“There’s a knock at the door,
Loud knocking, soft knocking.
There’s a knock at the door,
Who can that be?
Don’t worry, my child.
I’m a good friend.
Even though I’m black as soot,
My intentions are good.”
(Lyrics to Dutch Sinterklaas celebration song)
While growing up in the Netherlands I have cheered out these words in my parent’s kitchen. Since Christmas was not at all a big holiday, Sinterklaas was the main event of the winter. Singing songs in the evening and leaving your shoe at the door (which would be filled with a present in the morning), decorating and crafting at school. On the night of the 5th of December my family would gather to have a special meal, and around eight o’clock my grandfather would sneak out the backdoor and with a burlap full of presents and place this in front of our door. He would knock on the windows really loudly and run back inside through the backdoor as we were rushing to the front door to catch a glimpse of Sinterklaas. We never succeeded. We would spent hours together unwrapping the presents and reading poorly written poems to each other. As a kid I have never questioned whether the appearance of Zwarte Piet (often in English media referred to as Black Pete) would be somehow inappropriate. I was mainly focused on the presents.
Zwarte Piet is often referred to as Blackface because he looks like a figure that remarkably resembles the stereotypical visual of Africans in the 19th century. These features like the black face paint that can be recognised here are the afro hair wigs, the red lipstick and the yellow earrings. Zwarte Pieten are the servants Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas) and assist the holy white male figure with bringing presents to the children. You can compare it to the elves that help Santa Clause. For more information about the appearance of Zwarte Piet see the graphic below.
The two weeks before the 5th of December will represent a tense time between the ‘Anti Zwarte Piet’ protesters and the ones that are in favour of keeping the tradition as it is. In Rotterdam, a large city located in the south west of the Netherlands, 200 protesters were arrested because they broke the municipality’s protest law according to Dutch media. It is also reported that a bakery in Amsterdam got vandalised last week for selling pastries presenting Zwarte Piet.
Retail stores ought to pick sides as well whether to display the figure in advertising and such. The commercial television channel RTL made a public announcement on the 24th of October that they will not be broadcasting the Zwarte Piet figure in their programs. The government funded broadcast channel NTR however would not take a statement in whether they will continue presenting Zwarte Piet in his current attire, everyone had to wait until their first broadcast. Dutchies were holding their breath since this channel broadcasts the most important children programs concerning the Sinterklaas celebration. The program decided to show Zwarte Piet but with a Caucasian equivalent as well.
The United Nations committee has urged the Netherlands to get rid of Black Pete. Removing Zwarte Piet would not be the first mutation in the Dutch celebration. Dozens of years ago kids would get hit with tree twigs if they were naughty that year. If you did something really bad you would get thrown in the burglar sack and taken away to Spain. These mutations were made because it didn’t fit with the current time anymore. However a large group of Dutch people is particularly more sensitive to change traditions for the ‘excuse’ of racism. Growing tensions around refugees and immigrants might be something that feeds into this, but we can’t be sure. In an ideal world we would focus on the celebration itself without the intention of insulting anyone just because we have nationalistic pride. I suspect this discussion will probably continue a couple years until everyone in the public sphere including municipalities have adjusted the appearance of (Zwarte) Piet. The younger children will not know any better and the older ones will refer to the past phenomenon of that time when they were younger.
Protest group ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’.
History of Blackface and the United Nation
200 protestors arrested: http://nos.nl/artikel/2142733-200-tegenstanders-zwarte-piet-opgepakt-in-rotterdam.html
Government funded channel broadcasts both versions of Zwarte Piet: http://nos.nl/artikel/2142282-sinterklaasjournaal-met-zwarte-en-witte-piet.html
Commercial channel bans Zwarte piet: http://www.volkskrant.nl/televisie/rtl-vervangt-zwarte-piet-door-piet-met-roetvegen-ntr-wil-niets-zeggen~a4401379/
UN Report: http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/NLD/CERD_C_NLD_CO_19-21_21519_E.pdf