Is Zwarte Piet racist?

The Sinterklaas celebrations in the Netherlands last year again featured a very heated debate about the alleged racist character of Zwarte Piet. A group protestors consisting of mostly black people (and some whites) consider Zwarte Piet racist, while the majority of Dutch white people see it as tradition rather than racism. I recently watched a documentary about the matter, “Zwart als roet”, also available in English. This documentary, made by the (white) Sunny Bergman, appeals to a white public to consider the issue from a different perspective.

The matter was not a big deal to me before the discussion. Initially I considered the protestors a bunch of self-victimizing whiners who took offense at a tradition which was not meant to be offensive. Recently, and certainly after watching the documentary, I’ve come to see that the protestors are mostly right: Zwarte Piet is racist. Zwarte Piet became a tradition in the Netherlands during the 19th century, during a time when there were not as much Dutch people with foreign heritage as now. This, and the character of that time, meant that no one spoke up about the issue. Back in the day Zwarte Piet may not have been conceived of as consciously racist, to demean black people, but it is rightfully experienced as racist by black people now.

Especially revealing to me are the scenes where Sunny Bergman and a collaborator walk around in a British city as Zwarte Piet. Sunny remarks that most white Dutch people are prejudiced because we grew up with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. For British people this is not the case: they are quick to condemn Zwarte Piet als gravely racist. This is because Great Britain and the United States had a tradition in blackface performances, we are told.

Later in the documentary, a parallel to broader racism is drawn. In another experiment, a white person and two persons with darker skin color try to steal a bike. Amazingly, the white person is even given assistance by passers-by to break a chain lock on the bike, because people consider him reliable. On the other hand, the bystanders quickly recognize the darker skinned persons as thieves and alert the police. Being white, it’s difficult for us to recognize this unconscious undercurrent of racism. The experimental method used by the documentary is a powerful means to expose it.

Apart from the unconscious racism, there is also conscious, explicit racism. It’s understandable that black people are upset when they are called ‘Zwarte Piet’ as a joke. All the racist insults hurled at the protestors are also evidence of the problem. I do think that some of the protestors lacked subtlety in their message. The average Dutch person who grew up with Zwarte Piet probably was amazed and insulted when they were indirectly called racists. Had they been more careful in their message, they would have received more sympathy because people would understand better.

I still like Zwarte Piet as a concept and I would want my children to experience the tradition while black people don’t feel shamed. Fortunately, this requires only a small interventions: remove the earrings, the wig with black curly hair, lipstick and completely black facial paint and replace it with smudges of black paint over the face. Anyone who considers the history of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet will realize the tradition has changed a lot in two centuries, so this is no objection to me. I was taught that Zwarte Piet is black because he climbed through the chimney, after all. This has already been done in several places last year, but needs to get wider following. However, some have also painted Zwarte Piet yellow and other strange colors, which is taking it too far in my opinion. Some schools even went further than that and consider Zwarte Piet a negative stereotype in all cases, no matter what color he is. They replaced Zwarte Piet with commercialized ‘minion’ figures. That is completely absurd.

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