After much anticipation, Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten have arrived in the country this weekend from Spain. As images of Piet’s black face and comically exaggerated features have turned up just about everywhere, and both excitement and rage emerge in discussions of the topic, the Zwarte Piet debate has come to reflect more than just impressions of a children’s character. We’re talking about extreme nationalism and the silencing and oppression of communities of color. Feelings of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are certainly present year-round. Zwarte Piet simply brings much of it to the surface.
I’ve been somewhat obsessively reading and talking about Zwarte Piet for the better part of this year. And I would describe the most common reactions to be defensive and dismissive. “It’s a Dutch tradition. Why should it change?” Or, “you’re looking at this from an American perspective. We don’t have that type of racism here.” And, “you have no right to challenge a Dutch tradition. You’re not even from here.” And of course, “you have offended me for implying that this tradition has anything to do with race. This is your problem, not mine.” What these conversations lack in charm, they certainly make up for in enlightenment.
What I find most revealing is that people simply do not know the troubling history of Zwarte Piet. Attributing the tradition to something that happened hundreds of years ago, entirely separate from the practices of blackface and minstrelsy that rose to popularity in other parts of the world in the nineteenth century, the practice of painting one’s face black and playing the role of a servant is seen in the Netherlands as a harmless coincidence of similarity to those racist traditions, at best.
But as it turns out, Piet has ancestry in other parts of the world, from a cruel and angry period of the nineteenth century – not as long ago as many believe. Giving people the benefit of the (increasing) doubt, I’d like to think that, with knowledge of Piet’s history, most Dutch people would no longer joyfully embrace an annual tradition that has them celebrate and embody the character who so vividly reminds the rest of us of his hateful roots.
I think the most important, though challenging way to approach the discussion is to focus on why the tradition brings up reminders of hatred, discrimination, and dehumanization, rather than the feelings alone. For those feelings to matter, I guess I’m just asking Dutch people to care.
The story of Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, dates back to the 16th century. In the earliest renditions of the story, Sinterklaas represented two sides: good and evil, or the saint and the devil, with the contrasted aspect of his persona described as his “dark side.” Some argue that the devil side of Sinterklaas was transformed into a black person in Dutch society following the 16th century, coinciding with the extensive Dutch involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas, eventually becoming the character of Sinterklaas’ servant or companion, Zwarte Piet. And many attribute the development of Sinterklaas’ black counterpart to a school teacher and children’s book author, Jan Schenkman, who first portrayed a nameless black man alongside Sinterklaas in his 1845/1850 book, Sinterklaas and his Servant. At that time in the Netherlands, although slavery was not legal, some of the wealthiest people had black “servants,” whom served as status symbols, especially when they were kept well-dressed. Sinterklaas was certainly important enough to warrant having his own dapper servant.
From Servant to Minstrel
So when first imagined, the black servant had no name. And from what I can tell, it seems he was portrayed without any exaggerated features. But by the time he was named Pieter, around 1890, his physical appearance and personality began to mirror the comic portrayal of black people in other parts of the world.
Although the display of blackness for the enjoyment of white audiences was not new, minstrelsy rose to new heights of popularity in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, with performances involving crude and hateful stereotyping of black people. Typically their faces were covered with burnt cork to appear very black, their lips were exaggerated with red or white make-up, and they wore wooly, black wigs, tailcoats or tattered clothing, and gloves. Actors in blackface typically behaved comically, with a jolly attitude, frequently dancing, singing, and speaking in broken English. Perhaps because people were curious about blackness and black people, the popularity of American blackface spread throughout Europe and other parts of the world.
Also at that time, the Dutch empire was a lasting colonial power that had played a prominent role in the slave trade and slavery for centuries. Due to their presence in a global community of dominating white Europeans and Americans, the Dutch inevitably were affected by the globalization of this racist imagery. So although black people may have been uncommon and largely unknown in the Netherlands, for the sake of entertainment, they were imagined just as Americans portrayed them.
The early appeal of blackface imagery in the Netherlands wasn’t limited to Piet. It can be seen in the portrayal of black characters in children’s books in the late 19th and well into the 20th century:
Not much effort is required to see the resemblance between these characters and the beloved Piet. Perhaps the only difference is these characters would no longer be acceptable in Dutch (or any) society.
Not Black. Just…Dirty?
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Piet hasn’t evolved much. In spite of movements throughout the world to do away with offensive portrayals of blackness, the Netherlands is one of the few places (though certainly not the only) to resist progressive change. Piet’s subservient role, clownish personality, exaggerated features, and blackness remain the same. In fact, today Piet’s blackness is arguably his most important and unchangeable characteristic.
But here’s the tricky part: at some point, Dutch people did become more aware of the offensive nature of Piet’s depiction as a black man (perhaps 30 or 40 years ago). Somewhere around then the explanation of his blackness changed from his race to mere circumstance – chimney soot. You see, nowadays Piet isn’t really a black guy. He’s actually very likely a white guy who has the dirty job of going down chimneys, which covers his face in soot (perhaps this will remind you of the picture above – “N is a Nigger, who is as black as soot”).
But now I just think you’re telling me that a black man’s appearance is equivalent to that of a dirty white man, whose lips have turned red, and whose hair has grown curly, and whose clothes remain clean. And you’re telling me you think I’m stupid. While the chimney soot story allows Dutch people to feel comfortable with the depiction of the character as black, his actual black ancestry remains undeniable.
Well, I think globalization should work both ways. If you adopt the practices of another culture, you must also inherent the meaning and history of those practices. Although challenging the tradition of Zwarte Piet appears to many as a threat to a Dutch identity and culture, perhaps the real fear is of an awareness that Dutch society is indeed deeply immersed in the same history of racism and discrimination that has plagued the rest of the world. And that admission would mean bursting a post-racial bubble.
The claims of ignorance can’t last forever. At some point marginalized voices must be heard. But whether the education will be worthwhile over emphatic cries of a national identity remains to be seen. My personal hope is that those of us who object to Zwarte Piet will not lower our expectations of Dutch people, and persist in efforts to question, educate, and eventually eradicate the troubling tradition.