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Nov 26, 2007

Yearly Blackface: Being in Amsterdam two weekends ago reminded me that I find Zwart Piet very strange.


Part of the Dutch and Belgium Chritsmas tradition is a fellow named Zwart Piet (Black Peter).

Black Peter (Zwart Piet), while now a benevolent companion of Sinter Klaas, was at one time a more sinister character. During the Middle Ages, he threatened to punish the children if they were naughty by throwing them into his sack or giving them switches (coal also?) instead of presents. Today, however, he helps Sinter Klaas distribute gifts, even offering to go down chimneys to fill the children's shoes, thereby saving the holy Bishop from getting dirty. Black Peter, often depicted as a boy or young man, wears a Moorish costume, probably because Spain ruled over Holland during the 16th century. So Zwart Piet is a Moor. How interesting to have a black character in Dutch and Belgian Christmas folklore.

Now let's take a brief look at Black Peter's history:

1845: Jan Schenkman writes Saint Nicholas and his Servant; Piet is described in this book as a servant and as black, not as slave and is depicted as a dark man wearing Asian-style clothes. Steamboat travel becomes part of the mythos from this point. In the 1850 version of Schenkman's book, they are depicted looking much as they do today. The servant gets his African origin but still has no standard name. In later editions Piet was shown in the page costume, the book stayed (with some changes) in print until 1950 and can be seen as the foundation of the current celebration, even though it did use a lot of older ideas and customs. Barring a very rare exception the relation between St. Nicholas and Pete has always been described as one between employer and employed, between boss and worker, never between owner and slave.

Anybody can be Zwart Piet: The website zoz.nl explains how you too can transform yourself into a Zwarte Piet: "a real Piet can be recognised by his black make-up, red lipstick, perm curls, frilly collar, hat and tights. We refer to Piet as he or him, but Piet can also have considerable female attributes: many helper Piets have real breasts under a loose blouse and abundant, unnecessary space in their puffy pantaloons."



It's easy to critisize something you don't undertand. Some people will say that I am missing the point. The point being that this Black Peter character is demeaning because he was a slave or is a servant, or was described as evil, and he threatens to take away the bad children. I honeslty may think this role was strange even if he wasn't black.

Frankly what bothers me the most, what I really don't get is why Zwart Piet is portrayed by a white person in black face. There have been black people in Holland longer than this tradition, so why not have a black person play Black Peter if the Dutch and Belgians are determined to incorporate a black person into their folklore? Is it just a "legitimate" way to don blackface once a year to the delight of young children and for the sake of warm memories for the adults?

I'm not the only person who thinks this yearly display of blackface is quite inappropriate. Here are links to two others:

Toby Sterling
Just Dazzle

15 comments:

Toby Sterling said...

Greetings. I'm an American living in the Netherlands _ for almost 10 years, and married to a Dutch woman _ and I find the Zwarte Piet tradition more than "strange."

I find it "racist." I have a good sense of humor and I'm not somebody that's easy to offend, but I do think that we should call a thing by its name.

I don't think every single racist remark, idea or image is worth fighting about, but I think Zwarte Piet is worth fighting about, because it's institutionalized and it comes back every year to influence Dutch kids (and adults).

The case for Zwarte Piet being a racist caricature, in short: he is stupid, and he wears the blackface, woolly hair, and big red lips that have been used to represent black people as dumb or inferior in European and colonial (American) art for around 150 years.

The Dutch imagine that they made up Zwarte Piet, but the reality is they adopted his image from these racist caricatures.

Since the U.S. civil rights movement and the worldwide anti-colonial movement, this iconography is known and rejected (almost) every place in the world _ except Holland.

The Dutch use various kinds of bizarre explanations of why Zwarte Piet really isn't a racist caricature or why it really doesn't matter very much if he is.

But they are all bogus, and usually based on some kind of claim that because the Dutch (think they) aren't racist, Zwarte Piet can't be a racist tradition.

The Dutch need to grow up, admit they're caught on the wrong side of history on this one, and change Zwarte Piet's image.

You can call it political correctness if you like, I call it living in the modern world.

The main reason why Dutch don't want to give up Zwarte Piet is because he's a 'tradition.'

But traditions can change, and some traditions _ namely, discriminatory traditions _ should change.

The cure is simple: "Black Pete" can keep his name and his jester's suit, but he has to take off the blackface, curly wig and red lipstick.

Let the blackface turn into a smudge on the cheeks if the claim is that Piet has been down a chimney. The other two elements are meaningless to the tradition anyway.

The Dutch have started to use dozens of Piets at once now anyway (hmmm just how strong is this 'tradition'). So why not let there be all kinds and colors of Piets (like the seven dwarfs; only one is 'Dopey').

In conclusion, it's my firm opinion that Zwarte Piet will be transformed, the only question is how long it takes.

Come on Holland, join the 21st Century!

Black Women in Europe said...

Toby, thanks for this well thought out comment. It shows that you don't have to be black to recognize that Zwatre Piet is racists, you just have to have functioning eyes.

I lived through 4 years of Black Peter in Brussels and could never get anyone, other than fellow Americans, to see this character for what he is.

Just my luck to go to Amsterdam for the first time in several years on the weekend that Sint Niklaus and Zwart Piet arrive in town. I can't even estimate how many people were in the crowds that lined the main street that leads down from Amsterdam Central Station.

Yes, some traditions need to change if only to save the Dutch and Belgian children from growing up thinking that Zwart Piet truly represents black people in Holland or anywhere in the world.

Eddie G. Griffin said...

This is a very interesting piece of history.

Black Women in Europe said...

It is interesting Eddie, if for no other reason that to expose the so called innocent traditions that continue to demean black people.

msladydeborah said...

I learned something new by reading this post. But I am offended by the image. It is racist.

I know that every nation has traditions and some are long standing. That does not mean that they are not offensive. Blackface has never been a positive image. It never will be.

Even if a black person was used to play the role of Zwart Piet, image would not change the stereotypes associated with him

Thanks for making us aware of this custom. This is information that we need to be aware of worldwide.

Black Women in Europe said...

Ms LD, I'm relieved to hear that this offends you too. And you're probably right. If black people played the role of Zwart Piet it would still perpetuate a negative sterotype.

nferyn said...

Hi,

As a 'native' belgian, married to a Nigerian woman, I want to give a little more background on Zwarte Piet .

First off, to clarify things, Zwarte Piet is indeed a racist character and this tradition needs to be replaced by something less harmful.

I especially wanted to explain why exactly the Dutch and Belgian people are so reluctant to change it.

1. It is not perceived as being racist and it isn't the intention of the people of perpetuating a racist image of black people. As a matter of fact, you'd be hard pressed to find many people even admitting that Zwarte Piet represents black people in any form: it's just a cartoon character and it has no bearing on reality. What those people (and I was one of them) fail to see is how that image works in the psyche of children.

Actually, on a personal level, it was only when I saw how it worked in my own son that I understood the potential harm of Zwarte Piet. When we were on a family trip in the Ardennes, we visited a cave under the guidance of a geologist of Congolese origin. He was very dark skinned and my son was referring to him as Zwarte Piet, even though he never made any such remark to either my wife or any member of her family. To me, this was one of those moments in which I suddenly saw 'the light'. I never even thought that Zwarte Piet referred to real black people.

2. The whole tradition of Sinterklaas brings back fond memories of the utter bliss you only can experience as an impressionable child. As a parent you don't want to deny the same experience to your children. The Sinterklaas festival has got very clear and unambiguously Catholic origins and even I, as an outspoken atheist, want to join in this festival for the sake of the children

3. It's also a numbers game. Belgium - and the Netherlands to a lesser degree - are in essence monocultural societies where all of public life is a reflection of that fact. It isn't as much that there is any malice involved, but taking into account the lack of exposure to other cultures, the vast majority of the population is blissfully ignorant and cannot really conceive how this tradition is racist. When they are confronted with the facts, because of the emotional investment in the celebration, most people will flatly deny the racist undertones of Zwarte Piet

Black Women in Europe said...

nferyn,

I really appreciate hearing from a native Belgian. And you've higlighted what is the most dangerous thing about the tradition of Zwart Piet: the influence it has on impressionable little kids.

And no one wants to deny a child the delight of Christmas. But can't Sinterklaas come alone?

Anonymous said...

I'm Belgian, I have to confess that I have difficulties to understand your point.

This is Folkore and nothing else.

Both Saint-Nicolas and Zwarte Piet judge the kid. The legend says that Zwarte Piet (or père fouettard in French) gives you a piece of coal if you have been a nasty kid during the year. I have never heard that Père fouettard was Saint-Nicolas slave (?) nor that he was stupid.
In fact children have a big respect for him :-), none wants to mess with him.

Just look at all clichés concerning Dutch or French people in Belgium. Dutch are "Kaaskoppen" born to cheat you and Frenchmen are pretentious. Even between Belgians, clichés exist.(Lazy/corrupted walloons and xenophobic flemisch).

Then go to France and you will notice jokes over Belgians (beeing big fat idiots with a funny accent) and the same for the Netherlands (Dumb red face farmer)

Do you see any Belgians, Dutchmen or Frenchmen overreacting over these issues? No. Because we all know that it is Folklore.

Black Women in Europe said...

Dear Anonymous,

I don't expect you to understand why Zwart Piet is a racist characiature. The fact that nferyn did is an anomoly.

Don't you think it is strange that white men dress up in "black face" when a black man could play the role of Zwart Piet? There in begins the many reasons why Zwart Piet is racist.

I don't see how you can compare black face with fat Belgian jokes.

But then again I am not Belgian and you are not black.

nferyn said...

My dear anonymous,

You are - almost point by point - the typical example of a white person living in an ignorant bliss of the racist aspects of your culture. It's not because a stereotype isn't explicitly negative that it isn't a stereotype and that it doesn't have any negative effects.
I don't think that Zwarte Piet is in the same category as blackface in the the US, because it's not as much a objectification in support of an existing power structure, but it is and remains an objectification nonetheless.
If you are so fond - as am I - of the tradition of Sinterklaas, just think about the reason why we no longer perform another one of those typical European traditions: the Yearly Passion Plays? Could it be because these are blatantly antisemitic and we no longer tolerate this kind of antisemitism in European society?

Theodore said...

Well, to define things precisely, I disagree with the idea that the character of Zwarte Piet himself is racist, I do agree that it is a fact that many, if not most representations of the character are. Nevertheless, this is about culture, this is about heritage, this is about fertility rites and old gods living on, much bussiness and all. As the issue is complex and thus sensitve one has to mind words used. Though it is true that much of the tradition as we know it does come from Holland, adressing the Sinterklaas-celebrating part of the world is insensitive, crude and insulting, and as such it is certain that Toby's approach won't work, you insult us and you claim our traditions to be racist? No way, Jose.

Try the gentle and well informed approach first.

Because really: What is racist about the character Zwarte Piet? A black man, being perhaps somewhat blacker on account of coal and soot, sometimes, employed by a dead bishop living in Spain, with the earrings of a sailor dressed like one used to do at Spanish royal courts. I mean I can see queer, bizarre, crazy, weird and downright impossible, but racist? That is the character.

Now you look at the way he is portrayed, the way he acts, now that isn't all bad, but the times it is really bad are too numerous to consider.

About the iconography I guess that you have to understand the way I see it: first there were men people painting their faces black (useful thing soot) to represent something unchristian (historical), to absorb those "black" men into a civilized version of Sinterklaas (theory)an Amsterdam teacher invented a black companion, which became as in from AFRICAN extraction, for the bishop. A free man, a servant, but still a civilized person of delegated authority(historical).
From his sidekick role he grew in popularity and importance, until he reached a sort of Yin-Yang relation with St. Nicholas (who is white by his beard and hair, skin colour is optional to him). As such Wisdom is not Piet's, though being smart and being foolish can be, Piet is modern, up to date, rather than archaic, traditional and old fashioned, Piet is young and strong. Trying to ban him is impossible, we have a long history of attempts to ban St.Nicholas, banning turkey consumption with Thanksgiving would be easy in comparison.

To depict him as "a negro" the known iconography was used, rather free of the supposed connotations, because "that was the way you drew a black boy". Characters like Flop and Sjimmie (Piet's) show both the full iconography but the behavioural characteristics were rather mild.
To call the use of that iconography racist, rather than old fashioned is a bit short sighted. To compare it with the US, this would be just Ebony White. You don't have to like it, it is insulting, but not hate driven or promoting. Those things may improve with time, the drawn version of Ontbijtpiet for instance is a good example, no exaggerated lips there.

The really racist stuff is encountered when actors, artists and the like try to use Zwarte Piet not as a guy with an important function, but as a characters incorporating blackness, if they feel forced to let Piet act like what they consider (stereo)typical for blacks... The bogeyman is just the start.

njeanty said...

Ironically enough, a friend of mine who is studying in Brussels introduced me to this bizarre tradition around this same time of this post. Before I even read the email I thought, "This picanniny."

****
In other news, I'll be visiting Europe (Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris). Do you have any recommendations of places to visit?

Black Women in Europe said...

Hej njeanty!

If it's your first time to Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris I suggest dong all of the typical tourists things you'll find in any guide book, but I've found that Lonely Planet is a good source for off beat stuff too.

And if you want to see Black Paris, you can search for special tours. In Brussels you can go to the Montange section and all of Amsterdam is interesting.

Bon voyage!

Anonymous said...

i think this is a non-issue and an attempt to paint(no pun intended) a racist motive on something that isn't such, even if it has historically racist roots. i dont deny that perhaps black pete expresses an angst that some white dutch folks MAY have had (or may even still have) in the past, but your article expresses why this may be so- black moors ruled over holland and this naturally may have caused resentment, as is similarly(and ironically) expressed in "anti-colonial" movements in the formal colonies. "non-whites"(a term i hate using because identities are not predicated on and coalesced by what people aren't) do not have a monopoly over moral indignation, and the faster they realize that, the better. why should native dutch folks have to apologize or accomodate people who are allowed to immigrate to their countries and whom are given the privilege of being considered dutch? It takes far more moral imagination and courage to absorb oneself into a native and overwhelmingly larger culture, especially so when that culture has certain customs that upset your own ethnic sensibilities rather than cowardly dismantling them with the patronage of elements of the white dutch population who arrogantly posture against their own people. (start melancholy violin music)hell, my parents are immigrants from india, and im a hindu vegetarian. i was born in america and love her, faults and all. I get angry when i see hindu groups "protesting" over caricatures of their gods and godesses or throwing a hissy fit when someone writes "inaccurately" about their religion in a school textbook. ironically, these same people have no problem with being far more racist and disgraceful towards black americans (whose ancesors built america) than their white american counterparts and are the quickest to express disdain for their darker complected co-religionists in india. i abhor the slaughtering of animals for food, especially cows, and you can imagine how crappy that makes me feel living in texas. but you know what,i might be constitutionally entitled as an american to bitch about it, but i wont, because thats morally wrong and an act of cowardice because my forefathers didn't build america- white people, black people, and red people did, so i'm going to defer to their customs even if i don't personally practice them. but thats just me.(end melancholy violin music)
this complaint about black pete is just a symptom of a larger attempt to transform and change anything dutch(and yes, that means culturally white) or, in a larger sense, european(again, white) into some sterile and contrived substitute. this is not done so by the efforts of ideologically driven non-white immigrants or the children of immigrants, but rather by self-indulgent white leftists for whom all these very real confrontations are just a game and their partisanship in it an affectation.
as for the absurd idea that "the poor innocent children" are going to associate every black adult male with black pete...if your child assumes that a black male adult is going to put switches in your stocking for throwing a temper-tantrum, the problem ain't with black pete, its with your ability to raise your child. differentiating humans based on their character rather than their skin color isn't undermined by black pete. Ironically, the author doesn't seem to practice such a virtue, since she(he?) calls a white supporter an "anomaly", god-forbid, for expressing empathy for her(his?) position. so its okay for the author to write off an entire race of people as incapable of empathy but not okay when said people practice a tradition she isn't comfortable with. you are a racist hypocrite. grow up, the world doesn't revolve around avoiding what makes you feel bad.

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