The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the Dutch tradition of blackface ahead of Christmas won’t go away

In this Nov. 16, 2013 file photo the Dutch version of Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, and his sidekicks known as "Zwarte Piet," or Black Pete, arrive by steamboat in Hoorn, northwestern Netherlands. (Peter Dejong/AP)

On the face of it, it's obvious why many outsiders find the Dutch Christmas-time figure of "Zwarte Piet" -- or Black Pete -- to be shockingly racist. Here's a tradition, after all, in which white people don minstrel-like clothes, wear frizzy wigs, paint their mouths a garish red and blacken their faces. It echoes all the worst iconography of America's troubled racial past.

But many in the Netherlands don't see it that way. Generations of Dutch children frolic and dress up in the days ahead of Dec. 5, which is the eve of the feast day of St. Nicholas. But the Dutch forerunner to Santa Claus doesn't show up with elves and reindeer in tow.

Sinterklaas, according to a popular 19th century Dutch story (and pictured above), is said to arrive on steamship accompanied by a pack of swarthy Piets, trickster figures who amuse crowds of children with candy and japes. Sinterklaas is due to officially "arrive" this Saturday in the Dutch city of Gouda.

The racial overtones seem clear: the Netherlands was once an imperial power, a possessor of overseas colonies teeming with plantations, and one of the major early drivers of the African slave trade. The Zwarte Piets disembarking off a steamship can't just be mythical creatures of fancy.

On Wednesday, though, the highest administrative court in the Netherlands overturned the progressive opinion that a lower court laid down earlier this year. That ruling had advised that permits for festivities involving Zwarte Piet in Amsterdam should be up for review because it led to "negative stereotyping of black people."

Jaap Polak, the president of the top court known as the Council of State, said Amsterdam's mayor didn't have the power to ban people from dressing up as Zwarte Piet. To the ire of those who back and oppose the tradition, Polak also side-stepped making a judgment on whether it was racist or not. The AP reports:

That ruling means that the Council of State "cannot and will not answer the question" of whether Black Pete breaches Dutch anti-discrimination law, Polak told a packed courtroom.

That leaves the matter still very much up to debate. And there's quite a lot to be discussed in a country that's in many other regards one of the most liberal societies in the West.

What's curious is the incredulity of many Dutch people when asked to confront the apparent racism of their beloved Christmas-time figure. Here's how a writer at Slate summed up the experience in 2011:

Trying to tell a Dutch person why this image disturbs you will often result in anger and frustration. Otherwise mature and liberal-minded adults may recoil from the topic and offer a rote list of reasons why Zwarte Piet should not offend anybody. "He is not even a black man," many will tell you. “He is just black because he came down the chimney.” Then, you may reply, why aren’t his clothes dirty?

This week, a Dutch radio station published a YouTube video of the reactions two Dutch filmmakers received when they dressed up as Zwarte Piet and walked in a London park. Many of the locals they encountered were outraged by the costume.

It doesn't help either that figures as polarizing as far-right nationalist politician Geert Wilders have come out in defense of the tradition. Wilders' anti-immigrant PVV party drew up legislation earlier this year aimed at preserving the black-face figure at Christmas celebrations. "We want to protect our culture," Wilders said in September, and suggested that making Zwarte Piet into a figure of racism was "too ridiculous for words." In 2013, he tweeted that he'd rather eliminate the U.N. than Zwarte Piet.

But the push-back against the tradition has been led by an increasingly vocal group of minorities, as my colleague Anthony Faiola reported last year when discussing Dutch attitudes toward Zwarte Piet.

“This is showing us the truth about racism in a place where some people had convinced themselves it didn’t exist,” said Quinsy Gario, a poet and radio commentator who was born in Curacao and is among the second- and third-generation Afro-Caribbean immigrants here who have largely pushed the opposition campaign. In 2011, he was detained by police for disturbing the peace at a holiday parade, where he held a sign and wore a shirt that said “Black Pete Is Racist.”
“They keep saying this is their tradition, but Black Pete is basically a Dutch Sambo,” he said.

In recent years, proponents of the tradition have tried to clean up the act -- advising, for example, the use of a variety of wigs rather than a mock Afro and dropping the Surinamese accent that used to accompany the antics of Zwarte Piets. Some ethnic minorities have even endorsed the tradition themselves.

But as the voices of dissent grow, it's going to become harder and harder for those patting their faces black every year to keep convincing themselves this is just a children's fantasy.