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Children's hero or racist stereotype? The case of ‘Zwarte Piet'

The Netherlands: a country known for its progressive legislation and open attitude towards multiculturalism, sexual and racial minorities, soft drugs, abortion and euthanasia. In light of recent events, however, these ideals might seem far from reality.

 

The country has recently made the news for something that seems antithetical to its ideological beliefs: the widespread depiction of racial stereotypes during the major holiday event of Sinterklaas.The problem? Sinterklaas, a figure based on the catholic St. Nicholas and a model for the modern Santa Claus himself, has some pretty unorthodox helpers. Instead of elves and reindeer, this Saint Nick is helped by what appear to be slave-like servants in blackface, called 'Zwarte Pieten', or 'Black Peters'.

 

To foreign eyes, the 'Zwarte Piet' figures, which can be seen everywhere in the Netherlands in the run-up to the Sinterklaas holiday on December 5, serve as a shocking reminder of the country's colonial past. For Dutch and Flemish locals, however, the Piet figures are part of a harmless children's holiday; a celebrated tradition in a modern country in which racism is seen as a relic of the colonial past.

 

When Dutch artist and activist Quincy Gario spoke out against the appearance of the Piet figure, and when, soon after, a UN committee wrote to the Dutch government concerning the racist implications of the holiday, the Dutch population and media were shocked. To many, it felt like an attack on a figure that children love and believe in, like a politically correct backlash against a valued tradition. It was as if the UN wanted to cancel Christmas and, understandably, people got upset.   Arguments were found to defend the Piet figure: "Yes, he's black, but that's because he climbs through chimneys a lot"; "he might look like a slave, but he's a happy and positive figure, giving candy and presents to children"; “it's an integral part of Dutch and Flemish tradition"; and, "children don't see him as a black person, and they won't become racists because of him."

 

Whilst some of these arguments seem silly, some raise valid points. Black Peter has been an integral part of one of the most important cultural traditions in the country since at least the 1850s. The UN committee seemed to dismiss this argument completely. Spokesperson Verene Shepherd showed a serious lack of understanding about the cultural importance of the holiday in the Netherlands, in asking, 'why do they need two Santa Clauses anyway?' For the Dutch, this holiday is a much bigger deal than Christmas.    Five years ago, I agreed with the majority of the Dutch population. I thought it was wonderful that we could celebrate a festival with a blackface figure without anybody being offended. Racism never seemed to me like it was a big deal in the Netherlands. In television interviews, many black people claimed not to have a problem with the figure at all, seeing it as part of an old tradition. But I also remember explaining to African exchange students that the holiday shouldn't upset them, and the unease I started to feel then has evolved into a growing sense of shame as I have come to learn how deeply engrained racism is in Dutch society. The blackface appearance of Black Peter is somewhat upsetting, but what really shocks me is the reaction of Dutch society to those who have been critical of the Zwarte Piet. The aforementioned activist, Quincy Gario, was violently arrested by the police when he was peacefully protesting during Sinterklaas's arrival event in 2011. Two years later, after he voiced his opinion on the racist implications of the word 'Piet', he was dubbed the ' Zeurpiet', or ‘complaining Piet’, which has had the effect of turning his valid arguments into what are now perceived as ridiculous complaints. I was shocked to see several of my friends, mostly well-educated and otherwise progressive young people, reproduce this offensive title on their Facebook pages, criticizing Gario for attacking a harmless children's figure. More than two million people (an eighth of the Dutch population) have signed an online pro-Piet petition, or 'Pietition', in favour of the tradition continuing unchanged.

 

Eenvandaag, a major news show usually known for neutral, well-researched news items, broadcast a somewhat biased report on the debate. While the pro-Piet movement was represented by a respectable, white, middle-aged male professor, who made a lot of sensible arguments, the Piet-critics were represented by a woman who seemed slightly crazy, suggesting that Sinterklaas should be replaced by a figure like Mother Theresa. The item ended with some statistics drawn from a survey in which 87% of the 19 000 Dutch people questioned voted for the Piet figure to stay unchanged. The Eenvandaag report concluded that we should keep the Piet the way he is: black as the inside of a chimney, with big red lips, yellow earrings and black curly hair.

 

This national debate culminated in an event on October 27 of this year. A pro-Piet, anti-UN rally was organized in The Hague. In the same area, a dark-skinned woman was also rallying against the UN, but for different reasons, protesting the lack of attention given to her native West-Papua which is fighting for independence from Indonesia. When the pro-Piet protesters saw her, they mistook her for a Piet-skeptic, and started to verbally abuse her. A man from the group aggressively grabbed her and people cheered when the police eventually took her away, to safety. 

 

Events like these are reminders that racism is still a reality in the Netherlands. Aggressive reactions to the Piet debate have only served to establish the figure as an even greater symbol of racism. In an ideal, non-racist society (which many Dutch people already consider a reality in the Netherlands), the figure of Zwarte Piet would be unproblematic, just a relic from the past, part of a valuable tradition. Erik van Muiswinkel, the actor who plays the 'Chief Piet' every year in the main televised Sinterklaas event, stated that, if we want to continue the tradition, we should make the Piet less black and less of a slave. This comment implies that the solution to this problem need not be so extreme as to involve cancelling the whole holiday. As documentary filmmaker, Bibi Fadlalla, has suggested: if Piet is black because of the chimney, why not just cover his face with some strokes of chimney soot?     

 

Albert is a trainee at the European Commission in the Education, Culture & Audiovisual Executive Agency (EACEA) 

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