Zwarte Piet: A Dutch Tradition with a Racist Colour
This article is an opinion piece and its contents represent the standpoint of its author, not UPF Lund or The Perspective’s editorial board.
Knocked to the ground, held in a headlock for thirty minutes and taken to the police station afterwards. The reason for this heavy-handed arrest in 2011? Wearing t-shirts with the print “Zwarte Piet is racism” while participating in a peaceful protest during the arrival of ‘Sinterklaas’ in Dordrecht, the Netherlands.
Whereas in many countries Santa Claus is the bearer of gifts in December, children in the Netherlands receive presents from another version of this red figure, coming not from the North but from the South: Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). Every year in mid-November this saintly man arrives by boat from Spain. During the following weeks, he spoils Dutch children with candy and gifts, to leave again after his birthday on the 5th of December, the big “presents day”. Sinterklaas, however, does not arrive alone: his boat also carries a dozen of “Zwarte Pieten” (Black Petes). Or, more frequently these years due to increasing criticism: “Pieten”.
Meet “Zwarte Piet”, a Proud Character in Dutch Tradition
Traditionally, these helpers of Sinterklaas have black-painted faces, red-painted lips and wear curly wigs. Contrary to Sinterklaas, who is presented as old and wise, Zwarte Piet is often characterized as young, foolish and unintelligent. In the eyes of many foreigners, the way in which these figures are portrayed is outright racist. Following the 2011 arrests of Quinsy Gario and Jerry Afriyie in Dordrecht, a debate was sparked over the controversy of the tradition, and in 2013 UN experts urged the Dutch government to facilitate a dialogue concerning the issue. Yet, the contentiousness surrounding Zwarte Piet is an old, annually reappearing theme in the Netherlands, just like the celebration of Sinterklaas itself.
Mentions of the racist character of Zwarte Piet can be traced back to as far as 1927, when a man of African descent stated that he was repeatedly being name-called “Zwarte Piet”. Proof of people of African descent being associated with Sinterklaas’ servants can be found in the media of this time as well: on the 25th of November in 1933, for instance, aDutch newspaper referred to girls and boys of African descent as “the cousins of Zwarte Piet”. Nevertheless, voices of resistance against the tradition of Zwarte Piet were seemingly also existent during this time. However, it is only in recent years that one may be starting to see a potential break to the tradition.
So where does Zwarte Piet come from? It is often argued that the contemporary Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet were invented in 1850 by Jan Schenkman, a Dutch teacher, poet and writer. The celebration of Sinterklaas, however, dates back to the Middle Ages and is presumably based on Saint Nicholas.
Although celebrated differently across Europe, during the Middle Ages Saint Nicholas was often accompanied by some form of “demon”, who kidnapped and punished “naughty children” for the saint. A scary, dark figure, contrasting the good and kind Saint Nicholas is what this demon was meant to symbolize. After the reformation, Saint Nicholas and his dark companion faded into the background within many protestant countries. Although the celebration never completely disappeared in the Netherlands, it would diminish until its resurgence in the 19th century.
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet: A Changing Tradition
Proponents of Zwarte Piet often validate this character by referring to the supposedly historical tradition of a “black figure” next to Sinterklaas. For instance, the “Sint en Pietengilde” (a pro-Zwarte Piet organisation), states that “undesirable elements… should not be an excuse to question the mere existence, heritage and symbolism of Black Pete”. According to them, these undesirable elements “can certainly not validate any attempt to force changes in the appearance of the figure in the near future”. No matter that this “historical figure” has not remained static throughout history.
Indeed, although he did not introduce the symbolism of Zwarte Piet, it was Jan Schenkman who introduced “Zwarte Piet” as a character in 1850. Resembling a 16th century Moorish slave, this man (not yet called Zwarte Piet) helped Sinterklaas. The symbolic “good cop, bad cop” dynamic between Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas, however, wasintroduced only after 1890. These days, Zwarte Piet does not bear any resemblance to a demon—the sack, roe and chains to scare and punish children have disappeared. Instead, Zwarte Piet represents a happy figure, scattering candy and gifts.
Similarly, according to “tradition”, Sinterklaas is supposed to be accompanied by only one demon or servant. Yet, this solo servant was replaced by a dozen of Zwarte Pieten after the 1950s. Each of these were assigned different roles: today there is for instance a Head-Piet, House-Piet and Piet Precise.
In short, the 21st century servants of Sinterklaas are not by any means similar to his 20th or 19th century helper, let alone his demonic servant of the Middle Ages. It is thus safe to say that the “existence, heritage and symbolism of Zwarte Piet” have been subject to constant change. The argument of tradition can therefore “certainly not validate any attempt to oppose changes in the appearance of the figure in the near future”.
Tradition or Not – Time to Say Goodbye to Zwarte Piet
Sinterklaas celebrations have kept up with time: “Naughty” children are not threatened with corporal punishment anymore, since 2001 Sinterklaas has his own newspaper, and more recently “he” became reachable bytelephone. Even though the character of his helpers has evolved as well, there seems to be one crucial change lacking: their skin colour.
A white old man with a group of silly-behaving people of colour as his servants—it simply is an unacceptable concept. Whether it is a pure remnant from Dutch slave history, or whether Piet supposedly derives his skin colour from that of a demon or a chimney sweeper (he climbs through chimneys to deliver gifts), the racist aspect of his character cannot, and must not, be denied. More importantly, it should be changed.
Following the 2011 arrests, the debate surrounding Zwarte Piet was revitalised: politicians started interfering (with right-wing parties often defending Zwarte Piet), and in 2014 the movementKOZP (Kick Out Zwarte Piet) was initiated. Although these peaceful protestors have repeatedly been met withaggression, recently their call for change seems to have yielded results, at least to some extent. In 2019, “Zwarte Piet” was replaced by “Piet”, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte renounced his support for Zwarte Piet following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
This year, a survey by aDutch newspaper found that out of 210 municipalities, 123 have officially banned Zwarte Piet, choosing “Soot Petes” instead. Nevertheless, there are still municipalities that opt for continuing the tradition of Zwarte Piet, and peaceful KOZP protesters in Breda were threatened yet again this year. Fortunately, progress cannot be denied, and the racist character of Zwarte Piet seems to slowly be acknowledged by Dutch society. Will 2021 be the last year in which the Dutch hold on to this tradition? Hopefully. Perhaps next year the Netherlands will finally remove their blindfold (and black paint), and break with Zwarte Piet for good.