Zwarte Piet: a Dutch tradition of blackface lives on

On the evening of 5 December, many children and adults from around the Netherlands and Belgium will get home from school and work and paint their faces black to celebrate Zwarte Piet or Black Pete.

This tradition stems from the 1800s and says that Santa Claus or Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands in mid-November, accompanied by his naughty helper from Spain, Zwarte Piet. The character was historically used by parents to scare their children into behaving, otherwise he would carry them off in a sack and take them back to Spain.

Zwarte Piet is represented as a black man with an afro and big red lips, who wears gold earrings and Renaissance-style clothing.The Spanish heritage of the character and gold earrings (which were commonly worn by black slaves) show that he is clearly based on the Moor slaves that were brought to the Netherlands from Spain. Supporters of the tradition claim that Zwarte Piet is merely black because he is covered in soot from the chimneys that he and Sinterklaas travel down for Christmas.

In case you are wondering why the fuss over a made-up character that only comes around once a year, here’s your annual reminder that blackface is wrong. It involves the caricaturing of black people by exaggerating their physical features – for example, Zwarte Piet’s big red lips and curly hair. These representations are dehumanising, mocking, and damaging to black people – and also perpetuate stereotypes that all black people behave in this way or look like this.

In the days leading up to the eve of 6 December, some shops have Zwarte Piet costumes on display with wigs and black paint. Other shops just sell the usual costumes without the black paint.

The Daily Vox spoke to a shop owner of Ethiopian heritage who sold Zwarte Piet costumes. He chose to not give his name and said he had moved to The Netherlands when he was eight.

“We used to go door to door and get sweets dressed as Piet, I am black and don’t look like Piet so I don’t find it offensive,” he said.

He said there were two sides of the story but chose to not see the problematic side because he had had fun dressing as Pete as a child.

Another Dutch woman who celebrates and dresses her children up on the eve in December said it was part of their tradition.

“There isn’t anything wrong with Piet. It is something we did as children and now our children. There is nothing racist about it,” she said.

Jessy de Abreu, who is the co-founder of a campaign called Stop Blackface, said the practice was problematic because Dutch society has not spoken about the issue of race and racism for far too long, which causes a greater chance to create racists for generations to come.

“If children do not learn now that blackface is a racist act, and that The Netherlands is a so-called racism-free country, we risk to develop more inequality in our country where there are inequalities in education, the labour market, juridical institutions, and unequal treatment of people of colour by police,” she said.

She said it was the silencing of their colonial past that normalised blackface, and that the education system gave minimal attention to this aspect of history.

“Instead, if it is mentioned it’s very Eurocentric, to the extent that it glorifies this past as adventurous, [one of] exploration and entrepreneurial [spirit],” she said.

She said in the dominant narrative taken by most Dutch people, Pete got his black face from climbing down the chimney.

“Due to this dominant narrative, colonial imagery has never been taken into account because they truly believe that it is an innocent children’s party,â” she said.

In a survey done by the Dutch government, only one in five people supports the change of Pete’s appearance. But the positive is that the support for change and resistance towards Black Pete has increased over the years.

Ivar Noordenbos, spokesperson for the minister of social affairs and employment, said the Dutch government does not view dressing as Zwarte Piet as a racist act but it does acknowledge that it might be make people feel discriminated by it because of stereotyping.

He said the minister was also involved in the subject of integration and racism, and over the last three years has been engaging with people who are involved in celebrations of it and those against it, and continues to do so.

“The government thinks is it very important that Santa Claus and Pete, whether he is black or not, has to be a party for everyone and that might mean the figure of Black Pete has to change to promote the figure of Black Pete,” he said.

He said this was a hard discussion because many Dutch people celebrate the holiday with no racist intention, and want to continue the tradition.

“It’s a slow movement but you see more and more municipalities, television shows and schools that Black Pete is becoming a different colour or strips of brown paint on their face. You see some change, that’s always a good thing because traditions do change,” he said.

He said the government was promoting the change of the name Black Pete in their effort to promote that the character was not needed to celebrate Santa Claus. Organisers of this year’s Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam have also announced that Black Pete would be replaced with “Chimney Pete”, so revellers can smear their faces with streaks resembling soot rather than donning blackface.

“But it is not up to the government to say from this date people are no longer allowed to use the name Black Pete or to dress up like Black Pete because it’s really something that has to change from and within society itself,” said Noordenbos.

Featured image via Flickr