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Traditions of Blackface Persist in the Netherlands

Írta:  Dana Saxon

The parade is not unlike most others. Floats, marching bands, dancers, and even horses fill the streets. Large crowds of families gather in the festive atmosphere, with young children on the shoulders of parents, hoping to have a good view of the guests of honor. But once these guests of honor begin to make their way down the street, it takes not even a moment to know the difference between this parade and any other. For almost every person marching in this parade is in blackface.


Kp1In the Netherlands, one of the most popular winter holidays brings Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, to the country each November for several weeks. Sinterklaas is somewhat of a thinner and more bishop-type version of Santa Claus, as he has the power to determine which children will be rewarded for being good, and which will not be so lucky. He is assisted by the Zwarte Pieten - that's Black Petes. These Black Petes typically come in the form of white men and women, dressed in what is described as Moorish attire. They wear black, wooly wigs, black gloves, and gold earrings. Their lips are painted bright red. And their faces are painted black.

Black Pete's Exploitation

Beginning in November, comic portrayals of Pete can be seen virtually everywhere throughout the country, with Pete showing up in windows, hanging from ceilings, and on half of the products. As an outsider, it's shocking to see the offensive portrayals of blackness everywhere you turn. And it's perhaps even more shocking to see that no one around you is surprised. Even worse, most Dutch people absolutely love the character, and will adamantly defend it.

If you are new to the tradition, it's nearly impossible not to ask why, or how the celebration of blackface can be possible in 2011. After asking around quite a bit, I received responses that typically dismissed any validity to my questions. Common responses were, "you're looking at this from an American perspective. We don't have that type of racism here." Some people would try to use my words against me, saying, "you have offended me for implying that this tradition has anything to do with race. This is your problem, not mine."

Black Pete's Evolution

But here's why they're wrong: Zwarte Piet is rooted in a history of colonialism, slavery, racism, and an ongoing marginalization of black people. The character emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as the Saint's black servant. Into the twentieth century, Piet's physical appearance and personality evolved to mirror the comic portrayal of black people that had risen to popularity in other parts of the world. American minstrel performers that relied on crude and hateful stereotypes of black people to justify their exaggerated features and foolish behavior clearly influenced the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition.

Although his appearance remains the same, today most people attribute Piet's blackness to his job rather than his race. Since Piet is the one to travel down the chimney of children's homes, his face gets very dirty. And although his clothes remain clean, his lips turn a bright red and his hair becomes what some describe as "negro hair." This explanation for Piet's apparent racial identity is popular. But quite frankly, it makes no sense.

Black Pete's Opposition

Plenty of people aren't falling for the chimney explanation. Movements against Zwarte Piet have existed for years, largely within young, black Dutch communities. But they face such a staunch resistance from a majority of white Dutch people that they seem only to polarize the communities even further. Cries of a national Dutch identity that is destroyed with the loss of a treasured tradition silence any notions of eliminating or modifying Zwarte Piet. Until now he has appeared to be unchangeable.

This year the position of the Dutch majority was made clear when peaceful protestors, wearing shirts that read "Zwarte Piet is Racisme" (Black Pete is Racism), were aggressively arrested by the Dutch police during the parades for Sinterklaas' arrival on November 12th and 13th. Quinsy Gario's arrest, which was captured on a viral youtube video, involved pepper spray and his being dragged into an alley by officers as he screamed that he had done nothing.

And now, following the dramatic images of those arrests, there is an energy in the air. I see a strong community of color, and a growing number of white Dutch people who believe change is not only possible, it's necessary. Whether this is a change to a children's character or an evolution of Dutch racial politics is a much deeper question.

Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten will be in town until December 5th. That seems to be plenty of time for a larger movement against the racist character to take root. Perhaps the world should be watching. Because I sense a revolution brewing in the Netherlands.


The Holiday – Sinterklaas and Black Pete

by: Dana Saxon

Emberi Jogok Egyetemes Nyilatkozata

Emberi Jogok Egyetemes Nyilatkozata

Elfogadva és kihirdetve az ENSZ Közgyűlésének 217 A (III) határozata alapján, 1948. december 10-én.

A 30 pontból álló Nyilatkozat az élet minden területét felölelő jogokról és szabadságjogokról szól. Elolvashatjátok és megismerhetitek oldalunkon.


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