Why blackface is still part of Dutch holidays

I just got a package from my grandma in Belgium. She’s sent me one at the beginning
of December, for as long as I can remember, to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. That’s when their traditional version of
Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, comes to visit kids and reward the good ones, and punish the bad ones. And there’s always lots of good stuff in
here — there are belgian waffles, there are speculoos cookies, chocolate, there’s lots of chocolate — and then, sometimes, there’s this:
This is Zwarte Piet, that’s Dutch for Black Pete. He’s St. Nicholas’ traditional “assistant,” he’s the guy who carries all the presents around and punishes all the bad kids. You can kind of think of him like one of Santa’s
elves — except he’s a blackface caricature. Black Pete has painted black skin, big gold
hoop earrings, oversized red lips, and he wears colorful Renaissance-era clothing. Throughout Belgium and the Netherlands, people dress up as Black Pete around St. Nicholas day. This is what it looked like in 1930, in a
small town north of Amsterdam. And in 1970, at a local gym. And in 2006, at an elementary school. And in 2014, at a parade. I grew up with this tradition in Belgium. People dressed up as Black Pete and St. Nicholas would come visit my school and take pictures and pass out candy But Black Pete is a racist caricature. It’s a remnant of the Netherlands’ colonial
past. And this tradition is now at the center of
a heated political debate. “It’s a bit disturbing to realize that
you have enjoyed, as a child, something that now turns out to be problematic. That’s disturbing. So they say, ‘don’t mess with my memories.’ ”
Those in The Netherlands who defend Black Pete argue that it can’t be changed because
it’s a tradition that’s been around forever. The prime minister even made this argument
when he was asked about it at a nuclear security summit in 2014:
“What I said is that Black Pete is black. I cannot change that, because the name is Black Pete. This is an old children’s tradition, Sinterklaas
and Zwarte Piet, Black Pete. And it is not Green Pete or Brown Pete, it
is Black Pete, so I cannot change that. On top of that, you’ll hear a lot of people
say that the black face paint is okay because doesn’t represent skin color — instead
it’s just the soot from the chimney. But historically, neither of those defenses
is actually true. Zwarte Piet was originally written as a black
slave character, and the blackface tradition was invented fairly recently. Though St. Nicholas folklore had been celebrated
since the Middle Ages, there was no slave character involved until 1850, when this guy
— a Dutch schoolteacher named Jan Schenkman — wrote a children’s book called “St.
Nicholas and his Servant”. The story describes how St. Nicholas visits
a Dutch town, rewarding the good kids, punishing the bad kids. But just looking at the original illustrations
for the book, you can tell that Black Pete isn’t just a white Dutchman covered in soot. He’s portrayed as a Moor from Spain, carrying
St. Nicholas’ heavy loads, wrapping up all the presents, and punishing naughty kids by
hitting them with a switch or kidnapping them in a knapsack to take them back to Spain. He’s not exactly a pleasant character in
this original version of the story. “What I remember vividly is the sentiment
of being scared. What if suddenly a Zwarte Piet comes out of the chimney while I’m there alone? Terrifying. And the terror of young children who don’t
feel safe is quite a powerful emotion, that stays with you. If you habituate children to this response
to these strange characters with black faces, that’s their model of black people.” When Schenkman wrote his children’s book,
slavery was still alive and well in the Dutch colonies — it wasn’t abolished for another
13 years, in 1863. Even then, slaves had to work for another
10 years as reparations to the slaveholders. The government treated abolition as a financial
inconvenience. Beyond Dutch history, blackface originated
for the purpose of mocking and dehumanizing black people. In minstrel shows in the mid to late 1800s,
white actors would use black grease paint on their faces to depict black people on stage. You could watch minstrel shows like this as
recently as 1978 on BBC. Taking place in societies that systematically
mistreated black people, these portrayals served as a tool of oppression. Though Black Pete is the most beloved blackface
character in European culture, he’s not the only one. If you look at Belgian comic strips like Tintin,
French ones like Asterix and Obelix, or Dutch ones like Sjors & Sjimmie, you can see versions
of blackface caricatures everywhere. Black Pete, no matter how innocent the Dutch
might think him to be, normalizes these portrayals. “Of course it is political. You don’t invent a tradition like this in
innocence.” It’s really common to hear stories about
black people being called “Zwarte Piet” by children. It also serves as a basis for racialized bullying
in schools. “Black children are hurt, and parents are
keeping their children home from school, rather than send them to grow up with this stereotype
that makes them feel that they’re inferior to the white kids.” And it’s common to hear people saying that
black people in The Netherlands are totally okay with it, that their black neighbor or
black friend actually likes it. Here’s Prime Minister Rutte again, making
that argument: “I can only say that my friends in the Dutch
Antilles, they are very happy when they have Sinterklaas because they don’t have to paint
their faces. And when I’m playing Black Pete, I’m for
days trying to get off the stuff on my face.” That was the prime minister saying that a
blackface tradition is really more annoying for him, because when he puts on blackface,
it’s hard to get the paint off. “These people were angry about Black Pete,
who’s Santa’s traditional sidekick there. 60 people were arrested for demonstrating
away from locations that were set aside for protests, 30 more for disturbing public order.” Public opposition to Black Pete has been building
since the 1970s. When Suriname won its independence in 1975,
almost a third of the population moved to the Netherlands in order to keep their Dutch
citizenship. A lot of those people were of African ancestry. And Demographic changes brought a change in
the way people talked about Black Pete. Still, that didn’t stop the show from featuring
Black Pete in every yearly St. Nicholas episode after that. Protest grew steadily, getting international
attention in 2011, when two protesters from an awareness campaign called Zwarte Piet is
Racisme were violently arrested in the city of Dordrecht. The Dutch National Ombudsman later ruled that
the arrest was unlawful, disproportionately violent and in violation of their human rights. “If you have eyes and you have a little
heart, you would know that this is wrong.” That’s Jerry Afriyie, he was one of those
two protesters arrested. “What we are fighting is institutional racism
approved by the government, approved by the police, approved by professionals, approved
by schools, everywhere. It’s so much embedded in the whole society
that it makes it very difficult to bring changes to it, and everyone is using their
power to suppress us, and it’s very difficult.” Afriyie lost his job as a security guard after
being arrested at a protest a few years ago, but he’s kept showing up to demonstrate. Just a week after we spoke, he was violently
assaulted by police again at a protest in the city of Rotterdam. In July 2014, Amsterdam’s regional court
ruled that Black Pete was a “negative stereotype of black people”, stating that the mayor had six weeks to remove Black Pete from city celebrations But just a few months later in November, the
Netherlands’ highest administrative court overturned that ruling, just in time for the
holiday. But in August 2015, a UN committee in Geneva
called on the Dutch government to get rid of the aspects of Black Pete that promote
black stereotypes. Since then, parade organizers have made some
efforts to gradually minimize Black Pete’s racist characteristics. My job, being the spokesperson of Sinterklaas,
is to make the party of Sinterklaas for everybody. Not only the white people in the villages,
but for everybody in cities and bigger cities. One of the ways they’ve done that is by
introducing a version of Black Pete that is clearly just a person covered in soot — without
the earrings, lipstick, or afro. They call it the Chimney Pete. RTL — one of the biggest TV networks in
the region — stated in October that they wouldn’t air anything except for Chimney
Pete for the 2016 holidays. “Bear in mind the objectives. The objective is to have smiles on the faces
of the children, to be happy. So if you want to change things, take the
time, don’t do it overnight. If you want to change an attitude like that,
it’s not going to go easy.” And in an unexpected announcement, the team
organizing the parade in Amsterdam said Chimney Petes would replace all Black Petes in 2016. But changing a tradition like this is slow
and difficult. Every move away from Black Pete has been met
with resistance. A Jamaican researcher on the UN panel was
met with a flurry of racist emails after their statement was released. A group in the northern Netherlands that was
planning on dressing as multicolored Rainbow Piets had to cancel their plans after getting
death threats. And a Dutch contestant at the 2013 Eurovision
music competition received racist messages and death threats after she spoke out against
the custom. “And how could you possibly make this such
a big deal? Because they have been trained this way in
childhood.” People defend the tradition because it was
important to their childhood, and they want to pass it on to their children. But understanding the impact this has on children
could also be key to changing public opinion. Just this year, the national children’s
ombudsman released a report arguing that the tradition violates children’s rights regarding
equal treatment and protection from discrimination. “It has tormented a lot of black people, even children who start to hate their own skin color, who come home to their
parents crying, and and saying stuff like ‘I don’t want to be black, they say it’s
dirty, people are calling me Zwarte Pete, that I’m dirty, my skin color,’ you know, it’s
very confusing and dramatic.”


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