The big problem with the Dutch tradition of ‘Zwarte Piet’

‘Zwarte Piet’, otherwise known in English as ‘Black Pete’ is a Dutch Christmas tradition where young children are encouraged to paint their faces black and wear red lipstick. Though this seems like outright blackface – a lot of Dutch citizens argue the innocence (and non-racist intentions) behind the tradition.

Yesterday I mistakenly chose to bike through the centre of Amsterdam and was caught up in the mayhem of a Christmas parade. Dragging my bike through the crowds, I stopped to look at the entertainers on the floats. The entertainers had black paint smeared on their face – seeing it for the first time since living in the Netherlands, I was appalled that the Dutch were just so open with this tradition. So I decided to do some research.

Drawing from Jan Schenkman’s book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht

‘Zwarte Piet’ is a character and known to be the helper of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas). St. Nicholas day is typically celebrated in the Netherlands on the evening of the 5th of December – which is when children are given presents and sweets. From what it seems, it is like Santa Claus and his elves visiting children on Christmas Eve. However, the old children novels surrounding the character ‘Zwarte Piet’ bring controversy. This is because ‘Zwarte Piet’ was initially a Moor from Spain. The yearly tradition that is celebrated before the 5th of December includes Sinterklaas arriving on a steamboat from Spain with his helpers (Petes). Sinterklaas has been preparing the children’s presents in Spain throughout the year.

I didn’t get to watch Sinterklaas arriving on the Amstel river yesterday as once I managed to get myself out of the crowds of little white children with black faces, I didn’t fancy looking back. I even saw one black child who had smeared white paint over face instead, I looked at her dad and he was just fixated on trying to get his child excited for Sinterklaas. Because the problem with this tradition is that it involves children. Young children are usually innocent, they don’t really ‘see’ race as an issue. Young children are impressionable and if smearing black paint to look like St. Nicholas’ black ‘helper’, I am sure they will begin to start thinking. This is not just detrimental to white Dutch children’s knowledge of racism – as it is likely these are the same kids who grew up seeing no problem with saying the N word. But it is also extremely damaging to black Dutch children whose faces are already black without paint.

photo from NU.nl

I put up a story on my Instagram page, videoing one of the entertainers dancing on the float. I got a couple responses from Dutch friends informing me that this was not in fact ‘Black Piet’ but instead it was ‘Roetveeg Piet’ – which literally translates to ‘Soot Wipe Piet’. This is a reinvented ‘Black Pete’, to possibly quieten down the protesting against the character. I have been told many times that ‘Black Pete’ has no racist connotations to it, and that instead, the reason behind why ‘Black Pete’ is depicted to be black is because of the soot from the chimneys.

‘Roeetveeg Piet’

Above: This is similar to what I saw yesterday. The entertainers hadn’t covered their faces in black paint, but instead used make up to make their faces appear dirty from soot. The red lipstick has been ditched, as well as the wigs and earrings too.

‘Zwarte Piet’

Above: This is how many entertainers still dress throughout the Netherlands. It is impossible to argue that this is not blackface and therefore it is definitely racist.

Possibly, ‘Roetveeg Piet’ is the way the Netherlands can move on from painting their faces black every year. Even though the folklore behind the tradition is still controversial, it doesn’t need to be displayed so blatantly. Little children do not need to paint their faces to get excited about St. Nicholas, and adult entertainers do not need to paint their faces black at all. From a foreign perspective looking in on the Dutch culture, I have tried to understand why they feel protective over this particular tradition. However, blackface can never be justified and we should all be aware of that.

November 2020:

After writing this post last year, I got a few responses from Dutch people exclaiming that I had no right to discuss this ‘tradition’ as I am not from the Netherlands and therefore could not even begin to understand their culture. Defending something so overt really just shows downright ignorance. There are many traditions across the globe where from an outside perspective – might take some time to grasp as one becomes more familiar with the culture. However, after living in the Netherlands for over two years now, Zwarte Piet is not difficult to understand – it’s a racist tradition – plain and simple. One response to this post explained that the tradition is “for the children” and that “kids will be kids and that they don’t need to read into it”. I don’t know about you but this sounds extremely similar to the saying “boys will be boys” which only encourages sexist and misogynistic behaviour – could this perhaps ring true for this “kids will be kids” racist excuse too? Quite possibly so.

I can only hope that because of the corona restrictions this year, there won’t be such big public parades with adults and children having black paint smeared across their white faces.

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