Culture and Racism: Some Reflections on “Zwarte Piet”

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PietitieI don’t think I will ever forget the look on my roommate’s face when I offered her some pepernoten.

It must have been late October or early November. I was an exchange student in New York and my parents had mailed some much-missed Dutch goodies, including pepernoten, the tiny spicy cookies associated with the Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) celebration. Saint Nicholas—not to be confused with Santa Claus even though both are white men with long beards who dress in red robes—is the patron saint of children. Historically he was a Greek bishop from Myra in present-day Turkey, but for unknown reasons Dutch children are told he hails from Spain. The Saint’s grand arrival in the Netherlands by steamboat is followed by a few weeks of fun and excitement, which culminate in a big celebration on the evening of December 5.

All of this sounds innocent enough. But here is the problem: Saint Nicholas is accompanied by several helpers, referred to as black Petes (zwarte Pieten). The actors who take on the black Pete roles are often white men, and sometimes women, whose faces are painted black. They wear colorful, minstrel-type costumes and carry large burlap bags filled with pepernoten and presents. The Petes are also holding bundles of twigs, which they swing around in a vaguely threatening fashion. The reason for the blackness of the Petes is a subject of speculation. Some insist that the faces of the Petes get covered with soot as a result of their habit to enter houses through chimneys in order to fill children’s shoes with chocolate frogs and little Saint Nicholas-shaped meringues. Another theory holds that the black Petes are Moorish servants.

Over the last few months, the long-simmering debate about whether black Pete is racist has grown into a full-blown controversy that has attracted the attention of the international press. In January of this year, four representatives of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights sent a letter to the Dutch government attacking black Pete as potentially “perpetuat[ing] negative stereotypes” about African people and people of African descent, and soliciting the Dutch government’s views. The Dutch government’s response was an exercise in evasion: the government essentially said it is aware of disagreement about black Pete but views Saint Nicholas as an event for children, and that the it is “highly committed to combating discrimination on all grounds[.]” Professor Verene Shepherd, the lead author of the UN letter, added fuel to the fire by saying in a televised interview that she didn’t understand why one Santa Claus wasn’t enough for the Dutch. A black Pete fan-page on Facebook attracted more than two million “likes” in a week. In an essay published in yesterday’s New York Times, Dutch author Arnon Grunberg argues that the strong emotional support of black Pete is a symptom of “thinly disguised xenophobia” driven by “the fear of losing identity[.]”

In my own life, a micro-level version of these events played out in the pepernoten incident. The bag I handed to my roommate featured several Saint Nicholas illustrations, including some depictions of black Pete that looked a lot like the picture at the top of this blog post (which, incidentally, is the profile picture of the Facebook fan site). Needless to say, these images struck my American friend as deeply offensive. She calmly explained to me that between the big eyes, round face, exaggeratedly red lips, and large ear hoops, it would be hard to come up with a more racist caricature of a black person. Yet I saw something very different: a beloved character from my childhood. Besides, I was one of the least racist persons I knew and my country was a shining beacon of tolerance and multiculturalism, so how could black Pete possibly be racist?

Perhaps it is unfair to judge the attachment of the Dutch to black Pete through the lens of American sensitivities about blackface. And the Dutch could argue, with some reason, that any offense caused by the black Petes pales in comparison with the irreparable harms that result from structural racism in the administration of the death penalty in the United States. But it is too easy to explain away my perspective at the time—which appears to be shared by many Dutch today—as merely an aspect of Dutch culture that is hard to explain to outsiders, similar to jokes that tend to get lost in translation. Asked for associations with “black Pete,” a group of 19,000 Dutch persons (I have no information about the composition of this group) overwhelmingly responded with words like tradition, friend of children, children’s party, and the inevitable gezelligheid. A second group consisting of 220 persons of Surinam or Antillean descent, however, came up with associations such as racism, servant, slave, and oppression. Tellingly, 76% of the first group said they could not imagine that black Pete could come across as racist. (The poll results are discussed in this television report, in Dutch, starting at 6:40.) White Dutch people like myself can no more know what black Pete looks like when seen through the eyes of a Dutch person of color than my American roommate could understand what I saw—or failed to see—when looking at a bag of pepernoten. But the least we can do is listen.

Where does that take us? With all due respect to Professor Shepherd, the Dutch don’t need Santa Claus any more than they need Halloween or Thanksgiving. The Saint Nicholas event includes such traditions as writing personalized rhymes for one another and crafting elaborate gift boxes known as surprises (pronounced in faux-French). While celebrations tend to involve the exchange of presents, Saint Nicholas is ultimately about laughter, family, friendship, and the creation of magical experiences for children that are unique to the Dutch culture. And I’d hate to see the Petes go, as Saint Nicholas would be a rather boring affair without them. But to fulfill their role of adding a counterweight to Saint Nicholas’s seriousness, the Petes need not be black or wear minstrel clothes. And the picture of a white man surrounded by black servants conjures up images of racial hierarchy to a significant segment of Dutch persons of color, even if many white Dutch are genuinely oblivious to the issue. So I side with those who have argued for taking the black out of black Pete. The Petes could either retain their own skin color, or—if this would make the actors too recognizable to children who are still believers—they could be painted in all kinds of “rainbow” colors, a practice some places have already adopted. Either way, the reinvention of the Petes, who after all are nothing more than a product of our collective imagination, is overdue.

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5 Responses to “Culture and Racism: Some Reflections on “Zwarte Piet””

  1. Terrence Berres Says:

    “Saint Nicholas—not to be confused with Santa Claus”

    There’s no confusion if, as Wikipedia says, “The modern figure of Santa Claus was derived from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, which, in turn, was part of its basis in hagiographical tales concerning the historical figure of Christian bishop and gift giver Saint Nicholas.”

  2. J Gordon Hylton Says:

    This is a fascinating post.

    A somewhat similar issue arises with Ded Moroz, often described as the Russian or Ukrainian Santa Claus, and his travelling companion, Snegurochka.

    Ded Moroz (literally “Grandfather Frost” or “Old Man Frost”) dresses similar to Santa and hales from near the Arctic Circle. Originally, Ded visited people’s homes during the dark of night to steal their children. In desperation, parents would leave presents for him in hopes of bribing him to leave the children alone. When he chose to leave the both the children and the presents, the gifts were given to members of the family.

    However, with the coming of Christianity to the Slavic world, Ded was converted into a lover of children, a la St. Nicholas.

    What is amusing is that even though he appears to be over a thousand years old, Ded always travels with a buxom young woman, usually blonde, who appears to be about 19 or 20.

    Known as Snegurochka (or The Snow Maiden), the companion is usually warmly dressed (except in mildly pornographic cartoons)and children are usually told that she is Ded Moroz’s granddaughter. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two is often a source of ribald humor.

    Although Ded was originally banned in the USSR as a Christian symbol (the Russian equivalent of St. Nicholas), he made a rapid comeback and by the 1930′s was well-entrenched in Soviet holiday festivities (although ordered by Stalin to wear blue rather than red outfits). Ded and Snegurochka again brought presents to children just as they had before 1917, and the two presided over the New Year’s Day festivities, often accompanied by the “New Year’s Child.” (Why the Communists didn’t object to the obvious “Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus” parallels is a good question. (In Orthodox countries, New Year’s Day still comes six days before Christmas.)

    Since the fall of Communism Ded Moroz has become essentially synonymous with Santa Claus, but so far as I can tell, he has resisted the temptation to trade in Snegurochka for the benevolent, but dowdy looking Mrs. Claus of the western Christmas tradition.

    Both a traditional and more modern version of the Snow Maiden can be found at http://superpechkin.livejournal.com/724487.html#

    My impression is that the appropriateness of Zwarte Piet and Snegurochka is a greater issue in the US than it is in Holland and Russia.

  3. J Gordon Hylton Says:

    A somewhat similar controversy has occurred in Spain. In Spanish countries, children are brought presents by the Three Wise Men (Los Tres Reyes Magos) on the evening before the Day of Epiphany (i.e., January 5).

    Furthermore, in Spanish tradition, the three Kings/Magi represent the continents of Europe (Melchior), Asia (Caspar), and Africa (Balthazar). Balthazar is thus depicted as black, but has been traditionally portrayed by a white actor in blackface.

    The objections that have surfaced are not to Balthazar being portrayed as black, but by the fact that in public performances (think Mall Santas) he is usually played by a white actor. In recent years, there has been a growing movement to require that Balthazar be portrayed by actors of black African ethnicity.

  4. Gordon Hylton Says:

    I realize that it is well past Christmas, but this topic still fascinates me. The linkage between St. Nicholas, a saint from Asia Minor who liked children but had nothing to do with the Christmas holiday and Santa Claus, a figure of pagan Northern European origins, is purely gratuitous. The Father Winter or Father Christmas figure on whom Santa Claus is based was clearly derived from Odin, not Saint Nicholas.

    It would be much better if we simply admitted that we celebrate two entirely separate holidays on December 25 (or January 7 in the eastern world).

    One, Christmas, marks the birth of Jesus Christ and logically should be a day of somber reflection.

    The other is a mid-winter celebration, replete with gifts and colorful lights and snowy landscapes, that really has nothing to do with Christianity.

    Claiming that the two holidays are one in the same has produced high levels of hypocrisy, and it has mucked up the First Amendment.

  5. Irene Ten Cate Says:

    Gordon Hylton: interesting point about the religious vs secular (and even commercial) connotations of Christmas. There is a paradox at work here: the ubiquity of Christmas trees and decorations is often objected to as oppressive conduct by a religious majority, but at the same time, it erodes the religious significance of these symbols and ultimately of the holiday itself.

    My impression is that in the Netherlands Christmas is still widely celebrated (albeit without presents or Santa Claus). But I would say that for many non-religious Dutch Christmas is primarily about family, togetherness, and food — we don’t have Thanksgiving, after all!

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