Zwarte Piet: Blackface in the Netherlands
By Anouska Lewis
Cover photo ^ Photo from Sinterklaas event in Leiden, November 2018. (http://www.sinterklaasintochtleiden.nl/foto_s/foto_s_item/t/intocht_2018_portretten_caspar_blad#/27)
Have you ever seen someone dressed in blackface in real life? Have you ever seen groups of people in blackface dancing and handing out biscuits at a parade? If you were in a Dutch city a few weeks ago, you would have found just that.
Last Thursday, people across the Netherlands celebrated the culmination of weeks of festivities surrounding the celebration of Sinterklaas. But who is he? His name derives from St Nicholas, he is thought to be a source of inspiration for Santa Claus, and according to folklore he is an ancient bishop from Spain. The tradition is one of the country’s biggest national holidays, and shops are filled with Sinterklaas-themed products such as bunting, S-shaped chocolate bars, and wrapping paper.
A brief overview…
The ritual begins in mid-November when in towns and cities across the country, Sinterklaas, wearing a red outfit with a tall headdress, arrives by steamboat accompanied by a group of helpers called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) who according to the tale was a Moor from Spain. The helpers blacken their skin and wear brightly coloured Renaissance outfits and curly black wigs.
They are met by excited crowds, and Sinterklaas rides a white horse through the town as the Zwarte Piet helpers walk alongside him handing out ginger biscuits called pepernoten.
In the following weeks, children leave their shoes in front of the fireplace and hope for Zwarte Piet to climb down the chimney and deliver small presents, which are opened on the evening of December 5th.
Photos from Sinterklaas event, Leiden, November 2018 (http://www.sinterklaasintochtleiden.nl/foto_s/foto_s_item/t/intocht_2018_portretten_caspar_blad#/27)
Zwarte Piet is a controversial topic in the country and the source of much debate and discussion on an international level. (You may have even seen Kim Kardashian tweet her outrage at the tradition not too long ago.)
Last year I studied in Leiden, an old university city situated between Amsterdam and the Hague and I saw first-hand how the Dutch are grappling with the debates around the offensiveness of the costume. Like other cities, Leiden has pledged to stop the full blackface costume by 2020 and to replace it with sweeps of soot on the face instead, to represent Zwarte Piet travelling down the chimney. When I went back to visit last weekend, I saw an interesting amalgamation of the old and new interpretations of the character. Some shops such as Hema featured designs with two versions of Zwarte Piet, one with white skin, one with brown, and both with black smudges.
The kitchenware shop Blokker adopted the same approach but also sold face-paint kits that included red lipstick which cannot be justified as anything related to “chimney soot”.
Blokker face paint kit, and wrapping paper in window of fancy-dress shop, Leiden and Hema shop, Leiden, December 2019 (own photography)
Many shops avoided the controversy altogether by only featuring references to the bright outfits. But some images included cannot be interpreted as anything but Blackface. For example, an independent fancy-dress shop displayed wrapping paper with an obviously black character with a wide red mouth. And a beauty salon displayed dolls similar to golliwogs found in the UK.
Shop window in the Hague, December 2019 (own photography)
This red-mouthed wide-eyed depiction is very similar to archaic racist caricatures of people of African descent that are found across the western world, such as minstrels, and “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”.
Kick Out Zwarte Piet protestors, 2015 (https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2015/11/14/kick-out-zwarte-piet-kwam-niet-naar-meppel-om-te-r-1559561-a288186)
Groups such as ‘Kick Out Zwarte Piet’ have been protesting against the offensive caricature for years, and, according to the Guardian, an increasingly higher percentage of the population (26%) now think the tradition needs to change gradually. However, 59% still want Zwarte Piet