My thoughts on the ‘Zwarte Piet’ debate

When debates have very strong emotional overtones, I tend to stay out of them. That is the survivor in me, who doesn’t want to get caught up in spheres where words are not safe from being misinterpreted. So I stayed out of the Black Pete debate, that has been getting headlines in the last few years. When sitting in a café with my beloved a few years ago, a little blonde girl of about five years old, pointing at him and his red baret, asked her parents: ‘Is that Zwarte Piet?’ I noticed that he was a bit disturbed, but his love for children overtook the emotion, and he answered the parents, who did not know how to react, with a smile: ‘she is a child, she doesn’t know.’ As the discussion about the racism represented by the figure of Saint Nicholas’ helper gained momentum, I noticed that his tolerance for similar incidents diminished. Recently protests against the blackface character led to 90 arrests, and he asked me to use my (small) public voice to say something on the matter, so I will try.

One of the problems in the debate is that my small country, which is mostly known abroad for its socker players and its tulips, and perhaps as a trading nation with much tolerance for different lifestyles, is now suddenly news for a cultural tradition which formerly was practically unknown internationally. From times immemorial, on the fifth of December the Dutch celebrated this Saint who is supposed to come from Spain each year, with some moorish characters (who, I understand, were added about 150 years ago) as his helpers, in the privacy of their own international unimportancy. This brings many Dutch, who mostly enjoyed the celebration when they were children themselves, or who do so through the eyes of their own children, to react to any criticism by saying that nobody understands, and that you should live here to do so. The point is that they are right mostly, in the sense that most international coverage of the matter contains ridiculous mistakes, like saying that ‘Sinterklaas’ belongs to Christmas. The downside of this is, that those Dutch discussants never arrive at what is at stake in the criticisms: that the depiction of the helpers of the ‘good and holy’ man helps to sustain overt and latent racism in our society.

While in the turmoil also some neo-fascist groups surface, who address the gut feeling that ‘our’ traditions are under threat in the globalizing world, and that ‘we’ should defend them no matter what, there are also moderate voices who understand that living traditons always change, so this one can too, but who also remind us that we should not forget that it is a children’s celebration, and that it is wrong that protesters against blackface Pete disturb the festivities. This is to my taste a very suspicious argument. It reminds me of those news items from warring groups or nations, who try to post as many pictures of wounded or dead children as possible – to gain sympathy for their cause. If they want sympathy, they should put more effort into ending their war. Dictators also love to pose for the photographer with children on their arm. So, no, don’t come to me with ‘innocent’ children to defend practices that are hurtful to co-members of our human race.

Then there is the argument that the dressing up is playful and innocent, and has nothing to do with racism. This argument is not acceptable to anyone who knows anything about symbolic messages, for it focusses only on the supposed intentions of the impersonators. If those whites who blacken their faces once a year have no racist intent, then the practice itself is not racist, is the idea. This is as untrue as it gets of course, because messages cannot function without context and without those who receive and interpret them. Intention is only one aspect of communication. There might be subconscious intentions too, by the way, but let’s not focus on those for not complicating the matter to much. The activists against Zwarte Piet, most of them from the formerly Dutch colony of Surinam, often get the accusation that they interpret the message wrong. That they see images of colonialism and slavery when those were never intended. Well, if we would accept the good intentions of all the pro-Piet-people, there still is the issue of context. If you happen to be black in our society those images may very well be obvious. Of course official slavery and colonialism is over. But their remnants are not. Or perhaps they are not just remnants, but practices that go on under different guises. To all those who want to deny this I suggest to listen to some stories of those who are in the position to know from first hand experience.

To sum things up, I have come to the conclusion that a) the protests against the Zwarte Piet character are justified. They do not want to spoil a children’s celebration, they want to change it so that it can include all of its citizens. b) foreign journalism which doesn’t check the facts leads to many dead-end discussions, and leads away from what it all is really about. c) one should watch out for neo-nazi’s posing as defenders of cherished traditions and d) take racism in our society seriously.

So what about the celebration itself? What is it about? I must confess, when I think of my own childhood memories, that our family was not representative of most people in dealing with Saint Nicholas. Where most children were told that the Saint and his helpers were real (in a literal manner), and that the presents they brought really came from Spain, this was not the case in our home. When I was old enough to understand anything, I think about age five, I was told that we as a family bought the presents for each other, and that we made the traditional poems accompanying them, as well as the famous wrappings disguising gifts to be unattractive things (the most popular is perhaps to put a gift in some stuff that looks like poo). But I was also told that this was to be a secret we kept for each other. At Sinterklaas eve you give anonymously – and your only reward will be the happy face of someone if you chose the right gift. By being thus an early accomplice to the Saint, I did not go through the phase that others did, mostly at around age seven or eight, of discovering ‘that it all was not true’. I often think this to have been the reason that I didn’t go through religious doubts about whether God exists or not which most of my christian peers experienced. From that early age I was taught that symbolic reality is true and not true in differing ways at the same time.

While at age five I was being treated as an adult in the matter of the most famous Dutch celebration of giving, I was never particularly interested in the figures of the Saint and his helpers. Their ‘arrival from Spain’ (which I knew to be nonsense) was just the announcement of the start of the season that we bought our presents, wrote our poems, made our ‘surprise’ wrappings, and hid all of them for each other. It was a season of positive suspense, culminating in an evening full of wrapping paper, poem reading, traditional sweets, and happy faces. All the same, some of the racism latent in the descriptions of Zwarte Piet rubbed off on me. Not from our family interpretation of the celebration, but from songs and stories learned in school and from picture books. Back in those days the public character was mainly designed to frighten children – as an assistant for parents who had trouble disciplining their offspring. When you were good, he would bring presents, when you were bad, he would take you to Spain in a bag. Or even make sausage out of you. Although I knew this to be nonsense, as we at home were ourselves the givers, and Saint and his helper were just symbols for our doing so, I could never completely ignore public culture, and developed a latent fear of dark faced people, which I had to consciously unlearn when I was an adult. So in my experience there is no innocence in any tradition. But tradition is neither an undifferentiated reality. It is what one makes of it. Declare all children and adults to be together in a yearly celebration of giving. And make clear that giving as such is a way to transcend ordinary reality – by adding some mysterious figures who are not really real. But cleanse them as much from the negative aspects of normal reality. This is an idealist argument, I acknowledge that. It supposes that one can learn and promote justice and peace in human relations. So be it. At this time of the year.

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23 comments
  1. Petros Linaras said:

    This is a pointless and heavily political discussion! No point in entering in any discussion based on arguments because
    noone will listen.
    The crucial thing here though is that 4% of the Dutch population feels unnecessarily disseminated,
    Whereas the sinterklaas/charge list festivities are for children!
    96% are in favour of this innocent annual happening.
    And please don‘t go and call me naive!

    • Thanks, Petros, for your comment. I wouldn’t know the percentages of who are for or against the black pete figure. If there were 96% in favor, the more reason for me as a Dutch person to state my opinion – if even this one time. 🙂

  2. Beautifully written.
    I do agree on your statement.

    Kind regards,

  3. Well written and to the point. I do not for a second believe that 96 per cent of all Dutch people are in favour of hurting the feelings of people our ancestors treated so badly. But it may take time to become clearer about that. Part of the whole problem, I think, is that ‘we’ (Caucasian Dutch people) like to keep a collective self-image that is way too positive. We simply do not want to face the fact that part of our wealth was made in colonies, through the slave-trade and the suppression of people in Africa, in the West-Indies, in Indonesia, etc. We still call our last colonial war a ‘police action’ against the independence movement and I think most Dutch people have no idea about the atrocities committed by ‘our’ boys.

    Last year, when the Black Pete discussion was all over Twitter, I read various interesting comparisons to the Jungian Shadow. Black Pete is a ‘shadow’ figure (echoing the fearsome Krampus of the Alps). The Shadow in a Jungian sense contains those parts of our soul we fail to recognise as our own. And goodness gracious me, did we see the shadow parts of our collective soul last year! I’m afraid I disagree with you, Angela, if you suggest that it’s merely a neofascist minority who say ugly things to defend our ‘traditions’. There were far too many of these comments, all over the Twittersphere and the blogosphere. And they were uglier than anything I could have imagined. So now we know that there is a lot of anger, a lot of insecurity about our national identity and a lot of hatred against those who remind us of the fact that the Golden Age of Dutch glory was also the age when our ancestors put thousands of chained human beings in ships and transported them acros the ocean. Yes, we are the land of tolerance and freedom, home to Descartes and Spinoza. And we are also the land of the West Indies Company with its massive slave trade. Those are the facts we have to face. And if we do, Jung tells us, we will become more whole, more ‘individuated’ as a nation. Just like we, as individuals, can learn a lot from facing our Shadow.

    And how can we recognise our shadow? That’s a tough one, as we have strong mechanisms to protect us from that knowledge. But as a rule of thumb, those people who make us angry, whom we hate, despise or reject, often represent those parts of ourselves that are within our Shadow.

    • Petros Linaras said:

      Dear Pi,
      You are way off reality here, while trying to dig too deep in
      our souls and history.
      Please try to see this in a practical, almost ‘simple way.
      The vast majority (96%?) of the Dutch do not even know what you
      are describing and see the Sinterklaas/zwarte Pier discussion basically and it should be: a nice, innocent party for kids. Noone is thinking of slavery, exploitation of human beings, golden age and all the other stuff.
      It is those who believe they are victim of discrimination that think this way.
      But then again, they always do, since it is easier to be in a victim’s role than firmly
      take destiny and your future into your own hands.
      And yes, there good sides to what the Dutch did in the golden age and also bad things.
      But then again, my ancestors said: ουδέν καλον αμιγες κακού!
      Or like the modern Dutch practical philosopher Johan Cruijff translated it: ieder voordeel heb I’m nadeel.

      • As a great fan of Johan Cruijff’s words, I have to correct you on the citation, Petros. He said: ‘ieder nadeel heb z’n voordeel’ – every disadvantage has its advantage. This would make your point only stronger, though, when you would want to say that those who are inheritants of the effects of colonisation (growing up in weaker economies, to mention one thing) that this should make them see their challenge, or their chances of having come to the Netherlands. That is a way of viewing things, and one which is probably practiced in daily life by most of those people. I think you miss another point, though -. that in getting more aware of discriminative practices and atrocities on the ‘white side’, one can also liberate oneself of a false clean consciousness. I think Pi was right in pointing out that the ugly remarks all over social media were shockingly general.

      • proudlykenyan said:

        Well put! If this old- age ‘dutch tradition’ is repressive n against human rights, ‘racial discrimination, may it die in peace!

    • Very insightful, Pi, what you add to the discussion. It reminds of the ‘ghosts’ of Derrida. You are very right about us having to face our history more… I am sad to say I think it is not only history though… I saw once a documentary about Dutch fishing companies, who with their huge trailers, and happy ‘contracts’ with the presidents over there, are emptying the seas along the coasts of Mauritania and Senegal. And ‘we’ are complaining that the small local fishermen, who really have nothing to do anymore, nor to eat, start using their boats for human trafficking… (adding to so many deaths in the Mediterrenean, and migrants with other unhappy fates in rich Europe). Just one example.

  4. Barbara Backer-Gray said:

    Good post. I agree, too, about the argument that they shouldn’t demonstrate in front of the children. The Dutch know a year in advance when Sinterklaas is going to happen, and they could have solved the problem before now.

  5. onesis said:

    I’ve enjoyed reading this post and the following comments, because although this local tradition of which you write is foreign to me, the colonial context is not.

    I am writing from Australia where Aboriginal people demand recognition of past atrocities before any further dialogue or negotiations can be entered into. Where the descendants and beneficiaries of racial discrimination and abuse wish to see the present as innocent, as if the passing of time itself washed everything clean, the Aboriginals whose own ancestors were murdered and displaced and placed in captivity walk off in disgust.

    And they are right to do so. People who want to get on with “business as usual” have to be taught to stop and take notice and consider the implications of the past.

    The question of how we ought to deal with those who have suffered historically and in the present from racial discrimination continues to be vexed and fraught with many difficulties. I personally do not have the answer to these difficulties but at least I recognise they exist.

    • Thanks, Onesis, for adding the Australian perspective. Recognition before dialogue. Or recognition part of any dialogue. Truth & reconciliation. They are not to be taken apart. You are very right.

    • petros linaras said:

      Dear Onesis, there is nothing colonial or,oppressive in this,trsdition. It is just around 500 people out of 17million,inhabitants who are trying to make a point that is not there!!!!!!
      Quincy, their leader, is just trying to make publicity or money (he charges eur 500 per invitation to speak) or both. 99% of the population does not support any of this. In this case, the numbers should speak for themselves.

  6. Gert said:

    Vermoeiend…

    Als je volgers wil hebben voor je internationale stukje anti ‘racisme’ (zoals jij het noemt en zoals jij het oplegt aan iedereen die Zwarte Piet niet per se racistich acht) ga dit dan ergens verkondigen waar er écht nog racisme is.

    Rassen zien is het bestaan er van erkennen terwijl daar geen wetenschappelijke grond voor is.

  7. Found your article through a connection on LinkedIn. I’m sorry not to agree with your vision, but what a terribly good English your write!

    I actually agree with Petros Linaras and I would like to add that the Black Petes have already had a reform! They WERE dumb and acrobatic figures, but nowadays they ARE a well-organised and well-managed company for gifts more or less hired by Sinterklaas. I think that was a brilliant idea, actually don’t know when that happened, since I lived in Greece for so long. Now in my personal opinion it’s not racistic or whatever anymore … 🙂 and actually I like the idea that Dutch people like being a black person once a year. You could also see that as that they’re not racistic at all, but love black people so much that they wish to be like them. Last thing: I would love it if Sinterklaas could have a bit colour. I mean … he’s Greek and in the end Greeks are most of the time a bit coloured, aren’t we?

    Owh before I forget: wasn’t it Sinterklaas himself who took children away in his bag? And I never heard about any sausages made from children … that’s disgusting, really!

    • Thanks, Sophia, for you compliment, and your comment. About the sausages: yes, there were quite horrific children’s books doing the rounds in the sixties. Not just on Sinterklaas.

      • Angela, I was born in the sixties, but never heard about that. Still have a Sinterklaas book from that time. The only thing I hated (and not only me) was that in December you suddenly had to have been an extremely ‘good’ child. All the year! Otherwise Sinterklaas would say something about your behaviour! And since I had mean parents …

        What was also horrible, was that poor children never got presents, only the rich. I remember when I was 11 years old, we started noticing these things at school and I was very ashamed. But when I wanted to give my gifts away to the poor children, my mother wouldn’t let me :-).

        So when I went to Greece and later came back to have my own family here, I was really happy to see these things had disappeared. And that the black Petes had become smart, a real company like I said before. Not slaves or humble helpers, but an intelligent gift company that organises logistics and everything.

        Conclusion is for me at least that I certainly find some things about Sinterklaas are not good. Like the make-believe he’s real – good solution of your parents to just tell you the truth! – and the materialism. But racism is really the last thing I would ever have thought of :-).

        Anyway … deep thoughts for so early in the morning! Have a beautiful day and thanks for the article!

      • Thanks again, Sophia, for sharing your experiences and thoughts. The thing about racism is not, I think, whether a white person thinks about racism or not in the matter of zwarte piet, as I pointed out, but whether black people see it as a prolongation or condoning of anti-black-racism in society. And whether white people want to recognize that experience by changing some part of the tradition. Novelist Robert Vuijsje worded this very well, I think, in this article: http://www.volkskrant.nl/opinie/de-zeurpiet-kan-nog-wel-gelijk-hebben~a3525589/

        The only point is: why should zwarte Piet be black? Why? Why do so many people get angry at those wanting to change this aspect of his appearance, when it is just a minor point, just play, etcetera?

      • Thank you too Angela, for your comment and your patience :-).
        Now I don’t know in how far Greeks are white, because we see ourselves more as a prolongation of Africa and Asia :-).
        I also think it’s foolish to get angry when there’s a discussion about Black Pete being black. I wouldn’t know why he can’t be otherwise coloured and you can always discuss about things …

        It’s just that the woman who set all this into motion is a very negative and not well-informed lady and that I have never ever heard people complain about ZP. I live in Wageningen, an extremely coloured little city with international university and my youngest son goes to a school where more than 80 nationalities find their place. No-one ever said anything about this tradition! They’re always happy and like the jokes of Sint and Pete …

        So it comes all of a sudden that this should be racism. Rauw op je dak, how would you say that in English! And in a quite aggressive way too. I used to own a language school for years and even there I never heard criticism about Sint, you see!

        I think that is more the reason why Dutch people get annoyed than the question if there is racism or not. If you want to put an item on the discussion agenda, do it gently and nice, so that everyone can process it, think about it and then I think we’ll find a good and nice solution for this festivity!

        I don’t think it’s impossible to change things, but c’est le ton qui fait la musique, as the French say …. it’s the way in which it’s being said. Not by you of course, but by the UN and by certain people in the Netherlands who are apparently against ZP …

  8. jacoba said:

    Today is 5th of december and I am glad to have found this article. I must admit that I am not objective in this case. The day I wondered how Piet could put my presents by coming down the chimney, when the fire was on, my mother told me it was all a joke. I called it a damn lie! So I never told my child this lie,not easy, with all the classmates telling her she was wrong. So for me there is already something bad around the whole thing; telling lies to children, mostly to keep them quiet and “sweet”.
    Where churches are empty, abuse from many bisshops gave many another reason to stop “believing” in them, makes it difficult to understand why this catholic saint still has this performance and influence.
    From very near I have experienced the behaviour of people with brown- or black-skinned people. Yes, mostly it is discriminating.
    The combination of this 2 in the yearly feast in 2014 and further, makes them in my opinion quite peculiar.
    Should every “tradition” be kept as it was started ( as far as we know!) ? Aren’t many people against bullfighting in Spain? Do people still fast after carnevale? etc etc.Many traditons have vanished easily.
    I have some observations about Sint and Piet that helps me. In the poems and selfmade “surprises” there is always a hint to the “black” side of the receiver, but normally the poem ends with; but, etc, the good things and then there is the real good present. From the dark to the light, from the black skin to the white beard. So symbols can be used, but this outside, used on a human being from another race, could be changed. We are modernizing everything; in my town Sint and Piet came not on horses, but were accompanied by a policecar and an ambulance (?) both using their sirens “for fun”. There was only 1 Sint and about 100 Piets. When we change a lot of things, when we do have central heating where no Piet can enter, I think it is really bad-will to not make changes in the outer appearance of Sint and Piet. And the start is acknowledging the feelings of the people, that we ourselves got rich from as a nation, that for centuries are bearing discrimination.

    • Petros Linaras said:

      Dear Jacoba,
      Shakespeare said “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. One can equally also say “discrimination is in the eye of beholder”! I understand your trying to make a point about traditions by using the bullfighting in Spain, but that is not relevant at all. None gets killed by a bull’s horn (or otherwise) during the annual Sinterklaas/ZP feasts. On the contrary, children become happier for a while despite the white lies that parents sometimes have to tell them.

  9. Thanks, Jacoba, for your personal memories and reflections on the subject!

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