Zwarte Pieten Style

A week ago we began the Dutch celebration known as Sinterklaas.  As you can guess from the name, it is a celebration of Saint Nicholas.  Although the actual Sinterklaas festival does not occur until the 5th of December, the season was kicked off on Sunday, November 18 with the arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam.  Old man Klaas arrives in Amsterdam from Madrid, Spain via boat, cruising through the canals until he reaches his docking point in the cities port district.

After making it to shore, Sinterklaas mounts a white horse which he rides through the streets of Amsterdam in a huge parade procession. The parade snakes through the streets until reaching Leidseplein where Sint dismounts and gives a brief speech to the crowd proclaiming the beginning of the holiday season.

This would be a perfectly fitting beginning to the holiday season if it weren’t for one odd part of the tradition:  Zwarte Piet.

Zwarte Piet is the name of the Sint’s mischievous little helpers.  Perhaps analogous to Santa Claus’s little elves, the Zwarte Pieten are tasked with helping Sinterklaas perform his holiday duties.  A more detailed history of the character can be found here, as I am not wont to bore you with the finer details.  The key issue that I have with this character is his visual representation.  In not so many words, Zwarte Piet is a dude in blackface.

In fact, we are not talking about just one dude, but hundreds!  Hundreds of Dutchies running through the streets of Amsterdam in blackface, red lipstick, gold jewelry, and huge afro wigs.

As an American, I see this as a little bit on the unacceptable side of racist.  Although I am told that it’s a harmless tradition that the Dutch see nothing wrong with, I am inclined to believe that they also see the inappropriateness of the character.

Zwarte Elvis

Zwarte Elvis

One night while mingling at a going away party for one of the wife’s Dutch co-workers, the subject of Zwarte Piet came up.  Being the only two Americans in the room, the wife and I were treated to a story of how the blackface is meant to represent the soot of the faces of the Zwarte Pieten.  Now, because I am a nerd and have a tendancy to research the hell out of anything I don’t understand, I know that Zwarte Piet is supposed to be a Moorish character from the south of Spain, so I called BS.  Besides, they sure have very clean clothes for such sooty faces.  I didn’t buy it and they knew they were caught.  They gave an impish smile and the conversation moved on to other topics.

Zwarte Children

Many Dutchies also claim that they don’t have the same cultural sensitivity to things like blackface as Americans do because they don’t have the same historical connection to slavery that the US does.  Again, I call BS.  The Dutch were the first to ship African slaves to the New World and continued to play a major role in the slave trade for many years.  I certainly don’t think it gives the Dutch a pass on having blackfaced Dutchies running through the streets creating trouble and getting little kids hooked on the pepernoten that they hand out by the hand full.  Enough about that.  I think it’s racist. They don’t.  Regardless of who’s right, I don’t think Zwarte Piet is going anywhere anytime soon.

The Dutch love Zwarte Piet.  There are Zwarte Piet TV shows, Zwarte Piet Movies, and even this:

It’s certainly one of the more shocking aspects of Dutch culture, and that’s saying a lot considering the countless number of sex shops, coffeeshops, and prostitues one can find in this city.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get it.

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7 comments

  1. I don’t think it is one bit racist. You see, Dutch people don’t see Zwarte Piet as a “Moor” or some other ethnicity. As a (Caucasian) Dutch kid for example, I never wanted to be an astronaut or a rockstar, I wanted to go to the “Zwarte-Pieten-School” which – as I was told – was the college in Spain where Zwarte Pieten were trained and educated.

    Fun fact; I was also told there were “Witte Zwarte Pieten” (white zwarte pieten) but these were the Zwarte Pieten that were mean and bad and didn’t graduate the Zwarte-Pieten-School and therefore stayed behind in Spain.

  2. I see what you mean. I think perhaps I should have used the term “racially insensitive” instead of racist. I did see some disabled Zwarte Pieten throughout the parade, so it’s definitely an inclusive tradition. Racially insensitive is probably a better term. I know many people from the US who would NOT be ok with the tradition, but I totally understand where the Dutch are coming from. I would love to hear the perspectives of the Dutch population that have African roots.

    1. They are not happy, because they think it’s racist. Besides the Netherlands never made any official apology to the people in the countries that were the victim of slavery. Basically the native dutch don’t get taught about their slavery past. And if they do, they weren’t as bad as… (name any other colonial possessor f.e. the Belgians in Congo – hard to deny that one) I do consider it a racist root, but here in the netherlands the word ” racist” gets interpreted as “racial hate”, not as “showing racial difference” . And dutch people are very careful not to show racial hate in public. It’s the worst thing you can do, therefore nobody will ever own up to racism, which is why it can simmer just below the surface of our culture. But it is part of dutch directness to be racist in showing racial difference. Someone is black or they are white. Even the word Neger – like Negro , not quite nigger (that word is nikker and used to be common till the turn of the century). And yes, of course Zwarte Piet is a blackface , just look at things like the ceramic Moor’s heads, and moorish minstrels. Exactly the same. They are based on the artefacts the moors/saracens brought and their black slaves. I also think the tradition of zwarte piet is not something meant as racial hate, but more as an appreciation of “the black race” .Beautiful, strong, acrobatic Piet. I think it was a social experiment from one of the netherlands’ most prolific kidsbook writers in 1890. Before that our Sint (unlike other European countries’ Krampus and Knecht Ruprecht or even Santa’s elves) didn’t have a helper. Mere decades after Surinam slavery was abolished and the first immigrants were starting to come to the netherlands. Personally I think something should be done about it. But as long as dutch people don’t get taught their history properly, they can retreat into a naive collective shame and call the soot-card. People seriously believe it. I always point out the lyrics to one of the songs are ” even though i am black like soot i mean well ” not ” black from the soot” . Naturally the character will change gradually into something less offensive, possibly something that does look like it’s soot. I don’t believe banning it is the answer, but i do find it embarassing, and hurtful for the people that still remind of the consequences of what we did. But then we don’t feel we did anything about the holocaust either, despite providing the administration and shipping our entire jewish community on trains to germany and poland. But that’s a different subject. Basically denial is our national pastime, odd for such a ” direct” country.

  3. I wouldn’t Call this even Racially insensitive as there is no harm behind this tradition. If i recall it right the US tradition of Santa Clause came from our tradition originally and was just reformed to be a big jolly man in a red suit instead of dress and the zwarte pieten where replaced with little elves. Do we ask that that gets banned because it might be insulting to little people? This celebration both in the form as Santa Clause and Sinterklaas is a celebration for kids, Our kids look up to these people just as yours do to santa and his elves. And what do we teach our kids with this you might ask, Simple: (friendlyness, generosity and especially tolerance and forgiveness) Our children play with everyone no matter where they are from or how they look like, And black piets are hero’s in our children eyes just like the elves are working for Santa to make presents so do our black piets. I would strongly recommend to all those thinking this might be racist or racially insensitive to look at your Santa clause and elves and then to our Sint Nicolas and black piets (where your tradition comes from) and see that both stand for the same thing, and that the if our black piets are racially insensitive your elves are that to. What would it mean to your children If Santa has to give up his elves or Santa clause itself has to be cancelled forever because some people do not understand your traditions and culture? I would also like to react on your bit where you wrote this: “t’s certainly one of the more shocking aspects of Dutch culture, and that’s saying a lot considering the countless number of sex shops, coffeeshops, and prostitues one can find in this city. I don’t know if I’ll ever get it.” I would like to point out that this tradition is not only being celebrated in the Netherlands but also Belgium, In Belgium we don’t have countless numbers of sex shops, coffee shops and prostitutes in Sint Niclaas home town of our Sinterklaas. This tradition is celebrated almost everywhere in our little country for dozens of generations and has non of those shocking aspects as you called them. But still Our people are carrying this tradition very close in their heart. My final words: please stay of our cultural heritage, We also don’t touch any other countries cultural heritages.

  4. Autrefois, on expliquait la couleur de Zwarte Piet par son origine ethnique. Mais ce n’est plus le cas aujourd’hui. Zwarte Piet est noir de suie (ça se retrouve dans les chansons populaires liés à la Saint-Nicolas) parce qu’il descend dans la cheminée pour porter les cadeaux aux enfants. Il aide St Nicolas qui est trop vieux pour descendre lui-même.
    Zwarte Piet a donc beaucoup de qualités morales.
    Le racisme n’est jamais que dans la tête des personnes ignorantes de la culture de la vieille Europe.
    L’homme en noir au côté du vieillard existait bien avant la figure de Zwarte Piet. Il exerce les métiers de charbonnier, mineur ou ramoneur, selon les régions. La tradition qui explique sa couleur de peau à cause du charbon ou de la suie est antérieure au conte de 1850 qui en faisait un Maure.
    Notez également que Zwarte Piet porte des vêtements inspirés de ce tableau où l’on voit, non pas un esclave, mais un noble, un chevalier.
    http://www.rtlnieuws.nl/nieuws/binnenland/dit-de-eerste-zwarte-piet

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