Revisionist explanations for the appearance of Zwarte Piet don’t sit well with a growing number of people of colour in the Netherlands. Serginho Roosblad shares his views on the blackface character ever-present in the Dutch story of Sinterklaas.
Whenever the United Nations takes note of the grievances of minorities, it’s cause for a little celebration. That was the case last weekend, when it became clear that the High Commission for Human Rights is looking into whether the Zwarte Piet figure perpetuates racism.
Zwarte Piet – the Dutch version of blackface and an integral element of the annual Sinterklaas holiday – has been more than just an eyesore for many people of colour in the Netherlands. Myself included.
The story goes that Zwarte Piet is black because he comes down the chimney to deliver presents and, along the way, gets dirtied by the soot. But why, then, does he always have black afro hair? Why does he have big red lips resembling those of in racist colonial images of Africans? These questions still have not been answered to my satisfaction.
The Sinterklaas story may have been revised by some over the years, but when I encounter a Zwarte Piet – whether in real life on the streets of Amsterdam around 6 December or as an image on the package of holiday candy – I see the same old thing. I see a white person poking fun at people of African descent. No, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
As a child I wondered so often why Zwarte Piet talked to me with a phony Surinamese accent. The biggest group of blacks in the Netherlands is from the former Dutch colony of Surinam.
Anchored in Dutch heritage
It doesn’t take much to conclude that Zwarte Piet looks more than a little like the banned golliwog figure in Britain and the characters in the old American minstrel shows. No wonder. They are all some form of blackface: simply put, a practice in which whites poke fun by ‘embodying’ blacks. Both the golliwog and Zwarte Piet date back to the days of slavery and colonialism. These were periods when Africans were often seen through a Eurocentric – not to mention, racist – lens.
But while Britain and the US now publicly denounce these figures, Zwarte Piet is anchored in Dutch heritage. In fact, preserving national heritage is the very defence proponents of the tradition often use and want sceptics to believe.
It is staggering that the Netherlands – a nation that pats it own back for being tolerant to different peoples (although growing up here, I experienced the opposite) – so fiercely holds on to a tradition that is an outdated, offensive racist stereotype.
Although I applaud the move by the UN, I think it’s a shame that an international body had to intervene. I think it’s a shame that the Netherlands cannot open up and listen to the well-founded arguments of its own people.
If change does come, it will not be because grievances of Zwarte Piet’s opponents are being heard, but because a distant UN commission issued a reprimand.
Societal betterment will not be the result of a majority in this country finally understanding why people of African descent are offended by elements in a holiday that, apart from Zwarte Piet, they might be happy to celebrate. It’s a lose-lose situation.
That said, if the UN intervention does effect change, at least the Zwarte Piet I’ve known all my life will be out of my sight.