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Posted by on Jul 5, 2014 in At TMV, Holidays, International, Race, Society | 10 comments

Dutch ‘Zwarte Pieten’: Innocent Tradition or Inadvertent Racism?

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When I was a little kid (“little” being ages 10 through 17), I lived in the Netherlands Antilles and in the Netherlands. That was back in the 50s.

I remember Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” well.

I remember them (sometimes there were dozens of them) running and clowning around with their burlap sacks — scaring the daylights out of some little kids, might be a better term — in parades, shopping centers and, as legend had it, coming down the chimney while you were sleeping.

One or more Zwarte Pieten would accompany and help Sinterklaas — named after a 4th-century bishop, Saint Nicholas, the Dutch rendition of our Santa Claus — make his rounds the days before and on Sinterklaas Day, December 5.

That was the day when Dutch kids received most of their Christmas presents, if they had been good, or a lump of coal, or worse — more on this later — if they had been naughty.

I use the past tense because this was sixty years ago and some of the traditions and stories surrounding the Zwarte Pieten may have changed.

But who are these Zwarte Pieten and what do they do?

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Sinterklaas arrives on a ship with his Zwarte Pieten at the town of Leidschendam, the Netherlands. (Photo: robert paul van beets / Shutterstock.com)

Again, going back 60 years, Zwarte Pieten were white adolescents with painted black faces (supposedly from the soot picked up scaling down all those chimneys), thick, painted-on, bright-red lips, lots of frizzy black hair, many other “ornaments” such as big gold hoop earrings…and beautiful Dutch blue or green eyes. (No colored contact lenses in those days).

They were Sinterklaas’ knechten (servants) who would help Sinterklaas deliver sweets and gifts to those kids who had behaved throughout the year and would leave only a lump of coal for those children who had not been very nice. Legend and rumor also had it that they would stuff kids who had been naughty and bad into their burlap sacks and haul them back to Spain, or Morocco, or Turkey or wherever current folklore had it that the Zwarte Pieten came from.

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Zwarte Piet at a Sinterklaas parade in Scheveningen, Holland.(Photo jan kranendonk / Shutterstock.com)

As I mentioned, I was ten or more in my Sinterklaas days and although somewhat nervous around them I was not really scared.

However, looking back, I can imagine how mortified some of the “naughty” four- or five-year olds must have been around Sinterklaas day.

Also, in those days there were no racial connotations, implications or complaints that I remember about Zwarte Piet.

But back to the present.

A huge controversy has been brewing the last couple of years in the Netherlands surrounding the propriety in today’s society of having these blackface, white minstrel-like Zwarte Pieten still going around enchanting some, scaring others, all in the name of Sinterklaas.

The controversy seems to be raging the most in Amsterdam.

Last year, Amsterdam received 21 official complaints about the traditional Sinterklaas parade citing the racist characteristics of Zwarte Piet and asking the city council to deny a permit for the parade. Amsterdam’s mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, wrote in a letter to the municipal council that while he supports a “less black and less servile” Pete, he deemed the complaints against the parade to be unfounded. But the parade went on.

Last fall, even the United Nations got involved in the controversy when its human rights body allegedly opened up an investigation into whether Zwarte Piet is a “racist stereotype” and “infringes the human rights” of black people.

The Telegraph reported, “It has emerged that the UN’s high commission for human rights has written to the Dutch government expressing concerns over the tradition and accusing the authorities of failing to react to complaints of racial discrimination.”

But a few days later, a UNESCO official assured Holland that “the Dutch tradition of Santa Claus and his blacked-up servant, Black Pete, is safe from United Nations interference,” according to the Telegraph. The UN consultant who had started “all the hoopla” had “abused the name of the UN to bring their own agenda to the media,” Marc Jacobs, a Belgian UNESCO representative told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper.

Then, last week, an Amsterdam court ruled that Holland’s Zwarte Piet tradition is offensive to black people, perpetuates a negative stereotype of black people and gave the mayor of Amsterdam six weeks to decide whether or not he would hold the city’s annual Sinterklaas parade.

CBS News:

The court said Thursday that Black Pete’s appearance, in combination with the fact that he is often portrayed as dumb and servile, makes it “a negative stereotype of black people.”
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It also cited a publication by the country’s national human rights commission this week that found that white Dutch leaders frequently react with “irritation and dismissal” when questions of racism are raised, even though workplace discrimination is well documented in the Netherlands.

Many Dutch see this custom as the continuation of a beloved and innocent holiday tradition and point to the historic tolerant nature of the Dutch towards minorities.

This author agrees. However, it is now 2014 — not 1950 — and the Dutch should seriously re-evaluate this tradition before it evolves from inadvertent offensiveness into stubborn and ugly stereotyping of black people.

Lead image: www.shutterstock.com

The author lived and was educated in the Netherlands Antilles and the Netherlands in the 50s and also lived and worked in the Flemish Region of Belgium for five years in the 90s.

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Copyright 2014 The Moderate Voice
  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    Thanks Dorian. No ritual is written in stone, youre right. When my dear friend passed, he being a Hindu man, we all wore white in the tradition. When my father passed, we all wore black in the tradition. In my father’s old country, brides dressed in black with white headresses of white flowers. Here in the US, white bride dresses were the tradition. The idea of black or white as a color [and sometimes red too] being assigned status or not, is ancient. While reading your educative post, I was thinking of Keith Ledger in his chalk white caked makeup… horrifying as any other color, because of… intent. If harmless, perhaps best left to the people who live there to decide. However here in US, the ‘redskins’ franchise is a whole other story.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    If harmless, perhaps best left to the people who live there to decide.

    As I alluded to in my piece, except for scaring the hell out of some little kids, the Zwarte Piet character was quite harmless and inoffensive in my youth. But times, culture and demographics change.

    For example, there are many more minorities in Holland today than in the 50s, including about half a million with Surinaamse or former Dutch Antilles’ heritage.

    However, the Dutch are very pragmatic (and tolerant) people and I am sure they will make the right decision(s).

    Thank you for the comment, Dr. E.

  • John McCarthy

    Very instructive piece. I enjoyed it, Dorian. Thanks. (And congrats to the Dutch’s amazing World Cup team!)

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Thanks, John.

    Will be watching and pulling for the oranje team.

  • Thanks Dorian, a great post. I lived in Munich for a little over 3 years in the late 60s and early 70s. At that time Munich had a 10%+ Turkish minority, “guest workers” brought in to do the jobs the Germans wouldn’t do. They had their own section of the city and I used to go down there to the wonderful restaurants and yes, occasionally to buy some hashish. This was a time when racial tensions were strong in America and I will never forget a lederhosen clad Bavarian telling me he understood – you have the blacks, we have the Turks.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Thanks, Ron.

    I was stationed in Germany around the same time and while I don’t remember too much about tensions with the Turkish minority there (perhaps because I worked in a U.S. Air Force underground installation out in the middle of nowhere), I do remember some real tensions and confrontations with the Baader-Meinhof “gang,” (terrorist organization) which attacked several U.S. military installations, in addition to German facilities.

    It got so bad that in our housing complex, residents had to pull guard duty 24-7.

    I am sure you remember them, too.

  • Dorian: you and I had very different experiences. Working for the DIA I had lot of experiences interacting with the Germans/Bavarians. Two of my best friends were officers in the Bavarian State Police. I used to go to a local bar often where I interacted with the ordinary citizens of Munich. I learned the art of photography from an elderly Bavarian friend. I think I actually spent more time with the Germans than I did with Americans both at work and in my free time.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    HiRon,

    With my additional duty of Chief, Security Police, for a nearby military installation, I had lots of contacts with German police and other locals. In the area I was located, there were just not many Turks. That’s all.

    (I bought my car from a local police officer)

  • roro80

    Black Pete was part of the Santa Claus lore here in this country too, wasn’t he? I know I remember my grandma talking about him, and I know he was in a few old Christmas books we had. I remember my mom explaining that Santa used to have a “slave”, and that it’s a pretty racist stereotype of black people, with the big red lips and frizzy ‘fro-style hair. It’s the kind of stereotype you can see in old Uncle Remus stories or ads from the turn of the century. In any case, I’m sure the spirit of Christmas will remain lush and wonderful in the Netherlands without Black Pete.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Hi Roro,

    I’ll be publishing/updating this story at the HuffPost shortly. Thanks for your thoughts, they are very relevant.

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