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Greg Shapiro: Zwarte Piet and DHL

Friday 23 November 2012

photo Greg Shapiro

Greg Shapiro thinks he might have turned his children into little racists.

Sinterklaas is in full swing in the Netherlands, with his army of Zwarte Pieten scaring all the tourists again. Dutch people insist: ‘It’s not racist!’ How do they justify it? More than once, I’ve heard Dutch people say ‘…because it’s for the children.’

Case in point: my little Dutch kid. Surely she knows the difference between Zwarte Piet and a real black person, right? Well, let’s go back to a Sinterklaas evening not long ago.

My daughter was about 5, and it was time for Sinterklaas to come. My wife is Dutch, and we do our Sinterklaas ritual in – what I’m told – is the traditional Dutch way. That is: as cheaply as possible.

We have a sack of gifts, and we give it to the neighbor. At the appointed time, the neighbor drops off the gifts by the door, rings the doorbell and runs like hell. The kids then open the door, and they scream and cheer ‘Zwarte Piet!’ …even though no one is there. This is the most cost-effective special effect ever.

One year, it’s almost 6 o’clock, it’s dark out. And before I could go to the neighbor, the doorbell rings. My daughter is 5 years old, she yells ‘yay!’ and runs over to the door.

She whips it open, and there - standing in the doorway is a guy with a black face, big curly hair, a brightly colored red & yellow outfit and holding out a package for my daughter. The package says: DHL Post. Because he’s a Surinamese guy who delivers the post for DHL.

And I’m looking at my daughter like: ‘don’t say it...’ My daughter raises her hand, and sure enough, she says it: ‘Zwarte Piet!’

The American part of me was ashamed: ‘We’ve made my daughter racist!...’ I took the package and gave him some cash. I felt a little better until my wife said ‘Why would you give away money?’

The Zwarte Piet debate continues at Boom Chicago because 'THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS SINTERKLAAS' until December 5.




© DutchNews.nl

Readers' Comments

Question regarding the perceived racist aspect.
If I'm right Santa Claus is helped by elves that are very small people. Could this not be perceived equally discriminatory? Packages delivered by a neigbor: no Zwarte Piet or Sint because it is cheaper. Does Santa Claus deliver his packages to every house? Or do they just appear to be underneath the Christmas tree? Is this perceived as cheap?
Different cultures do different things that may seem completely incomprehensible or even against the law by outsiders. It's easy to make a judgement...

By Marianne Mol | 23 November 2012 7:18 PM

I get your point here. On the other hand, indeed, you might as well could say 'well what about the "elves" working for Santa, isn't that discrimination to midgets?' But we, at home, celebrated Sinterklaas and Christmas as well just like Americans celebrate Xmas with presents underneath the tree and me and my brothers were told Santa brought them and that he's a cousin of Sinterklaas and that Zwarte Piet had nothing to do with racism because he got all black by the soot from the chimney, that's how they get into your living room after all, it has nothing to do with skin color. However, I get your point here though. But I think it's all a little exaggerated, I don't think it has any bad repercussions.

By Mitch | 23 November 2012 10:53 PM

Zwarte Piet is supposed to throw in a handful of pepernoten to distract the children and prevent them from running after him and discovering he is Bob from next door . It also gives Bob enough time to make his getaway whithout breaking his neck. You're not Dutch: buy the pepernoten

By T van den Berg | 24 November 2012 11:36 AM

Oh my. I am so sick of hearing Dutch people justify Zwarte Piet with the whole "he's black because he goes down the chimney" excuse. Really? Does he scrape his lips on the inside of the chimney on the way down? No? Then why are his lips bright red? Why does Zwarte Piet speak with a slang Surinaamse accent on television? It's so racist. And common Dutch rebuttal "oh.. why aren't Santa's elves considered discriminatory to little people?" Um, no, people of Holland -- because they are ELVES for chrissakes! Mythical creatures that live in the North Pole with Santa -- who is also mythical. Think Kabouters, people -- also mythical elves. Not little people.

By tulipgiirl | 25 November 2012 8:17 AM

Oh, I forgot to mention... in over 10 years of living in The Netherlands, I have never seen a black person dressed as Zwarte Piet. Only big, white Dutch people with black face. In fact, of the black people I know in Holland, they all find Zwarte Piet incredibly racist.

By tulipgiirl | 25 November 2012 8:23 AM

You guys do realize that elves are fictional characters, right?

By Chad B. | 26 November 2012 3:11 PM

Zwarte Piet is black because he's based on the devil (tamed by St. Nick), and/or moors from Spain, and if you're not a good little boy/girl, he's going to put you in his sack and take you home with him. The chimney is simply justification (based on him spying on you!) and not very good at that. Zwarte Piet is a racist archetype, and it's time to own that and move on.

By Donna | 26 November 2012 5:39 PM

All the tories about Zwarte Piet being Moorish, or back of the chimney soothh are blatant lies. Zwarte Piet was created in 1850 by Jan Schenkman in his book "St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht". This was during Dutch slavery (ended in 1863) and Zwarte Piet was modelled after the American blackface, a caricature of a stereotypical black person: big Afro hair, big accentuated red lips, golden slave earrings, etc. All the classic and racist iconography of a dumb, but funny black person as was the normal thing to do in 1850. However, it is 2012 now. And the Dutch might have changed the story around Zwarte Piet a lot.. he still looks exactly like the 1850 racist blackface caricature.

By Harm Jansen | 26 November 2012 6:41 PM

i agree that if the chimney soot story is sticking around then zwarte piet needs a physical make over too. it is the worst rebranding i've ever seen. let's ditch the slavery roots and say it is from soot- okay, i get that. i'd want to ditch that story too. it's outdated and nothing to be proud of. but then you've GOT to get rid of the black face, red lips, and wigs too. kids won't care! black smudges make more sense anyway. my five year old already concluded that there was no way they came down the chimney and looked like that so it must actually be magic that they use to get gifts into his shoes.

By eriko | 26 November 2012 9:15 PM

The children of Roermond felt they were being mocked by actors with fake Limburg accents at Sint's arrival this year...so the idea of being mocked, and having it not be pleasant, exists in the Dutch psyche. Must admit, if you prefer racism, connecting it with small children, presents and candy is genius. Certainly would not fly in the 'real' Chicago, and only proves how bogus local claims of worldly knowledge are.

By de buurvrouw | 28 November 2012 2:08 PM

your story sounds like total rubbish btw...but i'll pretend to believe this did happen and comment. So, you gave him some cash? why?? you think he needed it?? Utterly condescending. Surely better to have a conversation openly infront of your child, find out about this man's roots (you know he's from surinam or are presuming that too?) and explain how silly she's made him feel. merry christmas numb nuts.

to be honest, you sound like a plum and you married a twat of a dutch woman.

By ghandiit | 28 November 2012 10:03 PM

Why is it a problem being called black? we are all being called white, yellow, red, brown, gold, green, blue, orange. I always told my kids that we should embrace diversity (thats the reason why God creates us differently) and not to sweep it under the carpet.

By ufo | 29 November 2012 9:48 AM

I love the comment about Piet being modeled on the American tradition of blackface entertainers. #1: America is once again pulled out a reason for Dutch behavior (ie, if America won't sign Kyoto, why should we worry about the little bit of junk we put in the air?). #2 America got rid of blackface and Black Sambo years ago; you're only pointing out that it's time for the Dutch to do the same with 'Black' Piet. And to Ufo: if Piet really were black, being 'called' that would be no problem. But he's not, is he? He's a white guy/gal wearing blackface. See point 2 above.

By Donna | 13 December 2012 3:31 PM

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