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The Dutch blackface holiday tradition has no place in the 21st century

Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, and his sidekicks known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, in Hoorn, northwestern Netherlands, in November 2013.
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Two years ago, I was a freelance reporter on the island of Curacao, a former Dutch colony and a territory once key to the European slave trade in the New World. Within a few months, I began making friends, picking up some Dutch and Papiamento (the local, Creolized language) and absorbing a bit of the culture. Before arriving there, I had been aware of the Dutch holiday tradition of Sinterklaas (something like Santa Claus) and his mischievous helper-slave Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete). I knew that many white Dutch loved to dress up as Zwarte Piet by painting their faces black and their lips bright red and donning curly wigs. I thought I was ready to face this character, who is bumbling, mischievous and dimwitted, but nevertheless kind to children.

Nothing could have emotionally prepared me, however, for my first encounters with Zwarte Piet in the flesh.

From late November to early December, I felt as though I was in a colonial “Twilight Zone.” It was like having a front-row seat to a three-week-long minstrel show, with the capital city of Willemstad as the stage. Sure enough, people dressed themselves in brightly colored costumes, painted their faces black and their lips bright red and donned coarse-haired Afro-wigs. Zwarte Piet blackfaces were on the covers of chocolates, ice cream advertisements and gift-wrap packaging. There were Zwarte Piet specials at the mall. I was struck by how deeply embedded Zwarte Piet was in the Sinterklaas tradition and how integral that annual tradition was to what it meant to be Dutch. I found it hard to process the cruel irony that an island that was founded on the trafficking of African slave labor and that was 80 percent black also participated in the Zwarte Piet charade.

I became anxious about going out for those weeks. Blackface was everywhere. There is something especially humiliating to walk about in a world where my skin and hair could be someone’s “costume” for a day. (A Dutch man jokingly told me that my natural hair looked like Zwarte Piet’s. I didn’t find that funny at all.) It got to the point where I preferred to stay home. I wasn’t particularly inclined for social outings, especially when any questions I had about Zwarte Piet were met with defensiveness (“It’s just innocent children’s fun. Do you hate children?”), outright hostility (“It’s not our fault you have low self-esteem about being black”) or even name-calling (“Aren’t you being racist for saying Zwarte Piet is racist?). Frankly, it was a damaging experience. I couldn’t wait for Dec. 5 to arrive so that I wouldn’t have to see Zwarte Piet again. There wasn’t enough pepernoten or kruidnoten in the world that could have made me stomach this tradition.

While Curacao celebrated Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, people from other former Dutch colonies, such as St. Martin, told me that those countries are less tolerant of Zwarte Piet because they are more influenced by the United States and surrounding islands. Curacao is a bit more isolated and in many ways is under a much stronger influence from the Netherlands in its political affairs and its educational system — despite its official status as an autonomous country. So I’m not surprised that the Sinterklaas tradition was so strong there. Colonial ties can be hard to shake.

Nevertheless, dear Nederlanders:Overt celebrations of blackface characters such as Zwarte Piet do not belong in the 21st century. Zwarte Piet, under the guise of entertainment, is a modern-day commodification of blackness as caricature, the mockery of blackness for profit and mirth. I stress profit, because Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet no doubt command big business every year in the Netherlands.

Zwarte Piet simply cannot be divorced from the historical participation of the Netherlands in the trafficking of black labor across the Atlantic. “But he is loved by the children,” Dutch people would tell me. And therein lies the danger: The Zwarte Piet celebrations reinforce, year after year, that to be loved and black in Dutch society is to be subordinate and inferior, an object of mockery.

The defense of Zwarte Piet as a Dutch children’s tradition ignores (perhaps willfully) that Zwarte Piet is a common Western stereotype of people of African descent, just like Sambo in the United States, or Hergé’s depictions of black people in “Tintin in the Congo,” during the time period when the end of slavery and the beginning of the European colonial project necessitated white European supremacy as justification. Zwarte Piet cannot be considered in a vacuum outside of this particular history, nor should the tradition be divorced from the context of inequalities that exist in former Dutch colonies or contemporary racism and xenophobia that persist in the Netherlands against people of color. Dutch politicians such as Geert Wilders engage in openly anti-immmigrant rhetoric.  Of the Netherlands’ 16 million people, people from the Caribbean comprise 0.9 percent, people from Suriname 2.1 percent, and Turkish and Moroccans a combined 4 percent. Up to half of respondents to a study from these communities report that they regularly face substantial discrimination in the Netherlands.

In recent years, more international attention and protests have put the Sinterklaas tradition in the spotlight. Last year, the United Nations sent Verene Shepherd to investigate the tradition. In a report to the Dutch government, she said that the “Black Pete segment of the Santa Claus tradition is experienced by African people and people of African descent as a living trace of past slavery and oppression.” She reminded the Dutch government of its obligations under U.N. conventions to respect the rights of minorities. The special team was met with harassment, threats and calls from politicians that they would rather that the Netherlands pull out of the U.N. than end the Black Pete tradition. A few weeks ago, 80 protesters were arrested in Gouda over the issue. Ninety-two percent of Dutch say that they don’t associate Zwarte Piet with slavery, and 91 percent oppose any changes to his appearance.

Do I believe that every person who celebrates the holiday is racist? Of course not. But traditions can be, if they were born during a time when people of color were relegated to being lower-class citizens and especially if they perpetuate that prejudice. Traditions can change, slowly. I do hope that one day the Netherlands will join the rest of the modern world and leave Zwarte Piet, a colorful relic of an overtly racist history, in the past where he belongs.