The arrest of four people wearing t-shirts with the slogan ‘Zwarte Piet is racist’ during the Sinterklaas celebrations last weekend has given new impetus to the annual debate about St Nicholas’ assistant and political correctness.
For the uninitiated it comes as a shock to see 1920s caricatures of black people, with thick red lips and hooped earrings all over town at this time of year. This is Zwarte Piet who helps Sinterklaas, the forerunner of Santa Claus, deliver presents on December 5.
The Parool interviewed two of the four people arrested on Saturday, artists Quinsy Gario and Jerry Afriyie.
‘It’s a jolly party – the presents, the poems, the way children get involved – there is nothing wrong with that at all,’ Afriyie told the paper. ‘The problem is Zwarte Piet, who ruins the party for a growing group of Dutch people.’
‘It’s about dialogue. We are not saying you should not celebrate Sinterklaas,’ says Gario. ‘We want people to look into the origins of Zwarte Piet and ask if there is still place for [the character] today.’
Indeed, the origins of Zwarte Piet are the subject of hot debate, but the character first made an appearance in an 1850s book as the Sint’s Moorish page, wearing the familiar bloomers and earrings, but without a name.
The name came in a later book, and his black face is now said to be due to the soot he picked up climbing down chimneys to deliver presents rather than any racial significance.
Frank Ligtvoet, an expert on Dutch culture and traditions but who does not live in the Netherlands, was prompted to add his voice to the debate in the Volkskrant later in the week.
Zwarte Piet is part of a long line of Dutch traditions but writing about it is one of the least favourite topics among journalists, he says. This is because any criticism is seen as an attack on Dutch traditions and culture.
The Sinterklaas celebration regularly tops the list of best Dutch traditions and it is a well-known joke in international circles that the easiest way to make your Dutch friends angry is to criticize the institution of Zwarte Piet.
‘But because I don’t live in the Netherlands, I can safely say Zwarte Piet does not belong alongside chocolate letters, gingernuts, presents and bishops’ hats. Rather he belongs in the list of Dutch traditions which we now consider backward – anti-semitism, nationalism, and discrimination against gays and women.’
Imagine if it was a German tradition in which an Aryan leader surrounded himself by Jews who hand out sweets to children. The Jewish community would certainly protest, he writes.
Researcher and journalist Shantie Jagmohansingh in Trouw takes it further. She cites how a friend was once at a Sinterklaas party with hundreds of parents and children. Sinterklaas asked everyone what they wanted to be when they grew up. When it was her friend’s turn, the Sint said he did not need to ask what she wanted to be: ‘You are going to be Zwarte Piet because you’ve got the colour already’.
Jagmohansingh argues that the problem with Zwarte Piet is not the intention to discriminate against or insult but the ‘unintentional message’ which the character sends out.
‘If [American president] Barack and Michelle Obama and their children visited the Netherlands around the Sinterklaas period, it would be impossible to explain to them what Zwarte Piet is,’ she writes.
‘Nor could we explain the meaning of the line in the song which goes ‘even if he is as black as soot, he means well’.’
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