By Sarah Vallée

I arrived in Amsterdam on a Friday, planning a nice, relaxing mid-November weekend, when I heard that a huge parade was to take place at Dam Square on Sunday 17th. The Dutch were going to celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, a traditional Christmas figure who brings presents to children every year on December 5th.

As part of the preparations, a website was counting down days until Sinterklaas’s arrival in Amsterdam and a Twitter account was following his progression. Tradition wants Sinterklaas to be assisted with Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, his black helper dressed in Renaissance clothes. The character of Zwarte Piet is a common topic of debate in the Netherlands, as it is accused of being a modern figure of racism. Presented with such an occasion to discover an old Dutch tradition that had been raising such a strong debate lately, we decided to wake up a bit earlier on that Sunday morning and go check out this parade. No less than 600 Zwarte Piet were announced to participate.

We arrived at Damrak. The street was full of people; grown-ups as well as children. Hundreds of Dutch people were dressed up to incarnate Zwarte Piet; faces painted in black, lips painted in red, following around this tall, bearded white old man who was no other than Sinterklaas. Zwarte Piet was everywhere: Walking along the parade distributing gingerbread to children, on top of a float waving at the crowd, hanging from buildings and dancing in the air. People were celebrating, singing songs and waving back at the black helpers.

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Zwarte Piet in an Amsterdam street. Photo Credit: Sarah Vallée

The first apparition of Zwarte Piet can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century. He was a Moor and a servant of Sinterklaas. The character used to be unfriendly to children; while Sinterklaas would bring them presents, Zwarte Piet would punish those who had been naughty. Because of this unrewarding role I believe, Zwarte Piet was translated into French as “le Père Fouettard” (“whipping father”), a terrifying name for young children celebrating la Saint-Nicolas. However, over the years, the Dutch character of Zwarte Piet tremendously evolved to become today a kind and friendly figure to Dutch children.

Yet, for the past few decades, as the yearly Sinterklaas celebrations approach, complaints about the discriminatory nature of Zwarte Piet have multiplied. Last January, a UN human rights working group addressed a letter to the Dutch government stating that Black Pete was a modern figure of racism, and asking the government to answer a few questions to explain their action regarding this issue. The government’s answer was simple: They see “the Sinterklaas festival as a traditional children’s festival”, although they acknowledge the fact that “the role played by ‘Black Pete’ is sometimes a subject for public debate”. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared: “Zwarte Piet is black, and there is little we can do about it”. Indeed, Dutch people do not perceive Zwarte Piet as a slave, or as inferior. They take it as it is has become now: A funny figure, loved by children.

Explanations about Zwarte Piet’s skin colour and status have multiplied. While some state that his face could simply be black because of soot from a chimney, others argue that the character appeared before the colonisation era, and was at first a Moorish merchant, equal to Sinterklaas. He would have then degenerated into a black stereotype. Still, I think the most honest explanation is that the character was created at a time when black populations were indeed seen as inferior. As Sinterklaas’s scary helper, Zwarte Piet was therefore a stereotype of this perceived inferiority and barbarianism. However, the depiction of the character has evolved: no more stereotypical “black” accent, no more whipping of naughty children, and he is now embodied by men as well as women.

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The festive streets of Amsterdam. Photo Credit: Sarah Vallée

Zwarte Piet is not the first example of its kind to stir debate. Controversies about black stereotypes have risen in several European countries since the 20th century. The French brand of cocoa powder Banania, had its slogan “Y’a bon…” banned in 2006. The slogan, purposefully written in incorrect French, was accompanied with the brand’s logo; the smiling face of a Senegalese infantryman. Antiracist activists accused the company of stereotyping Africans as childlike, kind and dumb. Similarly, Roald Dahl had to turn his Oompa–Loompas, originally a tribe of black pygmies, into “dwarfish hippies with long, golden–brown hair” and “rosy–white skin” in order to avoid racist stereotypes. Yet the highly controversial Tintin in the Congo was not banned; after a trial that began further to civil complaints, Belgium ruled that the book could not be qualified as racist and was rather an example of “kind paternalism”, which was “in the mood of the times”. If Tintin in the Congo’s depiction of black people was allowed in Belgium, while Banania’s depiction of a Senegalese infantryman was not, where is the line between a racist stereotype and a harmless testimony from a bygone era?

As to the general mood in the Netherlands, a Facebook group aiming to preserve the character of Zwarte Piet was created last October and now has a bit more than 2.1 million supporters, while the group “Zwarte Piet is Racism” can only count around 13,900 supporters. Zwarte Piet is indeed an integral part of the Sinterklaas tradition; a character friendly to children and an icon of Christmas celebrations that you can find on any piece of poster, advertisements, products, or in shop windows. Nothing about him or his position would inspire racism to young people or spread racism among the population.

This year, for the first time, objections to the parade were submitted prior to its start to the municipality of Amsterdam. Also, a few days after Sinterklass’s arrival in Amsterdam last November, the UN working group stressed, in a second letter, the offense that the character of Zwarte Piet impacted on people of African descent living in the Netherlands. It asked the Dutch government to open a national debate in order to adapt tradition to the current situation and to take into account all points of view. The purpose of this debate would be to decide whether Zwarte Piet is really an innocent figure today. Just as in other European countries, nationalism is in the rise in The Netherlands today. This Guardian article warns against the rise of a “pan-European alliance of far-right parties”, and refers to Dutch politician Geert Wilders as focusing his program on the alleged “cosmopolitan threat to national identity”, which brings us back to the debate about Zwarte Piet. Rightfully so or not, the UN working group may therefore see Zwarte Piet as a dangerous symbol, that will allow racism to become too common.

Featured Image Credit: Gerald Stolk, Flickr CC. License available here.