This time of year, white Dutch men in blackface parade around the streets of The Netherlands in a Christmas tradition that the Dutch insist is not racist. The men are portraying Zwarte Piet, who is the loyal servant of Sinterklaas, the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus. These parades have existed for more than 150 years and the Dutch are very proud of them.
Tradition has it that Zwarte Piet was a valued and well-paid servant (not a slave) of Sinterklaas. In fact, Zwarte Piet is often portrayed as being far more intelligent than the absent minded Sinterklaas. Zwarte Piet was a Moor, which is why the Dutch wear blackface. Zwarte Piet is not considered an object of ridicule but a hero. In legend, he once gave gold coins to poor young women so that they would not have to sell themselves as prostitutes to survive. Zwarte Piet is also the enforcer for Sinterklaas. He gives good children candy and presents, but hits the bad ones with a broom. This is why in some parades, Zwarte Piet is seen carrying a broom.
The problem is that the Dutch simply don’t understand how racist it looks to the rest of the world to have white men dancing around the streets in blackface. The Dutch are a very logical society and their rationale is that Black Pete cannot possibly be racist since the Dutch did not intend for him to be a racist symbol. The Dutch will further explain that Zwarte Piet is in fact a hero, and the men in blackface are actually praising this ancient Moor.
However, as the economy has become more global, many people of African ancestry have moved to The Netherlands due to its welcoming business climate. People of African ancestry are shocked and offended by Zwarte Piet, and are frustrated that the white Dutch people just don’t understand the problem. The fact that Zwarte Piet appears dressed as a clown makes him seem even more of an object of ridicule. In fact, Zwarte Piet is actually dressed in the traditional outfit of a servant to a wealthy noble.
Protests have erupted in The Netherlands this year over Zwarte Piet. However, over 90% of the Dutch do not consider Zwarte Piet a racist symbol and do not see what all the fuss is about. In some parades, Zwarte Piet performers have tried to reduce the tension by wearing less blackface makeup. They somehow feel that a Brown Pete might be less offensive than a Black Pete. However, this was like throwing gasoline on a fire.
The Zwarte Piet controversy in The Netherlands is a perfect example of two groups talking past each other instead of with each other. For an outsider, the solution to the problem seems very simple. Have Zwarte Piet played by someone of African ancestry. If no one is available for the parade, then have a white actor play Piet, without blackface. The protesters are not objecting to the legend of Zwarte Piet. What they are objecting to is modern-day White Men wearing blackface.
The use of blackface in America has such horrible historic connotations that blackface anywhere in the world is considered an open declaration of racist intent. The Dutch argue that this is not fair for them to have to change their tradition due to American racism.
As protesters have said “Racisme is Niet Gezelligheid” Roughly translated this means “Racism is not harmony”. Gezelligheid (harmony or coziness) is the highest goal of the people of the Netherlands. It is what every Dutch family, company and the society as a whole strive for. If the Dutch want to acheive true Gezelligheid then it is time to put the blackface makeup away forever.