Zwarte Piet, the Documentary

Okay folks, here’s something to get behind: A documentary from Shantrelle P. Lewis on the Dutch tradition of blackface.

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WordPress won’t let me do a real embed – click for the page.

New Orleans-born, New York-residing, Netherlands-frequenting, Black-focused curating, and an all-around master woman, Shantrelle is bringing the Zwarte Piet debate to a bigger screen.  And I think that’s just fantastic.

Zwarte Piet’s supporters and opponents alike have a tendency to make this yearly tradition of blacking up into a national issue.  And to a great extent, it is.  The celebrations are perpetuated by Dutch people.  And local opponents have the most personal experiences and confrontations with the attitudes of racism and disregard that are represented in these celebrations.  And let’s not forget about the examples of racism in the Netherlands that slap us in our non-white faces year-round, not just during the holidays.  If a fundamental and systemic change is really going to come (and I like to believe Sam Cooke when he told us it will), it needs to happen in the Netherlands.  And Dutch people need to be motivated or coerced to make the changes themselves.  Like a nation of Aquarians, they won’t be told what to do.

But real coercion comes in worldwide numbers.  And we certainly cannot dismiss the fact that this is also a global issue.  As much as people like to deny it, Zwarte Piet stems from the ignorance-drenched globalization of a racist practice.  The Netherlands did not exist in a bubble during the 19th-century, when Piet was born.  And it certainly doesn’t exist in a bubble now.  We are part of a global community.  Whether born in the Netherlands, moved to the Netherlands, never been to the Netherlands, or never heard of the Netherlands (well, check yourself on that one), this affects all of us.  So why should folks in the Netherlands be expected to continue fighting the good fight in isolation?

Let’s fight the fight in a united, global front.  Let’s get as much worldwide attention on this issue as possible.  Let’s show Dutch people that if you mess with some of us, you mess with all of us.  Let’s support Shantrelle’s film.

She’s well on her way to reaching the $20,000 goal for her Kickstarter campaign, with supporters aplenty (my Mama included!).  And there’s no doubt she’ll reach it.  Maybe some blackgirlgone readers can help her get there.  Won’t you consider being a part of the global movement?

Here’s the Kickstarter link again: Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary 

And should I mention I’m in the trailer? Does that help?

And do you need to be reminded about Zwarte Piet’s history? Or how I feel about Zwarte Piet?

In anti-Piet solidarity.  See you at the premiere!

Zwarte Piet: Go back to where you came from

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)

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.

(from 2011)

(from 2011)

“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:

  • Sign this:

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): 

  • Watch this:

Ned2: Zwarte Piet en Ik

  • Read these:

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 

Sinterklaas Survival

Note: Title and post are meant to be read to the tune of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “System of Survival.” Thank you.

First, let’s all breathe a sigh of relief because Zwarte Piet and his main man, Sinterklaas, are long gone.  Seemingly overnight, the city shifted from blackface mania to a pleasant winter wonderland.  The focus is now on snowflakes and white lights rather than stereotypes and black men.  So. much. better.

My rage and frustration with the unapologetic racism I see in the Netherlands (and no, we’re not rehashing this here. I’ve left comments open on my previous post if you’d still like to get something off your chest about how much you love Piet there) has led to a busy (and talkative) few weeks.  I don’t think a day went by that I wasn’t in some type of interaction with or conversation about Zwarte Piet.  If you imagine that as annoying, make it more annoying – at least 75% more.

But coming out of the madness, I feel quite positive.  I had the pleasure of meeting and building with an incredibly smart and inspiring group of young people in Amsterdam.  And it feels like a lot was done.  So much was written, said, and understood.

My personal contribution was to plan a debate at the University along with a classmate.  We filled a room with bright and passionate people – diverse and all of that.   It resulted in a great discussion.  First a historian provided an anti-Piet leaning overview of Piet’s life story.  I say anti-Piet, not because he changed the facts of the story, but because he told the true story.  Two main players represented Zwarte Piet is Racisme and two others spoke about how they can’t live without Piet.  By the end, one of the panelists conceded a bit, surprising everyone when she said she didn’t feel that strongly that Piet had to be black.  Wait, what?

The other guy held tightly onto his role, defending the tradition to the end – even through the emotional part when people began to speak of children being bullied and compared to the awful character.  I’m glad he did though.  We needed someone to represent that dismissive and arrogant Dutch voice that each one of us has confronted when we criticize Zwarte Piet.  It felt like people needed to get it all out in the open.  And he took the beating, even declaring proudly after it was over that he refused to move from the position that I wanted him to take.  I wasn’t sure if that meant he actually wanted to back away from his opinions or if he just wanted me to be proud of him.  I was proud of him.  I was proud of all of us.  It was a good night.  I hope it helped others.  Because it sure did inspire me.

Also, I’ve had the opportunity to do some writing. asked me to comment on Zwarte Piet not once, but twice.  And if I can’t promote my brilliance here (and speak of it in such a way), then where can I, my friends?  So please, feel free.

And pictures always add a little something, I think. So perhaps my story will feel more complete with the photos below.  (and perhaps they’ll help you forget that I just pretended to sum up the last two months in a few paragraphs … HEY! I’m dancin’…)

Hardware Piet


Candy Piet

Book (and scary) Piet

Sinterklaas and Piet

Little Piet

CREA Debate

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

Zwart van Roet exhibit, Dec 2011

…and stay tuned.  From the looks of things, there’s more to come.

Zwarte Piet: To be or not to be…black

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.

Sinterklaas with a young Piet, 19th century. Source:

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.

Piet’s Roots

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.

Sinterklaas with servant. Source:

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.

"De Goede Sint" Source:

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.

Black and White Minstrel Show, 1958 (Britain). Source:

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: 

Tien kleine nikkertjes (translation: Ten little niggers), author unknown, ca. 1910. Source:

Oki en Doki bij de nikkers (translation: Oki and Doki with the niggers), by Henri Arnoldus, 1957. Source:

Het ABC voor Holland's kleintjes met 156 plaatjes (translation: The ABCs for Holland’s children with 156 pictures), by Daan Hoeksema, 1923. Translation: N is a Nigger, who is as black as soot. Source:

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.

And Now…

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.

Race Still Matters

Apologies to those who received a bunch of jibberish notes I accidentally published from my phone.  It’s actually a post I’ve been thinking about since I’ve been here.  Something about race and how strange it is to process the concept here.  But once I realized I had accidentally published about 4 incomplete thoughts, I quickly deleted it.  So now I’m not even sure where I had gotten with the process.  But perhaps this is what I’ve needed to force me to finish at least one thought.

As you know, I’m black.  I’m also a woman, an American, a vegetarian, and an animal lover with natural hair.  All of these things are a part of my identity.  But my blackness has always been at the forefront.  It’s partially (read: majorly) due to the position of race in the history of the U.S.  Through both the good and bad, the lives of my ancestors were determined by their race – opportunities, disadvantages, migrations, health, everything.  And the passing of many generations has done little to decrease the significance of race for me. I’m conscious of it everyday.  Not just because of any potential presence or awareness of racism or oppression.  Pride in the shared history and experience with other black people has meant much more.

I’m aware when I’m the only black person in a room – and perhaps even more aware when another black person finally enters.  Even if we never have an opportunity to speak, I imagine that other black person and I have a shared experience.  At conferences I have gotten into lengthy conversations with the serving staff – typically starting with something about whatever city I’m in, leading to something politically charged about lack of quality education available to young black people, or the deeply ingrained  racism of the American criminal justice system.  A conversation I wouldn’t have with just any stranger.  But a black stranger, yes.  It’s hard to explain, which makes me question if it’s been only in my mind all of this time.

So coming from this place of prioritizing my racial identity, when I moved to Amsterdam, I wanted to know where and how the black people live.  This isn’t to say I need to be around black people 100 percent of the time.  But if I want to be in a more comfortable and knowing environment, I would expect to find that wherever the black people might be.  The potential added benefit of finding an attractive black man in the mix may also have been a factor in my investigation – but that’s a post for another day.

Ah, but many in the Netherlands are under the impression that we live in a post-racial society.  Although race may or may not have held some significance many years ago, people like to think it no longer has meaning here.  No one has explicitly said to me that they “do not see color.”  But folks do seem to enjoy a good criticism of crazy Americans and our obsession with something as contrived as the concept of race.  An air of condescension usually comes with it – if you still care about the color of your or anyone’s skin, you have yet to evolve.

I’ll admit that this has made me question myself.  Why do I care so much about race?  And why do I think so many people, symbols, and actions are racist?  Has the U.S. messed me up even more than I realized?

But then I take a look around.  I’m the only black person in any of my classes.  I occasionally see black people who I suspect are undergrads.  But black people and higher education don’t seem to frequently mix.  I haven’t been to many office buildings.  In spite of that, I’ve made a general observation that black people are usually cleaning the buildings more often than they are meeting in them.  And when I ask, “where do all of the black people live?”  Everyone responds with de Bijlmer, which also happens to have a reputation of being filled to the brim with drugs and crime.  Moroccans and Turks are by far the most criminalized groups.  Then there’s that not so endearing yearly tradition of dressing up in blackface, modeled after a character who was (arguably) formerly enslaved by his holy, white counterpart.  And slavery?  Although the Dutch made unimaginable amounts of money from the trade and enslavement of black people, it happened elsewhere and a really long time ago, so it barely counts.

And then there’s the perspective of black people who have lived here for many years.  Every single older black person I’ve spoken to, many who have been here for 20+ years (coming from countries such as Suriname, Ghana and Nigeria), solemnly shakes his/her head while saying, “racist people.”  Younger black people typically agree that racism is prevalent in the country, though it’s not always one of the first assessments made.

So how can white Dutch people think race no longer matters in the Netherlands when it appears to still impact the lives of everyone else?  It seems that they’ve simply tucked race away in a neat box where it can be completely ignored.  And since most black folks seem to take the position of not wanting to stir the pot or endanger whatever status they may have gained, the goal of believing in a post-racial society is even easier to achieve.

As someone who is constantly thinking, talking, and defining in terms of race, I’m not sure if I prefer the outward and vocal racism of the U.S., like the tea party, or the Dutch approach where they make you study social sciences and open dark closets before you see evidence of racism.  Very different.  But both very bad.

I’d love to hear more thoughts on this.  As I’m still trying to understand and process it myself.