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 in blackface. And antiracist protestors have been met with backlash, such as this November in the Hague, where four people were arrested for intimidating protestors by smashing windows and throwing fireworks at the building they were gathered in. Leiden itself has a Facebook group called Leiden staat op (Leiden Rises) which encourages the continuation of full blackface in the tradition. The group recently posted a disturbing satirical video of a group of men in a meeting “kidnapping” a Zwarte Piet wearing the soot smudges, and taking him to a garage to paint his face fully black. They claim Zwarte Piet is just a tradition and not discriminatory, and the call for change is a result of ‘leftist rhetoric’ and political correctness. But a tradition has to start from somewhere…
Screenshot from the ‘Leiden staat op’ facebook page, the banner reads “Black Pete Remains”
Much of the iconography of the Sinterklaas celebration seems to have been inspired by Jan Schenkman’s children’s picture book ‘Saint Nicholas and His Servant’ from 1850. This may seem like an unnecessary piece of trivia but the fact that Zwarte Piet originated in stories from this era of Dutch history demonstrates that the costume is not cut off from a time of racial oppression with colonialism and the slave trade. In 1850, the Netherlands still had not abolished the slave trade. They were one of the last countries to do so in 1863, and slaves in Suriname were still not free for another ten years. It is estimated that the Dutch facilitated the transportation and sale of over half a million enslaved Africans, which was 5-7% of the total Atlantic slave trade. They operated from ten different slave fortresses along the coast of Ghana. In terms of colonialism, the Dutch lost much of their empire in the 1700s but continued colonial rule in Suriname and Indonesia until the 1940s. And in the Caribbean, the former colonies of Curacao, Aruba and St Maarten continue to be part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands today.
William Blake illustration in John Gabriel Stedman’s ‘The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam’ (1796)
In the context of this difficult and oppressive history, it surely cannot be argued that Zwarte Piet is ‘just a tradition’. It harks back to an era when European powers used stereotypes and racial eugenics to justify the suppression of non-white people around the world. The role of the Dutch in colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade also intertwines its history with that of many other countries. The explicitly racist use of blackfacing in America derived from minstrel shows mocking slaves and later African Americans in general with the stereotypes of laziness, stupidity, and criminality. In a globalised society, this racist trope cannot be viewed as isolated to the US, especially in a country with historic connections to the slavery era, such as the Netherlands.
Picture (Wikipedia) Minstrel show poster, 1900
Traditions can change, and surely, it’s not too much to ask people to wear small soot smudges instead of a costume with so many connotations to racial oppression. 15% of the Dutch population are from minority ethnic groups. They deserve to feel comfortable in this annual national celebration.