Another two cents on Black Pete

I’ve only been back in Holland for a week and already I’ve got a severe case of man flu (despite being female). My nose is blocked, my throat is scratchy and my ears are sore. This is coming from someone who never gets sick – three years on the road with hardly a sniffle – hence why I’m terming it my own version of man flu. I’m annoying even myself.

This means that over the past couple of days, I’ve watched plenty of television and faffed around a lot online. The biggest story nationwide at the moment is, you guessed it, Black Pete. If you don’t know who Black Pete is, or ‘Zwarte Piet’ as he’s called here, check out what I wrote in 2011 and then again in 2012. These blogs haven’t made me too popular here, let’s just say.

In a nutshell, Black Pete is Sinterklaas’ (the original Dutch Santa Claus) helper, or slave. He’s usually represented as a cartoon or through average Dutchies painting their faces black and lips ruby red, donning afro wigs and dressing up as court jesters. They look ridiculous, which is the whole point of blackface, which was a type of theatre popular in the nineteenth century.

4103324204 9ca49f146d z Another two cents on Black Pete

But it’s not the nineteenth century anymore. It’s not even the 1980s, when golliwogg dolls were still popular in Australia and I had one among my stuffed doll collection. Now the United Nations has put their two cents in on the matter, and it thinks the whole charade is a bit racist too. The Dutchies, unsurprisingly, are none too happy about this.

The United Nations, bless their cotton socks, has not exactly gone about their criticisms in the most constructive way. Verene Shepherd, who is chairing the UN Human Rights Commission’s panel on the issue, has become the number one public enemy in the country in a matter of days. She’s been quoted saying, for example,

The working group does not understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery, and that in the 21st century this practice should stop.

You know what, Ms Shepherd? When I moved to the Netherlands three years ago, I couldn’t understand it either. I really didn’t get how people who are seen as some as the most liberal and politically-correct people in the world had totally missed the memo on blackface.

But they did. All sixteen million of them. And now they’re more united on this than anything I’ve ever seen before. They are adamant that Sinterklaas and Black Pete are central to their culture. When do you ever see an entire nation in agreement on something, bar perhaps a football match?

But it’s true. In less than two days, more than 2 million people have already signed the ‘Pietitie’ (the ‘Piet petition’) on Facebook, including just about every Dutch person I know.

So you can’t yell ‘racist’ from the sidelines, Ms Shepherd. Two million people aren’t racist. Little kids with black paint on their faces personally aren’t racist. That’s just going to make a whole country (oh yeah, and the dear Flems over the border) crack it, big time.

I used to be flat-out against Black Pete, as I just didn’t understand the tradition. Now I understand it – the fact that Piet-mania every November is something akin to Beatle-mania – so I tolerate it. But I don’t have to like it.

One thing I’ve learnt is that I can’t call the whole Black Pete thing racist. You can’t ban Black Pete. It’s not going to achieve anything. Instead, I’ve tried chipping away at the edges and this is when I’ve at least gotten a few slow nods from locals. For example, why can’t Black Pete just be Pete? Why can’t he lose the lipstick, afro wig and black paint? Keep the court jester outfit. Then Pete remains, doesn’t he? Because I can’t identify if it’s Black Pete that is supposedly so central to Dutch culture, or simply Pete, Sinterklaas’ helper. Maybe that’s where there can be a debate, rather the current Black Pete versus the UN battle that is clearly quite one-sided here.

The Dutch have well and truly played their culture card. In the nineteenth century, even sometimes in the twentieth, blackface used to be no big deal. But the whole world’s watching now and this debate ain’t going away. 

7 Responses to Another two cents on Black Pete

  1. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas October 25, 2013 at 8:58 AM #

    In Spain, this sort of thing happens with King Balthasar during the epiphany, too. I’ve been asked to participate in the parades, but that would require me to paint my face, and I’m not into that.
    Cat of Sunshine and Siestas recently posted..Preguntas Ardientes: Is an International Bank Account Right for Me?My Profile

    • Caitlyn October 28, 2013 at 10:31 AM #

      Yes, I have seen photos of that! I totally understand why you wouldn’t want to participate – I wouldn’t ever want to ‘fully’ dress up as Black Pete!

  2. Dirk Bontes October 28, 2013 at 3:18 AM #

    I am Dutch.

    Quote: “For example, why can’t Black Pete just be Pete? Why can’t he lose the lipstick, afro wig and black paint?”

    Piet is black; it is as simple as that. He has been black for thousands of years. The afro wig is simply an – incorrect – interpretation of another of his attributes: long, unkempt hair, sticking out. Feel free to make your own non-afro wig that presents those attributes. I do not know that his red lips are one of his thousands of years old attributes. They may have been recently added for aesthetic reasons. I rather suspect, though, that we all these thousands of years omitted to put soot or charcoal on our lips and that the lipstick used these days simply intensifies that custom. If indeed it is an enhanced characteristic, then by definition it is art.

    Zwarte Piet does not have anything to do with people from Africa, nor with slavery. Nor is he a racist. Nor is Sinterklaas a racist.

    • Caitlyn October 28, 2013 at 10:29 AM #

      Hi Dirk. Thanks for your comments! As I said in the blog, I do not think that Dutch people are racist by supporting the character of Black Pete. However, I’m not sure if you understand what I was saying with regards to ‘why can’t Black Pete just be Pete?’ I think you have misunderstood my point, which is, why can’t Pete be Pete without having the ‘Black’ before his name? Plain ‘Pete’ does not therefore equal ‘White Pete’; I just believe he doesn’t need his race referred to in his name.

      I don’t particularly agree with another few points that you raise. For example, Black Pete has not been black for thousands of years. The character was created in the 1850s, when blackface as a type of theatre/entertainment was also created. Black Pete’s unkempt hair and large red lips are therefore not an adaptation of a millennia-old character but rather a perfect example of the then-new blackface. Your later reference to charcoal, I am guessing, is a throwback to the late twentieth century adaption of the Black Pete story, away from his previous link to the Moors of Northern Africa to something more politically correct. This again nullifies your claim that Black Pete ‘has been black for thousands of years’.

      Contrary to your claim, Black Pete does have a lot to do with ‘people from Africa’. Traditionally he is Moorish; ie the people from Northern Africa who invaded Spain in the eighth century and set up a kingdom which lasted until the fifteenth century. It is common knowledge that Sinterklaas is from Spain, hence the historical link. I do agree with you that the historical character of Black Pete does not have anything to do with slavery (though nitpickers would say that the Black Petes are not paid by Sinterklaas for their work) like most blackface characters originating from the United States do. However, as I alluded to before, Black Pete was created when blackface itself was created, which was a way of visually and dramatically making fun of black slaves in America’s South. You cannot analyse Black Pete without looking at the broader, general blackface character, which has everything to do with slavery.

      Lastly, you say that Black Pete isn’t a racist, nor is Sinterklaas. That’s your opinion. Racism, pardon the pun, isn’t black and white. What may seem racist to one person may seem perfectly legitimate to another. The hardest part in this debate, I feel, is for Dutch people to look at the other viewpoint without automatically thinking it’s all an assault on their culture.

  3. Dirk Bontes October 28, 2013 at 11:03 PM #

    Zwarte Piet is a complicated archetype who has many guises and many names all over the world and throughout all times since his birth more than three and a half thousand years ago. To know this archetype it is necessary to look quite a bit further than one’s own nose is long. His very old age is proven by the fact that “he is black as soot – and it cannot be washed away”. The people who first remarked that, had no concept of pigment. Can you imagine having no knowledge of any other skin tone than that of the light skin of Europeans and suddenly to be confronted with a pitch black supernatural being? What other conclusion could they draw than that Piet was black because he was dirty? And can you imagine their surprise to learn that this dirt could not be washed away?
    The facts about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are prone to misconceptions. Sure Sinterklaas is from Spain – but it is not from the Spain that we know, nor from any former Spanish territory. He is from a now mythical Spain. Neither is Zwarte Piet from the continent Africa that we know: he is from a now mythical Africa.
    The best thing for a lay person is to simply accept all the facts about Sinterklaas as true. Thus Sinterklaas is transported by a steamboat from Spain to The Netherlands, and he – in his guise of Santa Claus – is also transported from the North Pole to Earth by a flying sled. And of course he is Turkish, too. All of those three facts about Sinterklaas are true. Are you confused? Can’t believe it?
    Yes, Zwarte Piet is a Moor – but he doesn’t have anything to do with the Moors from North Africa or from Spain. It is simply another of the misconceptions and misinterpretations that adhere to his archetype.
    Do not be beguiled by the illusions and superficialities that cling to these immortal beings, and by their many guises. For example: have you ever heard about the Zwarte Klazen (Black Clauses)? Those have similar attributes as Zwarte Piet, one of them being having a black skin, and they were present in The Netherlands long before the nineteenth century. It is pretty clear that Zwarte Klaas and Zwarte Piet both represent the same archetype.

    • Caitlyn October 29, 2013 at 12:04 AM #

      Dirk, thank you again for your comments. You have managed to respond in a way that doesn’t address any of the points I brought up in my response to you and I think you have gone quite off-topic.

      Just quickly, I am still not buying your claim of Black Pete’s ‘birth’ 3,500 years ago. It is widely acknowledged that the character was created in the book ‘Sint Nicolaas en zijn Knecht’ in the mid-nineteenth century, at the very same time as the creation of blackface in the United States and in Europe. Nor do I believe your arguments of a ‘mythical Africa’ are helpful, but are rather used here as an attempted distraction from the real debate. This is a twenty-first century debate, and the xenophobia of previous Europeans does not justify the use of blackface today.

  4. George Berger October 14, 2014 at 3:16 PM #

    Hallo. I am a Dutch citizen, bornin America, who has spent most of his life in Amsterdam. I am now a permanent resident od Sweden. Forget a second about the origins of ZP, but consider his influence today. Such a character normalises stereotypes that ensure that many Dutch people see themselves as different from others, and in a positive way. This can, and probably does, enforce xenophobia, which need not be racism. Right now fascism, neo-Nazism and all sorts of xenophobia are growing in strength throughout the EU. The normalisation of ZP can contribute to a new holocaust, a modern version of the one that let the Germans murder my Dutch family. With the help of Dutch collaborators, who probably just loved Zwarte Piet.

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