Zwarte Piet: A Tradition of Blackface in The Netherlands.
The Netherlands are one step closer to the possibility of winning the Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup. Continuing with our posts related to the World Cup and learning more about the African diaspora, we decided to look at one of the country’s not-so-great cultural traditions.
The Netherlands is a country popularly known for its tulips and windmills, it’s legalization of marijuana and…for brutally colonising South Africa. But during the month of December when good cheer is supposed to be spread by all, a racist tradition dating back to the late 1800s rears its ugly head.
In a book published in 1850 and written by Jan Schenkman, Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”), the foundation of a Christmas tradition where the Dutch paint their faces black, emphasize their often non-existent lips with red lipstick, wear kinky-textured wigs and Renaissance period attire, was birthed through a character known as ‘Zwarte Piet’. Although not named in Schenkman’s book, the name ‘Pieter’ would not appear in print until the publication of the 1891 book Het Feest van Sinterklaas, the Amsterdam-based primary school teacher depicted Saint Nicholas’ ‘servant’ as a young page with dark skin and wearing clothes typically associated with Moors at the time. The book stayed in print for a hundred years, until 1950.
This Dutch folklore character was portrayed as a ‘helper’ of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus), also known as Saint Nicholas. According to some depictions in medieval European folklore, Saint Nicholas “is sometimes presented as taming a chained devil, who may or may not be black”, and who some allude to being changed to represent a Moor, essentially Zwarte Piet, in post 19th century Germanic European folk literature. Part of this change came about as both teachers and clergymen became concerned with the way Sinterklaas, who was essentially a saint, was being portrayed. Folklore often depicted Saint Nicholas as some sort of a boogeyman who scolded bad children and made them fearful of him. Sinterklaas had more terrifying qualities than good ones, most of which were later transferred to Zwarte Piet.
Thus, what some say began as a ‘black devil’ was later transformed into a more human form, at the same time that it dehumanized and demonized the very people it portrayed.
As the years wore on, Zwarte Piet became more and more of a docile and childlike character who was not only Santa’s helper, but a ‘friend’ to young children. Perhaps one can say that the transformation of Zwarte Piet’s characteristics also mirrored the changing attitudes of this part of Europe to black people and Africa(ns). Where during the height of colonisation, black people were portrayed as savages and animals to be tamed, by the early 20th century, European colonists began to adopt patronising attitudes towards Africa, portraying Africans as child-like and in need of saving through the adoption of Western culture. The relationship between Saint Nicholas and Zwarte Piet seems to be a clear demonstration of this - the white god-like saviour rearing the black infant-like individual who will forever be in servitude to their false father-figure.
I’m not entirely sure when the culture of blackface in line with Zwarte Piet came about but it seems to have taken flight in the early 20th century as Piet became a much more ‘docile’ character to the Dutch public. With this popularity came the twisted celebration of European racism, one that many Dutch seem to think is harmless. According to a 2013 survey, 92% of the Dutch public don’t perceive Zwarte Piet as racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% are opposed to altering the character’s appearance.
With immigration increasing in the Netherlands, and as more and more people pay attention to this cultural ‘celebration’, there have been a number of anti-Zwarte Piet protests.
The largest Sinterklaas celebration in Western Canada, in New Westminster, British Columbia, due to take place in December 2011, was cancelled for the first time since 1985 following a debate over the inclusion of Zwarte Piet in the festivities.
In 2011, legislators in the former Dutch colony of Suriname stated that government-sanctioned celebrations involving Zwarte Piet were considered an insult to the “black part of Suriname’s community.” Demonstrators in Amsterdam held an anti-Zwarte Piet protest in 2013 on the weekend of the city’s Sinterklaas celebration in November. And now, in 2014, something that’s been a long time coming has finally happened. An Amsterdam court has ruled that the traditional Dutch figure Black Pete is offensive due to its role in continuing stereotypes of black people.