First published in the print edition of the Underground, available here: http://www.theunderground.nl/zwarte-piet-in-the-21st-century-time-for-a-makeover/
As a foreigner, the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, in particular Zwarte Piet, initially seemed very strange to me. I didn’t understand how, in 2015, a tradition centred on a blatantly racist caricature was still celebrated. Yet, maybe I was just lacking the cultural understanding regarding the importance of this tradition. Keen to find answers, I set out to interview my fellow students about their take on the debate. What I learnt is that a constructive debate on Zwarte Piet perhaps needs more nuance than the strongly opposing positions of pro and con allow for.
First I spoke to was Josh, a local student who is originally from the UK. “I first encountered this tradition last year”, Josh recalls. “I was shocked to see adults and children alike wearing what is undeniably blackface.” He later learned that the black face represents the soot that got onto the face of Sinterklaas’ helpers as they climbed down the chimney. Still, he is not convinced: “If the paint was to represent soot, why aren’t the clothes sooty?” If you question the rationale behind this depiction then the argument that it’s not racist is difficult to maintain. Should Zwarte Piet be completely abolished? Josh doesn’t think such a drastic step is necessary. “Zwarte Piet could be reinterpreted. A few brush strokes of paint is enough to create the image of ‘sooty’.”
Ingeborg, another student, has a different opinion. According to her, Zwarte Piet should stay the way he is. “I grew up celebrating Sinterklaas just like every other Dutch kid.” Growing up abroad, Sinterklaas was an important tradition to celebrate within the Dutch community. “I remember this time in Aberdeen when I was four. The Dutch community there arranged for Sinterklaas to come to Scotland and I was really excited, waiting at the pier for Zwarte Piet to hand out candy.” Ingeborg strongly contests the argument that children get the impression that people of colour are inferior just because Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’s helper. “I grew up believing Piet was black because he was covered in soot… I’m pretty sure that removing Zwarte Piet from Sinterklaas or adapting him to a more racially sensitive version won’t do anything to tackle racism in Dutch society.”
Next I spoke to Cris, who grew up in the US and moved to the Netherlands when he was 13. Initially he was unaware of the debate that surrounded Sinterklaas’s helpers: he enjoyed the pepernoten and how his friends dressed up for the holiday. “But as I got older and connected the dots from my American racial background to the Dutch context, I was horrified… Many people think that Zwarte Piet is black because he goes down chimneys. That is historically false. A century ago he was a slave. When that fell out of practice he became a ‘helper’… Piet’s curly hair, red lips and earrings are all racial stereotypes.” Cris thinks that “if Dutch people grow up seeing black people acting like clowns, it will impact their interactions with people of colour.” Additionally, he sees a strong ‘us versus them’ dynamic in the debate. “When I try to speak out against Zwarte Piet, I’m told I’m not Dutch enough to understand. I’ve heard a lot of people of colour get the same treatment, especially first or second-gen immigrants.”
The last person I talked to to was Reem, who moved from Sudan to the Netherlands when she was 11. She only has positive childhood memories of Zwarte Piet: “I always enjoyed all the excitement when they were in the country.” However, over time, her opinion changed. “I became more critical when I grew older. Especially stories of people who have had negative experiences linked to their own appearance shows me that there is a problem.” Reem thinks that the traditional depiction of Zwarte Piet fosters racist sentiments, especially in areas where there already is ethnic segregation: “If people of different backgrounds don’t communicate with each other, they cannot share their positive and negative experiences related to the tradition… By changing the traditional depiction of Zwarte Piet one could show that there is a serious intention to listen to each other and remove racist elements wherever possible.”
After all, traditions are always subject to change and reinterpretation, even if we are unwilling to admit it. In the past, Zwarte Piets were known for putting kids in sacks and carrying them away, part of the legend that Moors used to raid European coasts to abduct the locals into slavery. In the 1850’s, the caricaturised depiction of Piet as an African slave became commonplace. While alternative explanations of the black face were popularised later, this depiction was never challenged. In light of this anachronism, it may indeed be time for a makeover.