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.
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***?”
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.
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.
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