Zwarte Piet – Racism or a Harmless Tradition?

Zwarte Piet, the sidekick of Sinterklaas, is a character known for bringing presents to children during annual Saint Nicholas celebration in the Netherlands from mid-November to December 5. The character is acted out by a person dressing up in renaissance-style clothing, wearing a wig and makeup, and acting in a humorous, sometimes clownish way. It’s a tradition followed by nearly all Dutch, mostly unquestioned until recent years.

Zwarte Piet is generally seen as a fun and innocent children’s tradition, but not everyone shares that view. Lately there has been more and more discussion regarding the practice at hand, a discussion that has been polarizing the country to an extreme. The main argument is that the character is nothing short of a racist caricature.

The character has by many been associated with a known stereotype of persons of African heritage, ”blackface”. Nowadays widely accepted as an offensive act, blackface was used as an act of entertainment primarily among white americans during a period of strong racial segregation in the 19th and 20th centuries. There have been strong arguments that Zwarte Piet, wearing black face-paint in combination with big red lip and curly black hair, bears close resemblance to just that.

The history of the character plays a big role in the debate. Zwarte Piet first appeared with Sinterklaas in the 19th century at a time when the Netherlands were heavily involved in African slave trade. Historians have in fact made clear connections between the character and it’s discriminatory origins, in which stereotypical portrayals of black Africans were commonplace. Despite all this, many dutch refuse to recognize this side of the issue. The defenders of the tradition claim Zwarte Piet’s black skin to be a result of soot from a chimney, while the historical background is often overlooked or rewritten. An African-American filmmaker politically involved in the discussion described the Netherlands as ”a country in denial”, an interesting idea considering that the country is generally not fond of talking about its colonial past.

Zwarte Piet. (Picture: Gerard Stolk; Flickr)

The tradition has mainly been opposed by citizens and immigrants of Caribbean descent, who feel directly affected by the practice. There has been a growing incentive –  by immigrants and Dutch citizens alike – to alter the tradition, at least in regards to the character’s appearance. International actors such as the UN have urged the country to re-evaluate the tradition, and foreign media has not gone easy on the subject. For outsiders it is perhaps not difficult to see the discriminatory nature of this tradition, and surprisingly when it is pursued by a country known for it’s forward-thinking.

Blackface from the early 20th century. (Picture: 22860; Flickr)

So why are the Dutch reluctant to change it? Well, tradition is a tradition, and it is not easy to alter for those who have followed it all their lives. Many traditions have a long and deep history that define people’s cultures, societies, or nation states. Most date back centuries, passed on from generation to generation with little reflection over their nature – it’s just something we do. The practice of a tradition can be so deeply rooted into the structures of societies and institutions that we rarely stop to question the possible social impact it might have.

Of course, many traditions have been altered or removed in the past, and compromises are possible in the right context. But the height of the Dutch discussion also comes at a peculiar time for the country and for Europe. On a continent currently in the midst of a sensitive conversation regarding immigration and multiculturalism, many people believe their values to be under attack by foreign influences, a view reinforced by recent populist movements claiming to stand behind old nationalistic values.

The case for Zwarte Piet is however not made easier by the fact that the Netherlands has several other issues of racial intolerance. There is currently a growing support for the far right anti-immigration party, Partij voor de Vrijheid, whose leadership openly encourages racial discrimination. Stigmatization of minorities is a persistent issue in the country, and things such as ethnic profiling are a continuing problem. The general hostility is in fact only flourishing with the nationalistic sentiments of the past few years.

We shouldn’t forget though: the heat of the debate comes as much with popular conservatism as it does with liberal and progressive thinking. The nationalistic and liberal movements of recent years go hand in hand, and resistance has inevitably been strong on both sides. The debates regarding multiculturalism have been characterized by, on one hand, demonization of those holding traditional values, and on the other, a hostility towards those who strive for social justice. Unfortunately in the case of Zwarte Piet, the latter still appears to be the dominant rhetoric. The voices of discontent are often being silenced, sometimes in a harsh and unforgiving way.

Changing traditions takes time, effort and a respectful debate, but perhaps there is a point where one has to rethink the things that give joy, if they bring others pain.

Michal Gieda

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