ZWARTE PIET: HARMLESS HARLEQUIN OR RACIST REPRESENTATION?

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By Tessa Houwing
Staff Writer

Imagine the United Nations doing research on Santa’s elves in relation to human rights. Your first thought is probably something along the lines of: why would the United Nations even do that? Well, it turns out that something similar to this has actually been done in The Netherlands. A long-standing Dutch tradition was looked into by the U.N. a few years ago due to the perceived racial ties embedded within the cultural customs of the celebration. Still every year during late Autumn, the discussion starts again. That trend continued this year and was exemplified when Sinterklaas entered the country and mass demonstrations led to the arrests of two hundred people.

What is Sinterklaas?

The Dutch have a children’s tradition similar to Christmas but it does not occur during late December. However, the holiday does still revolve around honoring the Catholic Saint Nicholaas. Hailing from Myra in ancient Greece, located in present-day Turkey, Sint Nicolaas was known for the miracles he could perform. He served as the Bishop of Myra and after his death on December 6, 343 A.D., the church canonized him. He is the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, brewers and many other groups.  Unsurprisingly, he is remembered fondly for his habit of secret gift-giving.

Nowadays, the Dutch people know Sint Nicolaas as Sinterklaas and honor him by celebrating ‘pakjesavond’ (although the holiday is commonly referred to as Sinterklaas) on December 5. Sinterklaas buys gifts for every child in the Netherlands who has behaved properly during the past year. During pakjesavond, a burlap bag magically appears somewhere within the house filled with presents. This bag is always delivered by Zwarte Piet (in English: Black Pete) who aids Sinterklaas and enters each home through the chimney. Zwarte Piet is of African descent and is typically portrayed dressed in Moorish outfit with golden earrings and curly black hair. While he primarily acts as the athletic and silly helper of Sinterklaas, he also plays a more sinister role.  His alternate responsibilities are to hit children with a roe, a collection of birch twigs, and kidnap children in a bag to Spain if they behaved poorly during the year.

None of this ever actually happens in reality. Children believe that Sinterklaas exists until they’re around the age of eight or nine.  When the children are old enough, their parents reveal that this faith was false and that they have been the ones buying their presents. The children also find out that it wasn’t Zwarte Piet who delivered their presents, but their neighbor instead who would knock on the door and quickly run away. The children are also delighted to learn that no one actually gets hit with the roe or gets kidnapped and taken away to Spain.

Usually Sinterklaas is a tradition full of candy, presents and family joy. One big difference between Sinterklaas and Christmas is that poems are attached to the presents which relate to the specific person receiving the gift. Some presents also come with a ‘surprise,’ which is a home-crafted wrapper also relating to the person the present is for. For example, if a girl is quite fond of princesses then this wrapper could be decorated with various princesses.

The festivities begin when Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands from Spain via steamship in November. This is a big event for children everywhere in the country, as the arrival of Sinterklaas is portrayed by multiple actors across the country. Sinterklaas waves from his ship to the children while Zwarte Piet makes silly moves and throws candy to everyone. When they reach land, Sinterklaas rides his horse through town and Zwarte Piet carries bags of candy which he hands out to the children. Sinterklaas is usually played by an old white man, while Zwarte Piet is played by both white men and women. The actors who dress as Zwarte Piet paint themselves black which is where the racial criticisms originate.

The Controversy

There appears to be no blatant harm in this tradition, however there has been a lot of discussion about Zwarte Piet over the last few years. This discussion didn’t just remain within the Netherlands, as the United Nations eventually got involved. Their eventual judgement was that Zwarte Piet is a racist character and doesn’t acknowledge the painful history of African peoples and their past enslavement. The UN added that the Dutch people fail to acknowledge the discriminating nature of this tradition and the negative psychological impact that it may have on citizens of the country.

The debate always circles back to one main point: is Zwarte Piet meant to be a slave to Sinterklaas or does his darkened color come from the chimneys he figuratively navigates? The argument in favor of the former has solid proof. In 1850, Jan Schenkman wrote a children’s book about Sinterklaas. Schenkman is supposedly the one who added Zwarte Piet to the tradition of Sinterklaas, as his first recorded appearance comes from his book. The original illustrations of Zwarte Piet show much resemblance to child slaves during the 19th century so many people assume that Zwarte Piet is, in fact, a slave character.

On the other hand, people say that the color of Zwarte Piet is due to the grime and soot in the chimneys through which he enters homes. This last argument only covers the skin color aspect though and leaves the question of Zwarte Piet’s golden earrings and curly black hair left unanswered. But does that really matter? Those who don’t believe he’s a slave, claim that this is simply a childrens’ tradition and that people shouldn’t examine deeper concepts beyond Zwarte Piet which children don’t see. Many children don’t think of Zwarte Piet as a slave and therefore supporters of the traditional makeup argue that people shouldn’t be making as big of a deal out of this as they are.

What Is Being Done to Address This Concern?

The report from the United Nations was only a recommendation so the Dutch government didn’t have to change anything to their tradition. The prime-minister responded saying that the discussion concerned themes greater than the racial makeup of one particular figure and that the specific case regarding Zwarte Piet was not something that needed to be discussed in parliament. By this response, he left the discussion in the hands of the public and for the last four years the tradition has been influenced by this rationale.

The public did not shy away from discourse in a variety of ways. A pro-Zwarte Piet Facebook page was created and soon had over two million citizens who liked it in solidarity that the tradition not be changed. The main arrival of Sinterklaas last year took place in Gouda, the Dutch city known for its cheese. To represent the cultural history of the city, the actors dressed as Zwarte Piet wore yellow and resembled cheese and stroopwafels, another Dutch delicacy. In doing so, they tried to avoid charges of racism by changing the makeup of Zwarte Piet from black to yellow. Sinterklaas also visits every primary learning institution in the country and schools are actively deciding how to best portray Zwarte Piet. This situation occasionally gets out of hand with parents demonstrating against any change to the longstanding tradition. In Amsterdam, they decided to only allow partially-blackened Zwarte Pieten, with the colored makeup specifically representing the soot of chimneys they claimed. A further example is in regards to Sylvana Simons, a Dutch TV host from Suriname, who received much backlash after publicly stating that Zwarte Piet should be abolished.

This discussion affects every place and every person that has anything to do with Sinterklaas, which as a national holiday, practically includes everyone in the country. Being a white Dutch girl myself, who has been celebrating Sinterklaas her whole life, I find it somewhat difficult to rationalize these discussions. I never took Zwarte Piet as someone who resembled anything close to a slave. But now that the national conversation has continued to evolve and is clearly upsetting to members of our communities, I think that we should not hold on to the tradition and instead look at what it is doing to people. Every country in the western world is becoming more diverse due to migration and we should adjust our culture to accommodate them, just like they are adjusting their lives to live among us. If they feel offended by our cultural customs, which they have proper reason to, then we should have the civil decency to question our own traditions and ask ourselves if they are benevolent and representative of everyone in the country.

Image Courtesy of Hans Splinter

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