Zwarte Piet: A Racist Caricature?

By Guest Contributor Keisha Wiel, cross-posted from Anthro Meaning People, Dope Meaning Awesome

I wasn’t going to originally post anything on Zwarte Piet but, after seeing discourse after discourse on the holiday of Sinterklaas, I decided to write about it. Ah, where to begin.

I celebrated Sinterklaas as a child. Since my parents were from the Dutch Caribbean, we would go every December 5th to the Dutch consulate in New York City and eagerly sit with the other children (we were usually the only children of color) while Sinterklaas handed out our presents. And, of course, to accompany Sinterklaas, this saintly white man who represented a bishop, were his ‘helpers’ or Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). These would usually be men, or women, dressed up in blackface with an Afro wig and bright red lipstick. The legend goes that if you’re bad, Zwarte Piet will take you in his burlap sack to Spain. So naturally I was mortified of Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) as a child. You mean to tell me that this dude who dresses flamboyantly and has this jet black makeup on his face is going to collect me and ship me off to Spain with him? OH HELL NO!!

As I grew up and learned about Golliwogs and minstrel shows, I started to notice a pattern. This beloved holiday that I celebrated as part of my ‘heritage’ seemed to overlap a lot with blackface in America. The similarities are undeniable.

Originally Zwarte Piet was a representation of the devil. He had no name but the dichotomy between Sinterklaas and the devil figure were supposed to represent the good and evil aspects of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas was modeled after a 4th-century bishop, Saint Nicholas, from what is now modern-day Turkey. The opposite of Sinteklaas was the devil, whom it is believed Sinterklaas captured and made his slave. The first mention of Zwarte Piet comes in 1850 when Jan Schenkman decides to add his own spin to the story and changes the devil to Zwarte Piet, the enslaved Moor from Morocco. His book, Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht (Saint Nicholas and his Servant) is what is used for the modern-day celebrations of Sinterklaas. This is also where you start to see the present-day representations of what Zwarte Piet looks like.

Then around the 1950s, they changed him to his servant. All in all, Sinterklaas is supposed to come from Turkey and Zwarte Piet is supposed to be a Moor from Morocco (interesting how some Dutch have negative attitudes towards Turkish and Moroccan people presently due to Geert Wilders’ racist views on Muslims). But now Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet reside in Spain. When people try to start a discourse of the racist aspects of Zwarte Piet (Afro wig, blackface (even though Moors were lighter-skinned Arabs), big bright red lipstick, some even speak in a faux Surinamese accent) proponents for Zwarte Piet say that opponents are the racists because they bring in American imperialism and that it’s not a racist image at all. Or they say that Zwarte Piet doesn’t represent black people, he just went down a chimney and got dirty from the soot. I’ve seen Mary Poppins, and Dick van Dyke’s character Bert, a chimney sweeper, is dirty from a chimney. Not Zwarte Piet.

So, I’m going to dispel the asinine reactions that you get about Zwarte Piet when you say it’s a racist depiction.

Reason 1: Zwarte Piet does not represent black people. You’re racist for thinking so.

Answer: By wearing a faux Afro wig, blackface, and red lips, who are you supposed to be representing? Unless there is a new ‘race’ out there that has the same stereotypes, I’m sure this is the ‘race’ that is being portrayed. Furthermore, it looks like the golliwogs and blackface of the US that were very prevalent around the time Schenkman’s book came out.

Reason 2: He supposed to be a Moor, that’s why we dress like that.

Answer: Historically, the Moors came from northern West Africa, typically Morocco, to conquer what is now modern-day Spain and Portugal. Aside from the stereotypical depictions of Othello and other Moors, Moors were primarily of Berber and Arab descent. This means that they look like what Moroccans look like today: fair skin, somewhat straight hair, no bright red lips.

Reason 3: Zwarte Pieten are black because they go down the chimney and they are black from the soot.

Answer: Unless they have a magical fabric that doesn’t get dirty, this doesn’t prove why his face and hands are evenly toned with black makeup or why his clothes are not dirty. Also, it doesn’t explain how he magically gets a Afro and outrageous red lips if he is just sliding down the chimney. Once again, Bert from Mary Poppins–dirty from going down a chimney. Zwarte Piet–not so much.

Reason 4: You’re the racist one because you bring your American racist attitudes towards our progressive country, Holland. Those images of blackface and golliwogs couldn’t possibly have made it to Holland because it was the 1800s and there wasn’t any technology to bring those images.

Answer: Well, unless Jan Schenkman and other Dutch people were living under a rock, these images could have easily made it to the Netherlands. The Dutch at the time were very influential in the slave trade and all sorts of goodies were being sent and brought back from the New World to the Old. It has been historically proven that racism becomes prevalent during colonialism. This includes racist stereotypes.

Reason 5: It’s not that serious, it’s just a children’s holiday.

Answer: Well, when children are being brought up with racist stereotypes, it is a big issue. Especially when a protester gets arrested like this:

It’s a big issue because when people such as Quinsy Gario get arrested by having one officer dig a knee into your side and another into your neck. Or when you are dragged by four policemen into an alley…it’s a problem.

The girl in the background speaking in Papiamentu is saying that it’s messed up what they did to this guy because he was just standing there in a tranquil manner when they arrested him. She also said they she believes that they assaulted the other person that he was with (not seen in the video). The guy is saying that he knows that if this was a Dutch person it would have been a different story.

Gario and others decided to protest the coming of Sinterklaas by wearing “Sinterklaas is Racisme” t-shirts during Sinterklaas’s welcoming celebration. It is not clear exactly what went on before the video; regardless, his arrest was uncivil. He didn’t resist arrest (according to what is seen in the video), yet they treated him like a common criminal. So, it is a big issue–and, perhaps while we are in the Sinterklaas season (ending on Decmeber 6th), the Netherlands can finally have a proper discourse on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. He was not originally part of the tradition, so there is no excuse why they can’t find common ground to dispel this racist imagery.

Here is another article explaining the situation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Neville-Ross/100002343524258 Neville Ross

    How can anybody in Europe have any discussions about Zwarte Piet when many European countries still consider Tintin In The Congo to be a book worthy of keeping on the shelves, or when Song of the South (IIRC) is still issued in parts of Europe on home video? There’s a lot of change that needs to happen in Europe.

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  • Keisha

    I received the your racist for bringing up racism comment numerous times. In addition to that comment the person also said that racism exists because we still refer to people by colors (Black, White, etc.) and that we should be a human race instead.

  • Keisha

    I think it is more than just that. There are black people who dress up as Zwarte Piet (mostly in their former colonies) but it doesn’t take away why this is racist. They honestly do not see the racist implication behind the imagery and the way the Zwarte Piet character came to be. By just having a black person in Zwarte Piet garb, they will never realize that reality. But before they modify or take away Zwarte Piet, the Netherlands has to have a real discussion or race and racism because it ultimately goes beyond the racist caricature of Zwarte Piet.

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  • http://twitter.com/maythinee Maythinee Washington

    I can’t even put into words how GRATEFUL I am that you wrote this article.

    • Keisha

      Thanks, I truly appreciate the comment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Hans-Anggraito/579945966 Hans Anggraito

    yeah, i grew up christian in indonesia and the way i remember the sinterklaas retellings, he was a giant black cat. Still, i don’t know how anyone can defend this as NON racist. Especially when they brutally colonized a good chunk of the world for centuries and installed white supremacy. If a white dutch person claims ignorance on racism (u.s-style or otherwise) then that’s a rather convenient form of historical selective amnesia and a poor excuse.

  • Marcella O’Connor

    It gets worse. Sinterklaas travels to Holland on a colonial era steamship (like the one from The Heart of Darkness). And during the holidays, Dutch kids send toys and charitable donations off to Africa to help the kids who, they’re told, get nothing for Christmas, while listening to songs like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

    Meanwhile, they’re being told stories about how they get presents for being good and that bad kids get nothing. So what goes on in their minds? That kids in Africa are bad and that’s why they get nothing? And meanwhile Sinterklaas the colonist is driving a steamship full of presents for Dutch kids that he probably stole from Dutch colonies, aided by a slave (and Zwarte Piet was a slave in one version of the story).

    I’m also really bored with Europeans claiming that they don’t “get” American race relations. If you’re from a country that had colonies or was involved in the slave trade; or if you’re from a country that buys American products, TV, films, literature, it’s time to start getting it.

    • Keisha

      I completely understand what you mean. According to them racism only happens in the United States because we are “obsessed” with race. They fail to realize that racism is inherent all over the world and primarily was intensified during colonialism.

  • Derek Vandivere

    I spent about 3 hours on facebook yesterday posting on Quinsy’s page, trying to get thick Dutchies to understand why it’s offensive. I have to say I’ve seen a lot more blatant racism in my 19 years here than my 24 years in the States (though maybe because I now self-identify as an immigrant, I’m more attuned to it).
    By the way, my wife is an art restorer, and was chatting to someone at the Amsterdam museum – the ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme’ shirt is now a museum piece!
    BTW, if anyone has a good explanation that a white guy can use to explain to other white guys why blackface is just wrong, I’d appreciate it. So far, the best I’ve been able to come up with is: “Look. If a black guy dresses up as Sinterklaas, he’s not going to wear whiteface. White guys wearing black face sends the message that these stereotypical characteristics – dark skin, red lips, kinky hair – are the most important aspects of people who aren’t white.” I’m just not good at explaining white privilege, I guess.
    My (biracial) wife has a Zwarte Piet costume, so last weekend she went out in whiteface while I wore my Zwarte Piet is Racist shirt. She actually suggested I get a Sinterklaas costume and black up next year, but I don’t think I could do that. Sure would screw with the kids to see a reverse Sint and Piet making out, though.

    • Keisha

      Yes Derek, I have spent numerous hours on the Zwarte Piet is Racisme Facebook page trying to at least give them some context behind the image of Zwarte Piet and some people just refuse to open their minds to it. Unfortunately, they cannot separate Zwarte Piet from the cultural tradition of Sinterklaas. For them, if you take away Zwarte Piet you take away Sinterklaas. They don’t realize that Zwarte Piet is not integral to the existence of Sinterklaas/ No one is trying to take away their holiday, just the racist representation.

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  • RCHOUDH

    Great post, thanks for refuting all the excuses made for Zwarte Piet. It’s interesting to me that whenever other countries are accused of racism, that they resort to demanding that Americans stop practicing “cultural imperialism”. As if telling someone to be a decent human being towards others doesn’t translate well across cultures! And it’s interesting to hear about the actual foreign origins of Zwarte Piet (and Sinterklaas!) While Zwarte PIet may not be viewed by the Dutch as being exactly like American black face, some of his characteristics (the afro, bright red lips, etc) could have easily been picked up from American culture because different ideas, cultures and peoples still managed to travel everywhere around the world even back then.

    • Keisha

      Thanks for your comment.

  • LeilaM12

    I have kind of given up on Zwarte Piet and this Austrian/Scandinavian/Finnish (other countries?) thing:

    http://www.news.at/_storage/asset/1057714/storage/newsat:key-visual/file/12306442/sternsinger-15-millionen-322665_e.jpg

    http://www.lions.fi/district107-k/PielavesiLepikko/Tiernapojat.jpg

    I got pushback when speaking up against it… from Black people from those countries. That’s how little debate about Blackface there is in these places. That some Black Belgians and a Black Finn ACTUALLY felt honoured by someone in Blackface. So… well… I’ve given up. (And yes, in other situations, I often find that race issues don’t translate 1:1 from the US to other places, e.g. a stereotypical Black people eat chicken connection is pretty much unheard of in most Euro places. But THIS: Still racist.)

    On Moor: There’s a language issue here. In some language there are two words, such as “Mohr” (for Moor-as-in-antiquated-term-for-Black-person) and “Maure” (for Moor-as-in-antiquated-term-for-person-from-Morocco). These terms have been distinct in most European languages since the 16th or in some cases 15th century (I can wiki!). So the Dutch moor is not the English one. The Dutch “moor” would have to be translated as “Blackamoor” or even just with “Black”.

    • Keisha

      There is some hope. Quincy Gario has started the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign. Here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/zwartepietisblackface?fref=ts It has already started some discourse around the issue. Unfortunately, he and others have been met with resistance.

      Also, I just used the term Moor since it translates often to that term. It was just to simply explain some phenotypical differences. Thanks for clearing that up.

    • Naishee

      “I have kind of given up on Zwarte Piet and this Austrian/Scandinavian/Finnish (other countries?) thing:”
      What are those pictures of? Sorry, I’m Swedish but I think you got your countries mixed up. Is the second picture some Eastern Orthodox tradition? Not Scando then, at all, but Finnish. No idea what the first picture is is… Am I supposed to know?

      “I got pushback when speaking up against it… from Black people from those countries. That’s how little debate about Blackface there is in these places.”
      Minstrel shows are a largely American tradition, with no history whatsoever here up North. Blackface is also not something that happens with any kind of regularity… Why would there be a big debate about something that’s more of a US & Dutch problem? (The most well-known case of blackface in Sweden was a black guy who did it. The cake artist. I’m not really sure what his point was with it. I *think* what he is doing is examining racist stereotypical pictures of black people, like Tintin In Congo. So not really blackface, but a case of a black guy trying to look like a black caricature. Same root as blackface, but somewhat different phenomena. And racist stereotypes in books, comics etc ARE discussed here, since they ARE relevant. Blackface, not so much).

      • Leila Nea

        Wiki says that this exists on the Danish and Norwegian coast and in Finland all over the country. It doesn’t exist in Sweden, but it is not Orthodox. The Swedish word is Stjernespill and the Finnish is tiernapojat.

        On Blackface in Sweden:
        http://afroeurope.blogspot.com/2012/12/video-conversations-on-presence-of.html
        http://www.thelocal.se/33290/20110419/#.UMHY8o49deo
        http://www.flickr.com/photos/heavyowlstartledfarmer/sets/72157629712451280/
        http://filmdrunk.uproxx.com/2011/03/erection-your-onion-a-guide-to-grotescos-swedish-gibberish-english-parodies#page/1
        Just to be clear: The parody one I mostly support. The absurdity almost calls for it and making an actual Black actor do this would have been racist.

      • dynamoxie

        It seems like you are intentionally misinterpreting what was written. The links are to images of people dressed up in a vague, non-specific Middle Eastern or North African style, representing the Magi in a nativity pageant. The URLs show that one link is from Austria and one is from Finland, so it’s a tradition spread out over northern, and maybe central, Europe. It’s helpful to know that you’ve never seen it, but that doesn’t prove it doesn’t happen in any Scandinavian country. One man in each picture has dark brown paint on his face, as part of a traditional representation that one of the wise men was a black African. This relates to the discusion about people of European descent feeling comfortable changing their skin color uncritically as part of a traditional performance.

        Minstrel shows may not have happened in Europe, but elements of the minstrel image, as demonstrated in the article, were present in children’s books and cartoons in the 1800s. Movies made in the US have also been exported and viewed in Europe for 100 years, the earliest with white actors in blackface and black actors playing stock characters from the minstrel tradition. The minstrel stereotypes and the blackface look are interchangeable in this tradition.

  • Keisha

    I’m glad to say that this year, there has been more discussion of the issue of Zwarte Piet, not only in the Netherlands but in Dutch and former Dutch territories. Also, Quinsy has a website: http://zwartepietisracisme.tumblr.com/, where he continues his fight against the image of Zwarte Piet. He also has a facebook page for his organization: https://www.facebook.com/zwartepietisblackface?fref=ts. So there is hope.

    • Derek Vandivere

      Oh yeah, basically one of the Amsterdam councilpeople came out saying it should change. The bad news is that he expects it to take another 50 years, but it made the front page of Het Parool!

  • golby260

    I’m not even remotely intimate with Dutch race politics, but the feeling that has served me well in situations like this all my life is “if you have to ask, it probably is…”

  • miga

    One year for the Christmas season my dad read us this book: http://santaandpete.com/ Santa and Pete, about Santa Claus and his best friend Pete! This was when I was, like 10, and I doubt my parents knew who Zwarte Piet was. I think we were all just jazzed that there was a culture and/or author that thought black people were important enough to include in Christmas lore, and the book supported that by erasing all the nasty racist history and symbolism.

    • Keisha

      I never heard of Santa and Pete. I am actually interested in seeing the movie and reading the book. I find it interesting that this book was written by two people of color.