How Sinterklaas Endures

Blackface

By NADIA MURADY | November 23, 2019

Cover photo by Isabel Bonnet / The Amsterdammer

When the days get shorter and the nights get longer, a dark shadow casts upon the Netherlands every year. A deep, painful divide emerges to the forefront of Dutch society. When the pepernoten comes out, the debate begins. 

Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) comes to the Netherlands every year alongside Sinterklaas, bearing gifts and treats – a fun, long-standing tradition mostly aimed at children. Huge annual parades are arranged where they ‘enter’ the country by boat, ‘supposedly’ coming from Spain. Afterwards, they visit children in schools and in their homes, telling them whether or not they have been good that year.

For many Dutch people, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are both long-lasting traditions; they are part of nothing more than an innocent, celebratory feast for children. Black Pete’s black face is simply caused by the dirty chimneys that he passes through whilst delivering gifts.

When looking beyond the smiling faces, gifts and pepernoten, it is made clear that all the black-painted faces, curly hair, red lips and gold earrings are no coincidence. 

Zwarte Piet was first introduced in an 1850’s picture book as a black servant to Saint Nicolas (now known as Sinterklaas). His clothes, such as the puffy trousers and beret, resembles Moor, the North-African servants to Spanish nobilities in the sixteenth century. However, throughout the years, Zwarte Piet developed into a more friendly and loving character, especially after 1970

Nonetheless, Zwarte Piet remains to be problematic today. Even though some cities have introduced roetveegpiet with a smudged face, a majority of the Dutch municipalities are still choosing to continue the Zwarte Piet tradition. 

The history of Zwarte Piet and the racially intertwined practice of blackface is often neglected and forgotten. For those who don’t know: “Blackface was a practice in which black people were mocked for the entertainment of white people, and negative stereotypes were promoted across the US and Europe.” With this in mind, the imagery of the fictional character indicates a colonial mindset and affirms a white superiority subtext. The exaggerated big, red lips and curly hair further emphasize the mockery of black people and their appearance.

Even though more awareness is being raised in recent years, two-thirds of Dutch people still believe that Zwarte Piet shouldn’t change. 

The disturbing downside of this increased awareness is that those who speak out about it face great backlash. Only recently a meeting by the anti-Zwarte Piet organization Kick Out Zwarte Piet got violently disrupted – windows and cars were smashed by approximately 40 attackers. 

Even internationally, Zwarte Piet has gained lots of attention. American artists like Waka Flocka have spoken out about the matter and has even announced to refrain from performing in the Netherlands until the tradition is changed.

It is unclear as of now what the future holds for this Dutch holiday. With the introduction of roetveegpiet and regenboogpiet (rainbow Pete), the holiday is becoming more inclusive and welcoming for everyone. But there are still many minds left to convince of this change. After all, traditions are man-made and can change through time – hopefully, this one will adapt too.

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