Zwarte Piet: A Racist Caricature?

I wasn’t going to originally post anything on Zwarte Piet but after seeing discourse after discourse on the holiday of Sinterklaas, I decided to write about it. Ah, where to begin. I celebrated Sinterklaas as a child. Since my parents were from the Dutch Caribbean, we would go every December 5th to the Dutch consulate in New York City and eagerly sit with the other children (we were usually the only children of color) while Sinterklaas handed out our presents. And, of course, to accompany Sinterklaas, this saintly white man who represented a bishop, were his ‘helpers’ or Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). These would usually be men, or women, dressed up in blackface with an Afro wig and bright red lipstick. the legend goes that if you’re bad, Zwarte Piet will take you in his burlap sack to Spain. So naturally I was mortified of Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) as a child. You mean to tell me that this dude who dresses flamboyantly and has this jet black makeup on his face is going to collect me and ship me off to Spain with him? OH HELL NO!!

As I grew up and learned about Golliwogs and Minstrel Shows, I started to notice a pattern. This beloved holiday that I celebrated as part of my ‘heritage’ seemed to overlap a lot with blackface in America. The similarities are undeniable. Originally Zwarte Piet was a representation of the devil. He had no name but the dichotomy between Sinterklaas and the devil figure were supposed to represent the good and evil aspects of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas was modeled after a 4th century bishop, Saint Nicholas, from what is now modern day Turkey. The opposite of Sinteklaas was the devil, whom it is believed Sinterklaas captured and made his slave. The first mention of Zwarte Piet comes in 1850 when Jan Schenkman decides to add his own spin to the story and changes the devil to Zwarte Piet, the enslaved Moor from Morocco. His book, Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht (Saint Nicholas and his Servant) is what is used for the modern day celebrations of Sinterklaas. This is also where you start to see the present day representations of what Zwarte Piet looks like.

Then around the 1950s, they changed him to his servant. All in all, Sinterklaas is supposed to come from Turkey and Zwarte Piet is supposed to be a Moor from Morocco (interesting how some Dutch have negative attitudes towards Turkish and Moroccan people presently due to Geert Wilders’s racist views on Muslims). But now Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet reside in Spain. When people try to start a discourse of the racist aspects of Zwarte Piet (Afro wig, blackface- even though Moors were lighter skinned Arabic, big bright red lipstick, some even speak in a faux Surinamese accent) proponents for Zwarte Piet say that opponents are the racists because they bring in American imperialism and that it’s not a racist image at all. Or they say that Zwarte Piet doesn’t represent black people, he just went down a chimney and got dirty from the soot. I’ve seen Mary Poppins and Dick van Dyke’s character Bert, a chimney sweeper, is dirty from a chimney. Not Zwarte Piet.

So, I’m going to dispel the asinine reactions that you get about Zwarte Piet when you say it’s a racist depiction.

Reason 1: Zwarte Piet does not represent black people. You’re racist for thinking so.

Answer: By wearing a faux Afro Wig, blackface and red lips, who are you supposed to be representing? Unless there is a new ‘race’ out there that has the same stereotypes, I’m sure this is the ‘race’ that is being portrayed. Furthermore, it looks like the golliwogs and blackface of the US that were very prevalent around the time Schenkman’s book came out.

 

Reason 2: He supposed to be a Moor, that’s why we dress like that.

Answer: Historically, the Moors came from Northern West Africa, typically Morocco, to conquer what is now modern day Spain and Portugal. Aside from the stereotypical depictions of Othello and other Moors, Moors were primarily of Berber and Arab descent. This means that they look like what Moroccans look like today, fair skin, somewhat straight hair, no bright red lips.

Reason 3: Zwarte Pieten are black because they go down the chimney and they are black from the soot.

Answer: Unless they have a magical fabric that doesn’t get dirty, this doesn’t prove why his face and hands are evenly toned with black makeup or why his clothes are not dirty. Also, it doesn’t explain how he magically gets a Afro and outrageous red lips if he is just sliding down the chimney. Once again, Bert from Mary Poppins- dirty from going down a chimney. Zwarte Piet- not so much.
Reason 4: You’re the racist one because you bring your American racist attitudes towards our progressive country, Holland. Those images of blackface and golliwogs couldn’t possibly have made it to Holland because it was the 1800s and there wasn’t any technology to bring those images.

Answer: Well, unless Jan Schenkman and other Dutch people were living under a rock, these images could have easily made it to The Netherlands. The Dutch at the time were very influential in the slave trade and all sorts of goodies were being sent and brought back from the New World to the Old. It has been historically proven that racism becomes prevalent during colonialism.  This includes racist stereotypes.

Reason 5: It’s not that serious, it’s just a children’s holiday.

Answer: Well, when children are being brought up with racist stereotypes, it is a big issue. Especially when a protester gets arrested like this:

It’s a big issue because when people, such as Quinsy Gario, get arrested by having one officer dig a knee into your side and another into your neck, it’s a big issue. Or when you are dragged by four policemen into an alley, it’s a problem. The girl in the background speaking in Papiamentu is saying that it’s messed up what they did to this guy because he was just standing there in a tranquil manner when they arrested him. She also said they she believes that they assaulted the other person that he was with (not seen in the video). The guy is saying that he knows that if this was a Dutch person it would have been a different story. Gario and others decided to protest the coming of Sinterklaas by wearing “Sinterklaas is Racisme” t-shirts during Sinterklaas’s welcoming celebration. It is not clear exactly what went on before the video but regardless his arrest was uncivil. He didn’t resist arrest (according to what is seen in the video) yet they treated him like a common criminal. So it is a big issue and perhaps while we are in the Sinterklaas season (ending on Decmeber 6th), the Netherlands can finally have a proper discourse on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. He was not originally part of the tradition so there is no excuse why they can’t find common ground to dispel this racist imagery.

Here is another article explaining the situation: http://www.frontaalnaakt.nl/archives/blackface.html

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Zwarte Piet: A Racist Caricature?

  1. Cara Berger

    Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but moor itself is a racialized term created by Europeans to distinguish Africans from North Africa from the rest of the continent. Europeans felt they were too civilized to be real Africans. It went against their beliefs that Africa was this “dark” continent, full of uncivilized savages. For the same reason they denied that Egypt was a part of Africa for many years (It’s still differentiated from the rest of Africa to this day by people, whether knowingly or not). I only note this because at times it sounds like you’re using moor as an ethnic group

    • KeishaKeish

      I’m not sure if my reply went through but I’ll put it up again. Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely right in that the term Moor is a socially constructed word to separate North Africans from the rest of the African continent. I just wanted to clarify what Northern Africans looked like and how it was useless to base a racist caricature on the imagined image (even though no African or African derived person actually looks like Zwarte Piet). But the intention was not to use the term as an ethnic group.

      • Cara Berger

        Thanks for your response. That is the point I assumed you were making, however, I found that it wasn’t entirely clear in your answer to reason #2.

  2. Pingback: Pop Culture Wednesday: Blogs to Watch Out For « UpRoot

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