I planned to steer clear of Zwarte Piet this year. Not to entirely ignore the subjects of racism and white entitlement in the Netherlands – but at least I wanted to avoid encounters with the (wo)men decked out in their best blackface attire. Between changed plans and a death in the family – not in the mood. Not even sure what that mood would be.
So when I took my friend’s daughter to school on Wednesday morning, I was less than thrilled to walk into my nightmare. It was the 5th of December, the big day for Sinterklaas. And after handing out gifts to children the night before, this would be Sint’s last day in town.
“Good riddance to you and your creepy team of absurdly archaic sidekick(s),” I’d like to say. “Go back to where you came from.” (upward nod to Piet’s supporters for that specific phrasing)
A sint and a piet (from 2011)
Turning the corner into the school yard, we could see that everyone was gathered outside. My first thought was fire drill – do they do fire drills like that here? When everyone has to line up outside with their class? And the teacher usually stands – … “I think Sinterklaas is here, Dana!”
Oh hell no.
“Oh really? That’s exciting. Do you think Piet is also going to be here?”
“Of course, Dana! He has to be here with Sinterklaas!”
The young one was excited. But she knows how I feel about Zwarte Piet. So she kept her enthusiasm for the impending events of the morning reserved. I was uncomfortable. Surrounded by small people, I wasn’t in a safe space to express contempt for a Dutch tradition, initiate a political debate, or even use certain preferred curse words. Powerless in a playground.
Several days earlier the young one and I had our first disagreement over Zwarte Piet. Although she’s Black, she’s six years-old. So she’s probably too young to understand the complexities of racism or the impact of increased ethnic diversity during the post-colonial era of a country that prides itself on its untainted national identity. And who am I to start these conversations with her? That’s the godparent’s job, isn’t it? So when she wanted to watch a “Zwarte Piet gangnam style” video on youtube, I kept it basic:
“Oh, come on, Dana!”
“No. Sorry to disappoint you. But Zwarte Piet isn’t allowed on my computer. Let’s find another video to watch – something that’s actually funny.”
“NO, Dana! That’s not nice what you said about Zwarte Piet. He’s very nice. You shouldn’t say that about him. He’s very funny, Dana!”
The discussion took on a familiar tone. In fact, it was almost exactly the same argument I have heard and read from countless (grown-up) Piet supporters: he’s nice, he’s funny, and I should like him.
“I’m not a fan of Zwarte Piet. The way he behaves and the make-up he wears – it’s meant to make fun of people. I don’t find it funny at all.”
“No, Dana! You’re wrong. He’s nice. Everybody likes him!” Clearly the schools get to them early. (Her Mom has already faced the issue of her school painting her face black during a Sinterklaas celebration.)
“We’ll just have to disagree on this one for now. And find a different video to watch.” It was the only way I could find out of the circular debate. She agreed.
But as we entered the school yard, our debate re-emerged. I flinched at the sight of every little Zwarte Piet hat that bobbed around me, as the young one contemplated my irrational dislike of the lovable character who is painted black. A few parents were around, lingering to see the arrival of Sinterklaas, I assume. The only Black man stood in the back, away from the crowd, holding his young daughter’s hand. We walked toward the front to find the young one’s teacher. I was anxious for my duties to be relinquished before things got uglier.
A little boy walked with his classmates. Most of them paid homage to Piet with colorful costumes and those same hats. But this little boy’s face was painted entirely black. He walked proudly.
“Oh look, there’s my teacher!” Words that brought relief.
“Goedemorgen!” I greeted the teacher. “Dag!” I said goodbye. Then I walked so fast out of there the children may have thought I stole Piet’s wallet. But I didn’t do anything to Piet. In fact, with the exception of his little disciple, I didn’t even have to see him.
Then, right on cue, all images of Piet and his bossman, Sinterklaas, were nowhere to be seen the following day, replaced by his commercial counterpart, cousin Santa Claus.
I may have escaped a direct run-in with Piet this year. But this isn’t sustainable. In order to have a higher quality of life in the November/December months of future years, particularly if I raise children in this country, these uncomfortable moments will need to stop. Everyday I need to leave my house confident that I won’t see someone dressed in blackface – every single day.
Judging from what I’ve seen, heard, and read in the past couple of weeks, progress continues. And while this argument usually feels like beating a fist against a brick wall, I think we’re starting to see some signs of cracks.
In an effort to make up for my silence on the subject throughout the season, here is just a sample of the actions and recent articles I recommend:
Petition to remove Zwarte Piet from schools
- File a complaint here (for locals: according to the mayor of Amsterdam, it’s not an issue worth considering until they receive 300+ complaints):
Ned2: Zwarte Piet en Ik
The Independent: Like the Golliwog Zwarte Piet Is a Racist Relic
Wishful Thinking : Zwarte Piet and the Colonial Inheritance
Racialicious: Zwarte Piet – a Racist Caricature