The Netherlands’ racist blackface tradition needs to go

A woman paints her face as she dresses up as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in Soest, the Netherlands, in October 2013. (EPA/Robin Van Lonkhuijsen)
A woman paints her face as she dresses up as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in Soest, the Netherlands, in October 2013. (EPA/Robin Van Lonkhuijsen)

Ah, holiday time in the Netherlands.  It means pepernoten (holiday cookies), handwritten, personalized poems to give to friends and family, and large parades across the country. But for many cities in the Netherlands, the season of Sinterklaas is not complete without a dash of holiday blackface.

Every year, from late November to early December, the Dutch celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas (the Dutch version of St. Nick) and Zwarte Piet, (Black Pete in English). For decades, Dutch people have dressed up as Zwarte Piet by painting their faces black, giving themselves big red lips and donning curly afro wigs. Sinterklaas is the stern boss, Zwarte Piets are his goofy, acrobatic helpers. Many activists of color within the Netherlands have been resisting and protesting the practice for years. Ever since Dutch-Antillean activist Quinsy Gario was beaten and arrested in Amsterdam for wearing a “Zwarte Piet Is Racism” T-shirt in 2011, the tradition has become subject of increased international attention. Even a U.N. special committee called the Zwarte Piet practice discriminatory, drawing widespread condemnation from Dutch, with death threats sent to the head of the committee.

Some cities have begun to slowly change Zwarte Piet.  This year, Amsterdam officially adopted a Soot Piet, with streaks of black across the face, so it looks like he actually came down a chimney.

But outside of Amsterdam, many Nederlanders are insistent on keeping Black Piet black, with some going to extreme lengths to keep Black Pete black. A school in Utrecht, which banned Zwarte Piet in 2015, had to call police after pro-Zwarte Piet campaigners dressed in blackface barged into classrooms. They reportedly told some of the teachers to “go back to your country”. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the incident “bizarre”.

*Update* and speaking of extremes, some folks in the Netherlands think Zwarte Piet is so important, they get married in blackface:

Dressing up as a racist blackface charicature is so important in NL that they even marry in it

— Mariquon (@Mariquon) November 28, 2017

Two weeks ago, pro-Zwarte Piet protesters blocked a highway to prevent busloads of protesters from Amsterdam and Rotterdam to enter the town of Dokkum, even though the city had given them permission to march peacefully. According to journalist Frederike Geerdink, who was traveling with the protesters, the police claimed they could not guarantee the safety of the group, and proceeded to escort the buses back in the other direction. Dokkum’s parade, complete with blackface Zwarte Piets, went on as scheduled.

Liberals around the world may be surprised to know that Rutte, (who was praised as a hero in Europe and the U.S. after defeating far-right politician Geert Wilders) said in 2014,  “Zwarte Piet is black and I cannot change that”, adding, “My friends in the Netherlands Antilles are very happy when they celebrate Sinterklaas because they do not have to put paint on their face —  I’m working days to get the paint off my face”.

But what about Dutch children of color who are confronted with Zwarte Piet, racist bullying and stereotypes? The Netherlands has a history of trading on its international image as a progressive, tolerant nation while struggling to deal with societal racism, partially a by-product of its history of trading human slaves. It’s a good thing that some cities are beginning to adjust Zwarte Piet to reflect a more inclusive society. Let’s hope the rest of the Netherlands will catch up, sooner rather than later.

Karen Attiah is The Washington Post's Global Opinions Editor.

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