Observing the Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) controversy unfold over the past several days has been one of the most interesting, sociological observations I have ever experienced. But playing the role of a silent bystander has taken me on another kind of journey -an intimate introspection of race, culture, and identity- one that I find myself unable to remain quiet about.
For those unfamiliar with the Dutch-Belgian holiday tradition: In The Netherlands and Belgium, a gift-giving holiday completely separate from Christmas is celebrated on the 5 of December for the Dutch and the 6 of December for the Belgians. The central figures of this holiday is Sinterklaas, a character based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, his beloved white horse Amerigo, and his companions, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes).
Modern cultural practices and tradition holds that on the third weekend of November, Sinterklaas arrives in grand fashion on his steamboat with all his Petes and presents from Spain where they reside the rest of the year. A parade is held in all the major cities and is broadcasted on national television. For the next several weeks, Sinterklaas and 6-8 Zwarte Pieten roam around the cities, villages and local schools asking children what toy presents they would like and generously hand out kruidnoten (round spiced cookies). As December 5th nears, children are encouraged to put their shoes in front of the fireplace or radiator, bearing gifts of carrots for
On the eve of December 5th, Sinterklaas visits all the houses by traveling over the rooftops on his horse. Black Pete enters the houses through the chimney (or radiator) to put little presents in the children’s shoes. As Sinterklaas evolved to become ingrained in the Dutch psyche, the genuine love and adoration for Zwarte Piet (as asserted by the Dutch majority) exponentially grew and took a permanent place in their hearts. For more information regarding the historical and cultural evolution of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten, please refer here.
At the very heart of this debate, the central figure in all this controversy, is Zwarte Piet. The current traditional costume for Zwarte Piet involves a 17th century colorful Moorish outfit, solid black make up, brightly painted red lipstick, and white gloves.
The polarizing, emotional debate consists of opponents who assert that Zwarte Piet is a racist offensive caricature of people of African descent while supporters vehemently assert that Zwarte Piete is a beloved, harmless children’s character whose appearance is a result of going down the chimney and it is the fault of adults for contributing stigma to what otherwise would be purely innocent.
One of the crucial elements of this debate is that opponents and supporters cross all color lines and socioeconomic and educational stratification. The decades old debate has definitely escalated this year with both opponents and proponents taking extremist positions.
The United Nations and Pietitie
What makes this year particularly riveting is the apparent escalation of what was once normal Zwarte Piet drama into a real life telenovela, starting with the surprise involvement of the United Nations Human rights experts, namely on Culture, Racism, African Descendants and Minorities. The matter came to the attention of these voluntary rapporteurs when they received individual letters addressing concern from Dutch Afro-Descendants that “Black Pete celebrations perpetuate a stereotypical image of Africans and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racism.”
To address the grievances of the minority population who had come to them, these rapporteurs acting on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, decided to address the government of the Netherlands with their concern in a letter.
Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte was quick to respond, “Zwarte Piet is zwart, daar kunnen we weinig aan veranderen (Black Pete is black, there is very little we can do about that). A formal response from the Dutch government was written to the United Nations..
In direct response to the possible serious threat of losing their beloved Zwarte Pieten, Dutch publicists Kevin van Boeckholtz and Bas Vreugde established a Facebook petition page Pietitie with a simple resolution: That Zwarte Piet must remain the way he is. In less than 24 hours, the Facebook page garnered more than a million supporters – making it the fastest growing Dutch Facebook page in history.
Think of the Children
Watching the drama unfold this past week has stirred up a lot of emotions for me as an American, as a person of color, and a mother to a half-Dutch toddler. My blog went silent last week because it was a challenge for me to collect my thoughts and to process everything as I watched my son happily play, completely oblivious to all the social turmoil.
While it’s easy to be an American and instantly pull out the “racism and discrimination card“, I can’t help but take the time for some cultural-introspection as well. As someone of Filipino-American heritage who grew up in San Francisco, I can’t begin to describe my own mixed feelings about Thanksgiving. While I love the tradition of spending an entire day in preparation for gluttony, surrounded by family and close friends, and the atmosphere of gratitude, I highly doubt that the day holds the same meaning for Native Americans.
With all due respect to the United Nations, it is a societal issue that needs to be resolved among members of Dutch society themselves. I wholeheartedly support the idea of “More Dutch and Less American Thinking About Zwarte Piet Please“. This is a Dutch issue, not an American one.
The majority of the Dutch population wholeheartedly do not view Zwarte Piet with any intent to be discriminatory. As far as the Dutch are concerned (both autochtoon and allochtoon), Zwarte Piet is a quintessential Dutch holiday tradition and their childhood memories are filled with only positive associations. What some are fighting for is the last of what remains of their pure unadulterated Dutch heritage, a nod to a more homogeneous Dutch society where their own view of the world is the only view that exists and matters. At the time of writing this blog post Sunday evening, 2,176,075 people have liked the Pietitie Facebook page. If that isn’t love and dedication for Zwarte Piet, I don’t know what is.
However, there is a minority population who feel quite offended by the black face character. As Dutch opinion writer Asha ten Broeke eloquently writes,
“Dat de bezwaren van een zwarte minderheid ondergeschikt zijn aan de feestelijkheden van de witte meerderheid. Dat zwarte pijn minder waard is dan wit plezier. En dát, lieve mensen, is puur, onversneden racisme.”
“That the objections of a black minority is subordinate to the festivities of the white majority. That black pain is worth less than white pleasure. And that, dear people, is pure, unadulterated racism.”
As a mother, I can’t help but wonder how am I supposed to teach my son about these complex social issues. My son is half-American and half-Dutch and I can’t raise him completely isolated, far removed from the rest of the world. Several crucial questions arise:
What is racism?
The larger issue is the apparent gross misunderstanding of what “racism” is and how “racism” works. We can’t start labeling that Zwarte Piet is rascist (or has rascist elements) or isn’t rascist, without discussing as a society what racism even means.
Does the Dutch government, and therefore, the greater Dutch society, aim for integration or assimilation?
What is multiculturalism? What role does the Netherlands as a society want in the future?
What role are minority populations allowed to have in the Netherlands? Are they able to one day have a voice without fear of harassment, death threats and vitriol aimed at them?
Isn’t it time in the Netherlands that we start discussing these ideas (racism, multiculturalism, integration, assimilation) within a respectful, safe and civil manner?
(Edited) If I were allowed to have an opinion, I would officially join Head Piet Erik van Muiswinkel ,Boom Chicago’s (Andrew Moskos, Saskia Maas, Pep Rosenfeld and Greg Shapiro), and Nederland Wordt Beter‘s pragmatic, clever solution: As a nod to the Dutch assertion that Zwarte Piet is black from going down the chimney, let’s cover Piet’s face with ash and soot instead. Let’s also get rid of the afro wig and painted red lips. Our beloved Piet is here to stay.
Muiswinkel’s, the Dutch official Head Piet since 1998, has an insightful message to all of us:
“Making Piet less black and less of a servant is not so difficult. Let’s just go for that. It should be a matter of grave concern for our government. And the government, as far as Sint and Piet are concerned, is us.”
I agree. Let’s think of the children.