Decolonizing Zwarte Piet


Darryl Barthe | Race & Ethnicity | Analysis | January 1st, 2018



When I arrived in the Netherlands in March of 2016, I was forewarned by a number of colleagues and friends that the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet would challenge me. I'd seen the images of Dutchmen in blackface handing out candy while dressed as Harlequins, but I honestly had no idea how it would affect me until my daughter came home from school with a little "golliwog" figure that she had colored that day as a part of Sinterklaas festivities. I'd heard the arguments from Prime Minister Mark Rutte's people: this is a "normal" expression of Dutch culture. I'd also heard the arguments from Geert Wilder's people (who really didn't sound so different from Rutte's people, in this regard): anyone who has a problem with this part of Dutch culture should get out of the Netherlands. [1]

I like haring. I like being able to ride a bike everywhere. I like the fact that cannabis is decriminalized and that prostitutes are organized into labor unions. However, I do not like racist caricatures of African people that inspire my neighbor from Djibouti to keep her child home from school rather than allow him to be subjected to cartoonish representations of black people as brutish, goofy, slaves. This dilemma inspired me to look to the origins of Zwarte Piet to interrogate this narrative of golliwogs being integral to some Dutch people's sense of national identity.

The connections between the Germanic god of Magic, War and Rulership, known variously as "Woten," "Woden," and "Odin," and "St. Nicholas," "Father Christmas," "Sinterklaas," and "Santa Clause" are convincingly documented by a number of scholars. The figure of "Sleipnir," Odin's 8-legged horse, is re-imagined in the English poem "The Night Before Christmas," as "eight tiny reindeer," for example. The All-father's habit of visiting unsuspecting families and testing their hospitality is the reason that American children leave Santa milk and cookies ("koekjes," being the original Dutch word; what Americans call "cookies" are called "biscuits" in the UK) and why Dutch children leave hay or carrots for Sinterklaas' horse. It is ironic that this tradition, grounded in a belief in the transcendent, moral, value of hospitality, should be expressed in blackface, a mode of drama and comedy steeped in a history of racist dehumanization and exploitation.

In the case of the "naughty" children -those who do not show the All-father hospitality-there are a number of re-interpretations of the Old Norse myth which involved Odin, in some way, cursing the offenders. All involve some reinterpretation of the mythical "svartalfar," or "dark elves," who controlled all the minerals under the mountains. So, good children get gold while bad children get coal; good children get presents while bad children get abducted by the dark elves in a manner suggested by the German Christmas tradition of "Krampus," and the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. In the Santa Claus tradition, the svartalfar have been reimagined as "Santa's elves" who leave children lumps of coal in their stockings if they are naughty, as opposed to treats.

The present tradition of Zwarte Piet can be directly traced to the middle of the 19th-century, and a children's book written by Jan Schenkman,Sint Nikolaas en Zijn Knecht ( Saint Nicholas and his Servant). The myths of the svartalfar were submerged in a colonial narrative of servile (yet simultaneously violent and cruel) "Moors" (or, alternatively, "Spaniards") accompanying the aging (white) patriarch, Sinterklaas, to Holland. When Netherlanders don their blackface and pantaloons, the pre-Christian significance of that imagery -a significance that speaks to an older, pre-Romanized, sense of "Dutchness"-is, for the most part, lost on them. What is confounding, however, is the extent to which the racist, colonial, White Supremacist, significance of that imagery is also lost on many Netherlanders, as well.

Dutch identity, today, is only vaguely related to the Batavians, the ancient Germanic tribe that lived at the Rhine Delta during the 1 st Century CE. Even less so is contemporary Dutch identity related to the Chatti, an ancient Germanic tribe of Lower Saxony and Hesse, from whom the Batavians supposedly descended. Rather, contemporary Dutch identity is most often articulated as the collective social and cultural inheritance of 17th century merchant seamen, who traded mostly in spices and flowers.

There is a vague notion that the Dutch played some role in the slave trade, but only rarely is this fact seriously interrogated in the Netherlands where, according to University of Amsterdam Professor Gloria Wekker, "fear and avoidance of the axis of race/ethnicity are dominant" in academic discourses.[2] The Dutch embrace a view of themselves as a tolerant, anti-racist, people despite the glaring, obvious, historical silences surrounding the brutality of Dutch colonialism, the underlying ideology of racism and White Supremacy that fueled that colonial program, and the lingering effects that that history has had on the Dutch people (and, perhaps more to the point, Dutch people of African descent). My Dutch students often recoil in horror and righteous indignation when I relate the bloody, gory, history of racism and lynching in the US; this is in contrast to the looks of surprise and confusion that I get when I tell those same students that the first enslaved Africans brought to the English colonies in North America were brought there by Dutch sailors.

Every year the Dutch legacy of colonialism (and the attendant white Supremacy that justified the Dutch colonial program) is articulated through the "innocent tradition" of Dutch people donning costumes portraying buffoonish images of fat-lipped, Afro-wearing, golliwogs, prancing about goofily, handing out candy. To suggest that this display accomplishes the racist dehumanization of black people can often invite defensiveness from Dutch people who are genuinely horrified at the thought that anyone would ever call them racist. Many Netherlanders - fair-minded, reasonable people, committed to notions of equality and ideologically opposed to racism and prejudicial discrimination-will admit in candid moments that they honestly cannot understand what it is about Zwarte Piet that is so offensive to black people.

The best among the Dutch are willing to allow space for Black people in the Netherlands to explain it to them. Since 2013, there has been a growing movement to discontinue the portrayal of Zwarte Piet. In 2014, the city of Amsterdam decided to discontinue the blackface tradition. In 2015, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the Netherlands to confront the problem of this national celebration of racist stereotypes, a suggestion the Dutch government took under advisement. Not all Netherlanders are so reasonable, however.

A few weeks ago, pro Zwarte Piet demonstrators blocked a highway, preventing antiracist activists from marching on the city of Dokkum where "traditional" Zwarte Piet celebrations were commencing. Mark Rutte's response to the (illegal blockade) protest was to suggest that children should not be forced to deal with angry Zwarte Piet demonstrators when they were simply out for a little Christmas fun: "Sinterklaas is een mooie traditie, een kinderfeest. Dus laten we met elkaar een beetje normaal doen" ("Sinterklaas is a beautiful tradition, a children's holiday party. So, let's all get together and be a little normal"). [3]

I am certain that Mark Rutte was unaware of the deep irony in his suggestion that racist theater represented Dutch "normality." For the most part, the sort of active, aggressive, racial hatred that exists in colonial contexts (like the US, for example,) does not exist in the Netherlands. At the same time, the racism of the Dutch colonial program was always buttressed by a principle of "white normativity" which posited only white people as people, and which recognized the humanity of non-white people only to the extent that those non-white people resembled (and internalized the value systems of) white people. That principle of white normativity -a passive, unaggressive, racism which even allows for individual kindness and intimacy, including the legendary "black friend," or even the occasional black spouse- defines the parameters of the discourse on race in the Netherlands and that will not change until the Dutch start honestly confronting their own history of racism and colonial violence, and not until the vantages of people of color in the Netherlands are properly integrated into Dutch notions of "normaal."


Notes



[1] See Mark Rutte, "Lees hier de brief van Mark," (VVD.nl, 22 January 2017) https://www.vvd.nl/nieuws/lees-hier-de-brief-van-mark/ (accessed December 23, 2017). See also Ben Winsor, "Wilders prepares law to protect 'Zwarte Piet' holiday blackface," ( SBS.com.au, February 16, 2017) https://www.sbs.com.au/news/wilders-prepares-law-to-protect-zwarte-piet-holiday-blackface (accessed December 23, 2017).

[2] Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 52.

[3] "Zwarte Piet supporters close motorway to stop demo as Sinterklass arrives" (DutchNews.nl, November 18, 2017), http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2017/11/zwarte-piet-supporters-close-motorway-to-stop-demo-as-sinterklaas-arrives-in-dokkum/ (accessed December 23, 2017); "Premier Rutte over Zwarte Piet-discussie: 'Laten we een beetje normaal doen'" ( rtvnoord.nl, November 18, 2017), https://www.rtvnoord.nl/nieuws/186365/Premier-Rutte-over-Zwarte-Piet-discussie-Laten-we-een-beetje-normaal-doen (accessed December 23, 2017).