Zwarte Piet: Modern Day Racism or Harmless Fun?

Many of you may have never heard of Zwarte Piet. When I moved to Amsterdam from America three years ago, I had never heard of him either. But since moving to Holland, I’ve had the chance to witness it for myself and I have to say that as a person of mixed race it makes me very uncomfortable.

The History of Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet, or in English “Black Pete”, is the servent/slave of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is a mythical figure based off of Saint Nicholas and is the inspiration for Santa Claus. In a yearly festival Sinterklaas leaves his residence in Spain and arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat accompanied by his white horse Amerigo and his helper Zwarte Piet.

The moral dilemma

Zwarte Piet is portrayed as being a rascal and a prankster who throws sweets in the air. He throws candy to good children and if they’ve been naughty, he might also put them in a sack and take them back to Spain. He is also not the brightest crayon in the box. More childlike in manor than adult, he is also clumsy and speaks in a rather uneducated manor.

Zwarte Piet has historically been a white man or woman in blackface. Not only in blackface, but also with big, rouged lips, an afro wig and large hooped gold earrings. So why is Pete Black and not White? Wikipedia states that:

Zwarte Piet is a Spaniard, or an Italian chimney sweep, whose blackness is due to a permanent layer of soot on his body, acquired during his many trips through the chimneys.

Sometimes it’s also said that Zwarte Piet is supposed to be a Moor, a member of a Northern African Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent.

To many Dutch people, this is a familiar and beloved tradition that is all in good fun. However, there are quite a few people in the Netherlands and around the world who feel that the way Zwarte Piet is portrayed is purely racist. In the past few years, more and more people world wide are calling for the blackface to end.

Worldwide Backlash to Dutch Tradition

A Washington Post article recently stated that:

Protests and demonstrations from minority groups have rocked Sinterklaas celebrations in recent years in Dutch cities. In August 2015, a United Nations-convened committee on racial discrimination in Geneva called on the Dutch government to “promote the elimination of those features of the character of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery.”

How I feel about Zwarte Piet

When I first saw a person in blackface in the Netherlands I was in shock. My heart started pounding. It was a moment that stood still. I hadn’t been living here for very long and so did not know who Zwarte Piet was or what this clearly white person in blackface was doing. For me as an American, blackface has always been racist. And having grown up biracial in America I am not a stranger to racism from either side unfortunately.

Let me give you a bit of history about what blackface means to me as an American. Blackface minstrelsy first became popular across America around the late 1820s when white male performers portrayed African-American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin. These white actors would wear tattered worn down clothes and mock blacks behaviors during their performances, playing racial stereotypes for laughs.

From “A Brief History of Blackface”

Minstrel shows became hugely popular in the 1840s exposing white audiences in the North with their first exposure to any depiction of black life. They would often feature a broad cast of characters; from Zip Coon, the educated free black man who pronounced everything incorrectly, to Mammy, a fat, black faithful slave who was really just obviously played by a man in a dress. Black children were depicted as unkempt and ill raised pickaninnies. The running joke about pickaninnies was that they were disposable; they were easily killed because of their stupidity and the lack of parental supervision.

This is what blackface means to me when I see it. It means that someone is mocking me. That someone thinks that my worth is less than theirs because my skin is darker. And if you are one of those people who look at me and believe that my skin is “too white” to have been bothered with racism directed at me, you are not only wrong but also part of the problem.

So as a biracial American I see blackface and cringe. I feel uncomfortable. I have a problem with seeing the darkened skin and the ignorant behavior. As an American living in the Netherlands I am torn. I’ve gotten a chance to know the Dutch and I don’t believe that they mean to be racist. At least the modern day Dutch, I have no idea what the people who started this tradition were thinking and I’m not going to try.

For many people here it is a family holiday tradition with very fond childhood memories. Sinterklaas festivities are bigger than Christmas. I get that. I also get how hard it is when someone rips apart your beliefs and calls you wrong and racist. It takes a very strong mindset to be able to look at yourself and your beliefs and try to be impartial about what you see. When everyone is telling you that you have to change and you just don’t see why. So, what will the Dutch decide to do?

Here’s a clip of blackface in action.

The Future of Zwarte Piet

While most Dutch do not see Zwarte Piet as racist, there are changes being made. This year, for example, during the parade of the arrival of Sinterklaas rather than seeing blackface all of the Zwarte Pieten that I saw were in soot face. Zwarte Piet is evolving whether people like it or not. Just how much, remains to be seen.