure of Santa Claus is heavily based on the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas.

And before you ask, yup, I’m fully aware that the feast of St. Nick is on December 6 (that’s exactly why I put out the video a couple days ago, *wink wink*), and that the Kerstman figure is more similar (at least in appearance) to Santa Claus.

sinterklaas zwarte piet racist

For the purpose of brevity (and also because these details have absolutely NO bearing on the use of Blackface by those who portray the Zwarte Piet character) I chose not to include that nuance in my video.

We could speak all day about the nuances between Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, St. Nick, Kris Kringle, and Father Christmas, but as those nuances were not central to my argument and the thrust of the video, I did not include them.

Again, I repeat, the differences/similarities between Dutch and North American Sinterklaas/Christmas have absolutely nothing to do with the point of my video, which was to call out the use of Blackface.

And, in my opinion, continually citing that Sinterklaas has nothing to do with Christmas means either that you:

1) Missed the point of the video completely or
2) Are deliberately trying to derail the conversation at hand. Which, once again, is about Blackface and how, though it is “tradition”, is considered to be wholly inappropriate and harmful to certain segments of the population.

But, with that said, I’m open to discussing why I related Sinterklaas and Santa Claus/Christmas/Kerstman.

In my eyes, the spirit is the same: all are figures that derived/are linked to St. Nicholas, who is the patron saint of children.

They all, in some way or another, give gifts, and they all are accompanied by helpers (Santa by his elves, Sinterklaas by Zwarte Pieten).

That Sinterklaas comes in from a boat from Spain in mid-November, or Santa Claus from the North Pole on a sleigh with reindeer at the end of December, the spirit is the same.

Whether Sinterklaas gives little Dutch boys and girls presents on December 5 or Santa Claus gives little North American boys and girls presents on December 25, guess what? The spirit is still the same. Gift giving. Children. A central figure who comes from afar to distribute gifts and spread cheer.

We’re not talking apples and oranges here. And even if we were, whether Sinterklaas is or isn’t Christmas is completely IRRELEVANT to the discussion at hand, which is the use of BLACKFACE.

Traditions die hard. I understand that. Having “an outsider” call out a practice that you hold dear can feel like an affront. I understand that. But if your initial reaction to respectful and polite discussion is anger and resorting to name-calling… then you may want to examine why you are so incensed.

I made this video to welcome discussion and most definitely welcome debate and dissent (which is why in the video I appealed to Dutch people to speak up and out).

Thanks everybody!”

What are your views on this phenomenon? Do you think Zwarte Piet is racist? Regardless of your feelings about blackface, do you think it’s wrong for an “outsider” to speak up cultural traditions that are not their own?

6 Comments

  • Caroline says:

    Sinterklaas is also celebrated in Belgium, so I’ve grown up with this tradition. I want to point out though that in our culture, regardless of the original folklore etc., Sinterklaas and Christmas are completely unrelated.

    That being said, I completely agree Zwarte Piet is racist. It’s so hard to voice that opinion though, since the general opinion appears to be “it’s a harmless figure aimed towards kids and there are so many other bad things going on that the issue is really not worth focusing on”. Furthermore, I find it incredibly difficult that we, as western people, are quick to point out “flaws” (sometimes deserved and sometimes not) in other cultures, but when a racist tradition in ours is pointed out to us, we go on the defensive and refuse to change anything about it. No one is asking to eliminate Zwarte Piet from the story, only to alter his appearance (ie a smudged face, no wig, …) so it is not racist. But the only people I personally know who agree with me, are foreigners who did not grow up with this tradition, and it makes me incredibly sad.

  • Jennie says:

    Oneika, you are number ONE in my book and I am a 75 year old white woman.

    Jennie

  • Dear mis informed woman of modern stance about race and origins of Swarte Piet.
    You clearly have not researched your topic before spuoting off about what YOU specifically have formed as irrational and self serving opinions about a fabled Dutch Tradition that goes back many centuries old.
    Often dating back to the times when Germanic and Dutch people first started the Kristmaas Holidays tradition…Might want to also look up Krampus in Germany.
    Black Pete is an important figure for the Dutch Sinterklaas celebrations on December 5th. Much controversy surrounds the figure of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet). The biggest problem lies in the fact that people can’t say: I don’t agree with you in an acceptable way. On both sides this is accompanied by insults, cursing each other out, silencing people or worse. Some claim that Zwarte Piet is racist, but this claim is far too strong, considering his origins, history, and practices. Most people do not know the cultural back story that this tradition is set in. The very negative judgement on Black Pete is based on incomplete and incorrect information about the celebration and the figure of Black Pete. This leads to conclusions that do not take into account the Dutch and European history of the celebrations that play an important part in Black Pete. This history is ignored as if it never took place. The approach from colonialism and slavery usually doesn’t leave any room for this other history to be considered and suggestions for change take the form of forced obligation that should have no place in this discussion. Some antipete groups are quick to put the label of racist on anyone who doesn’t agree with their statements or is critical about the claims that are made and the sources that are used. This attitude is wrong and harmful. Even more because information provided on Black Pete is too often incorrect and incomplete.

    Traditions of original inhabitants.
    Most likely there is room for improvement where his looks are concerned for negative associations to go away seeing as he does look a lot like blackface now. Changing Black Pete and the direction this should take, should take into account the feelings of all people affected by this change and their respective history. To claim that Pete is racist without taking anything else into account even denying other explanations of the character are incomplete and can therefore never be “the truth”. This seems to be completely lost in the urge to get Black Pete on the agenda and this is not right. Also people should take into account the many changes Black Pete has undergone both in behaviour and appearance. The current Black Pete is not the Black Pete of peoples youth (even though the connection with our ancestors is apparent and should stay that way!) A lot is changed already and people should be aware of that. Also people should get themselves acquanted with the whole history of Black Pete and not focus solely on one aspect, take it out of context and put it under a looking glass. This complete history should be told to children also! It is very important that all of the information should play a role in the discussion between the pro’s and anti’s.
    It is very important to consider that he is part of the tradition of the indigenous peoples of this region, regardless of other influences that may have had an effect on him in some cases! It should also be noted that this doesn’t affect Black Pete as a whole and it isn’t factual to make these claims as a generalisation. This means at least that he should not be destroyed or changed beyond recognition, just because people do not understand or like the tradition. The black colour is an important and original element. This is 2014 and it may be expected for all people to take this into consideration regarding this issue.

    On this website the right to protest against Black Pete is supported. This also goes for the right of others to disagree with certain claims that are made by anti-Black Pete groups. Racism is something that should be eliminated from society. Extremist views and violence surrounding this issue from both the pro- and the antiside are strongly opposed. Working towards a solution is the goal.

    This site provides information on the origins and history of this character. Many people seem to think that Zwarte Piet was introduced only 150 years ago, but this is not true. Black Pete, or the companion of Sinterklaas, dates back to pagan times. When the church wanted to wipe out the pagan traditions, they added the character of Sinterklaas. This pagan character (Zwarte Piet) became the companion of Saint Nicholas. In the Netherlands, as well as in the whole of Europe, Sinterklaas (aka Santa Claus) is accompanied by an (often black) helper. His appearance varies from country to country, but he can (usually) be recognized by four distinctive characteristics:
    1. His masquerade (of which the simplest form is a black face)
    2. His chain
    3. His bag or basket (sometimes filled with coals). In the Netherlands, the sweets (pepernoten) and presents are in the bag.
    4. His switch (roe)
    also hides and horns are often seen.

    Overlap in appearance, conduct and character
    The overlap that is visible in the black face between the historical Black Pete figures and the current Black Petes sticks out here. In the review of what Blackface is we will also address overlap in his conduct and character. It is important that people are aware of this when trying to interpret the figure. Clinging rigidly to a one-dimensional explanation for the current Black Pete is both incomplete and wrong. Changing Black Pete to a figure that doesn’t look like blackface should take into account the importance of the figure being unrecognizable, history and the symbolism of black and white in the celebration. The nightly visit from Black Pete and the fact that his face is invisible in the night, is a crucial part of the celebration. Who doesn’t stand by the front door and is sure that he sees Black Pete disappear in the night right after the doorbell has rung or a heavy knockin was heard and the bag with presents stands at the door! This being able to/not being able to see Black Pete is very important!


    Through the chimney
    Pete is Black because he travels through the chimney. There is a lot of controversy regarding this explanation. People who oppose Black Pete assume that this is just a lame excuse to cover up his real being. If you look at the other giftbringers in Europe however you will find that this explanation is used everywhere to explain the blackness of these midwintercreatures. This is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the fact that Black Pete is much older that most people think and that this was said about predecessors (e.g. the Black Klazen (Nicholasses) and the figures with hides and horns) that did exist in the Netherlands before 1850 and also that Black Pete is very closely tied to these other giftbringers and has a common origin. The chimney explanation is used for Schmutzli (Zwitserland), for Befana (Italy) and for Pere Fouettard (France), and for Knecht Ruprecht (Germany).
    The Reformation
    During the reformation, the Sinterklaas tradition was attacked by the church. The people, however, kept celebrating. This means that the absence of Sinterklaas and Black Pete in drawings and paintings can also be attributed to this. Some people see this as evidence that black Black Petefigures didn’t exist before 1850, but there is much valuable information available to contradict this belief.The heavy rattling with chains and bells, knocking on doors which is spoken of in many old Dutch texts refers to the fact that there were certainly figures going around around December 5th in the same manner as we remember Black Pete. This website tries to gather this information and make it available, so everyone can form their own opinion.

    As most of the information about Black Pete is in Dutch (and therefore not accessible to people that do not know the language), the information presented on this site will be in English whenever possible. (This page in Dutch.)

    Acknowledgement
    The sources for this information are the following books. If information from a specific book is used, the name of the writer is mentioned (i.e. (Janssen) refers to Nicolaas, de duivel en de doden). Information about sources can be found here:

    Frodsham, Paul
    From Stonehenge to Santa Claus: the evolution of Christmas
    2008 The history press, Gloucestershire

    Janssen, Louis
    Nicolaas, de duivel en de doden
    1993 AMBO Baarn

    Renterghem, Tonny van
    Het geheim van Sinterklaas en de Kerstman
    Waarin u de duistere kanten en de magische krachten ontdekt van onze oeroude heidense volksgebruiken.
    1996, Kosmos-Z&K Uitgevers, Utrecht/Antwerpen
    English title: When Santa was a shaman: ancient origins of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree 1995 Llewellyn publications

    Scheer, Arnold-Jan
    Wild Geraas, Mijn wonderlijke reizen met Sinterklaas en kerstman.
    2010 Uitgeverij Aspekt, Soesterberg

  • Polly says:

    I wrote a paper on depictions of the Feast of Saint Nicholas and its surrounding traditions in a Dutch art history class. I conflated the holiday with Christmas a few times – my professor took off points for that. I understood that she did that to remind an American college student that the Netherlands considers them separate, but at the same time, I was like – really?

    In any case, I think being receptive to “outside” opinions on traditions can only help, especially as we become more connected. Zwarte Piet seems more clear-cut, given the fact that he’s at least in part a reflection of the Netherlands’ colonial past.

  • I lived in Holland in 2005 while doing my master’s, and this was a question I (and my fellow American classmates, both black and white) raised many times to my Dutch peers, many of whom were black. They didn’t seem to see the issue with it, which blows my mind! And yes, to reference the dissenters above, I know the story and the background. And still I’m shocked that, in 2017, the Netherlands has such customs, and I agree with you 100 percent (being a white girl, mind you, so I can’t even fathom how this must make you feel).

Comments are closed.