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There’s been a discussion going on in the Netherlands for a while. It’s getting out of hand and now even the UN is throwing a hissy fit. I’m talking about Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, the helper of Sinterklaas – the ancient Dutch version of Santa. The question that everyone’s asking: is this racist?

3062617187_1888b8cb23_zOh, that’s not blackface, it’s Zwarte Piet! A common explanation for his skin color is that it’s blackened by soot from all those chimney’s they crawl down to deliver presents to children. While in the 19th century, Zwarte Piet was a scary figure who whipped you or kidnapped you by stuffing you in a jute sack, these days he’s evolved into Sinterklaas’ happy helper.

Anyway… Is this racist? Of course it is. Let’s leave out the argument that Sinterklaas is an old white man who’s surrounded by black men doing all of the work for him. As an employer, he might just prefer a certain “look.” You don’t see fat people working the door at Abercrombie & Fitch. Just sayin’. No, let’s just stick to Zwarte Piet’s “look”.
The current appearance of this funny little black dude was developed in the 19th century, hey-day of colonialist discourse. One curious explanation for his appearance cites none other than Sir Walter Scott as a source of inspiration.[1] Specifically, it cites the Saracen slaves of Front-de-Boeuf, who are depicted as black Muslims in a deft feat of orientalism.

Speaking of Orientalism, I think this perfectly explains the current appearance of Zwarte Piet. I don’t want to argue that there were/are political motivations, but the cultural tradition of portraying other-skinned individuals in an exotic, often feminine way, can be seen here as well. Piet is dressed in a page costume, explicitly placing him in the role of a child. Depicting black people as pages was a thing back in the day.

As I said, the UN has ordered a committee to investigate this whole Sinterklaas situation. We’re all looking for a solution. Some say that people should leave Piet be. Some people say they should have coloured Piet’s (which I think is an excessively PC solution that shouldn’t be pursued). Personally, I don’t really care about what this dude looks like. He changed throughout the years – he’s gradually losing the earrings and the afro, and I don’t hear him talking in an exagerrated black accent. He probably will change even more. Best thing to do is just let him change in his own pace.

What I do care about is that people are unwilling to acknowledge even the possibility that the depiction of Zwarte Piet is racist. As a people, the Dutch are very, very unwilling to “look in the mirror” and see their own flaws. As a majority population, white Dutch people often think they have a monopoly on the truth. This phenomenon is of course not limited to the Netherlands – everywhere, majority population groups have this tendency.

In short, while I don’t support forced alterations of this century-and-a-half-old tradition, come on people, at  least be honest about it. Don’t kid yourselves. Zwarte Piet will change eventually, but until that time, if a funny blackfaced dude in a page costume has to deliver the presents to children, so be it. As long as they get the presents, we cool, right?[2]


[1] John Helsloot, ‘Zwarte Piet is geen Afrikaanse slaaf maar een Saraceen: Henk van Benthems nieuwe verklaring van de zwarte knecht van Sinterklaas”, http://www.meertens.knaw.nl/cms/files/nieuwsbrief/Zwarte%20Piet.pdf (Visited 23-10-20130).
[2] Wow, this kinda turned into a messy rant. There I was, trying to make a sensible contribution to this discussion. Instead, y’all get this. Meh, whatevs. I’m thinking there will be another doodle on this, later.