Zwarte Piet: blackface is the colonial hangover that's lasted too long
05 December 2018
I open the curtains to see fairy lights twinkling in my neighbour’s house. I open the kitchen door and see little crumbs on the table, traces of a mince pie eater. And then I open Facebook to see the annual arguments about blackface. Yep. It’s nearly Christmas.
Who is Zwarte Piet?
From mid November to early December, the Netherlands celebrates Sinterklaas, an annual tradition which culminates on St Nicholas Day, 5 December. The tradition is that Sinterklaas, a stern white man with a big white beard rides through the city on a white horse and distributes presents to children in the Netherlands. But all heros need a trusty sidekick right? And Sinterklaas’ little helpers (read servants) are Zwarte Piets or Black Petes. Adorned with afro wigs, painted-on larger red lips, big gold Creole earrings (traditionally a slave token) and, of course, blackface, white people dress as Zwarte Piet and parade the streets with their ‘master’, handing out gifts and chocolates. To see this plastered across my social media as a well-loved tradition is uncomfortable and jarring and harkens back to other racist caricatures like golliwogs and Little Black Sambo.
A racist colonial hangover or just ‘tradition’?
The tradition is hundreds of years old. In folklore Zwarte Piet began as an enslaved devil, scorched in fire. He then emerged in around 1850 as a black man wearing ‘Moor-like’ clothes, created and popularised through Jan Schenkman’s children’s book ‘Saint Nicholas and his servant’. It’s true that slavery on Dutch soil was technically illegal by 1850. But in reality (as was the case in a lot of European countries at this time), many people from Africa would be brought into the Netherlands via the slave trade as ‘presents’ for wealthy families. And from the Rawagede massacre in Java to the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch’s vast trading empire from the Caribbean to Indonesia there is clearly a legacy of colonial oppression of black and brown bodies that adds an important perspective on Zwarte Piet’s existence. And yet, still there is debate that this character and the act of blackfacing do not have racist undertones, though they are marked by a history of colonialism and slavery.
Often the argument used to keep this tradition alive is that Zwarte Piet is only black because of chimney soot from dropping presents off to children - there is no racist intent. But intent and tradition don’t matter. Not when the history of oppressing black and brown bodies through colonialism and empire are excluded from the debate and when this has very real consequence for black communities. Just a few days ago a video posted on Facebook went viral. A mum posted the video of her black son playing outside as another child calls to him saying, “Hey, black Pete! Hey! Little black Pete! Come with your gingerbread candy!” In response to the video and this experience she said, "Maybe you think this is innocent, it breaks my heart. My child is not a caricature. He is not a clown. He is not a bogey man. He is not a servant. He is not black like soot. He is an ordinary boy with dark curls and a smile that makes your heart melt."
Over the last few years there have been efforts to make the issue of this racist caricature known and to counter the classic arguments that keep a racially-charged tradition alive. Even the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination suggested in 2015 that the Netherlands should “actively promote the elimination” of the racial stereotyping through Zwarte Piet, linking it intrinsically to a ‘vestige of slavery’. Anti-Zwarte Piet movements, Zwarte Piet Niet and Zwarte Piet is Racisme have emerged, mobilising for demonstrations during the period of Sinterklaas.
But what can’t be ignored is the attacks that demonstrators have experienced from those on the right who vehemently wish this tradition to continue and indirectly through the Dutch’s far right who have campaigned in defence of Zwarte Piet. In 2014, far right Dutch MP, Geert Wilders, proposed a ‘Zwarte Piet Law’ to ensure the character would remain as he is.
In the current wave of right wing populism and racism, the existence of this character and the act of blackfacing in general must be condemned and stopped once and for all. It’s time to get rid of this colonial hangover and start talking about why we are still debating the legitimacy of black people’s history over ‘tradition’.
Photo: Illustration from Jan Schenkman, St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht (Amsterdam, 1850). Credit: Wikicommons