Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) brings joy to millions in the Low Countries. But his dark-faced helpers, Zwarte Pieten, are racist and a colonial throwback.
5 December 2012
The fifth and sixth of December are the most joyous days of the calendar for most Dutch citizens. Family and friends gather to celebrate the country’s largest holiday, Sinterklaas (Sint Nicolaas), when presents, candy and pepernoten are exchanged.
Already in mid-November Sinterklaas, who is the forefather of the American “Santa Claus”, arrives on a steamboat together with his black-faced servants called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). Riding his white horse and dressed in a red bishop’s cape, Sinterklaas towers above his dark helpers.
Across the world, people have been appalled by the Zwarte Pieten and their painted-on black skin, bright red lips, curly black-haired wigs and 17th-century page costumes, but this outrage has generally failed to make inroads in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, a growing number of Dutch citizens are struggling to convince mainstream public opinion that the figure is a hurtful and racist caricature and as such should be abandoned or transformed.
Last year, two Dutch social activists tried to challenge public perceptions of the Zwarte Pieten. Quinsy Gario and Kno’Ledge Cesare joined the crowd awaiting the arrival of Sinterklaas’s steamboat holding up T-shirts which read “Zwarte Piet is racism”. The two protesters were quickly tackled to the ground by the police and arrested while the media painted them as the bad guys.
In fact, the public mood is so supportive of Zwarte Piet that any utterance against the practice is almost always immediately silenced and ridiculed, preventing a real discussion from ever getting started. But what is behind the strong opposition of grownups in the Netherlands to transforming a children’s holiday into something less offensive by removing these black-faced servants? This requires a consideration of Zwarte Piet’s history and colonial symbolism.
The dark history of Santa’s little helpers
Zwarte Piet has been a reflection of fluid and shifting racial biases and political developments since the colonial period. Prior to the 19th century, Sinterklaas’s helpers tended to be demons and spirits. Then, amid the campaign to abolish slavery, it was in the mid-19th century that Zwarte Piet was introduced in the classroom as an educational tool to scare children into behaving well. While dark-skinned slaves were being freed from their enslavement, Zwarte Piet continued to be imprisoned in the colonial ideology of the superiority of whiteness.
In the 1960s, when it became socially unacceptable to physically punish children for misbehaving, Zwarte Piet shifted from one stereotypical caricature to another – from an angry and scary servant to the childish, simple buffoon who spoke with a fake Surinamese accent and poor Dutch grammar.
As cultural sensitivities grew in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting from protests articulated predominantly by people from the former colonies, Zwarte Piet lost his big, bright red lips and golden earrings in an attempt to make the figure less offensive. It is this transformation that makes proponents of Zwarte Piet argue that he and Sinterklaas are now friends in an equal relationship with each other. Nevertheless, Zwarte Piet is still depicted as inferior to his white master – after all, he still wears a costume that was worn by enslaved servants.
The concept of Zwarte Piet evolved simultaneously with the way race is perceived at any given point in time. Defenders who claim that the figure is not inherently connected to racism obviously miss this point.
In contrast to the US, where the practice of blackface became a taboo following the civil rights movement, the Dutch continue to deny the racist elements in the Zwarte Piet figure. Jan van Wijk, president of Sint Nicolaas Genootschap Nederland, an organisation fighting to get Sinterklaas on to the UNESCO World Heritage list, argued in an interview that Zwarte Piet has been transformed from a racist caricature to “a family-friendly holiday icon on par with Sinterklaas”.
Arguments like this seem to imply that the Dutch have moved past race. But as long as Zwarte Piet is forced to be a black person, the argument that the Sinterklaas celebration has moved on past race is simply a farce. Moreover, ignoring the history and blackness of Zwarte Piet does not change the racial context in which the figure originated and has developed ever since. After all, if it isn’t about race, why did Sinterklaas’s original helpers, who were demons, evolve into Zwarte Pieten?
The transatlantic slave trade lasted from 1519 until 1867. During this period, a total of 11 to 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the “New World”, many of whom would not survive the voyage. The Dutch involvement in slavery and the slave trade would last for more than 200 years and was only formally abolished in 1863. In contrast to the United States, where slavery was an explicit system embedded in every aspect of life, people enslaved by the Dutch never reached the soil of the motherland from the colonies.
“The history of slavery and the slave trade became situated outside of Europe, as an element of African, Caribbean or American history. It kept the visible realities of the slave trade away from the Netherlands. This crucial separation was helpful in further ignoring the role of Dutch trading companies in the transatlantic trade of slaves,” historian Dienke Hondius explained in an interview.
The absence of slavery on Dutch soil is reflected in the way Dutch merchants discussed their business. They referred to themselves as ‘shareholders’, trading in coffee or sugar. By naming only the final products, the slave labour itself was made implicit, and invisible. This geographical schizophrenia and the distancing terminology are not without consequences. On the contrary, they lead to a “reframing of history”, as Hondius stresses.
In the United States, slavery took place on US soil itself and as such was explicit and publicly present. So, though the Netherlands and America both perceived enslaved people as chattel, the Americans proudly held on to their dehumanised possessions, whereas Dutch merchants passed the blame on to others, portraying themselves solely as disconnected investors. After the United States finally abolished slavery, it experienced a long and painful struggle for equal citizenship rights for former slaves and their descendants. In contrast, the Netherlands only began to be truly confronted with its colonial alter ego in 1975, when the former Dutch colony of Suriname gained its independence and a relatively large influx of immigrants from the former colonies moved to what was once called their ‘motherland’.
This longstanding pattern of keeping colonialism and slavery both out of sight and out of mind has resulted in the distortion of Dutch collective memory. Traditionally, a one-sided narrative has been presented in the media, history textbooks, and the public debate, contributing to general indifference and a lack of consciousness. As a result, it is possible simultaneously to glorify Dutch mercantilism during the nation’s “Golden Age” and neglect the suffering of the enslaved and Dutch responsibility for this. This lack of a comprehensive understanding of Dutch colonial history has led to the absence of vocabulary to discuss the ideology of racism that underpinned these undertakings and to trace its present-day legacy. This is why it is possible for an unreconstructed colonial mentality to seep through into contemporary discussions of discrimination, racism and the practice of Zwarte Piet.
Inciting racial consciousness
Although it has become more controversial in recent times, the Sinterklaas celebration in its current form continues to be a tradition enjoyed by many in the Netherlands. Many fans of the Zwarte Pieten wonder what all the fuss is about, and why activists attack these cultural icons and, by association, attack the thousands of people who enjoy celebrating the Sint and his little helpers.
Activists are simply trying to start a conversation. After all, what better way to get people thinking critically about Sinterklaas than to open up a national dialogue on the topic? When Gario and Cesare were protesting, they were not whining about having their feelings hurt, nor were they complaining about the hurt feelings of a woman that was reportedly called Zwarte Piet as a “joke” by a colleague, or the dark-skinned children who are upset because they are not allowed to dress up as Sinterklaas.
Rather these activists are criticising a practice that is quite literally the personification of centuries of racism and oppression. As the national conversation on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet grows, and as voices that were silenced in the past continue to get louder, the connection between past wrongs and present traditions will grow clearer. It is about time, especially given the upcoming 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands, that the Dutch public starts to associate Zwarte Piet’s bright red lips, wooly wig, and black-painted face with their country’s bloody colonial past and contemporary race relations and injustices.