The assistants -- some call them servants or even slaves -- are known as Zwarte Piets, or Black Petes. Each year, myriad Dutch people wear frilly wigs, paint their lips red and blacken their faces in fond emulation of the Zwarte Piet character, known for his antic japes. Donning blackface is an act discouraged in most Western societies, one with deeply racist connotations.
In a WorldViews piece last month, I looked at the growing backlash against the Zwarte Piet tradition. Though a vast majority of the Dutch population support it, there's an increasingly vocal activist community that wants the rest of the country to wake up to the awkward bigotry embedded in the Zwarte Piet character.
Earlier this year, a Dutch filmmaker dressed up as Zwarte Piet and gamboled around a park in London, much to the bemused horror of local residents. They, including British celebrity Russell Brand, seem incredulous at the persistence of the Dutch tradition. "Are you taking the piss," asks one London park-goer. "This is offensive, this is terrible," says another.
Yet after I published my post on WorldViews, I was deluged with vitriol from Dutch readers defending Zwarte Piet. For the sake of clarity, I've distilled the main arguments hurled my way below into four points, and tried to rebut all of them. Here's why one shouldn't be afraid to say that Zwarte Piet is unfit for the 21st century.
It's about mythical figures, not black people. Many insisted that I was the racist to even associate Zwarte Piet with "blackness." It's a legacy of pagan times, one critic wrote -- the Zwarte Piets are wood spirits accompanying Woden. Which is why they wear 17th-century minstrel attire and have afros, right? Others say his skin is black from falling down a chimney -- but then why are his clothes not also sooty?
Another more serious argument contends that Piets are supposed to be Moors -- North African Arabs -- brought on a ship from Spain by Sinterklaas. Even then, that hardly makes it better: as WorldViews discussed in an earlier post, Moors haunted the European imagination for centuries as a kind of spectral evil. If you're a white European blackening your face as a Moor, you're still stigmatizing the Other, and traipsing down the same slippery slope.
And let's be real, how is Zwarte Piet not about blackness? Examine these 19th-century and early 20th-century sketches of Zwarte Piet, from a beloved Dutch children's book that has come to define the tradition. Look at this in the larger context of Europe's depictions of Africans and the African body around the same time. Then consider the Dutch history of slavery and the nation's considerable role in establishing that grim trade across the Atlantic. Finally, ask why there seems to be no trace whatsoever of Zwarte Piet in Sinterklaas celebrations that take place in New York's historic Dutch heartland.
Minorities are fine with it. Sure, a few Dutch minorities have spoken up in defense of the tradition. That doesn't diminish the offense taken by others. Race is a complicated matter, particularly in those societies shaped by the history of empire and slavery.
Do the voices of those saying the tradition is racist not matter? Should the hundreds of protesters last month -- and the 90 who were arrested -- campaigning against Zwarte Piet be ignored? This year, heeding protesters, Dutch expatriates in Sweden opted not to represent Piet as a painted, black figure. (If he's just a lovable trickster, why does he have to any one particular color?)
And it really doesn't help that some of the Netherlands' most controversial bigots are Zwarte Piet's most outspoken fans.
It's a children's tradition that has no racist intent. This was a common refrain. "We grew up with Zwarte Piet," it's "harmless." But just because you don't think you're racist does not mean a custom you practice can't have racist connotations. When many outsiders look on aghast with horror, it should be a moment for reflection.
The simple fact that some things are "traditions" is never a justification for their continued existence -- particularly, as my colleague Karen Attiah writes, 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."
Zwarte Piet may now be "a lame, thoughtless thing," writes American academic John McWhorter. But it carries with it the "implication that all [the history of] slavery and servitude and imperialism was some kind of cartoon." That is enough cause to condemn it.
Look at how much more racist the U.S. is. Quite a few Dutch commenters on Twitter and other platforms questioned whether an American publication has any right to scold the Netherlands for racism given the U.S.'s far more glaring history of racial tensions. The events of recent weeks have reinforced how far Americans are from living in the post-racial society they sometimes dream they inhabit.
But that can't shield other societies from rebuke. The Netherlands is widely admired for its culture of liberalism and tolerance. But it has problems as well. The U.S. had to move beyond its own ugly traditions of blackface and, perhaps in just this one instance, the Dutch should pay attention.