Holland has a blackface problem, and Dutch policymakers don’t know how to solve it. The issue is a disagreement on how to interpret a very old national symbol, making it far more complicated than simple racism. This December children all over the world are eagerly awaiting the arrival of western culture’s venerated Santa Claus on Christmas day. But in the Netherlands, Dutch children have already been visited by their own version of the patron saint spinoff, the equally beloved Sinterklaas. Holland’s Sinterklaas tradition has quite a few similarities to the American one, yet it also is not without it’s darker side—literally.
Sinterklaas arrives Christmas Eve but in November to bring gifts to good boys and girls over a three week period, culminating in a big festival on December 5th. Like American Santa Claus, Sinterklaas keeps track of which children are naughty and which children are nice. Sinterklaas is also a fan of red velvet and long beards. But while American Santa is cooped up in the North Pole, Sinterklaas lives it up in sunny Spain. Since he only has to visit the Netherlands, not the whole world, Sinterklaas doesn’t require a magic sleigh, but instead arrives each year by steamboat from Spain. Rather than reindeer, Sinterkaas rides a white horse as he makes his deliveries. And instead of elves helping him out, Sinterklaas has…well…what appear to be clownlike African slaves.
Zwarte Piet (English: Black Pete) is Santa Claus’s loyal companion. During the many steamboat arrivals of Sinterklaas in different Dutch towns, Sinterklaas usually has a large number of Piets at his command to help him distribute presents to eager children waiting on the docks. The Piets wear flamboyant costumes resembling that of the Moors, a Muslim-African ethnocultural group that once shared the Iberian Peninsula with Spain. they also bear resemblance to many 16th century house slaves that worked for elites in European colonies. The Piets are not real Africans, but white people who paint their faces black. Essentially it’s Holland’s version of the Washington Redskins issue, where you have a mascot rooted in racism that now has a socially confusing modern meaning. To most people of color, or really anyone outside the Netherlands familiar with the most basic understanding of racial stereotypes, the entire aesthetic of Piet is so saturated with blatant bigotry and discrimination that it’s hard not to cringe at the sight of it all.
Sinterklaas ans his helpers arrive by boat
That can’t be right
And while the images of clown-like fake black people jumping around as they hand candy and presents to throngs of mostly white children is nothing short of horrifying to many Americans, the Dutch have almost forgotten the association of Piets with black people altogether, or at least they’d like to. Holland’s version of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” is a storybook that was written in 1850, a time when slavery was still the economic backbone of many western economies. It was also a time when white American comedy troops regularly donned black faces for casual entertainment. Holland, a country that still doesn’t have many black people, never had to directly confront the majority of their racial discrimination in the way that Americans did because slaves working for the Dutch were primarily in their colonies, and not their backyard.
Even today when you talk to Dutch people, most say that as children they never realized that the Piets were supposed to be African. They really are just viewed as clowns that give out gifts. Many would also argue that that is actually the entire problem. Growing up from an early age with the image of dehumanized black caricatures could reinforce a lot of prejudiced ideas. Granted, the modern celebration of Sinterklaas has taken some measures to tone down the racist appearance of the tradition. Children are told that the Piets have black faces because they get soot on them from taking presents down the chimney. This however, still does not explain the afro, big red lips and Caribbean accent.
Despite being overwhelmingly ethnically Dutch, Holland is still more racially diverse today than at any other time in history. With that comes larger numbers of Dutch people of African descent who are not fans of the holiday. There is also a growing number of white Dutch people who are against continuing the tradition as well. Each year the Netherlands has a huge debate on whether or not to keep the holiday. Somewhat akin to America’s media frenzy known as the war on Christmas, pundits argue for the traditional side and for the more progressive side. In little time, the debate can get very political, and very heated. This year saw some of the most well-attended and vociferous protests against Zwarte Piet to date, with a few even leading to clashes with police, as well as equally vociferous demonstrators who were coming out in support of the Piet tradition.
Demonstrators against Piet
Another argument made by many is that Holland on the whole is a very educated, politically liberal country. Piets today do not appear to be fostering intense white supremacist attitudes in the ways that blackface performers in places like the United States did over a century ago. Still, none of that makes a blackface performer any less offensive to an actual black person. For now, it looks like the rest of the world may have to continue looking on in horror as black-faced Piets parade through the Netherlands each year. The tradition remains too dear to too many people. It’s also worth noting that there are people of color in Holland who don’t have a problem with the holiday at all and paint their faces black just like many white people do. Still, the difficulty with this entire neo-colonialist St. Nicolas slavery scandal is that for some people it’s still open to interpretation and for others it simply is not. An argument with a lot of support behind it is that individuals are certainly allowed to carry on the Piet character, but public institutions should not prop up the holiday (it’s celebrated universally in schools) because that forces people who are offended by it to participate in it. It’s a bit like the American prayer in schools debate, but with Zwarte Piets. At the moment, the Dutch government does not recognize the holiday as racial discrimination, but that may one day change.
Government support or no, there will likely always be people in Holland who are willing and able to carry out the Sinter Klaas Zwarte Piet ceremony. What’s more likely than any kind of ban on Sinterklaas’s steamboat slaves is that the holiday will continue to evolve, and hopefully move away from using imagery that reminds oppressed people of segregation, slavery, and really anything that appears to reduce black people to a cartoon-y, simian-looking subhuman. People’s perceptions of Piet will also gradually change. Some towns are now including Piets with yellow and blue faces as well as black, another small effort to ditch the racial component. I for one am curious to see if attitudes and customs around Sinterklaas’s arrival will change over time. Forbidding a wacky holiday event doesn’t necessarily extinguish racist attitudes. Do we eliminate evidence of racism at the risk of not acknowledging it, or do we make it painfully visible with the risk of reinforcing it? A middle ground may need to be discovered over time. Symbols change slowly, but even symbols can change faster than our perceptions. Piet can gradually change. But eventually so must we.