Blackface in the Name of Tradition: Calling into Question the Notion of Dutch Tolerance
Foreign Correspondent in the Netherlands, Iona Brunker, discusses the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, its controversial ties with blackface and how it is being adapted today.
Upon stepping off my flight at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport to start my year abroad, I was pretty confident that I had a vaguely good idea of the notion of ‘Dutchness’. After a trip to Amsterdam the previous summer and nine months filled with stories from people every time the topic of my year abroad arose, I thought I was well prepared to leap straight into Dutch life. Aside from tulips, canals, stroopwafels and Van Gogh, the Netherlands has a global reputation for tolerance and acceptance in society. The Netherlands was the first country to legalise gay marriage and is well-known for its liberal views on prostitution and soft drugs. Dutchies even have the highest proficiency of English in Europe, showing how welcoming this country is to those of non-Dutch origin and how important they consider their reputation on the international sphere to be.
However, when talking to my new flat mates a mere 48 hours into my stay here about my initial impressions and the key things I should know about Dutch culture, the topic of Sinterklaas arose. “Oh, just wait until it gets nearer to Christmas – you won’t be able to avoid it” my new flat mate remarked, with the same exasperated tone that I have whenever someone asks me about my views on Brexit. From that point onwards, Sinterklaas, which literally translates to Saint Nicholas, has infiltrated many conversations I’ve had in my short time here, working its way into conversations with friends, professors and even casual discussions with friends from back home.
Sinterklaas is a traditional Dutch figure who acts in a Father Christmas-type manner, bringing gifts to children in the Netherlands and Belgium on the 5th of December. He arrives on the shores of the Netherlands during November, supposedly from Spain, and then parades through the streets with his Spanish assistant Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’). This is where an otherwise wholesome festivity turns sour. Zwarte Piet is typically depicted as a Moor, with full blackface, engorged red lips and large hoop earrings, and is presented in two ways: either a jester-like, dim-witted helper, or an authority figure who punishes the bad children on Sinterklaas’ behalf. The traditional story explains Zwarte Piet’s appearance as a result of him becoming covered in soot after climbing down chimneys to deliver gifts. However, anyone can acknowledge that no one would become that covered in soot while still keeping their clothes immaculately clean, if that was the case.
Understandably, this is a highly controversial issue in the Netherlands and the organisation ‘Kick Out Zwarte Piet’ has been campaigning for the removal of blackface from the festivities since 2011, demonstrating at Sinterklaas arrival events in municipalities throughout the country. Kick Out Zwarte Piet is led by Jerry Afriyie, who himself was teased and bullied as a child, with the taunt ‘Dirty Black Pete’ being his bullies’ ammunition because of his Ghanaian heritage, highlighting how this tradition has malicious undertones that children subconsciously pick up on.
Understandably, this is a highly controversial issue in the Netherlands and the organisation ‘Kick Out Zwarte Piet’ has been campaigning for the removal of blackface from the festivities since 2011.
However, just a few weeks ago, a breakthrough appeared to have been made. This year, when Sinterklaas makes his national arrival in the city of Apeldoorn, Zwarte Piets’ faces will be wiped with soot rather than the full blackface makeup. Finally, at last, it appears the ‘most tolerant’ nation in Europe is taking a stand against a racist festivity.
When talking to my friends about the tradition surrounding the blackface makeup, there was general agreement that while Zwarte Piet is a part of Dutch culture, that by no means justifies the use of blackface. “Of course, I am against Zwarte Piet because it makes people uncomfortable, but I also understand why the Dutch find it so problematic” my friend Isabella, who is half-Dutch, remarks. “For something that is so prominent in your culture and tradition, something you grew up with, to suddenly be called out as racist is hard.” For many, traditions and all their idiosyncrasies, appear to be static and are often deeply embedded in a nation’s self-image, so when they are called into question, nations become fiercely defensive. However, in fact, traditions are very fluid – even Sinterklaas. Originally, he arrived from Turkey and Zwarte Piet was of Arabic descent, so it shows that these stories change, like Chinese whispers throughout history. “I don’t see a strong reason to keep the old image – after all, the new way of portraying him with stripes of soot makes more sense given the original story” my flat mate, who is also Dutch, Alex explains. “I think we should stop saying that it’s a ‘piece of our heritage’, admit that it’s a racist portrayal, and switch to a better way of showing Zwarte Piet.”
I think we should stop saying that it’s a ‘piece of our heritage’, admit that it’s a racist portrayal, and switch to a better way of showing Zwarte Piet.
This comes at a time when blackface is increasingly being questioned in society, especially with the revelations emerging about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s go-to fancy dress costume including blackface. However, what is often left out of the story is that blackface is also a Canadian tradition, so it appears that the Netherlands is not the only seemingly tolerant society that has a hidden dark side.
It is clear that a blackface Zwarte Piet is an outdated tradition, and if the Netherlands is as forward-thinking and liberal as it professes, and rightly so in most cases, then the transition to a sooty Zwarte Piet should have come a lot sooner. While the actual tradition may not be intending to hurt anyone, what it represents is offensive to a number of people and that, for one, should not be tolerated. As my friend quipped when we were discussing Sinterklaas for this article – at the end of the day, tradition is just peer pressure from dead people.