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Who – or what – is Zwarte Piet?

November 18th, 2010

Filed under: LIFESTYLE

Zwarte Piets at the Sinterklaas parade

Zwarte Piets are white people with blackface paint on their faces. You can’t be serious!
Okay, please don’t groan if you’re reading this and you happen to be Dutch! But, a couple of minutes googling anyone can gather reams of stories on how wrong expats regard the Zwarte Piet characters. You too can sit alongside and be horrified by the inherent wrongness of it all. For many newbies to the lowlands, Zwarte Piet represents Dutch multi-cultural hypocrisy, which according to one source, encourages regular citizens to condone blackface practice and “illustrate the passive-aggressiveness of the Dutch character”. Being Australian myself, I’ll admit when I first arrived I bore my own brand of speechlessness. I thought it an outrageous failure of the Dutch to not see how wrong their depiction of Zwarte Piet was.

Old School blackface

Ask yourself who the real villain and victim is here
But that’s the thing. I’ve come to a new country and my reaction shows how I see Zwarte Piet; my prejudices, my knowledge of history, the attachment I put to sensitive issues like apartheid and slavery. Here’s a challenge: how can I adjust my sense of reality and become objective enough to imagine being really truly Dutch? Just a quick recap – Sinterklaas is Saint Nicholas, best known in the west for being patron saint of children. He lives in Spain and comes to the Netherlands every year in November to give pressies to the good kids on the eve of his birthday, which is on 6 December. And ach, we are so malleable while we are mere babes. The collusion  committed by adults here is thorough – and possibly devastating to children all over the country. For example there is a  Sinterklaas Journaal website and daily news show; all the parents play the Sint in their way on the big day; older kids like to volunteer as Zwarte Piet at the parades around town. How is that different to the Santa Claus lie that Aussies and Americans perpetrate every December? Okay, Dutch parents do make a concession to reality when they say that the obvious Sinterklas and Zwarte Piet impostors in the shops are just “helpers” because the real Sint and Zwarte Piets can’t be in more place than once. However, when a kid turns 8 years old or so the scales are brutally ripped from their tender eyes and the parents say “The jig’s up. We’ve been tricking you since you were born. There is no Sinterklaas. It was us all along. And his helpers, the Zwarte Piets? That was the neighbours. (Wearing shoepolish on their faces and wearing moorish-style costumes).” I think the kids are more damaged by the shock of having been so bitterly deceived, that they don’t really pay much mind to the political correct questionability of the “black-skinned helpers” of the Sint.

Supernatural values and behaviours
I asked a good Dutch friend of mine, straight up, what the Zwarte Piet thing is all about. She said “To us, Zwarte Piets are not people.” Woah. That sounds so wrong in every way. “They’re like superhuman, or like supermen. Or elves. I mean, you see humans dressing up as Zwarte Piet but it’s like seeing someone dress up as the Incredible Hulk or Tinkerbell. You don’t expect the person to actually be a giant green person in order to be the Hulk, nor do you expect a person to shrink to a hundredth of their size to impersonate a fairy. The black paint on the Zwarte Piet’s skin is meant to be black, not brown.” I nodded politely and said, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, I see, yes. I think I understand …” I’ve been really trying to get this concept into my head, and while it’s still wandering around the recesses of my brain trying to find a spot there, I’ve gotta say I still get a bit heebie-jeebied-out when I see those black (and often brown, I must say) faces plastered all over shop windows and cheerful little human faces schminked black under brightly colored feathered hats.

Who shall cast the first stone?
But yeah, outside of the Netherlands, we in the Western world have grown up watching films casting children or little-people actors playing munchkins, oomploompas or Santa’s elves and … we’re fairly blind to that. They are usually cast as sidekicks to someone old and wise, firm but fair (okay, not in the case of Willy Wonka, but otherwise, you know what I mean), whilst these specially casted (oh dear, pardon the pun) actors usually play the naughty, cheeky and undisciplined comic relief. So the Dutch Zwarte Piet is just a cultural oddity and every country’s entitled to its quirks, right? Even though it doesn’t sit with me and I’ll never understand it, it’s just a fact of life here. One thing that I also have noticed is that the Dutch are a deeply secular society with weak links to the past before WWI. To be specific, in my experience many references to the bible are widely not known, even by those who call themselves “Roman Catholic”; and if those stories have never really been internalised by the people, why would the Spanish occupation and Europe’s long history of Christianity and Muslim influences from hundreds of years yore mean anything today?

Zwarte Piet paves the way for the elves’ annual fifteen minutes of fame
My advice to the newly arrived is to brace yourself whenever the second half of November swings around. Just hold your breath, count to ten, smile through your teeth and let it just slide on by –  in a few weeks  Zwarte Piet will be gone, and so will the Sint and his steed Amerigo. Personally? I’m just hanging out for it to begin to feel a lot more like Christmas and see pointy-eared elves have their turn in the limelight.

Shudder ... Christmas elves - are they really less offensive?

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