From mid-november until December 6, his grinning face was omnipresent. I saw him in the festively decorated windows of shops’ and on the napkins in cafés. There was a life-size statue of him in the grocery store behind my dorm. Despite seeing him everywhere, I was unprepared for the day I would meet Zwarte Piet in the flesh: Sunday, November 18, 2012.
It was beautiful and sunny in Amsterdam—perfect for the day’s festivities, the Sinterklaas parade. A friend had been visiting for the weekend, and we decided to walk to the city center to see for ourselves. We came across a main road blocked off for the parade, which takes place three weeks before the holiday itself on December 6 to celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas. As we waited for him to make an appearance, we were entertained by dozens of young Dutch volunteers dressed as his helper, Zwarte Piet. Their skin was painted thickly with dark brown makeup and their lips were colored red. They wore curly black wigs, gold hoop earrings and minstrel-like costumes. They were in blackface.
The question “Why did you choose Amsterdam?” had surfaced repeatedly during my program’s orientation, and many responses mentioned the city’s reputed progressiveness. The Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001; sex work, treated with a policy of regulated tolerance in the second half of the 20th century, was legalized in 2008; and, most importantly for many tourists, so-called “soft drugs” such as marijuana fall under a policy of regulated tolerance. But several orientation speakers made a point of debunking this liberal reputation, pointing out that the city is trying to shut down red-light windows and reduce the amount of coffee shops. It took until November 18 for me to realize that, at least when it comes to race relations, the Dutch reputation for open-mindedness was a bit overstated.
Established to honor St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas is a traditional winter holiday celebrated in Luxembourg, Belgium, parts of France and Germany, and the Netherlands. The legend of Sinterklaas is based on the story of a bishop living in what is now Turkey during the Middle Ages, canonized after death and laid to rest in the city of Myra. The patron saint of children, sailors, and the city of Amsterdam, Sinterklaas is said to deliver presents on the evening of December 5, riding his white horse from rooftop to rooftop. He has several helpers. Zwarte Piet listens at chimneys to find out whether children are behaving well or poorly. If you’re good, you get a present from Sinterklaas. If you’re not, Zwarte Piet will hit you with his stick, put you in his bag, and kidnap you to Spain.
Originally, Zwarte Piet represented the devil, enslaved by St. Nicholas. This changed in 1850, when Jan Schenkman published his book Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht (Saint Nicholas and his Servant), which portrayed Zwarte Piet as a Moorish servant from Morocco. Though there are various suggestions about when and why, Zwarte Piet eventually transitioned from a servant to an “assistant,” also transitioning from an illiterate, stupid character to a “respected” though “scattered” one. The aesthetics have remained relatively unaltered.
Watching dozens of young Dutch volunteers as they danced, handed out candy, and generally acted a fool in their Zwarte Piet costumes was a bizarre experience; something wasn’t sitting right. Though every year there is a debate about the propriety of Zwarte Piet, for many of the Dutch, it’s harmless fun without malicious intent; he is simply a character they can play without second thought, a holiday tradition to celebrate their culture and history. According to a poll by taken by VOK!, a Dutch news-sharing website and virtual community, 90 percent of voters did not think Zwarte Piet was racist. Another, on 1VJogerenPanel.nl (1V Youth Panel), asked if the Netherlands should get rid of Zwarte Piet. 92 percent responded no.
But it is precisely the country’s history that complicates the situation. For years, the Netherlands profited through colonization and enslavement of non-white populations in poorer countries. Following decolonization, immigrants from these countries began arriving in the Netherlands in the 1950s. Immigrants from Southern European countries came next, then immigrants from Turkey and Morocco in the 1960s, and immigrants from Iran and Iraq in the late 1970s.
Although the Netherlands adopted a policy of multiculturalism in the 1980s, the nationalistic, extreme-right Center Party was established around the same time with an anti-immigration platform. In 2011, Lord Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the (British) Commonwealth, made an important distinction when he described the Netherlands to the British newspaper The Times as “a tolerant, rather than multicultural, society.” That is, different cultures are tolerated but not necessarily encouraged or expected to assimilate. Another significant destinction is reflected in the usage of the words allochtoon (originating from another country) and autochoon (originating from this country) to distinguish between native Dutch and immigrant-descended Dutch.
Immigrant-descended Dutch have been voicing their opposition to Zwarte Piet for years. Last year, Curaçao-born Quinsy Gario was assaulted by the police during a protest of Zwarte Piet. Gario, who was raised in the former Dutch colony of St. Maarten, attended the Sinterklaas parade in the Dutch town of Dordrecht with three others, wearing t-shirts that said “Zwarte Piet is Racisme.” A YouTube video shows the police pinning Gario to the ground, kneeing him in the back and dragging him away from the growing crowd as he yelled “Ik heb niks gedaan” (“I didn’t do anything”). Gario was jailed for six hours. According to the police, the group did not have a permit to protest and ignored an order to leave.
The behavior of the policemen is an extreme result of tension between autochoon Dutch and allochtoon Dutch on the issue of Zwarte Piet, and Jessica Silversmith, director of the Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam, told the Associated Press that opposition to the holiday figure is growing. Her office, which used to receive only a handful of complaints per year, received more than 100 in 2011—still not a huge amount, but a significant increase. Criticism is not limited to descendants of people from Dutch plantation-colonies, such as Antilleans and Surinamers. “It’s all kinds of Dutch people,” Silversmith said. Even an author at GeenStijl, the notoriously conservative Dutch news website, wrote a series condemning Zwarte Piet as “nothing more than a repulsive parody of a slave, fine-tuned to indoctrinate school children into the finer points of racism … The sooner we get rid of Zwarte Piet, the sooner we won’t look like idiots to the rest of the world.” (An article mocking Gario appeared on the same website the year before). Large store chains like household goods store Blokker changed images of Zwarte Piet in their promotional material to have streaks of soot on their faces instead of full blackface. And for the first time, a Dutch politician has spoken out against Zwarte Piet. Andrée Christine van Es, executive of the city of Amsterdam for GreenLeft told Het Parool in a December 2012 interview that it was time for the Netherlands to leave Zwarte Piet out of Sinterklaas festivities.
Zwarte Piet is generally referred to as a tradition, a tradition so pervasive that even Fisher Price made a toy as part of their “Little People” series that includes Saint Nicholas and Zwarte Piet figurines. Zwarte Piet is also a character on an informative television series for children. But “traditions” can also be changed. In 2006, the Dutch Programme Foundation represented Zwarte Piet as rainbow-colored—the next year it was back to black. This anomaly is revealing because it shows an awareness of the racist nature of Zwarte Piet, demonstrating that traditions do not have to be preserved in their original form. They can be adapted to accommodate changing public perceptions; they are not free zones exempt from criticism.
Writing about the tradition in the context of the country’s problem with race, journalist Siji Jabaar cited Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory in a December 2012 article for This is Africa. In a 1957 article, Festinger refers to the phenomenon as “a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors,” which “produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.” Still, Jabaar finds a space for progress: “Perhaps the defenders of the ‘tradition’ believe so long as they don’t listen to anything the black Dutch people say, the debate will never get beyond talk… But I was reassured that the numbers (black and white) of those against this ‘tradition’ are indeed growing.”
SOPHIA SEAWELL B’14’s aesthetics have remained relatively unaltered.