Zwarte Piet, or: The Illusion of the Netherlands’ Progressive Image

Let’s pretend none of us know a single thing about the Dutch holiday Sinterklaas. Actually, I suppose that’s true for a lot of you out there. Anyways, you, a bright, eager seeker of wisdom, sets out to learn a bit more about Sinterklaas, to educate yourself about Dutch culture. Interesting, it’s a celebration of Saint-Nicholas. Well, he was a fine enough fella! Huh, dear old Santa Claus is directly derived from Sinterklaas? Who knew! Ah, look at the faces of all those sweet children, eagerly awaiting their presents. Guess it really is a lot like Christmas, huh? What’s that? Sinterklaas has his own helpers? Are they cute little elves too? Let’s see…

Oh…oh dear…

It is unknown exactly how old the figure of Sinterklaas is. There are mentions of Saint-Nicolas being celebrated as far back as the middle-ages, but putting an exact date on it has proven to be rather difficult. Suffice to say, it’s an ancient holiday which has survived for centuries.

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas arrives in the middle of November (generally around 15–17 November) on his steamboat, a highly celebrated event which tends to have a large number of children present. Sinterklaas will then proceed to march into the city of his arrival on his white horse, happily interacting with the people throughout.

Yet in recent years, the holiday of Sinterklaas has become a highly contentious issue in the Netherlands, with protests arguing against it, and counter-protesters denouncing the protesters as unpatriotic. This entire controversy is due to a single aspect of the holiday: the personal helper of Sinterklass, the character known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.

While the origins of the holiday itself are hard to trace back, the addition of Zwarte Piet has a very clear point of origin. In 1850, Dutch educator Jan Schenkman published a short picture book about Sinterklaas. In this book, the holy man was accompanied by a black servant who helped him deliver presents to the children. In other words, the addition of Zwarte Piet is a far more recent phenomenon than general celebrations of Saint-Nicholas.

Now from the outset, it is not hard to see how the relationship between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet could be viewed as problematic. Keeping in mind the Netherlands’ own hand in the transatlantic slave trade, and its later colonies, the imagery of a white man on a white horse served by a number of black servants would make most people raise their eyebrows.

However, because the book was written in the 1800’s, a time when things like phrenology were very popular, it did not cause any notable outrage. Because of this, current day supporters of Zwarte Piet can lay a (faulty) claim to tradition, even if this tradition came from a time when black people were considered inferior to white people.

Looking more closely at the way Zwarte Piet is portrayed, suspicions of it being racist in nature are only reinforced. As shown above, Zwarte Piet is portrayed by white people painted black. Additionally, he has curly hair, bright-red lips, earrings, and sometimes even speaks in a foreign accent. Sound familiar?

One may ask how such a blatant stereotypical portrayal of black people can ever be a contentious issue to begin with; surely everyone would condemn it outright. Well, that’s because the Netherlands isn’t the progressive, wholesome, weed-Valhalla it is made out to be.

Alright, the weed part is true.

In her book “White Innocence”, Gloria Wekker explores the ostensibly progressive and color-blind Dutch society. The Dutch society, it seems, believes itself to have moved on from such concepts as race and racism, despite the myriad of evidence suggesting otherwise. As such, people who speak up against what they perceive to be acts of racism are denounced for trying to cause trouble, of seeking to break the comfortable status-quo. Zwarte Piet can’t be racist, because Dutch society as a whole isn’t racist. It is in fact the protesters who are focusing too much on race. Us regular folk just want to celebrate an innocent holiday. We barely even notice the blackface!

This attitude of moral superiority has led to an ingrained belief in minorities that they cannot show themselves to be too affected by acts of racism. We’re expected to laugh it off. It’s not like this is America, where there is actual racism. It’s the Netherlands! We’ve moved past that! If someone said something racist, it was probably just a joke. And if it wasn’t a joke, you probably took it out of context. And if you didn’t take it out of context, well…can you like, not talk about it all too much?

It is this ‘holier than thou’ attitude than can be so infuriating to deal with as a minority. Despite the fact that police in the Netherlands have repeatedly been shown to engage in ethnic profiling, despite the fact that various investigations have uncovered rampant discrimination in the housing market and the job market, despite the fact that the far-right populist Geert Wilders got the second most votes in the most recent election, despite the Minister of Foreign Affairs recently going on record saying multicultural societies are doomed to fail, and despite strongly objecting to having a figure that is wearing literal blackface be altered to a less stereotypical appearance, the Dutch still champion themselves as a land of progressive ideals, where race is all but an afterthought.

One recurring defense of Zwarte Piet by its supporters is that children adore him, perhaps more so than Sinterklaas himself. In other words, won’t somebody please think of the children? Despite the fact that this in no way refutes accusations of racism, it draws attention to a big problem in and of itself. Wekker rightfully points out that the existence of Zwarte Piet molds children into thinking such portrayals are indeed innocent.

The audience is bound by shared images about blacks, images that develop at a very early age. Children are exposed to derogatory images of Black Pete, the servant of Sinterklaas, the good-hearted bishop who comes to visit yearly, at very young ages, even before they can talk (pp.34).

Little surprise, then, that many of these children grow up into the counter-protesters of today, truly believing that there is nothing wrong with Zwarte Piet. In a country that has had close ties to the transatlantic slave-trade, that has itself had multiple colonies where the natives were brutally kept in tow, are we truly expected to believe that Zwarte Piet, created in a time when colonialism was still very much at its zenith, is an innocent figure? Really?

Why, then, are white people in the Netherlands so incredibly defensive when it comes to Zwarte Piet? Keep in mind, protesters aren’t calling for Zwarte Piet to be removed entirely (though you wouldn’t hear me object to it); they merely want his appearance to be less stereotypical. After all, Zwarte Piet’s dark skin supposedly comes from him traveling through chimneys to deliver presents (though how those same chimneys also give him red lips, earrings, and curly hair is never explained). As such, suggestions have been made to make him have an appearance more in line with those stories, with patches of soot instead of, you know, blackface. Yet even such a minor change has triggered a fiery response from a large part of Dutch society.

Certainly, the core issue is just flat-out racism. But such a blunt statement does not get us far. Far more prudent, perhaps, is to look at some reasons behind this racism.

One of these reasons is rather easy to pinpoint: these people believe Sinterklaas to be an integral part of Dutch culture. They have celebrated it since they were children, and so have their parents, and their parents’ parents, for several generations on end. If they yield to the protesters, in their minds this amounts to admitting that Dutch culture is itself racist. And, by association, they, their parents, their grandparents, and all the generations that celebrated Sinterklaas since the introduction of Zwarte Piet are in some ways racist too. In a country that proliferates itself as progressive and post-racism, this can be a tough pill to swallow.

Similarly, the Netherlands is rather notorious for never really having fully owned up to their horrible colonial past. For instance, the brutal massacres the Dutch government enacted in Indonesia are commonly referred to as “policing actions”, despite the fact that thousands of natives were violently tortured and killed. Likewise, the Dutch government has structurally refused to apologize for its hand in the slave trade, merely limiting themselves to “deeply regretting” what happened in those times. More so than anything, examples like these show how flimsy the Netherlands’ global image of progressiveness really is.

Combined, issues like these create a society that never really learned to deal with its racist past, and was raised, in part, on racist imagery. Perhaps they really are color-blind, because nobody could look at Zwarte Piet and truthfully claim that there is nothing wrong with it. Another reason for the mere existence of this debate (when Zwarte Piet should never have managed to survive to this day and age in its current form), is that the Netherlands’ shoulder-shrug attitude to racial problems in its society makes it a prime breeding ground for the proliferation of the white moderate.

In a letter Martin Luther King Jr. wrote while in jail, he denounced the white moderate as the biggest obstacle in the quest for civil rights for black people.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

If there is one thing the Netherlands has an abundance of, it is white moderates. They are the people who will ask both sides to calm down and let the children have their fun, even though one side is defending blatant racism while the other seeks to oppose it. They are the ones who will call out the ways in which anti-Zwarte Piet protesters seek to raise awareness to the problem at hand, but who vehemently swear that they support their overall objective. They are the people who will say that, yes, something needs to be done, but can we wait until after the celebrations are over? And, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, they are the biggest obstacle standing in the way of true social progress.

White moderates hate being called out for the impact of their passive attitude. When the elephant is about to trample the mouse, a bystander being passive does not mean this person is not taking a side: they are taking the side of the elephant. Passivity equals support for the party that has more power. And in this ‘debate’(really, it shouldn’t be debate, but here we are), those moderates that “just want to celebrate a children’s holiday” are, to me, every bit as bad as any overt racist who hurls insults at minorities. This is because these moderates have the power to enact change in support of marginalized groups, yet they refuse to do so. So yes, we’re going to lump you in with the racists and the bigots.

I write about stuff. Whatever’s on my mind. Feedback can be sent to b.a.botan92@gmail.com

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