Zwarte Piet: The Dutch tradition of Black Pete falls under increasing scrutiny

The Dutch national holiday Sinterklaas is now under international scrutiny. St Nicholas, an old white saint who hands out presents, has a servant by the name of Zwarte Piet, or ‘Black Pete.’ Despite obvious connotations with the Dutch slave trade, Black Pete is a hotly debated topic in the Netherlands. In the aftermath of Black History Month, and in the lead up to Christmas, The Gryphon performs an in depth look at a controversial tradition.

In my gap year I worked at a library. In November I had to walk around the children’s section as Black Pete, hand out candy and read to little groups. As they were sitting, listening to the blacked-upped, jolly costume-wearing servant of St Nicholas, a boy joined our playhouse reading club. He had brown curly hair, brown like his skin. I felt dread tingling down my spine, yet the kids stayed silent. The boy laughed at the story and asked for candy.

Not many Dutch Antillean or Surinamese people enjoy the Dutch holiday of St Nicholas as much as the boy in the library. As with many holidays, every school, retailer, and television channel indulges in the festivities. You will find St Nicholas and Black Pete in every store shelf, in every school and every library. Any parents or children wishing to avoid the tradition, wishing to escape it, will surely fail.

Zwarte pietsBlack Pete features heavily in the ‘Entry of St Nicholas’, a festival occuring in Mid November, which features Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) and his various Petes arriving into town on a boat, and then parading through the streetss giving candy to children. The entry of St Nicholas’ signifies the day he arrives by boat from Spain together with his Black Petes.  Every Black Pete has a certain ‘characteristic’, with Petes such as Presents Pete, Finding The Way Pete, and Reading Pete.

Dutch author Robert Vuijsje told newspaper Trouw about how he called his only black primary school classmate and asked him whether he had been called Black Pete and what he thought about the festival of St Nicholas. The answer was negative. “I was bullied at school,” said a participant in a Black Pete survey performed by news service Een Vandaag, ‘I was called Black Pete and slave. No one showed any understanding when I objected.’ Comedian Quinsy Gario also mentioned on his Tumblr about his mother being greeted at work with ‘we wondered where our Black Pete was hiding’. It is these remarks and incidents that makes the festival of St Nicholas not a holiday but a horror to many.

Gario was a salient instigator of the anti-Black Pete campaigns that sparked the current national debate. Accusations regarding the holiday’s racist character and reference to the Dutch slave trade are however not new. In 1982, as a response to the addition of red lips and golden earrings to the look of Black Pete, the Dutch Surinam community began campaigning for a Sinterklaas celebration without reference to slavery. In 2011, Gario demonstrated against the holiday during the entry of St Nicholas in Dordrecht, wearing a t-shirt reading ‘Zwarte Pete is Racisme’ (Black Pete is racism). His campaign attracted many followers, including Dutch celebrities, with many of them now wearing his t-shirt.

‘I was called Black Pete and slave. No one showed any understanding when I objected.’

Black Pete was also met with an international slating. Last year, UN-officer Verene Sheperd labelled the tradition as a return to slavery. A UN investigation into the nature of the holiday in July of this year deemed the festival of St Nicholas racist, outdated, and recommended that Dutch education had to actively pursue teaching the Dutch colonial history. ‘Ignorance feeds hate, we have seen that in the past,’ said Shepherd.

2014 seems to have gone down as the most successful year for the Black Pete opposition. Official plans have been made to change Black Pete’s skin into a variety of bright colours, and to modify his subservient character as well as the lyrics of some traditional Sinterklaas songs. Yet ignorance, or whatever other forces are at work, does indeed seem to be feeding hate. Many Dutch people object to the ‘slander’ of their tradition. “It knows such a long history after all,” said an older woman to Een Vandaag upon hearing that the Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn would remove Black Pete from their television adverts, ‘People from outside shouldn’t be bothered by it.’

‘Ignorance feeds hate, we have seen that in the past,’

According to a survey by Een Vandaag in which 28,000 people participated, 83% of the Dutch are opposed to changing Black Pete’s looks. For many Dutch people, Black Pete has nothing to do with racism, and is instead a beloved children’s character. “Why would you remove such a piece of cultural heritage?’ says another woman to Een Vandaag. To fight its removal, the festival of St Nicholas has been placed on the National Inventory Intellectual Cultural Heritage. ‘We want to prove Black Pete is not a stereotype in its current form,’ said a spokesperson of the Dutch Centre of Culture and Intellectual Heritage, ‘Placing it on the Inventory is a supporting argument to us’.

atrl.netAn argument put forward by lawyer Jan Visser in newspaper de Volkskrant stated that the Black Pete debate is encouraging racism rather than fighting it. ‘If Black Pete were prohibited, it would make sense for the vast majority of Dutch people who have no problem whatsoever with the tradition to once again turn against the Dutch people of colour,’ said Visser, a statement which insulted Dutch people of colour, and ignored the many of them who do not find Black Pete offensive. Visser said it would mean no Dutch person would be able to look at a Surinamese person and not think of how they ‘ruined the party’.

Vuijsje compares the Black Pete struggle with an unhealthy relationship. ‘A wife asking her husband to stop doing something because it hurts, and her husband answers by saying ‘What I do is not hurting you and I don’t care what you think of it, I will continue’’; an analogy that seems apt in light of other Dutch racial issues. When the Dutch version of chocolate marshmallows known as Negerzoenen (negro kisses), was rebranded Kisses many objected, saying there was no offense in an old confectionary name. When Dutch glossy magazine Jackie described pop star Rihanna’s style as ‘Niggabitch’, the formal apology stated that it had been ‘a bad joke’ and that the magazine had meant no harm.

83% of the Dutch are opposed to changing Black Pete’s looks

Luckily, a growing 13% of mainly young and highly educated Dutch people understand the offense and would like to make a change to the appearance of the Black Pete character. Popular Dutch website Geen Stijl wrote an article titled ‘Of Course Black Pete is Racism’, and many Dutch journalists and politicians have openly supported change. The official entry of St Nicholas in Gouda will feature both Cheese and Cookie Petes.

Vuijsje is hopeful and believes that the Dutch people are at the brink of a monumental turn in Dutch history. “For the first time, white Dutch people realise they live in a country with fellow countrymen who come from a different background, who have different opinions and feelings and look at things in a completely different way.” After calling his former classmate, Vuijsje realised that it was not the way he experienced certain things that matters, but the way that black people do.

Vuijsje has published a children’s book about St Nicholas in which different coloured Petes are presented as a matter of course. Perhaps one day, this will be the book read to children in libraries.

Loren Snel

Photographs: Tumblr:Zwarte Piet is Racisme, and The Guardian.

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