It’s December. To the Dutch expat that means facing, yet again, awkward questions and harassment from non-Dutch friends and colleagues. The source of their frustration? The dark, shocking, horrifying and racist Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, in particular the character of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).
What to think of Zwarte Piet? I’m torn between, on the one hand, my happy childhood memories of Zwarte Piet arriving with pepernoten and presents and, on the other, the realisation that this tradition preserves shameful racial stereotypes that affect Dutch perceptions of non-whites. As a child, I experienced the paradoxical Dutch attitude towards this cultural institution first hand: while my parents were fierce anti-apartheid activists (the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 was a bigger deal at home than the fall of the Berlin Wall three months earlier), they also paraded us in front of family and friends in traditional Zwarte Piet costume, including black face paint.
I confess that the racial connotations of Zwarte Piet did not occur to me until foreign visitors expressed their surprise about the tradition. In my defence, my ignorance was – and is – not unique. In the yearly Zwarte Piet debates in Dutch media and on internet fora, Dutch people go to great lengths to defend the folklore and get upset when foreigners don’t “understand” Dutch culture. To the Dutch, criticizing Zwarte Piet is like hunting Red-Nose Rudolph – humbugs trying to kill Dutch Santa.
But let’s be honest. Objectively, the Zwarte Piet figure is a racist stereotype that doesn’t belong in a liberal 21st century society (or any society for that matter). Historically, Zwarte Piet may have been an adviser of the Germanic god Wodan, the Persian herald of Nowruz or a Moorish servant to a Turkish saint, but his representation today as a black, mischievous servant is plainly wrong. Even if the Dutch wish not to construct Zwarte Piet as a slave to a white master, the embarrassing history of the Dutch slave trade demands a more sensitive approach to the issue. The fact that nobody in the Netherlands associates Zwarte Piet with racism is not an excuse. Rather, this ignorance lies at the heart of the problem, as it tacitly vindicates racial stereotypes and implants them in the minds of young people. Take the traditional Sinterklaas song “Daar wordt aan de door geklopt”, which includes the lines “ook al ben ik zwart als roet, ‘k meen het wel goed”. What signal are children receiving when they are made to sing “even though I’m black as ash, my intentions are good”?
The worst defence is that Zwarte Piet is black because he crawls through chimneys to deliver presents – but then why the big red lips, curly hair and Moorish costume? Why can’t Zwarte Piet be a jolly chimney sweep à la Dick van Dycke? The argument reminds me of early 20th century (Dutch!) soap advertisements: a white girl telling-off a black boy for not having used the right detergent. We can all agree that this is racist. So why can’t we draw the same conclusion about Zwarte Piet?
This is not to say that it is okay for non-Dutch to project their troubled histories with race relations on the Dutch tradition. Americans in particular are prone to equate Zwarte Piet with lynching, burning crosses and suppression of the black population in the Southern states. To a lesser extent, the Brits, Australians, New Zealanders and others tend to reflect experiences with their colonial or indigenous populations on Zwarte Piet. This misrepresents the historical roots of the Sinterklaas feast, which is based on ancient pagan traditions and a 4th century bishop in Myra, present day Turkey, and the Dutch understandably get frustrated when these issues are equated. Moreover, it seems hypocritical to criticize Sinterklaas when even that most-American-of-holidays, Thanksgiving, is not free from controversy. Every November Americans all over the United States celebrate the “first” harvest in their God-given country, which culminated in the elimination of almost the entire Native American population.
As a matter of fact, Sinterklaas’ helper is as unlikely to disappear as an American turkey dinner on the fourth Thursday in November. In West Canada, organizers cancelled a public Sinterklaas celebration rather than leaving out Zwarte Piet. A Dutch broadcaster courageously experimented with multi-coloured Pieten in 2006, but changed back to black a year later due to public outrage.
That was unfortunate. The Dutch (we) should realise that some elements of our traditions are untenable in the modern world. A country that has engineered pragmatic policies to deal with abortion, euthanasia, prostitution and soft drugs should be able to find an alternative to racial stereotyping in one of its most cherished festivals. For one, let’s drop the adjective “Zwarte” (Black) and refer to St. Nicholas’ helper simply as Piet. Second, the Rainbow Pieten deserve another chance. They may be unpopular, but so was women’s suffrage a hundred years ago. Third, it’s time to weed out any discriminatory Sinterklaas lyrics. Why don’t we replace the lines mentioned above with “’k breng je van mijn grote boot/een pepernoot” (I bring to you from my big ship/a festive biscuit) or any other inoffensive language?
The Sinterklaas tradition turns around speculaas, a hot chocolate with family and friends and the anticipation of a knock on the door, signalling the arrival of presents. Taking away “Zwarte” from “Piet” will not change any of that. What it will do, however, is to get rid of an archaic and mistaken stereotype that should have been abolished a long time ago. That way, Sinterklaas can be a feast for all, including our foreign friends.