You know it’s that time of the year again in Holland, when you are greeted by some Dutch person on the street, whose face is painted completely black and is sporting an afro wig, bright red lips and a ridiculous clown-like costume. What is possibly more strange than this very sight, is the fact that many Dutch person finds it a completely normal and acceptable occurrence. Yes, Dutch people
like love their Zwarte Piets (Black Peter’s)!
Throughout November and early December the beloved Zwarte Piet icon is ubiquitous and can be found manically smiling away at every turn (grocery store flyers, posters, window displays, television commercials, wrapping paper, candy, and so on). The painted black face image is inescapable.
Many western foreigners living or visiting Holland are horrified by such images. Why? Because they naturally conjure up the images of American Blackface: a theatrical practice of the 19th century which propagated racist stereotypes and the mockery of African slaves, and which, appropriately ceased to exist once the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s came into play. Thus the existence of a modern-day nationally-beloved Blackface icon can be associated and/or confused with the racist stereotypes and degrading propaganda of yesteryear.
Sinterklaas is said to have originated from St. Nicolaus, the Bishop of Mira, Turkey. According to the legend, he saved the town from starvation, revived 3 dead children, and offered gifts of dowries to poor girls. The roots of the Zware Piets however, are unclear. Some say these merry helpers are simply black in colour after having gone down the chimneys to deliver presents (really?). Others explain they are “hired helpers”, or simply dark “because they come from Spain”…
Regardless of the explanation, Zwarte Piet’s very presence annually ignites a heated debate amongst Dutch people, tourists, expats and the immigration communities of Holland. Is Zwarte Piet a harmless childhood tradition not worth debating? Or is it an archaic offensive character that no longer has a place in a multicultural society? We’ll keep our opinions to ourselves, but it’s up to YOU to decide!