Zwarte Piet: Just the Right Amount of Discomfort

I have recently attended one of those Dutch naturalisation ceremonies, where people who are not Dutch become Dutch by virtue of pronouncing (part of) the oath and singing the national anthem – the Wilhelmus (the first and the sixth stanza). Most of the present naturalisandi were non-white (or, as we arrogantly call them, people of colour). This means that, at a certain point, I was in a room with few white and many non-white people singing first something about being called Wilhelmus, then claiming that they were all princes of Orange, then stating that they were of German blood, but would always be loyal to the king of Spain, and concluding by chatting with God a bit.

What happened there could be summarised in the following terms:

(1) All the women had to state that they were men.

(2) All the men had to state that they were someone who they were not.

(3) We all had to state that we were of German blood. Saying that one is of German blood is something most Germans would avoid saying. German blood is something that people associate with the Blut und Boden ideology. It is difficult to decide whether singing this passage is more absurd for us who were white (and could possibly have some German blood to sing about) or for the non-whites.

(4) We all had to say that we were loyal to the authorities of another country.

(5) We all had to ask God to enable us to remain pious.

Based on this, one may claim that the Dutch state is actively promoting and imposing (1) female-to-male transsexualism, (2) identity theft, (3) claiming German ancestry, (4) Spanish national interests and (5) some unspecified monotheist religion.

Note that this was all part of the ceremony, also in the sense that if any naturalisandus refused to utter any of these obvious lies, (s)he might have been denied the Dutch nationality.

Does this make us a nation of pathological liars and should the United Nations send a committee of schizophrenia specialist to teach us some mental health? If we follow the logic of the discussion on the Zwarte Piet, the answer is: absolutely!

Zwarte Piet = Slavery?

The reason why no one follows this logic when it comes to the national anthem is that we know that the potential of the Wilhelmus for providing any kind of real-life justification for, for instance, claiming that all Dutch people are called Wilhelmus, or that we are all entitled to a German passport or an excuse for working for the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia is zero. However, the story of a saint who comes from Spain on a steamboat for one day with a ridiculously dressed servant who has a face painted black or brown and with a just as obligatory feather in his hat somehow seems to be a direct throwback to slavery. As a person who lives on Dutch classes, I’m a professional overinterpreter of everything Dutch, but I somehow keep failing to get this link.

Golden coach slavery
Literally engraved in the Dutch history. A depiction of slavery on the Royal Golden Coach. (Source: Afro-Europe)

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that every tradition is about (re)production of memes, typically full of ideology and troubling history, and that we should be mindful of what memes we are reproducing and what relations we are making “sound logical”. But exactly because this mindfulness is so important, we shouldn’t waste it on far-fetched non-discussions.

So while it is entirely legitimate to consider whether the story of Cinderella is sexist, whether most telenovelas are classist (in the inverted classist way, since rich people are generally evil) or whether Taped is xenophobic, I think that no comparable case can be made for the Zwarte Piet tradition being racist. Why? Because I have known girls identifying with Cinderella and Rosa Salvaje and people identifying with those poor Dutch tourists in some lawless non-western country, but I cannot imagine anyone, young or old, who can relate to being or becoming Sinterklaas or the Zwarte Piet or anyone who would be interested in reproducing their relationship (the word knecht “servant” is now only used for the Zwarte Piet-to-Sinterklaas relationship in the language the kids speak). Sinterklaas and his potentially racially marked helper are creatures whose existences are as incomparable to ours as that of that strange German-blooded prince from the 16th century whose words we keep repeating, just as mindlessly.


The prohibition vs. maintenance discussion

This is not to say that either Zwarte Piet & Sinterklaas or the Wilhelmus are to be considered intangible or sacred in any way. It is totally legitimate to approach them creatively and try to compete/question/subvert them as standard cultural patterns. But this should be done in way that is clearly distinct from the normative prohibitory arrogance which now dominates the “against side” in the Zwarte Piet discussion. Adding the regenboogpieten (those Petes in all the colours of the rainbow) to the offer is totally legitimate and, if you ask me, also sufficient for showing that black is just one of the colours one can paint ones face with. Forbidding the Zwarte Piet, on the other hand, amounts to turning a non-discussion into a conflict (or, as Bas Heijne brilliantly puts it here, turning a problem into a scandal). Verene Shepherd seems not to be the only person who believes that the Zwarte Piet should be forbidden: the only Sinterklaas party I’ve been invited to this year, organised by a German colleague, prohibits Zwarte Pieten or any other pieten which can be interpreted racially, and allows only the remaining regenboogpieten because “we don’t want any racism at the party”. Quite some Dutch colleagues are planning to not show up.

Face paint: The way to end slavery?
Face paint: The way to end slavery?

This creation of “non-racist” enclaves seems to me to be missing the point badly. The prohibition discussion is attacking an extinct form of racism and, in this sense, it is beating a dead horse: virtually no one believes it is OK or that it was ever OK to own a black person, put them in chains and make them do all kinds of chores for you for free (which, again, is not something the kids can infer directly from the the story of the Zwarte Piet anyway). We all agree that slavery was bad, we just fail to agree whether the Zwarte Piet tradition can be interpreted as somehow symbolising it or not. In this sense, in addition to elaborating on an issue of interpretation (which is always elaborating on a non-issue), the prohibition discussion is creating the illusion that slavery is over and we can now relax and erase the stains it left on our folklore. And so, as a result, while keeping talking about slavery, we somehow fail to say anything at all about today’s slavery, the one that is not celebrated, but just as strong, the one that is all about people invisible to us, involved in prostitution, making our clothes, growing our coffee, bananas and rice, restricted to spaces far away from where we live and raise our kids. In the prohibition discussion, the question somehow becomes not what kind of world we want to live in, but how perfectly clean we want to show it to our kids.


The Zwarte Piet is a way of staying with the trouble

The question should then not be whether we should forbid the Zwarte Piet tradition and pretend that it has never existed or continue celebrating it as fiercely, the question should be what we, the adults, ought to do with this past that seems to be oozing out of pretty much every tradition. Everything that involves any kind of past will have some bitter aftertaste and the question should always be what we do with this past that has been entrusted to us.

Let’s face it, our history is a history of great white men, our language is still the one that was used by our racist, sexist ancestors and our country has been involved in bad and unfair wars, long before the Geneva conventions were even an idea. In this sense, the history of the Zwarte Piet tradition seems to me like a very good place to maintain exactly this feeling of responsibility for what we are passing on to the ones who will stay here after us, accompanied by just the right amount of discomfort because our world simply has not been fair and our culture does not have a past we can only be proud of. I think it the Zwarte Piet indeed has some aspects which are capable of reminding us, the adults, of slavery without reproducing it in any way. Slavery is indeed built into the streets we walk in, the food we eat and the language we speak and washing it off by prohibitions and UN commissions simply won’t do. The Zwarte Piet tradition is, in this sense, a stylised cultural form that may help us achieve what the feminist philosopher Donna Haraway calls staying with the trouble. For us today the potential racial aspect of the Zwarte Piet is, just like that piety and Germanness of Wilhelmus, a beautiful scar which reminds us that we have been through something. I believe we should learn how to carry that scar rather than having it removed in order to become even faker and more self-righteous.







  1. “a beautiful scar which reminds us that we have been through something”

    Wow, I hope you guys can make it through this difficult time. You poor, poor souls. I never thought about it; but it must be really tough to be survivors of being at one time the largest traders of slaves across the Atlantic. I pray that you can come to terms with it and if you need some counselling, then don’t be afraid to reach out and please, don’t stop reminding the world in an incredibly vulgar way that you used to own people.

  2. Maybe you could’ve taken some time at that ceremony to ask some Afro-Dutch people what they think of Zwarte Piet and whether they think blackface qualifies as a “beautiful scar” and non-painful reminder of a very distant past? How they think it reflects on the Dutch culture they will be showing to their kids? Whether blackface is excused by not presenting a direct link to slavery, whatever you meant by that? Naaahhhh, that sounds really uncomfortable, just do some Donna Haraway quote mining and call it a day

    • I had to dig really deep through the bitterness of your comment in order to find a legitimate argument: that there may be black people who live in the Netherlands and may be hurt by the Zwarte Piet tradition. So here’s the answer to that argument.

      (I don’t need a naturalisation ceremony to meet a black Dutch person or talk to them.) The ceremony was in September and I think that back then most people (of all colours) considered it offensive/silly/unnecesarily harmful to talk about Zwarte Piet as someone with a race and/or to insist that Zwarte Piet & Sinterklaas represent anything else than Zwarte Piet & Sinterklaas. Black People didn’t like being called Zwarte Piet, just like they didn’t like being called chocolate.
      Meanwhile, there has been a sizable number of statements predominantly by white people (e.g. Anouk) and black people who have never been here (e.g. Verene Shephard) insisiting that if they were black people in the Netherlands, they would be offended. Thereby a norm has been set of how a black person in the Netherlands should feel and it is considered immoral not to feel that way (if black) or not to sympathise with that (if not black).

      And so we got Dutch black people who learned that they should be hurt (in other words, we got a kind of emotional segregation norm). As a result, we got Dutch right people who learned that they should be offended because the black people are offended and who are asking the black people to go to whatever country they came from if they don’t like it here with Zwarte Piet. And so the Dutch society is ridiculously polarised over a non-issue.

      So what Bas Heijne is talking about holds once more: in September we had a problem we could talk about (or, in my terms, a trouble we could stay with), now we have a scandal that no one can talk about without offending and being offended. The tone of the most comments here is certainly helping to keep it a scandal.

  3. Most comments here seem to come from people who either haven’t read this text, or haven’t really understood it. Or perhaps, what it suggests deprives them of their good deed for this year, namely – boycotting the zwarte Piet tradition. In which case they’d have to go for a more demanding good deed, which may actually require them to get out of their chair and do something. If you ask me, as once an immigrant in Holland, what’s the real problem, the fact that people with faces painted black run around Holland for a couple weeks every year, or the fact that the Dutch society is getting increasingly anxious towards non-autochtons, I’d say that I don’t really see any problem in the former (assuming that the real problem hasn’t come far enough that the majority of people actually indulge in a racist interpretation of the whole thing).

  4. 1) Zwarte Piet ≠ Blackface
    2) Defending Zwarte Piet ≠ defending Blackface

    3) Nobody here is pro-slaves,
    4) NOBODY here argues that “we want to remember slavery because slavery was cool”
    5) Notice that i’m saying the opposite: slavery was NOT cool.

    6) Kids don’t necessarily grow up racist because of ZP.
    7) Actually parents/teachers can use it to teach them about racism and slavery, and why they are bad.

    Can we discuss if keeping ZP can be a remainder of something really shameful that nobody should forget?

  5. Well written piece, my compliments. I do not agree though. Dutch society is indeed a society of ulti coloured citizens. The Sinterklaas tradition is also theirs, and of the generations after them. And unfortunately the poorer area’s of Holland are still inhabited by those citizens with a different colour. How come? The ‘Gymnasia’ and ‘VWO’ departments of high schools are still predominantly white. And for those Dutch citizens with a skin colour other than white or with a foreign sounding name it is still more difficult to get a job or to climb the social ladder. The Sinterklaas tradition with it’s Zwarte Pieten – other than a national anthem where also (!) the white citizens are stating facts which are not true for them and thus by doing this they are operating on an equal base with their coloured fellow Dutch citizens – visually makes a very clear discriminatory statement: that of the powerful white men all (Sinterklaas himself and the so called Spanish white noblemen) being transported on horses while the coloured men have to walk on the ground and be a servant, dressed in colourful play suits and behaving childlike. Imagery like this that indoctrinates children from a very early age is not something we should strive for. Comparison with old fashioned and in current times nonsensical anthem lyrics can not be made because as I stated earlier: while singing these illogical statements the white and the coloured citizens are just as equal: the illogicality is true for all. Not so is the case with the tradition of Sinterklaas with his black slave servants. It promotes an inequality based on the colour of a man’s skin, which will go into the subconscious of the Dutch citizen (the white and the ‘coloured’ ones. And by doing this it is not contributing to a Dutch society where all citizens share the same equality and the same social possibilities. And for using a tradition that is seen as a ‘children’s fest, for reminding us of past or current slavery: I think more constructive ways can be found without confirming the hegemony of the white Christian male to the children of a society that consists also of others. Others who like to have an equal status in their own society.

  6. The ‘zwarte piet’ thing is total bullshit. Zwarte piet isnt even a black person. The story is that he climbs down chimneys and puts something nice in their shoes. Its almost the same as Christmas. So now because of the UN every single human that isnt Dutch or Belgian thinks zwarte piet is a sign of racism and slavery. By the way zwarte piet isnt a slave. Hes the helper of Sinterklaas. Every child in Holland loves him. I live in Holland and I know black people. Guess what? They love the celebration too. They know it isnt racism or slavery.
    Really, go do some research before you say something!!

    Also, the thing about our national anthem, is about our fucking king, Willem of Orange (or prince of Orange). Go search up the fucking Dutch history before you state your fucking opinion. But of course youre too lazy so I will give a short history. Willem of Orange (or Nassau) was originally from a place called ‘Dillenburg’, located in Germany (get the German thing?? I hope so). After his cousin (Rene of Chalon) died, he inherited Orange (a region between France and the Holy Roman Empire). I think you get the Orange thing. However, he decided to live in Delft (city in the Netherlands). From there he saw that Dutch people who didnt want to become catholic, were burned by Filips II (king of Spain, the Netherlands were under control of Spain at that time). He decided to contact him about that. The Dutch people followed his example and rebelled against the Spanish soldiers. However, Willem of Orange never really joined the rebellion, that’s why the anthem says hes always been loyal to the king of Spain.

    I just want to say that you American people should really do some research before you fucking state your opinion!!

    • I just want to add that the author of this article is a fucking retard because this all doesnt make any sense!! Dutch people know their history and American people clearly dont. So next time I just want you American people to think before you say that we are retards, supporters of slavery and racism, not loyal to our country etc.


      1) All the women had to state that they were men.

      (2) All the men had to state that they were someone who they were not.

      This doesnt make any sense. What do you mean exactly? I dont know anything about this.

  7. You know,

    The reasoning in you article is pretty sound, and the subsequent discussions do give me the impression you are on the “right” side of the fence.

    What is lacking is the feelin’, the emotion of actually being subjucated and then being owned. That humiliation isn’t just a scar, for some it’s very much a live even an open wound.

    I saw Trever Noah wording it so eloquently when he answered a question while on a “black” US radio station. The question was “what did you South African’s actually gain from the reconcilliation process (the truth comission).
    He said (am paraphrazing) “Even with all the inequalities in place todays’ society, the one thing we gained from the truth commission is, Recognition. Recognition of what had passed and the things that had been done.”

    As a person with roots on three continents, skin white as shit blue eyed too, I can truthfully say I’ve tasted it, what it’s like. Being said to be different, not like us, amongst my black family. I can tell you, that feeling of Injustice, that “unreasonability” goes sooo deep.
    Now Imagine living through that for generations…….

    I’m not saying you’re wrong in your conviction “Zwarte Piet” should remain, I think so too. Not so much as a reminder of what was, more of a reminder what still needs to be done. Recognize, recognition of what was done, then the healing can start.

    In that sense it is such a shame that people listen to react instead of to understand, the whole Zwarte Piet discussion isn’t about Zwarte Piet (at all), it’s about the pain and hurt which was done and is even felt today to some extent.

    So if you fail to see the racist element in Zwarte Piet with your reason, you’re absolutely right.
    If you fail to feel the pain of history, keep looking, the black people are telling you through their objections to Zwarte Piet. Personally, I believe those objections will go silent once recognition has been goven

    It’s kind of weird don’t you think? All grown ups, unable to move beyond a story fairytail


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