Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Dutch Christmas with Zwarte Pieten in Blackface

From Forbes, "The Unbearable Whiteness of Piet-ing: Dutch Santa's Blackface Elves," by John Giuffo (Contributor), on 4 December 2012 -- Christmastime in Amsterdam has a special kind of magic, and a unique kind of controversy.

White lights slide down buildings and arch across shopping streets, multiplying their twinkle in canal reflections. No garish multi-color, animatronic ego contests anywhere. You will hear Christmas music, but you’re not assaulted, and dreams of restraining orders against Bing Crosby never fill your head (unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of his children). No one is trampled in shopping frenzies, no one gets arrested for assaulting line-cutters, and the gift giving comes in early December, separate from the more low-key holiday of the 25th. Family members write sardonic poems for each other. Poems! Glühwein – a sort of hot Christmas sangria – warms hands and bellies. And Sinterklaas arrives not on a reindeer-pulled sleigh laden with loot, but on a white horse, accompanied by a small cohort of his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes – white revelers coated in blackface.

For many American visitors who first witness the tradition, it can be jarring, to say the least. This year, Sint, as he’s commonly known, arrived in Amsterdam on Sunday, November 18, where he paraded through the central canal ring, greeted by ecstatic crowds and hyper-excited kids in the thousands. (He’ll make his way through towns across the country until December 5, when he visits the country’s children, leaves gifts, and takes the carrots they leave in their shoes for his hungry steed).

Followed by dozens of his “helpers,” the Christmas saint and his white horse trotted south along with the Petes, who tossed pepernoten, small ginger cookies, to children lining the parade route. Black, brown, or white, most Dutch kids and their parents love their Santa and are quick to defend him. But those unfamiliar with the practice are often taken aback.

One young American traveler, stopping in Amsterdam during her first trip through Europe, happened upon the parade by chance on her way to check into her hotel room, and had a conversation with her mother via Skype that sounded – from my side of the shared paper-thin hotel wall – all too familiar (I wasn’t creeping, I was reporting): “Mom, it was crazy. Apparently their Santa rides a horse, and there were all these white people with blackface around him. I looked it up when I got in, and they’re called Black Petes,” she said, half incredulous, half nervous laughter. “It was so racist!”

But is it?

The answer is more complicated than it would seem, especially for Americans, who along with our luggage bring with us the baggage of a past full of Al Jolsons and Ted Danson Friar’s Club roasts. University of Southern Mississippi sorority girls aside, it’s pretty well understood in 21st century America that painting a white face black is offensive, and will usually land the ersatz minstrel in hot water.

But how much of a role does intent play in defining an action as racist? If a politician thinks “it would be helpful to be Latino,” and darkens his skin when addressing Latino constituents (some might argue “appear to darken,” but come on), is that racist? The cast members of “Jersey Shore” spend what seems like half their residuals on tanning salons, but few would see that as evidence of questionable racial views, though most view it as evidence of questionable taste.

Flip it around. The Wayans Brothers might have committed a crime against comedy with their 2004 movie, “White Chicks,” but without a history of institutionalized rape, murder, and oppression by black people against white people, it’s difficult to see the movie as racist – although some have argued that it is. “’White Chicks’ is nothing more than a female ‘Amos and Andy’ with the races reversed,” wrote Kevin Carr at Film Threat, but he also admits that he wasn’t offended. Without a doubt, it’s a raw-dog root canal of a flick, and the Wayans’ whiteface doesn’t pass the uncanny valley test – they look creepy as hell – but it’s hard to be offended by anything other than the lack of humor and the movie’s $113 million global gross (you disappoint me, Earth).

Eddie Murphy’s iconic “Saturday Night Live” short about going undercover as a white man retains its punch and hilarity almost 30 years later, precisely because he’s turning the racist blackface trope on its head. His padawan, Dave Chappelle, plumbed similar terrain to fantastic effect. So intent unquestionably determines the offensiveness of painting one’s face a different color, but so does history. And the Dutch have a different history.

Like the cast of one big minstrel street show, the Black Petes, decked out in their most colorful 17th-century gear, shook hands, posed for photos with families, and, in Amsterdam’s version of an annual ritual held all over the country, danced to club music blasting from a mobile DJ booth parade float. Poses were struck, some silly, some uncomfortably stereotypical (an example, but not from the parade).

According to tradition, Sint is accompanied by six to eight “black” men – initially, Moors from Spain (actually, Bari, Italy, which Spain owned at the time) – who weren’t Nick’s helpers as much as they were his slaves. Most European cultures welcome a version of St. Nicholas in one way or another this time of year, and many also feature a tradition of a “bad” or evil companion who wields the stick against naughty children when the carrot doesn’t work. In Austria, there’s the Krampus, a devil-yeti who follows St. Nick on his routes and ensures that the insolent children are placed in burlap sacks and beaten with reeds (pretty standard, really). In much of Germany, he appears as Knecht Ruprecht, or Servant Rupert, who leaves behind sticks in the shoes of bad children – gifts for their parents to engage in sanctioned child abuse. Puts a lump of coal in the stocking in context, doesn’t it?

Book cover

Black Pete’s origins lie here in this common mythology, shaped by time and by imperial domination of the Netherlands under Spanish Habsburg rule. Dutch Calvinism didn’t go in for such idolatry, so the tradition was kept alive but low key in the Netherlands until 1850, when Jan Schenkman wrote “St. Nicholas and His Servant,” the first Dutch book where the modern version of the steamboat-traveling Spanish gift-giver and his black servants appear. Its illustrations are the first depictions of Black Pete as he’s known today, and the images of the extra-darkened imp tossing screaming children into sacks and dragging them to Spain seem like the Scared Straight programs of their day.

This sort of caricature of black people was fairly common at the time, and would persist for decades. Winsor McCay’s U.S. comic strip, “Little Nemo in Slumberland”, which he began in 1912, is still celebrated as an unquestionably innovative and groundbreaking work of comics art today, despite the depiction of his “Imp,” a mischievous African cannibal who speaks in gibberish. Al Jolson rode his “Mammy” to greater fame in 1927 with “The Jazz Singer.” By 1993, blackface had been more widely recognized for what it is, so when Ted Danson painted up under cover of supposedly ribald comedy, he damaged his “Cheers” goodwill.

Americans owe our Santa Claus to Sinterklaas, a tradition kept alive by some Dutch settlers and later resurrected by Washington Irving in his “History of New York.” But our version of St. Nick really came into his own because of Clement Clarke Moore, whose 1823 poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” (later renamed “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) pulled together elements of Irving’s book, the historical St. Nicholas, and influence from a Dutch neighbor. The very name Santa Claus itself points to the Dutch origins of our jolly old toymaker. Santa’s helpers appear as elves in the American tradition, traced back to Louisa May Alcott in 1850, but popularized later in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most widely-circulated magazine before the Civil War.

The idea of elves as Santa’s faithful servants (“helpers” implies they have other employment options), compared to a so-called saint’s slaves, seems positively benign. But the same American cultural superiority that clutches at pearls when it encounters Dutch revelers in blackface appears unconcerned by the stereotypical portrayal of dwarves as elves.

Peter Dinklage, who in January won a best supporting actor Golden Globe for his role as Tyrion Lannister – undoubtedly the best character on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” – used his acceptance speech as a platform to call attention to anti-dwarf discrimination and to the plight of Martin Henderson, who was paralyzed after a rugby fan threw him against a wall, following the lead of a popular British rugby player engaged in a controversial round of “dwarf tossing.”

“Dwarves are still the butt of jokes,” Dinklage later told The New York Times. “It’s one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice. Not just by people who’ve had too much to drink in England and want to throw a person. But by media, everything.” The same profile made a point of describing Dinklage’s lean years, before earning fame in the charming and quiet indie film, “The Station Agent.” As a struggling actor in an unheated Brooklyn dump, he refused offers to appear in commercials as one of Santa’s elves, and he paid the price in potato chip dinners. He’s also the only prominent dwarf actor to be given the chance to chew up meaty roles that don’t play up his size to comedic effect – though Tyrion is bitingly funny, his height informs his character’s frustrations about being the smartest man in the room while at the same time being dismissed because of his stature.

The Netherlands continues to struggle with race-based resentment over immigration – a fact which played a role in the rise in popularity of Geert Wilders, (diminished recently with the election of a new governing coalition in September) a far-right politician who advocates banning immigration from Muslim countries. Organizations based in the U.S., such as FrontPage and The Middle East Forum, a pro-Israeli think tank, have provided funding for Wilders’ political party, The Party for Freedom. Segregation and a marked lack of assimilation by many immigrants fuels this divide, and the Dutch find themselves arguing over what it means to be Dutch. But there are plenty of Dutch entertainers and public figures of all shades who aren’t limited to jobs as Black Petes, although almost all politicians in national government are white.

For some Americans, the question of the racist nature of the Black Petes is settled. Jessica Olien, a recent émigré to the Netherlands, described them in a Slate piece last year as a straight-up racist tradition. She does a decent job of explaining the history, pointing to the colonization of Suriname and Indonesia, and the key role the Dutch West India Company played in the slave trade. She also highlights a couple of incidents where critics of the Black Petes have been arrested or prevented from displaying their artwork. But she fails to fairly describe the opinions of Dutch people who, while acknowledging the insensitivity of the Petes, nonetheless view it as relatively innocuous because the costumes are not based in racist hatred, but in tradition.

“Because the Dutch don’t have that intent, it is actually mostly in good fun and without a core racism and demeaning feelings behind [the Petes],” says Andrew Moskos, owner and one of the founders of Boom Chicago, a popular English-language improv comedy venue located in one of the city’s most heavily-trafficked squares. But as an American expat living in Amsterdam for the past two decades, Moskos is also ambivalent about the Black Petes. That tension is at the heart of the troupe’s newest show, “There’s No Such Thing as Sinterklaas,” which turns on the complications and contradictions inherent in the holiday. Pointing to the perennial controversy over the Black Petes within the Netherlands, Moskos says their sarcastic take on the tradition is nothing new. Jordan Peele, half of Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele,” recorded a funny video during his stint at Boom almost a decade ago. Titled “Zwarte Piet Revolution (Christmas in Holland),” the song uses Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” as a jumping-off point for a story about two Black Petes who’ve had enough of Sinterklaas’ crap.

Moskos points out that during a video shoot for one of Boom Chicago’s comedic Sinterklaas clips, black children and their parents had some of the most enthusiastic reactions to the Petes he’s seen. At the parade I attended, black children were just as excited as the others, although a photo I took of one of the Petes hoisting a young black girl up to give Sint a poem just…feels wrong. “It’s not racist because the intent’s not there, but it is, I would say, offensive,” says Moskos.

Dimitri Tokmetzis, a journalist and the publisher of Sargasso, a Dutch news site, agrees. “I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface,” he says (Disclosure: Tokmetzis is a friend and a stand-up guy). “On the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well.”

“So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues,” says Tokmetzis.

An estimated 85 percent of Dutch people travel abroad, so they’re no strangers to the traditions of other cultures (embarrassing when compared to the one-third of Americans who hold passports), or to the growing criticism from the United States, the U.K., and Canada, where the Black Petes are almost universally reviled, or, at best, interpreted as some sort of evidence of Dutch insularity. But Netherlanders realize their Petes are problematic, and the debate within the country grows each year. A popular newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, published a story last week looking at the criticisms of Boom Chicago’s show. And articles such as Olien’s Slate piece receive widespread, if sometimes defensive, coverage.

In an attempt to modernize the Black Petes, some people have begun painting themselves in a rainbow of face paint colors, with blue and green Petes substituting for their more problematic predecessors. Others have switched explanations and try to argue that the Petes are black because of the chimney soot that’s an occupational hazard – but only for their hands and faces, not their colorful, pristine clothing.

How exactly does one change a Christmas tradition? Does an entire country decide overnight that this fairytale told to children is poisonous and racist, and try to reshape ritual? How do you tell a kid that Santa is an offensive asshole?

“There is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might think,” says Jessica Silversmith, director of the regional Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam, in an interview with Toby Sterling of the Associated Press today. Where her office has traditionally received one or two complaints about the Black Petes a year, she expects hundreds of complaints this year.

Tokmetzis agrees that the debate over the Zwarte Pieten is growing, and it’s clear that while the Dutch cling fervently to their ages-old Christmas traditions, something will have to change. What’s unclear is how long those changes will be in coming, and to what extent they will alter the characterizations of Sinterklaas’ blackface elves.

Until then, get used to seeing news and opinion fueled by sanctimonious outrage from people who don’t seem to get as worked up about our own offensive holiday traditions. As someone of Italian-American heritage, I can’t begin to describe my anger and frustration at the annual Columbus Day parade thrown and attended by idiots too blinded by their own ethnic pride to pause and realize they’re celebrating a genocidal profiteer. And while we’re at it, we might also benefit from a culturally-introspective pause at the end of November as well.

“Many national celebrations have their own uncomfortable truths in them,” Tokemetzis reminds us. “You just celebrated Thanksgiving, although the Native Americans probably didn’t have much to be thankful about. I don’t think many American families are willing to change their Thanksgiving rituals to a more PC version.”

Be careful when lobbing judgement, is the point. Glass houses and all. (source: Forbes)


  1. Last Saturday the protesters in Amsterdam and Antwerp at the 'joyful arrival of Sinterklaas' gave the children the impression that people with a strange sounding name (Muslim name) were not only against St Nicholas but find it all right to jell dirty words, shout to get their way, pushing and knock at people who think differently than them. They also gave the impression that most coloured and mainly North Africans are against society and find it justified to injure people and chanting ugly words to get what they want society to be. They could give the impression to the children that many immigrants in overcrowded prisons actually represent rightfully the other coloured, because they want to make people believe that such coloured people cannot do good deeds like the black Petes and black Metes perform.
    Strange that those who want people to really consider Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) to be a representation of the truth, want the kids to believe that dirty people or people of colour or people with a different accent and good managers might not be able to succeed in running excellent companies that make quality materials, may accomplish packing, good shipment and can take care that everybody gets in good order that what they want.
    The hotheads looking to kick on a tradition that has nothing to do with truth are worse than those Christians who want people to believe that Jesus was not a Jew or a coloured Palestinian. They insist that one has to keep the lies of a Saint Nicholas, but may not show that black people can be good people. Soon they will also argue that the Moors did not conquered Spain, like there are others who argue that the Crusaders did not have murdered and plundered and that the Holocaust did not exist.

    1. You're all over the place with your argument. If you are concerned about the protestors in Amsterdam, then it is up to the government and it's legislators to mandate how peaceful protests are to be registered.

      If your concern is about the clean white children having their hopes dashed visa vi the dirty, people of color with a different accents with strange sounding Muslim names. Then you need to back it up a bit. Firstly, people of color are not dirty. They are brown. That is caused by melanin that helps protect against the rays of the sun, kind of like a sunblock SPF100. That is what God gave all people of color to protect against the ravages of premature ageing and skin cancer. That's not dirt, that's God's love. As far as Muslims protesting Christmas -- What? Maybe, I missed something along the way, but does Islam celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ. I live in the USA where our First Amendment guarantees Freedom of Religion, so the Muslims in the USA neither celebrate Christmas, nor do they protest Christmas celebrations. Everybody does their thing in the USA.

      I don't quite understand why the people in your neck of the woods don't seem to understand that your own history of slavery and discrimination cast a long shadow. Your country was NEVER innocent in the slave trade, in the slave factories, in colonization and exploitation of Africa or South America or Indonesia. Your country's wealth was stolen from the labor and the lands of people from far flung regions. So, yes those people might get a little testy when confronted with the buffoonery of blackface.

      Perhaps you don't know the history of your country, but that's no excuse, since it's just a Google search away. Enjoy your holidays!

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

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  3. Dear Ron, Sorry for my spelling, I am Dutch, and white girl 28 years old, thank you for your blog.
    Growing up with the Sinterklaas tradition (which is mostely for children between 2-10 and we were more busy with familie being together than the tradition) In schools the theme is more present. I remember being scared of sinterklaas but always wanting to be and looking up to "zwarte piet" becouse they were joyfull, spontanious and really athletic. I understaind if this sounds stupid but this is how me and many of my friends interpreted it as a child, you wanted to get the attention from zwarte piet becouse he had the sack of candy. There have been studies that prove that the children dont even see the difference between a black or white or different coloured pete ( some make rainbow coloured faces etc.) as long as they act like a really bubly figure and wear the colourfull 16th centrury costume. but it is the parents that make a problem out of changing it. I think it has to do with that some people feel like they will lose their own happy memories and they think it will be affected if they have to look at it as racist for they were not aware. Which sounds really narrow minded to me, I am so sorry some people are so dumb when it comes to different cultures. What I feel is that it is stupid to continue this way with colouring pete black, especially now that people are more aware, the children do not mind. I think it is racist if you do it now, there has been to much information about how some people feel and the history to continue practicis like this. it does not add anything to the tradition to colour pete in a black colour. And alsow I am one of the first students to learn about slavery and harm done by the Dutch in highschool, this was in 2008, before it was ignored so many who want to keep black pete are uninformed and above 30. A lot is stil not admitted or thought about the slavery.



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