Zwarte Piet: They are not black, they have been through a Chimney

Oh yes, October has hit the Netherlands. So the sun is gone, a cold wind is blowing through the low lands and a good ol’ fashioned ‘Zwarte Piet = racism’ debate will spart in the Netherlands

The Shallow Man is an elegant but aged fossil. I’ve been around since the days when Madonna still made decent music, when Mick Jagger claimed that he wouldn’t continue performing once he reached the age of forty. I can recall a young boy who used to sing and dance with his four brothers, whose talent shone out even then. I remember when having a color television set was a sign of affluence and can also recall when it was considered the height of cutting edge and dangerous comedy for a group of white men to apply boot polish on their faces and perform as people of color. That was a long, long, long time ago, which brings me to the subject of this article.

Every November, The Shallow Man, a hero to some, an annoyance for others, is visited and emailed by dismayed Expats, who contact him in deep shock and ask: “Shallow Man, what in the name of Bob Marley is going on here in the Netherlands? I just went to lunch and was surrounded by a group of white guys blacked up, with curly wigs and red lips. Was that some kind of demonstration about slave labor or people smuggling from Africa?”

Being the courageous person that I am, I will break the conspiracy of silence that overcomes this country every November to December. I will risk the unrighteous fury of the collective hordes of weasels, who every year attempt in new and creative ways to justify the unjustifiable. Yes, the Shallow Man will invoke the spirit of Aretha and the late great Otis Redding and demand some R E S P E C T and dignity for people of color and damn the consequences. The things I do for my readers!

 

Sinterklaas

The Shallow Man is so incandescent with rage, that I will not even attempt to explain the annual Dutch celebration in too much detail. To summarize, quite simply an old man with a white beard arrives in the Netherlands every year together with his crew, a group of black faced, curly haired slaves who help him do his bidding. This event is huge here and is bigger than Christmas.

 

Zwarte Piet
Because what can go wrong when a man with a crucifix on his hat mingles with little children?

 

Institutionalized Black Face 

Albert Heijn, Blokker, Kruidvat and many other big Dutch chains happily participate in the annual institutionalized black face event that is Sinterklaas. Take a look at the photo below.

 

Zwarte Piet Black Pete
Hilarious, I’m white but I’m blacked up!!

The increasing globalization of the world has in recent years finally reached the Netherlands. This has led to some slightly embarrassed revisionism on the part of the Dutch about their annual Black Face Fest. Apparently, the reason why the faces of Sinterklaas’  helpers are black is due to them going down the chimney to deliver presents to good kids or beatings to naughty ones.

I’m sure that the image of people of color, carrying out a home invasion to beat kids hasn’t led to any racial trauma at all. But I digress. So if we are to believe the wise people of Dutch science, apparently if you start out white and blonde, sliding down a chimney will not only turn your skin black, but will give you bright red lips, and black curly hair. It will also affect the way you talk and give you a kind of mock Surinamese accent. It will make you jump around like an idiot and your eyes will roll as well.

The Shallow Man was never particularly good at physics, unless it involved a mirror, but I have to question the scientific credibility of this explanation.

 

It’s a Tradition, Hoor!

Whenever sensitive Expats such as myself question the annual let’s-black-up-and-be-jolly season, out come the weasels to defend the indefensible.

500px-Weasel_words

 

Common weasel words used to defend blacking up:

“It’s a tradition.”

– So was lynching in the deep south of the USA, luckily the tradition stopped.

 

“All the black kids in Holland love it.”

–  Yes of course, kids are kids and are too young to get offended and look forward to the presents.

 

“All the black people I know enjoy it.”

– The one black person you know and probably speak once a year to is humoring you and would prefer not to have that discussion when he knows your views.

 

“It’s a tradition.”

– Err, you said that already.

 

“If you don’t like it, you should go back to your own country.”

– Ah the rational argument of the desperate.

 


Zwarte Piet Has Nothing To Do with the American Tradition of Blackface

Absolutely not. I present the following Exhibits to the jury.

 

Exhibit 1A. Zwarte Piet

Black Pete

1B – Here’s some movie material

 


Exhibit 2. Black face American style from the 1930’s.

Black face Zwarte Piet

 

And of course, Mad Men, being both entertaining and outright racist:


Trick question. What do the two photos in Exhibits 1 and 2 have in common?  Enrich DutchReview in the comments section below!

 

Time To Put Up or Shut Up

I’ve heard many weasel- like attempts to justify the essential requirement to have hordes of white people wearing curly wigs, blacking up their faces and wearing bright red colour on their lips. None of them are even remotely credible. Like Lynching, wife beating, slavery and racial discrimination in general, Zwarte Piet is unacceptable and dehumanizes people of colour into figures of fun. Trying to cling onto some bull manure story about dressing up as the helpers of Sinterklaas is just nonsense.

If the Dutch are such sticklers for historical accuracy, why do I do not see Dutch people nailed to a cross at Easter time? Or chopping off their ears on Van Gogh’s birthday? The reason this pernicious and demeaning event continues every year is because people find it fun. Fun to black up. Fun to laugh at people blacked up, and it’s ok because just about everyone in this country finds it Gezellig (Pleasant) and Grappig (Fun). Why not just admit it and stop the pseudo-historical justification that has no moral grounding at all?

 

What do you think? Join the discussion!

 

*No morons in black face were hurt during the writing of this article.

 

 

128 COMMENTS

  1. Bollocks…has nothing to do with rasism. Get your history and facts straight! Leave our culture and traditions in peace!

    And sorry for saying it but get a life!

  2. Thank you for your adding your two cents. This cultural ‘ tradition’ continues to baffle me and I freaking live here. In recent years it’s been finally starting to become slightly problematic, culminating in the Dutch reportage series Zwarte Piet and me http://www.uitzendinggemist.nl/afleveringen/1309374 . A good watch for some historical perspective. And it’s not as much a tradition as we want it to seem like. It only got popularized around the 1940’s of last century. It pisses me of how people can still defend Zwarte Piet without any clear logical argumentation. A friend of mine has a daughter of 3 and after seeing Zwarte Piet she started addressing black people that way…. Please explain to me how that is not racist 😛

    • It is not. That little girl doesn’t use zwarte piet as a curse word.

      There are also black people, who enjoy the Sinterklaas event including Zwarte Piet

      • Yes, and there are many black people who are really offended by it. Yet, we seem to like to ignore that fact.

  3. I admit that Sinterklaas is a fairly weird tradition, and leaves me feeling a bit uncomfortable as well. Even so, as foreigners it is probably not really clear for us what the actual Dutch perspective on this is. In my experience, the whole matter of skin color, as well as sexual tendency and related things, are treated as much less of a sensitive topic over here than, for example, in the US. I have yet to hear a Dutch person (of whatever skin color) openly claiming to be offended by this tradition, which, of course, does not mean there aren’t such people. Just try to really see how locals feel about this tradition before you judge it based on your country’s standards, because foreign immigrants who go around telling the people in their “new” country what they are all doing wrong are just wrong as well…

    • I have lived here my whole life and I’m offended while I’m not even black and I have some black friends who are plenty offended but don’t feel like discussing it constantly cause it always brings out the worst in Dutch.’ It’s a Dutch tradition. Ohh so you’re not Dutch then….’ I think a lot of black people have had enough of those stares, suspicions and arguments throughout their lifetime here to not want to have to defend ‘themselves’ constantly. For them it’s not just about Sinterklaas…

  4. So Martijn, you never had Sinterklaas and ZwartePiet visiting you when you were a child? If not, I’m sorry you missed out on a very nice child event. If yes, remember the feeling you had when you saw the presents. And to remind you the Zwarte Piet has a black coloured face as he came down the chimney. My sister’s husband is coming from Suriname and he has no problems with it at all. Been living here and in Suriname. Please leave this child tradition as it is and stop the discussion.

    • No, I will definitely not stop bringing it up. And I Did have SInterklaas visiting me when I was a child and I was horrified by zwarte Piet. of course this is a subjective experience. And I completely respect anyone who enjoyed it thurougly. But I think it’s blatant racism. Most of the world thinks so. Are other people so retarded to think that this fantastic ‘tradition’ (which I have already pointed out has not been one before the 1940’s) has it’s flaws. Changing some tiny details will not destroy this tradition and will not kill this fun day for children. If Zwarte Piet really came down the chimney make it look like that. Don’t cover him up completely, big ass earrings, give him red lips and curly hair. That’s not falling down a chimney, that’s black face. Next time I’ll ask my friend to jump through a chimney if she wants a perm, it appears to work wonders!

  5. Last time I checked, people back in the day used coal to heat their homes. Someone who went down the chimney would therefore NOT be white after the journey. Your lips would still be red because if you are smart, you will press them together to prevent any soot or dust into your mouth. If you are stupid, you would leave your mouth open and inhale all the dirt and die (or require hospitalization to clean out your lungs).
    Parents used to leave bits of soot and footprints by the chimney to make the story more accurate.
    Seriously! What is this world coming to????

    • Or just own up to dormant racism, replace some tiny details that will not kill the whole tradition of sinterklaas (children could care less) and get a life ;-)!

  6. Leave Sinterklaas alone, I was born and raised in the Netherlands and it is a great tradition. I now live in New Zealand and they only do Christmas over here. Here we got Father Christmas who gives the presents, he has got elves that help him, they are very small so if a child sees a small person on the street do you really think that child thinks he is one of Father Christmas helpers, I don’t think so.
    Zwarte Piet is just Sinterklaas helper and as a child I never thought for a minute that any dark or black person that I saw walking in the street was a Zwarte Piet it’s not just the colour of his face it is also the clothes that they wear.
    Sinterklaas rides his horse on the roofs of the houses, why don’t we get the animal welfare involved this could be cruelty to animals as he could fall of the roof specially when there is a bit of ice or snow on the roof,
    Let kids enjoy this time in there life’s as it is only a few years before they find out that het Sinterklaas feest is all make believe.
    Here is food for thought about 90% of woman buy Christmas presents for family and friends, they wrap the lot, clean the house up for the big day, do the groceries and cook a lovely meal and guess what FATHER Christmas get all the credit. Do you hear all those woman complaining NO they do it with love for there family and friends. The face of a child says it all either for Christmas or Sinterklaas when they think that person have left them some presents. Sinterklaas is a Dutch tradition keep it that way.

    • Why would you believe women only clean the house and wrap the lot?? single fathers? gay couples? stay-at-home dads? what are you talking about?? Could you please share that 90% statistic origin, because I declare shenanigans!! 😛

  7. Pathetic, Just because you as a “white” child had no problems with it when you were young, does not make it fine. When i was a child i was always referred to as Zwarte Piet, by children, parents, teachers, and officials alike. Open your eyes man, this is clearly racist. In France they also have Sint Nicolas and guess what?!! There are no such thing as Zwarte Piet !! This is just a ridiculous and racist Dutch side dish. That you do not wish to ban it is one thing, and i personally do not wish to talk about it, or try to change it. But to say that it is not racist, or okay because it is a childhood tradition when your experience of it has always been fine, is just bloody ignorance of the highest order. Just reminds me of the rhetoric used in slavery.

    • Seriously, I’m sorry that you had to go through that, but you’re attacking the wrong people. There is nothing inherently racist about Zwarte Piet. You should be angry at the people who wronged you, and leave a children’s holiday alone. Also bringing up slavery every time is really exhausting, and quite simply not fair. It’s pretty much an admission of weak arguments.

      • Although I would love to hear an argument from people wanting to ‘ protect the tradition’ (which is starting to sound a lot like tea party retoric) why it would be such a big hassle to then change a few things in Zwarte Piet looks. Could you please give me a reasonable and valid argument? No leave your hands of our tradition. This is not an argument, it’s a weakly positioned opinion based on fear and conservatism. And it’s not like this would be the first time the tradition changed. This happened before as well, like in the 1940’s. so it’s not like this has been going on forever the same way. It’s a very limited way of viewing history and finding the freedom to change things that are blatantly racist. And if it’s not a big deal, why is it such a big deal to change a few things?

        • It wouldn’t be such a big hassle, but the simple fact is that most Dutch people don’t see it as an issue. These controversies mostly get fuelled by American (or in this case, British) viewpoints. My point is that there is nothing inherently racist about a white person painting his face black, same as it is not inherently racist for a black person to whiten his face.

          • swhiteley, may I suggest that (assuming you are white) that you black up as per Zwarte Piet and then take a visit to Brixton or Hackney in London and solicit the feedback of the locals.

            I have never seen a black man “white up” with the exception of Eddie Murphy in coming to America.

          • Why would I do that? To give you the satisfaction of seeing me get stabbed?
            My point is that different things are acceptable in different areas.
            What you just said is the equivalent of asking a women to go unveiled to Saudi-Arabia and solicit the feedback from those locals. It would be perfectly acceptable here (in the Netherlands), but over there, not so much. And that is without saying which is preferable, it’s just cultural reality.