Saturday, November 20, 2010

Zwarte Piet

Few things shock American (in a continental sense--yes, that includes Canuks) expats more than the appearance of Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands in November. I've been living here for three years and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.

For those of you who don't know the legend: Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands on November 5 every year with Zwarte Pieten to help him out. Together, the dynamic duo (technically dynamic multitude, as Sinterklaas has many Zwarte Pieten) compile a list of good kids and bad kids, and on December 5, the good kids are rewarded with a present in their shoe, while the bad ones are dragged off to Spain.

What makes the whole thing so surreal is that, in the Netherlands, the Zwarte Pieten are played entirely by white people putting on blackface, something that would get any Caucasian person anywhere else in the world hung, drawn, and quartered. In the US, where race is a hypersensitive issue--all you have to do to get kicked out of any prominent position is to make a remark that could be construed as racist--such a practice would border on suicidal lunacy. It still makes me a little afraid when I see a Zwarte Piet in full regalia, although for some reason I don't feel the same way when little kids (minus makeup) get dressed up in the funny hat and costume.

This is doubly odd, because I've only had a few encounters with racism in the Netherlands, and all by stupid young kids who don't know their asses from their elbows. Most people are merely surprised when I tell them I'm from the US, which is understandable. I've caught more flak for being Asian by taking a one-way trip in the subway in Philly than I have in three years of living here. And all of the incidents, in Philly and the Netherlands, have been from non-white people.

So call it karmic vengeance, or balancing the cosmic scales of small inequities, when I fail to get riled up over the Zwarte Pieten. It's a silly practice, I agree, and if Sinterklaas is as awesome as he is he can damn well do his job without helpers. But frankly, in terms of being offensive, few things are worse than failing to walk the talk.


  1. Even Santa needs helpers and he uses midgets! You can misconstrue anything if you really want to ;) I think the Pieten are funny and they've certainly opened my eyes to how certain cultures react to others. And at this point, I'm going for naughty so I get carted off to Spain - sun and warm weather!!

  2. @ Tiffany: I myself rank Pieten as about the same level of ZOMGness as kroketten (hmm, that's a blog post if there ever was one). But a lot of people (not all of them expats) get incredibly worked up over it.

  3. I still watch in amazement as the Pieten band goes by, knowing that the NAACP and Jessie Jackson would be FREAKING out if this little group paraded in Philly. (ok and then there would be riots, oh, and fires). But part of me is proud of the Dutch for upholding their traditions; political correctness be damned.

  4. Over the years I've come to see it like this:

    It's not racist. The Dutch are not trying to be cruel with it or take the micky out of any other race. At best it is insensitive but I don't really believe that either. Most the people who I know who have had a problem with it are the ones who don't know anything about the tradition, the reasons behind it or the fact that Zwarte Piet is a very loved character and held in high regard.

    To me the idea of something being racist has two sides to it. The intent that something is racist and the received feeling that something is racist. I don't think the Dutch have any intent to be racist with Zwarte Piet (not that I am trying to dismiss anyone who feels it is racist).

  5. @ Stu:

    The Pieten still make me cringe on the inside--not because I don't like them or anything (I think they're charming, in the same way that Frosty the Snowman is charming--a kitschy kind of charm)--but because I keep thinking, "Man, if they did this in Philly..."

  6. I gleefully purchased a whole bunch of swarte piet wrapping paper this year - ALL my American friends are getting gifts wrapped in it, just to start this conversation.

    I think the thing that makes me scrunch my face up is that they ALWAYS use white guys in blackface. Why not just use black actors?

  7. LOL, but that only works if you're sending the presents to arrive on December 5. After that, it's Kerst :-)

  8. Erin, there are a couple of reasons for that:
    1) The parades, arrivals and so on require that many "actors" on one day that there simply aren't enough black people available. I'm pretty sure that at least 3 out of 200 will turn out to be non-white for a certain value of non-white.
    2) Does it matter whether you are black, white, purple under your blackface? Whiteys do outnumber "blacks" in the Netherlands you know.
    3) Without Blackface on TV as black actor? And either ruining the tradition or your chance for a part in all-family or Juvenile productions for the rest of the year? The Blackface serves as a disguise, just like the white beard.
    4)Furthermore, they have done that, using real Dutch speaking "blacks" long ago, but well, THEY had a Surinamese accent, and so the blackface ersatz Pieten imitated that accent AND THAT was again used by the complaining lot to accuse Zwarte Piet of being racist. Quoth the raven: Nevermore

  9. @ Theodore:

    Minorities currently account for almost 20% of the people in the Netherlands. It's true that there aren't that many people of African descent/origin, but race is more than black/white!