In mid-November in the Netherlands, Dutch families take to the streets of Amsterdam to celebrate the arrival of their favorite winter guests, Sinterklaas and his whimsical helper Black Pete. The air is crisp and cold. Pepernoten, bortsplaat, marzipan, and other sweet holiday fill the pockets of onlookers. When the adored duo comes into town (they sail in on a ship from Spain), they are greeted with a city-wide, family-friendly parade.
However, what is different and potentially shocking to many non-Dutch onlookers is that during the traditional parade, Sinterklaas is escorted by hundreds of white people in blackface. Smiling Dutch folks in blackface bike, walk, and rollerblade through the town, waving at children in celebration.
This is the traditional way to portray Sinterklaas’s helper, Black Pete. Many parents color the faces of their children with black paint in order to help them “get into the spirit” and pay a kind of homage to Sinterklaas’s silly, beloved, and sometimes scary sidekick. In addition to blackface, the Black Peter costume also includes afro-wigs, bright red lipstick, and dangly gold earrings.
The origin of Black Pete varies depending on whom you ask. Some folklorists say Black Pete first appeared in history as the African slave of Sinterklaas, while others will argue that he was a freed slave who stayed to help Sinterklaas based on his own free well. Still others peg him as originating as a house servant. Perhaps the most popular modern explanation of Pete’s blackface makeup is that he’s just black from sliding down houses’ chimneys to leave presents for children. This justification aims to convince Dutch folks that the paint on the faces of the Black Peters is soot collected from traveling down the chimney and doesn’t have any complicated racial implications at all.
But if it’s soot, why doesn’t it rub off? And why did early Black Pete actors muddle their Dutch and exaggerate their accents and mannerisms in ways stereotypical to communities of color? Why the red lipstick? The slave-style hoop earrings? This excuse—“just black from the chimney”—includes hint of racist acknowledgement. Saying that it is soot and not pigmentation that makes Pete black concedes that there would be something troubling about Black Pete being a black man.
But really, whether or not Black Pete was originally a slave or whether he is just Sinterklaas’s sooty next-door neighbor, the issue here has to do with the portrayal and co-option of black identity by white Westerners. It is not only wrong, it is reminiscent of a colonial past. Blackface will forever hold the residue of slavery and ethnic stereotyping.
In the last few years, the voices of dissent against Black Pete have grown. Two years ago, Dutch poet Quinsy Gario wore a shirt that read “Black Pete is Racist” to the Sinterklaas parade as a form of silent protest. In response, he was accused of disrupting the peace and detained by the Dutch police.
While actions like this have occurred in the past, this year marks the most obvious critical response to Black Pete. Hundreds of people have taken part in major actions and visible protests in Holland. The international community has also turned its spotlight on Black Pete this year: the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights took the issue of Black Pete under consideration, sending a letter to the Dutch government saying that stating that Black Pete perpetuated the image of people of African descent as second-class citizens.
The biggest protest of the Black Pete tradition came on November 17, when anti-racist protestors literally turned their backs on Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas parade. They formed a long line, placed tape over their mouths, and held signs reading things like, “Slavery Was Once a Tradition, Too.” The protesters stood in silent solidarity against the character of Black Pete and his obvious lineage to minstrel performance, as the parade ambled along behind them.
As someone who attended the parade for the first time, with a “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” (Black Pete is Racist) sign in hand, I was shocked at the violent response the silent protest elicited. One Dutch man, upon seeing my sign, told me that I should support Black Pete “for the children.” When I didn’t respond, he added that I should go back to where I came from (a popular Dutch response to those who dislike the national tradition, a response that is even directed toward black citizens whose Dutch roots are generations deep). The man was not done. He then told me I deserved to be in a ditch and offered to put me there. I was shoved intentionally by other men who did not agree with my sign and another female protestor was kicked in the stomach by a man in the crowd.
With these protests came a media buzz, a slew of critical articles about the Sinterklaas tradition from mostly non-Dutch journalists, and defensiveness from people within the Netherlands who love the character of Black Pete. The space for conversations, dialogue, and peaceful protests against Pete has grown this year, but the response from Black Pete supporters has been hostile at best and physically violent at its worst. While the portrayal of Pete distresses many Dutch citizens of color and their allies, many white Dutch citizens are attached to their holiday tradition and cannot imagine a Sinterklaas festival without blackface. In fact, a Facebook petition in favor of keeping Black Pete garnered support immediately, receiving over two million likes in three days—that’s huge in a country with only 16 million people.
A much-discussed solution to the Pete problem is to trade Black Pete for Rainbow Pete. In 2006, the Dutch public broadcasting corporation advocated changing Black Pete for Petes with bright rainbow-painted faces. These days, Rainbow Pete shows up in some Dutch classrooms.
The idea behind this swap of color is that Black Pete would remain the same character, but his face would be blue or green instead of brown. The trouble with the Rainbow Pete solution is that it does not address the issue behind the Black Pete problem. It is merely sweeping the conversation under the carpet.
While the tradition of blackface in Holland may not be an intentional act of ideological violence toward people of color, it is representative of the systemic racism existent in postcolonial Western countries. By systemic racism, I am referring to what Slavoj Zizek defines in his book, Violence, as the racism “inherent in a system” and the “subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of dominance and exploitation, including the threat of violence.” The minstrel-esque portrayal of Black Pete by white Dutch citizens throws the invisible backdrop of racism that undergirds most of Western political ideology into full relief. Or at least it should.
The tradition is deep-rooted and the complications, responses, and political and media driven responses around the Black Pete issue warrant additional reading, such as Amsterdam-based writer Flavia Dzodan’s take on the Dutch “pillars of racism” over at Red Light Politics.
As a country known for its liberal attitudes towards drugs and sex, and its tolerant, educated culture, it no doubt feels like being awakened by a harsh splash of cold water to be informed that a convention important to your national identity and your childhood is actually a perpetuation of the separation and subjugation of people of color. Making a caricature out of someone’s identity is to make that person appear less human. No amount of “just down the chimney” justification or childhood nostalgia can change this fact. The denial of Black Pete’s racist connotations by many Dutch citizens and government officials highlights just how embedded structural racism has become.
My hope is that the exposure of this issue will not encourage the mere finger-pointing toward another culture’s representation of blackness, but instead cause each of us to turn that finger toward our own chests and take a more nuanced look a the racist and oppressive practices in our own lives. As Toni Morrison says, and hopefully as the Black Pete supporters will come to understand, “If you’re going to hold someone down you’re going to have to hold on by the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own repression.”
Genevieve Hudson is an American writer living in Amsterdam, The Netherlands as part of the Fulbright Program. You can find her on Twitter at @genhudson.
Photos of Black Petes are from Floris Looijesteijn and Gerard Stolk via Creative Commons. Photo of Rainbow Pete is from Jim Forest and is also Creative Commons. Photo of Quinsy Gario and Kno’ledge Cesare is from Tumblr Zwarte Piet is Racisme.