OPINION | Zwarte Piet: a white South African’s perspective

Zwarte Piet has been causing controversy for years in the Netherlands, dividing the nation over whether the tradition should be continued or not. Yet, despite the public outcry, the practice continues. 

Zwarte Piet is by far the most horrifying thing I have encountered in the Netherlands, probably because I wasn’t expecting it at all. Growing up on the other side of the world, I had never heard of this tradition and when I arrived, no one warned me about it.

Of course, let me first say that I do not presume to represent the opinions of all white South Africans. But I think many South Africans, whatever hue of the rainbow they may be, will agree with some of the things I’m about to talk about.

READ MORE: Google steps into Zwarte Piet debate: blocks ads for ALL depictions (even Soot Piet!)

My first encounter

You can imagine the shock I got when one crisp November (2017) morning, I encountered a brown-faced doll hanging from a lamppost in my street in Maastricht. The doll had black curly hair, big red lips, and a servant’s outfit. The sight disturbed me, but I was late for a lecture so I kept cycling. Then I saw another lamppost and another, and I realised the entire street was lined with what looked like lynched black dolls. Something heavy twisted in my stomach.

As I made my way further into the centre of the city, it only got worse. Shops were decorated with the same brown dolls, ribbons and banners. Strange jolly Dutch music echoed through the streets. 

And then I saw them — the Zwarte Pieten. 

Dutch men and women, mostly caucasian, with brown and black paint covering their faces. Exaggerated red lips. Curly black wigs. They were running about laughing and joking, putting on weird accents and acting like complete idiots. My first thought was, “What the f***?”

Zwarte Piet dolls in a grocery store. Image: MysteriousVP/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

Later that day, some Dutch friends of mine explained that the Zwarte Pieten were the helpers of some old white guy called Sinterklaas. They weren’t ethnically black, my friends assured me, just covered in soot from climbing the chimneys. “Oh, of course, that explains the oversized red lips!” I retorted, feeling the most acute anger sizzling through my veins. The more they tried to defend the character, the angrier I got.

“It’s just a harmless tradition.”

“Zwarte Pieten come from Spain, not Africa.”

“They’re nice! They hand out free candy!”

I learned that Sinterklaas arrives on a boat every year, surrounded by the black servants he supposedly brought with him from Spain. I was, and still am, mortified. I thought the Netherlands was a liberal, forward thinking country? I thought we were in the 21st Century? I can’t even imagine the outrage if this were to happen in South Africa.

Coming from South Africa

It’s often outsiders that challenge this Dutch tradition, and locals tend to get extremely defensive when you question it. Sure, we all come from different countries, and we don’t really have the right to judge other cultures — this is true, to an extent. 

But I think I’m in a unique position here. No, my passport is not Dutch, but my blood is. I — a white-skinned person born and raised in Africa — exist because the Dutch colonised the tip of Africa 200 years ago. 

From a young age in South Africa, we learn about these (and other) colonizers that spilt blood over the possession of our lands, enslaving and exploiting many Africans and Asians in the process. A few generations later, descendants of the Dutch developed a regime that systematically oppressed and persecuted black people in our country — Apartheid

The repercussions of such a traumatic history are too vast for me to cover. But, being born just three years after the end of Apartheid, I have personally witnessed the pain and chaos of a nation trying to heal itself from centuries of racial violence. 

South Africa likes to advertise itself as the Rainbow Nation, where different colours now live in harmony. There has been progress in my lifetime, but don’t be fooled, our nation sometimes feels on the verge of civil war. Racial division, to this day, is tearing our beautiful country apart.

So, when I look into the face of Zwarte Piet, I see the pain of my country, the crimes of Dutch colonisers, and the ignorance of privileged Europeans. 

READ MORE: Culture shock when moving to the Netherlands: from South Africa to Holland

Romanticising Dutch history

I suspect that Zwarte Piet has not been banned yet because many Dutch people are somewhat unaware of their own history. During my first year in the Netherlands, I took a pre-academic training programme to help integrate myself into Dutch society. Among other things, we were given the Dutch canon of history to study, which the Dutch, apparently, learn in school. 

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was something I was already familiar with, but the history I was presented with here was vastly different from the content I had learned in South Africa. The company employees were worshipped as Dutch heroes, sailing across the treacherous seas to discover new lands and establish new trade routes. They were held up as pioneers.

Where was the slavery? The mass exploitation? The word “rape” didn’t even feature.

Now, the Dutch history cannon by no means denied that these events happened. But what shocked me was the narrative I was presented with. A narrative which treated the “dark side” of the VOC as a side note. The slavery, exploitation and forced migration of Africans and Asians were briefly mentioned and then brushed aside. 

I recognise that the world is not as simple as “good” versus “evil”, in that the VOC was both a pioneering force of new trade routes and the hand of oppression. But to belittle the very real damage that the Dutch inflicted upon the people groups that they ruled is in my view, appalling.

The canon was recently updated to include more information on the Dutch Transatlantic Slave Trade, which is great — but doesn’t correct decades of white-washed history teachings. 

READ MORE: Arnhem and Nijmegen ban Zwarte Piet following anti-racism protests

The colonial hangover

I think Russel Brand put it perfectly when he called this Dutch tradition a “colonial hangover.” Zwarte Piet reduces people of colour to an object to laugh at, which is a slap in the face for all the people that the Dutch oppressed. It laughs at their pain, at the exploitation that established the Netherlands as one of the most powerful countries in the world.

I struggled for years with guilt and shame over my skin colour, because it represented the oppression of the people around me. I have since learned that I don’t have to live in shame, because I am my own individual. I did not personally enslave black South Africans, or enforce the legal segregation of races in my country. But it is my responsibility to acknowledge what my ancestors did, how I benefited, and to treat people of colour with the respect and love that my ancestors denied them. 

Likewise, I do not blame the Dutch people of today for the crimes of their forefathers. The streets you walk on, the public buildings you use, were indeed funded by your colonial history. For that, we cannot blame you. 

What we can judge, however, is how you treat those that your predecessors enslaved. We can judge your lack of awareness, your offensive behaviour, and your precious traditions, because choosing to continue with those is on you. 

What do you think of the Zwarte Piet tradition? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of DutchReview.

Feature Image: Image: Jan Schenkman – St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht/Wikimedia/Public Domain

Emily Burger
Emily Burgerhttps://emilycburger.wixsite.com/expression
Emily grew up in South Africa but has also lived in Egypt, the UK, Canada and now the Netherlands. She first came here for her Bachelors in Arts and Culture at Maastricht University and soon fell in love with the land of canals, clogs and cheese. When she's not daydreaming about sci-fi movies or countries yet to explore, you can find her writing for DutchReview.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I lived in The Netherlands in the 1970’s when being an American was definitely not perceived as a good thing. (I, apparently, was personally responsible for the war in Vietnam!🤷🏻‍♀️). I was stunned by the lack of awareness by many Dutch people of the history and consequences of Dutch Colonialism. Swarte Piet was a glaring example (as well as the pastry item, a chocolate covered cream filled cookie 💩 that was called “neger zoenen” (“negro kisses”). I believe the cookies now go by another name (I hope).

  2. I fully agree with you, Emily. My jaw dropped when I first encountered Zwarte Pieten at the Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam, and these were not soot-covered, they were fully blackfaced. It still boggles my mind and just does not align with everything else that I love about the Netherlands and its culture. Born South- African and adopted New Zealander…this would not fly in NZ eiither.

  3. this is really strange – to move in a country and even didnt take a look at a main traditions and culture of the country. interested only in money? Nobody wants to move in Macedonia for example or Serbia because it’s difficult to promote your rotten liberal views with empty stomach, isn’t it?

  4. Painting your face with black smut as a mid winter celebration has been a pan-european tradition for 1000 of years. You will find it all over europe (france,italy, austria) all the way to macadonia, to iran even.

    The idea that zwarte piet only exists because of some sort of black facing tradition to degrade people of color is simply not true. Albeit that the dutch have a horrible colonial history and that ‘the architect’ was a dutch dude, and that the voc and wic are guilty of some horrible autrocities (al in all my ancestors did horrible shit) …. that does not merit the take that zwarte piet == colonial racism. Sure you can argue that in the last 150 years we turned the character resambling many black face characteristics but that is now how the concept started or how it ever was intended.

    Having that in mind, calling an entire nation racist in for 5 years for what you could say is little more then a faux pas (no one ever dressed up or thought of zwarte piet as a means to belittle people of color) is gonna yield a lot of backlash. People who aren’t racist, who live in a country where racism is illegal by law, where it is socially frownd upon to be a racist, will take offence, Rightfully so.

    Maybe you should try to fix a township or two (you know apartheid has been abollished for 28 years!) before judging other folks their awareness or lack there off!

  5. My parents emigrated to the USA from Gemeente Hulst in the late 1920s. I learned so much from their stories about the rural area it was familiar when I first visited. Even so, I never heard of Zwarte Piet, the steamboat from spain, or the colonies. My parents’ families being working class business people, lived lives limited to that rural community, which may explain why colonies were not part of their focus. I knew about Sinteklaas and leaving straw and carrots for his horse, but Zwarte Piet was not mentioned nor was any “stoomboot van Spanje”. Perhaps that tradition was local to other regions. Like many buitenlanders,I was shocked to see Zwarte Piet the first time on Dutch TV in about 2000.

  6. Steven, absolutly spot on!!
    I grew up with sinterklaas and zwarte piet. When i was around 8 I even dressed up as zwarte piet.
    I never thought anything of it. !!!!!!! Still dont.
    But then again, I’m not racist. Why do people always have to find some racist explanation? Offended?
    Its a centuries old tradition.
    I dont agree hanging zwarte piet dolls in lampposts. We never , never did that! First i heard of it. You have to ask if “racists” are doing that. (Lynching ?) Thats just wrong.
    I migrated to australia in 1987.
    My daughters never saw santa claus. (7 and 4 years old). “Sinterklaas is wearing a strange suit”.lol.
    Doesn’t santa employ elves ? (Elves fairytale characters) but in movies always people with dwarfisme play role. Willy wonka, oompa loopas. Dont hear anyone complaining about this.

    When you migrate to another country, get familiar with traditions etc of that country !!!! We did.
    You wont get so easily “shocked”.

  7. Can I also comment , many years of experience, (holland and abroad) why people of “colour” (we all bleed RED, dont we), always have to say ” its because i’m black” no matter the illegal stuff they do.
    So, explain to me, who throws the “racist” comments in first place.
    I and so many people absolutly dont have a problem if they are black,brown,red, yellow etc.
    Do you know that the “white” people are the most “colourful ” race ??
    I explain why: if we are are sick we turn grey.
    Jealousy:we turn green. Anger: we turn red. If we lack oxygen: we turn blue.
    Just saying.
    Here in australia we have problem with muslims (yep, holland aswell). We cant celebrate christmas, they are offended!
    You migrate to another country, you abide by their laws, freedom of speech, religion etc.
    But why…are schools, shops prohibited displaying “merry christmas”?
    We dont want Islam shoved down our throat! I know, different subject.
    But…it all has to do with “racisme”.
    If you migrate to another country, abide by their laws, customs.
    Dont like it ? Well.
    Why does it always come down to racisme?
    Lollies, cheeses etc had to change their name. Was too racist.
    Been there for YEARS! ! ! Nobody even gave it a second thought, except…
    Rest my case.

    Thank you for listening.

  8. Welp, these racially myopic comments certainly support the writer and illustrate why the tradition needs to be confronted and studied in the context of colonial history. Some Dutch people today don’t seem to understand and fully appreciate the central role their country once played in the history of European colonialism and genocide.

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