It Looks Like Dutch Blackface May Finally Be Getting Wiped

Gordon Hurd
Celebrating Sinterklaas in traditional Zwarte Piet blackface. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Celebrating Sinterklaas in traditional Zwarte Piet blackface. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It’s not only in America that the nationalist, populist debate is raging onward — as exemplified in this year’s U.S. presidential elections. There’s plenty of a similar nature going on in the rest of the world. Take the Dutch holiday tradition of so-called Black Pete, for example. Known in his native Netherlands as Zwarte Piet, the holiday character has been a winter tradition in the country for some time, and in recent years the tradition has been met with protest and cries of racism — as one would imagine for any character traditionally portrayed in blackface, with Afro wigs, golden earrings, and bright red lips.

While fans of Black Pete claim the portrayal is not racist and should be preserved as part of tradition, this recent video from Vox.com takes a look at some of these consistent arguments for maintaining a celebration that a fast-growing number of people feel is harmful, racist, and long overdue for a change.

The video disputes the two strongest claims for maintaining a Black Pete character in celebrations: that’s it’s ancient tradition and that it’s not a racist portrayal of a black man, but rather just someone covered in soot.

Zwarte Piet has been a holiday tradition in the Netherlands since the 1850s (Photo by Jaap Arriens/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Zwarte Piet has been a holiday tradition in the Netherlands since the 1850s. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The video points out that Black Pete is, in fact, a relatively recent development among holiday legends. While Sinterklaas stems from stories of St. Nicholas harkening back to the Middle Ages, Zwarte Piet was a modern invention, stemming from a story book from the 1850s, at a time when slavery was quite active in Dutch colonies. And the character was specifically created to represent a Spanish Moor slave.

Sinterklaas, based on St. Nicholas is celebrated every year in the Netherlands (Photo by Jaap Arriens/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Sinterklaas, based on St. Nicholas, is celebrated every year in the Netherlands. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In the stories, one of Zwarte Piet’s jobs was “punishing naughty kids by hitting them with a switch or kidnapping them in a knapsack to take them back to Spain.”

“If you have eyes and a little heart, you would know that this is wrong,” says Jerry Afriyie, a Zwarte Piet protester. ”What we are fighting is institutional racism approved by the government, approved by the police, approved by professionals, approved by schools, everywhere. It’s so much embedded in the whole society that it makes it very difficult to bring changes to it, and everyone is using their power to suppress us, and it’s very difficult.”

Despite the pushback, and even some violence around protests, it appears that parts of Dutch society are ready to move on from the practice. Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas Party, for the first time this year, will eschew blackface and instead feature a new more inclusive spin on Black Pete, namely Chimney Pete. This character will actually have soot on his face and drops the unnecessary — if you claim the character isn’t blackface — grossly exaggerated lips, earrings, and Afro accessories.

As Pam Evenhuis, spokewoman for Amsterdam’s festivities, points out in the Vox video, “Bear in mind the objectives … to have smiles on the faces of the children, to be happy.”

Despite a seeming willingness to change, many experts and followers of the topic fear that the backlash against the changes could be even more harmful than allowing Black Pete to exist as is. As Anna P.H. Guerts, a teacher and researcher in Dutch Studies in the U.K., explains:

A large part of the Dutch public, as well as the political establishment, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte, have responded to criticism with outright denial. They refuse to let their fond memories be tinged with the hateful epithet of racism. Anger at the suggestion that their childhood friend might be a racist fantasy has been running so high that riot police had to be on standby for this year’s opening of the festive season.

It remains to be seen if Chimney Pete will be able to successfully replace the old “childhood friend” in blackface. But this year’s festivities should be a sign of things to come, no matter the outcome.

Dutch actor Patrick Mathurin has protested Zwarte Piete. Here he's dressed as Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) in Amsterdam November 5, 2016. (Photo by Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Dutch actor Patrick Mathurin has protested Zwarte Piete. Here he’s dressed as Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) in Amsterdam Nov. 5, 2016. (Photo by Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)