Ushered through Amsterdam by one of his loyal helpers—Zwarte Piet—Sinkerklaas rests atop his faithful steed—Amerigo—and surveys the throngs of jubilant Dutch children, all ecstatic he has finally arrived safely via steamer from his home in Spain with gifts in tow; merrily as it ever were. The season of Sinterklaas has begun…
As the name implies, Sinterklaas is the ancestor to Santa Claus. Similarities between the two abound, but the idiosyncrasies distinctive to each are quite obvious. Santa Claus is husky, lives at the North Pole and rocks velour. Sinterklaas is svelte, resides in Spain and admires the fashion sense of Pope John Paul II. The main discrepancy between the two lie in their respective contracts with their workers. Santa Claus has his workers—elves--order gifts online that he then delivers in a sleigh drawn by magical reindeer to all the good boys and girls in America and its satellite states, protectorates and occupied territories. Sinterklaas’ helpers are zany white guys with soot that covers their skin, acquired from sliding down and climbing up chimneys delivering presents to Dutch kids throughout the Netherlands and its former colonies—as Sinterklaas supervises from atop a pale horse.
Most denizens of the world see a person dressed in blackface and associate said image with the paradigms of minstrelsy, such as the characters of Al Jolson or the Golliwogg. In the modern world, the tradition of blackface is considered to be an archaic, insensitive practice that has been mostly abolished through de facto consensus. However, in the Netherlands every November marks the return of the blackfaced helpers of Sinterklaas. The Dutch do not consider Zwarte Piet to be a minstrel; according to modern folklore, he is not Black, nor is he supposed to be. Any naturally-born Dutch denizen will tell you the reason that the Zwarte Piets are black is because they are covered in soot acquired from traveling through chimneys whilst delivering toys to slumbering Dutch children. This is not the excuse of a closet racist, this is what they were told as children. This holiday has become the most widespread propaganda in the Netherlands.
The history of the Sinterklaas holiday is quite ambiguous. It is primarily of Catholic origin, but the holiday has become secular. Some describe Zwarte Piet’s predecessor as a demon of some sort, which may explain Zwarte Piet’s dual-role as disciplinarian to ill-behaved kids. Other reports claim that Sinterklaas is from Turkey and Zwarte Piet is of Moorish descent-which may account for his manner of dress. Jan Schnenkman, a teacher turned children’s author, penned the book ‘Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht,’ published in 1850; this book being the first appearance of the Black “helper” who would eventually become known as “Zwarte Piet.” Piet Broos’ 1949 book, ‘De Grote Reis Naar Nederland,’ details the story of Sinterklaas’ advertisement requesting pro bono “helpers” which gets answered by three “pitch-black little niggers… living in Niggerland” (rough translation). While we will never know the definitive history of Sinterklaas, we know for certain that the character’s conception served as a mockery directed at people of African descent. When people from the former colonies of the Netherlands began to emigrate en masse to the Netherlands circa the mid-1970s, what was formerly a largely homogeneous country became instantaneously integrated. It was around the 1980s that the reasoning behind Zwarte Piet’s coloration was spun anew. What had been known as blackface became soot acquired from chimneys. The nation agreed to make a children’s holiday politically correct. It was evident that the offensive quality was the blackface, but rather than abolish the blackface, the blackface was justified. It lives on to this day.
To put this holiday in perspective for people not privy with the happenings of the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is indeed the Dutch version of what I as an American know to be Christmas. Similar to the tradition of Christmas, the religious origins and reasoning have been mostly purged from the observance of the holiday, even though there exists many people in the States who will tell you that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Lights are erected throughout the streets, festivities for families are ongoing and a general sense of yuletide bliss can be felt all over, especially in department stores. Make no mistake, Sinterklaas is big business. With Dutch households spending an average of €130 on presents, it amounts to well over €2 billion euros being circulated in a country roughly the size of two New Jerseys. Merchandise, presents, food, pepernoten, costumes, Zwarte Piet blackface paint; the expenses add up quickly and it proves just how ubiquitous this holiday is and how ingrained it is within the Dutch society. This may be a reason why any attempts to change it are looked upon unfavorably by the Dutch masses. It also serves as a constant reminder to those that find offense in Sinterklaas, as Zwarte Piet and his artificially-blackened face are literally ubiquitous throughout November and the first week of December.
I remember watching a comedy routine by Stephen Hughes on the logic behind being offended. It was a good bit. I got his point, but his rationale was clearly that of a person who had never experienced the effects of institutionalized discrimination. The pro-Zwarte Piet stance is a very brave position to take in the contemporary world. Most people throughout the world are aware of the tradition of blackface in its many forms, but it is only the Dutch who continue to promote it as something innocent. Once the historical evidence is brought to the forefront and that ridiculous chimney soot story is ignored, what do the proponents of blackface have left other than an ad hominem argument? I believe that the proponents of Zwarte Piet get too emotional with religious-like fervor when this topic is approached, and that keeps them from being able to articulate their stance sensibly. As an outsider, I will attempt to give them an argument that I have yet to have heard from any proponent. The main question here is at what point do these artifacts of white tyranny cease being of concern to the victims of white tyranny? As an example I will use the word “nigger.” I will assume that the readers have a basic understanding of how this term was used as a derogatory moniker for us of the African diaspora. What is most interesting about the word was that it was appropriated by the same people that the epithet was directed towards, and in effect, the hatred was siphoned from it. Somehow “nigger” became a term of endearment among Black people, which white people would not dare to speak aloud within their presence. Hip-Hop music exponentially spread the usage and awareness of the word and we are currently coming to a point in which the younger generation uses it as a pronoun, regardless of ethnicity. Zwarte Piet is an issue because we of the African diaspora are offended by his history and the blackface. At what point does this stop being offensive? The Dutch don’t sell slaves any longer-this much we know. Is it necessary for a multicultural society to consider every bit that offends a particular group? It must be noted that-at least on a conscious level-Dutch children do not associate Zwarte Piet with Black people. The racist connotations of the Sinterklaas holiday have been extracted from it, but for whatever reason, the blackface was left behind. Are we of the African diaspora offended by this because we see ourselves in it? Can the racist context of something be eliminated centuries later? I apologize for this half-witted attempt at justifying Zwarte Piet. It is especially difficult for me, because I truly see no rational argument for the perpetuation of blackface in the 21st century, but I do see it necessary to listen to the opposition’s argument.
Since post-WWII European decolonization when the Netherlands initially became a multicultural society, there has always been a voice of opposition against the racist facets of the Sinterklaas holiday, but this voice has not been given much of an outlet to be heard. In 2011, a negligible percentage of the Netherlands populace began to organize, galvanize and inform the general populace with their issues with the tradition. I have lived here since 2009 and every year I have witnessed the anti-Zwarte Piet voice steadily gain support. This anti-Zwarte Piet stance was given a logo by the people behind the Zwarte Piet is Rascime campaign. In the form of stenciled, spray-painted t-shirts, the Zwarte Piet is Rascime campaign slowly gained supporters and notoriety, but it was the spectacle which occurred in Dordrecht during the arrival of Sinterklaas that catapulted this into a national issue that could no longer be ignored. Evidently, Black people wearing the Zwarte Piet is Rascime t-shirts were arrested by police for nothing more than congregating peacefully and wearing said t-shirts. This comes across as extremely hypocritical in a country that allows the bleached-blond poster boy of the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, to run rampant with what most describe as hate speech. As was proven in the 1960s in America, all that a revolution needs is a bit of televised publicity to become a national issue. So even though these gentlemen were victims of police discrimination and abuse, this travesty did give the anti-Zwarte Piet movement the necessary media coverage to make the innately racist aspects of Sinterklaas an issue that could no longer be camouflaged with a tale of propaganda dusted in chimney soot.
It does not matter who finds Zwarte Piet to be offensive or who chooses to believe the politically-correct chimney soot story. The controversy enveloping Zwarte Piet is merely the focal point of a much larger issue. We all know of the atrocities committed by the Transatlantic European powers in what many of them—the Netherlands included—deem as their respective “Golden Ages,” which brought their countries international wealth and power at the expense of other countries and people. Whatever, that bit is over—there’s nothing that can be done about the past; here we are in the present and these are the set of rules we play by. I believe that people who benefit directly from white privilege are not willing to listen to those who do not benefit from it. The Netherlands prides itself on being a cosmopolitan society, but most of the citizens do not interact with people that are not ethnically Dutch. As an American, I realize that I originate from a country with a very heinous record regarding racial relations. This realization comes from the fact that I have always been on the receiving end of this racial inequality. However, maybe because America is a country of immigrants or possibly because America has been a cosmopolitan entity longer than most European countries which recently began to integrate only following World War II, America has an ongoing and open dialogue about these issues. Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s was televised to the entire world, America’s racial issues have stood at the forefront and have set the precedent for racial relations across the world. I’m not claiming that America is racially harmonious, because it isn’t. Even with the election of President Barack Obama, America’s first president of African descent, America remains rife with racial issues. I do believe that Americans acknowledge this and opinions supporting either polarity are available throughout American media. I do not witness this in the Netherlands. I see a country that is diverse (in certain areas), yet divided. I see that the majority of the citizens-ethnically Dutch people-are fine with multiculturalism until their own history, culture and customs are tested and questioned. No multicultural society can exist without free expression, equal representation and freedom of speech. This is something the people of the Netherlands must work to improve. I have admitted that I do not feel the same aura of racism that I felt in many areas of America, particularly on a quotidian basis. However, I do not feel that racial relations are more advanced and altruistic in the Netherlands, they are merely more deftly avoided.