Sometimes you just have to write…
I fear this post will lose me Dutch followers because what I’m about to write is not a popular opinion in Holland. Nevertheless, the news here in the Netherlands is all about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and I feel compelled to comment, especially since, judging by the comments flooding my Facebook page from Dutch friends, I disagree with the vast majority of Dutch people.
For my non-Dutch readers, I first have to explain the current tradition. Sinterklaas is a tall, thin, elderly man who wears a long robe and a miter like a bishop’s. He has the same historical roots as the American Santa Claus or the British Father Christmas; all are based on Saint Nicholas. Sinterklaas, however, lives in Spain instead of the North Pole and rides a white horse instead of a sleigh. He has his own holiday on December 5th, so he is not associated with Christmas, which has remained a more purely religious holiday in Holland.
Rather than elves, Sinterklaas travels accompanied by Zwarte Piet, which translates as “Black Pete.” Or, rather, he’s joined by a group of Zwarte Pieten – Black Petes – who help him by carrying his bags of gifts and sweets for him and generally clown around, entertaining children at parties and other Sinterklaas-related events.
Here’s where the controversy comes in. Black Petes are exactly that: black. They are almost always played by white people dressed in blackface, and they wear colorful “Moorish costumes” with puffy sleeves. Their lips are painted bright red, and they wear black long-sleeved shirts and black leggings or tights to complete the illusion of being black. On their heads they wear a curly black-haired wig, and they often have big gold hoops in their ears.
Any of you, dear readers, who comes from any country other than the Netherlands will understand the problem with this. To state the patently obvious, it’s terribly racist in this day and age for a white person to dress up in blackface and play a comic character.
A group of Amsterdam residents recently filed a complaint about this tradition, arguing that it is offensive to them and must be stopped. They argue that it could easily be replaced with a new tradition of “kleuren Pieten” or “regenboog (rainbow) Pieten”: in other words, multicolored Petes, so there would be a Yellow Pete, a Purple Pete, and so on.
Most Dutch, however, refuse to accept this. And they seem to be refusing to even see why anyone could be offended by it. The range of reasons they give to preserve the tradition is truly impressive:
It’s tradition. Yes, it is traditional. So was slavery. So was teaching boys to read and not girls. That doesn’t make it acceptable.
It’s a lot less racist than the historical role of Zwarte Piet. This is true: the original Black Pete of a century or more ago was literally a slave, and he was stupid and spoke with a foreign accent in incorrect, choppy Dutch. He was also used to scare children into being good: “If you don’t behave, Black Pete will whip you and put you in his bag to take you back to Spain with him.” So Black Pete’s role has been toned down. He’s not a slave; he’s a servant. He’s silly and jolly and funny and throws candy. So what? He’s still in a subordinate position and is still an object of ridicule with his clownish behavior.
What amazes me is how many of my Dutch friends and acquaintances have been posting on Facebook in support of keeping the Zwarte Piet tradition. More than two million Dutch people (out of a population of 17 million) have “liked” a Facebook page in support of Zwarte Piet. Why does this matter so much to them? Why does it matter if Black Petes turn into multi-colored Petes? Why are they so defensive? The lady doth protest too much, methinks!
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