Sinterklaas is a character that emerged from the historical figure St. Nicholas and is celebrated annually, on the 5thof December in The Netherlands. During this celebration, Sinterklaas, who is white, is played by a white male and is portrayed as wise and mature. He arrives in the Netherlands on a steamboat, then sits on a horse, while waving to the crowds gracefully.
Sinterklaas is accompanied by multiple servants named Zwarte Piet, who toss sweets to the children and entertain them with their outrageous behaviour. Zwarte Piet, who is black, is played by a white male, dressed as a renaissance minstrel. His entire face is painted black, with big red lips and he wears an afro wig, often accompanied by golden earrings, mimicking the physical features associated with black people.
During Sinterklaas, children like and dress up as Zwarte Piet because he brings them gifts. Just before the 5thof December, children place their shoes by the fireplace. Sinterklaas then travels by horse to their houses, accompanied by black Pete, who enters houses through chimneys and leaves gifts behind.
Sadly, Zwarte Piet, which directly translates to “Black Pete”, is a racist character and an explicit reminder to many, of The Netherlands’ colonial history.
In her 2004 article on “Black Piet”, Izalina Tavares says”racism represents a state of mind that supports or creates means of causing harm to one or more specific racial groups” (Tavares’ article ). Racism is internalised in the views of people. We tend to practice racial stereotyping and accept racial hierarchies, which reinforce white superiority.
As explained in Tavares’ article, Zwarte Piet is a declaration of multiple typical western prejudices against black people, that portray inferiority. He represents both the servant and the child that illustrates the father-childlike picture of “the coloniser to the colonised and the master to the servant” (Tavares’ article ). His presence in multitudes, all with the name Black Pete, coheres to the shortfall of individuality of the negro.
Although in August 2015, the Dutch government was asked by a UN committee in Switzerland, to remove the features of Zwarte Piet that encourage black stereotypes. A vast majority of Dutch people preserve the tradition because they’ve valued it since childhood and want to pass it down. Furthermore, they claim that Black Pete has blackface because of the soot from the chimneys he goes through. Others simply fear that Dutch culture is being dissolved, due to the large influx of immigrants from former Dutch colonies.
But aside from Dutch culture, blackface began with the motive of teasing and dehumanising black people. In the late 1800’s, white actors painted their faces black, in order to illustrate black people on TV and throughout the 19thand 20thcentury, human zoos were popular in Europe. While people of colour were exhibited for entertainment purposes, these events reinforced false beliefs of white superiority and were used to justify racial hierarchy and colonialism.
The controversy surrounding Zwarte Piet, sparked because the historical origin of this character is degrading and insensitive towards black people. Furthermore, Zwarte Pete perpetuates negative racial stereotyping. It is not okay to celebrate certain aspects of the colonial era despite the fact that it’s over.
Until next time… thenomadicbutterfly 🦋 aka Ayanda Ntuli .
Gander, K. (2016). 6 images of the racist human zoos that time forgot. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/the-racist-human-zoos-that-time-forgot-a7425286.html
Holligan, A. (2016). Dutch ‘Black Pete’ figure criticised. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-europe-24974656/dutch-black-pete-figure-criticised-by-academic
Ombudsman for Children: “Black Pete” requires adaptation. (2016). Retrieved from http://enoc.eu/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/M-Kalverboer-statement-Zwarte-Piet-Sept2016.pdf
Tavares, I. (2004). Black Pete: Analyzing a racialized Dutch tradition through the history of western creations of stereotypes of black peoples by Izalina Tavares | Humanity in Action. Retrieved from https://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/255-black-pete-analyzing-a-racialized-dutch-tradition-through-the-history-of-western-creations-of-stereotypes-of-black-peoples)
Vox. (2016). Why blackface is still part of Dutch holidays [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBqoH-qx-os
Ward, J., & Rocha, R. (2018). “No more blackface!” How can we get people to change their minds about Zwarte Piet?. Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 7 (1). Retrieved from https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/jctp/vol7/iss1