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Zwarte Piet / Black Pete

Zwarte Piet - Black Pete

Each year on Dec. 5th, the morning before the feast of St. Nicholas, children all over the Netherlands and parts of Belgium wake up excited for gifts and candy while thousands of adults go to their mirrors to apply brown paint and red lips. In their Zwarte Piet costumes, they fill central Amsterdam and small village streets, ushering in the arrival of Sinterklaas who, in the Dutch tradition, rides a flying white horse.

Zwarte Piet was introduced in 1845 in the story "Saint Nicholas and his Servant," written by an Amsterdam schoolteacher named Jan Schenkman. In the story, Sinterklaas comes from Spain by steamship bringing with him a black helper of African origin. The book was wildly popular and with it began the inclusion of Santa's helper in Dutch Christmas festivities.

Despite a rising tide of concerns and complaints about Zwarte Piet being a racist caricature, most Dutch folks are fiercely devoted to the holiday tradition and insist "Black Pete" is a harmless fictional figure who doesn't represent any race. Zwarte Piet is frequently defended as part of Dutch cultural heritage, and those who don't like it are often bluntly invited to leave the country. Many Dutch say Pete is black from the soot he picked up climbing down chimneys to deliver presents -- but that doesn't explain the frizzy hair and big red lips.

Why do so many Europeans, and the Dutch in particular, still rationalize the use of this racial caricature? They know it's hurtful to blacks and other minorities, but they also resent and fear the presence of blacks and other "outsiders." Just like in America, Dutch whites fear multiculturalism for what it represents to them -- the loss of political control by the white majority and their culture along with it.

Those who defend Zwarte Piet are fighting harder now to protect him because they see that public opinion is turning against them. It's important to remind everyone that this is not about American blacks or the history of blackface in America. It's about the history of racism in Europe.


The Opposing View

There are two sides to every dispute, and in the interest of promoting greater understanding, I present the "other side" from someone named Thierry Vader I found on a Facebook page dedicated to preserving the traditions of Zwarte Piet. I apologize for the quality of the translation, but I think readers can see that this person is intelligent and sincere. Many of the concerns expressed by the writer are common among those who have trouble with multiculturalism. It is only by addressing the worries and the resentments, rather than dismissing them as ignorant and xenophobic, that racist caricatures like Zwarte Piet will become a thing of the past.


For all foreigners who can not understand why people are becoming bitter to situations such as this, in my view this is far beyond the elimination of Zwarte Piet. It seems like more of a message of autochthonous direction immigrant and government is that always ignorant Dutch tolerance has a limit, a throbbing faster desire in the heart of the still actually naive Dutchman to an era of toxic, crippling and underrated political correctness and to end before it's too late. liberality

We see our culture and our national heritage wither before our very eyes, the government are becoming incompetent, changing a once-beautiful and most pleasant country in a home for the unthankful and a money factory for Brussels and the list just keeps growing and growing. I know I will be called a racist when I say this, but quickly this correct, ramshackle world know I'm probably one of the most tolerant people you will ever meet, however, the tolerance and flexibility towards foreigners Dutch biggest mistake ever been. You are here, we have you and accept you. Habits Fine as long as you behave. You are welcome and we are nothing more or less than you. However, one begins increasingly to realize that this favor more often than not is not mutual and never ever will be mutual. Soon, this no longer Netherlands We can not say anything about the immigrants problematic, because ' discriminate ' we all winds the statistics and the fact that you are here no punches. We are the lapdog of the world has become and this makes many pain. We are in an ethical and moral prison Netherlands where possible will rot, lifelong way to the Netherlands only in name. Knot fucking sometimes good in your ears and tape your other ear if necessary close, Netherlands: soon, this is no longer Netherlands.

And as always ruining a small group it again. Not unexpected, but especially this babe of the UN is doing outrageous. She is paid here to do research and that's fine. I can not understand how you dare to pick up in advance to all judge a centuries-old tradition in your head just because a white man a few black people has run, if not centuries old, and though it was not a tradition around. Doing this is actually said that any white man who a few black people and has a slave driver . They even know the story behind Sinterklaas disagree, what way does the best background story of a holiday that could be used against racism could be and, though not too relevant, once one of the main reasons that Santa exists is if you want to talk about. World That is racist. I can understand that the Dutch are furious. Funny how that works, is not it ? This thought is apparently the consensus today. They should be fired but I should also thank her. She has since some fuel to the fire of the Dutch anger and brings us closer to a real hope unleashing.

Moreover, there are so many other things that the UN pressure on her head can make, and even though it was non-existent racism is a problem, there are recognized by the UN holidays that really racist, discriminatory, human rights stressful, ... where they can care. located on There are girls clitorises cut off and this is all fine as long as the Zwarte Piet is still around to hopping in the world. Really heavy, heavy pathetic. But realize that this is a person and a person remains

Again, foreigners  Dutchman with any sense has absolutely nothing against foreigners, but the Netherlands has had enough. Tolerance is like cancer for this country. Liberalism is like cancer for this country. The EU is like cancer for this country. The UN is like cancer for this country. Almost all of what 'correct ' is running us the neck . It is really sad that such good intentions are answered . So It has come to the point that many Dutch create prejudices about foreigners, and this is also wrong because it is only a minority that is so. It creates a dangerous mutual tension between natives and immigrants . The difference is that you are here, and we are not there. A little respect towards indigenous ethnic minority, and also sometimes a little more respect towards indigenous immigrant, I guess is not too much to ask.

-- Thierry Vader


Another Opposing View

I received a couple of emails from someone who said I was not presenting both sides fairly. He cited my inclusion of a bunch of racist comments that were posted to Yahoo in response to an article about Zwart Piet titled, "If Black Pete isn't racist, then why do so many racists defend it?" 

Upon reflection, I realized that he was right. It was not only unfair, but also pretty lame. Here's an unedited email from him that offers some additional opposing views:  


You seem pretty (pre)determined to condemn all instances of white people dressing as black as racism. Now this phenomenon might look pretty weird at first to foreigners. Let me start by explaining why the vast majority of Dutch people (it's recently been polled) want 'Zwarte Piet' to stay the way he is and don't think of it as a slur.

1. This is the country that was first to legalize soft drugs, prostitution, and one of the first to recognize same sex marriage. It's hard to then pitch idea that Holland has secretly been a country with millions of racists all the time (deliberate or unconscious), even during the days when nobody dared say anything against multiculturalism.

2. Also, they/we see this as an attack on our childhood memories, on an innocent tradition that everybody shares. Basically it's the original version of Santa Clause, when he was still a Turkish bishop and not a coca cola icon. Santa has elves, Sinterklaas has Pieten who are every bit as imaginary. Suppose PETA wanted to take Santa's reindeer away. That is how this accusation feels to millions of people.

3. And that is because most Dutch people don't really see Zwarte Piet as a real person of African stock. Because no-one in real life dresses like that (no, not even rappers or hip hop artists). They look ridiculous, almost clownish. To compare, everyone can see the difference between a real person with dwarfism and Doc or Sneezy in Disney's Snow White. Stereotypes? We see the Pieten more as a kind of Smurfs, if you like. Some have a specialty, but apart from that they're very interchangeable. The whole celebration is for small children after all.

There's no real reason why all fantasy characters should be white. The story is in fact that the Pieten are black because they come through the chimney. Now you might reject this and say it's a cheap excuse. But even then, it's basically a Turk and his black friends bringing presents for all the children. How is that a bad thing? (It's true that in the 1950s Piet was the servant, but today, they are running the show.)

4. So could it not be that Zwarte Piet is possible here precisely because there isn't a lot of racism, so it is not seen as an issue? You come, I guess, from the US where race issues are far from solved and have a long and sad history (including blackface). But other countries have a shorter history, with much less tension. So it just doesn't have the same meaning everywhere. There have been a few cases in Germany of people dressing up as African characters as a tribute - recently, a 'cosplayer' for example. To me that's an innocent and positive act, but some people still find that offensive.

Just like you say that we are unconsciously promoting a racial stereotype, you might in turn be unconsciously judging other cultures by your own standards (in this case, your country's problems). That woman who gave her unsolicited advice to the UN was invited to attend the celebration last year, but she declined and preferred not to do any actual field research...

But just to compare: The US has some patriotic traditions that would never ever be done in Europe because that kind of nationalism is associated closely with two world wars and everything that happened in them. But I bet a lot of Americans would feel hurt and angry if started a campaign to tell them to stop it on the grounds that it is highly offensive in the light of WWII. They'd say, "But we're not imitating nazis!".

5. That is not to say that there's no problems outside the US, or that there's no prejudice in Holland, or that the Dutch didn't run slaves in the 19th century - no, no, they certainly did. And they brought them to Suriname and Curaco... Where Sint and Piet are still celebrated today. A dance teacher from Suriname told me that Piet was even portrayed a lot scarier there, threatening children who did not behave. Personally, he had never seen any reason to think of Piet as a caricature of himself.
So is there a minority being wronged here (minority as in, the opponents are a small minority)? In contrast to my Surinam friend above, who didn't have to prove anything, it's often malcontents who grab the opportunity to complain, or to provoke, or who are out to get attention.

You may have some quotes from racists (or people posing as racists to troll a bit!) who defend it, but look at the opponents too please: Just a few days ago 'Sint' officially debarked and the opponents insisted on protesting right in the face of all the children (instead of not in the same square at the same time as they had been asked to), and started a fight. That's right, our Santa can't show himself without police protection because he might be attacked by anti-Piet people. So idiots are on both sides, that's for sure.

Finally, I really hope you won't take this the wrong way, but your site is very ambitious. Racism is one thing, but not every stereotype or prejudice equals actual racism (think for example of 'the nerd', which one could link to anti-intellectual prejudice).

So should dressing up as someone of a different skin colour be completely out of the question in all cases and countries? You feel it should. There's nothing wrong with having strong feelings about and against racism, but sometimes they cloud the issue when it's not that black and white - no pun. There are for example a few cases of complaints of racism against a joke where the racists were its butt (I mean like the nazis are the butt in The Producers). Combating racism isn't always as straightforward as it may seem, and people tend to jump to conclusions very quickly.

-- Robert, Amsterdam


My answer:

Just so we're clear, I am researching and presenting information about racial stereotypes and how they negatively affect perceptions of other races. I am not condemning others or making accusations of racism. My intent is to educate people on the mostly unintended but still negative consequences of racial stereotypes.

It really doesn't matter that the intent is not meant to be hurtful. It's the effect that matters. I can't go around saying "nigger" and then say that's my tradition and I'm not trying to offend anyone. Times are changing and part of that change is being more considerate of the feelings of others.

You say it's mostly only "malcontents" who complain. That raises two questions: How many "malcontents" have to complain before you take the complaints seriously? and, Aren't you, by saying it's only a few malcontents, dismissing the complaints as completely unjustified. Do you really think that none of the complaints against Zwarte Piet are justified? I have read in several places that all blacks in your country get called Zwarte Piet at one time or another, as in, "Hey, there goes Black Pete." Imagine how you would feel if you were being compared to such a stereotype.

The US certainly has its own problems but in this case it is not the US trying to impose their moral values on your country. This is a debate between Dutch people, though of course many outsiders have an opinion on it.

I agree with you about US militarism. The US is an aggressive and warrior nation that has the means and the desire to dominate others, and all the celebration over our military is only making things worse. The idea of "American exceptionalism" is very dangerous, because it means we think we are better than everyone else, and we are most certainly not. 

For instance, is there anything worse in American history than the genocide against the Native Americans? As a child, I knew it only as "Cowboys and Indians." Even today there's an American football team called the "Redskins." Americans have been told many times that this is a racist name and image for the team but most just don't care. They want to keep their "tradition" even though it is hurtful to others, but they will eventually have to give it up.
Zwarte Piet has been going through a transformation in his looks and his behavior over the past 50 years in response to complaints and we can expect that transformation to continue until he is no longer identified as a particular race. It's time to accept the fact that the black wig and face paint will be gone soon. The holiday cultural traditions will continue, with no one feeling excluded or humiliated, and that will be better for everyone.



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