The small European country has released a collective sigh of relief this morning. Sinterklaas has left the country, and more importantly, has taken Zwarte Piet with him. For those of you not familiar with what the Dutch call their most important tradition, Sinterklaas is like Santa Claus, but with a little black helper called Zwarte Piet. And if you’re not Dutch and have not been grown up accustomed to this tradition, the image of a Grand White Man on a horse, surrounded by an army of clearly submissive black helpers, is quite disturbing. The fact that the helpers are black-faced white people with accentuated red lips, wearing wigs of curly hair and huge golden ear-rings, is not making it any better, either.
The origins of Zwarte Piet (and Sinterklaas) are probably not racist at all. Researchers of culture and history point to similar winter-time festivities in most European cultures, where a “good cop-bad cop” duo is handing out sticks and carrots according to your behaviour in the previous year. An extreme example is the monstrous Krampus, that is reigning real terror across the Alps. But the caricaturization of a Negro that Zwarte Piet has become has been creating friction for decades, and in the past couple of years tensions have risen to boiling point. This year things started got really ugly, with violent demonstrations and death threats on both pro- and anti-Zwarte Piet activists.
In my experience, this nasty episode could have easily been avoided if the Dutch (white) majority has been a bit more self-aware. To me as an outsider, the figure of Zwarte Piet as it now is, is clearly past its due. I find it offensive and outdated, and I’m not even black. The usual argument as to why Zwarte Piet is not a racist figure has been the claim that his job is to run down chimneys to bring the presents. The soot is supposed to be what’s making him black. But so far, no one has been able to link soot to the acquisition of curly hair, swollen red lips and golden ear-rings. The fact that visitors from abroad are annually appalled at the sight of Zwarte Piet on packages of various products should have rang some bells.
But the Dutch have been lulled by the absence of serious anti-Zwarte Piet protests. It took (as it usually does) more dramatic measures to break the wall of ignorance around the damage the current looks of Zwarte Piet do to the Dutch image as a progressive, tolerant nation. Sadly, in response to these dramatic measures (vocal protests, a United Nations enquiry committee), the white majority has dug itself in, seeing the protests as yet another offensive on their traditional values.
Fortunately, a number of concessions have been made with respect to the Zwarte Piet looks this year. The hair has been straightened, the golden ear-rings got lost and even the lips are not as thick and red anymore. Colored Piets have been introduced. Also, the traditional Sinterklaas News has shown the process of “blackening” the Zwarte Piets as they roll out of chimneys. The impression has been a bit spoiled by a parliament member for the notorious PVV, who has objected to the public display of the “blackening” process as it would somehow “damage the magic” surrounding the festivities. I’d say that dragging a festival into politics and celebrating a KKK-like caricature does more damage to the magic, but that’s just my opinion. The demands of anti-Zwarte Piet groups to abolish the figure all together, and the call by Verene Shepherd to ditch Sinterklaas (“why celebrate Christmas twice?”) have not improved the discussion climate either.
Sinterklaas has now, as I’ve said, left the country, and I hope that the controversy has left with him. We have another year to sort out a way to celebrate a tradition without being offensive while retaining its character. As my daughter clearly shows, it is easier than it seems. On seeing every person with a long beard she calls out – “Sinterklaas!” And the person accompanying the perceived Sinterklaas is immediately labelled “Zwarte Piet!” She’s not even two years old, but obviously sees the essence of things much better than most of us. Its the old common wisdom “tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are”. And whether you’re black or white, with straight or curly hair, in or out of costume – if its December and you’re walking next to a bearded person, you’re Zwarte Piet. Period.