The Discussion around Zwarte Piet/Black Pete - My take on Racism and Tradition

in #news2 years ago (edited)


So, now I hope I got your attention, I want to explain this whole discussion about our Zwarte Piet, or in English, Black Pete.

It is crowded. I am holding my mom's hand tightly as we waddle through the crowd. It is mixed with parents, but thousands of children wearing hats with feathers on it. Some kids are holding a piece of paper with some colorful doodles on it. Oh, I should've brought something too. I feel excited - what I've been following loyally on the Sinterklaas news and on my regular tv channel, I am finally about the see in real life. The voices of the crowd were no voices anymore but a mere dull white noise.

We came to a halt. I look up and see we reached the fence, I could peep just over the top of it and see the infamous big river. In the background music started playing and the other kids raised their voices to passionately sing along. I take a deep breath and follow their lead. I mean, I have to - I know all the songs by heart!

In the distance I hear a dull horn - oh my, it's here! The people around me start shifting as the volume of the kid's and my own voices grow louder. As the boat comes near, my heart starts racing faster that it already did. Every and each of the boat's passengers are waving, jumping and singing along enthusiastically. There's even one zwarte piet pretending to conduct the band playing the music. At the side of the boat there's Sinterklaas. An old fellow with a long, wavy beard and draped in red, white clothing. You can barely see him smile in between his white mustache and beard, but the wrinkles around his eyes gave his joy away.

Hol'up, what's going on?

Oh my god, you don't know what's going on? Well, I am not surprised as the Netherlands is only a small country - but there's been a lot of commotion around this subject. If you're not aware of this Black Pete thing, welcome to my article!

Zwarte Piet (pronounced [ˈzʋɑrtə ˈpit]; English: Black Pete or Black Peter, Luxembourgish: Schwaarze Péiter, Indonesian: Pit Hitam) is the companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sinterklaas, Luxembourgish: Kleeschen, Indonesian: Sinterklas) in the folklore of the Low Countries. The character first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman. Traditionally, Zwarte Piet is black because he is a Moor from Spain. Those portraying Zwarte Piet usually put on blackface make-up and colourful Renaissance attire, in addition to curly wigs and bright red lipstick. In recent years, the character has become the subject of controversy. - Wikipedia

Every year, on the 5th of December, we celebrate Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is a big, priest-y guy who lives in Spain with his countless Zwarte Pieten. Every year, they travel to the Netherlands by steamboat which is filled with millions of gifts for the children awaiting him eagerly in the low lands. He arrived about three weeks prior to december 5th. As of then you're allowed to put your shoe. Which means you pick one shoe and put it by the fireplace. You sing your heart out in a couple of songs before your parents send you to bed. The next morning couldn't be more exciting - I'd run downstairs to check my shoe to find a gift and some seasonal candy scattered around.

On the 5th of December they would visit our house. There were so-called Help Sinterklaas and Help Zwarte Pieten, who helped out the original ones as Sinterklaas couldn't simply visit a million households in one night. They would visit your place in the evening and they would loudly let you know that they were there. When they'd come in, Sinterklaas would invite you to sit on his lap. Just like Santa Clause, Sinterklaas has a big book in which every kid is written with their likes, dislikes and if they were or good or bad this year. After a short conversation, you would get your gift from zwarte piet along with some candy. As soon as they leave, they'd leave a massive jute sack (or two) filled with gifts for the entire family.

Banging loudly on the door, ringing the bell multiple times, throwing candy through the mailbox was the indication of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arriving at my house. My heart started pounding as I held my breath. “Oh my, he is finally here!” I yelled out. My mom turned on the Sinterklaas entry song, ‘Sinterklaasje kom maar binnen met je knecht’ before she walked over to the door to open it. With a lot of noise and stomping, zwarte piet came into the living room with a massive smile. His hand dug in his bag for only a second before candy flew through the room. I squealed in excitement.

So what's the big deal?

The controversy is about zwarte piet, or black pete. Like mentioned in the Wikipedia quote, he is a Moor from Spain and has a black face, curly black hair and red lipstick, generally accompanied by colorful, renaissance-themed clothes and golden earrings.

Over the last couple of years, the topic of zwarte piet has been debated because it could trigger racism as it's a caricature of a Moor in the 18th century, and thus a black colored being.

In the last century, zwarte piet has been under quite a development. Initially, were not as cheerful and friendly as they are now. When a kid has been bad that year, they wouldn't receive presents but simply a birch rod. In addition he would put you in his jute sack and would bring you back to Spain as punishment. However, when I grew up, zwarte piet was a whole lot cheerful. They give not only gifts, but candy too. Also, every zwarte piet has a specific specialisation. Therefore, in my time, we had for example:

  • Wegwijspiet: Roadknown Pete - He knows every road better than your Google Maps and navigated the boat to the Netherlands.
  • Hogehoogte Piet: Highheights Pete - As the presents come through the chimney, he had to lead Sinterklaas and his horse safely over the roofs. He could calculate the heights and slippery-ness of every roof.
  • Hoofdpiet: Head Pete - He was the chief of all the zwarte pieten and made sure everything goes well. He's also Sinterklaas' right hand.
  • And about a 100 more who are all responsible for a smooth Sinterklaas celebration.

Like I said, in the last couple of year, a lot of discussion has sparked up due to the black face of zwarte piet. When I was a kid, I wasn’t even aware of his Spanish/Moor background and was told his face is black due to soot of the chimney. And even though we didn’t have one, there were still other houses with chimneys through which he had to climb. That’s as far as my thoughts went.

Personally, I’d never seen zwarte piet as a black skinned person. It was just zwarte piet, but I understand the offence taken from the dark skin in combination with black curly hair, red lipstick and golden jewelry.

There was also a year, where they completely screwed up zwarte piet and tried to introduce all kinds of colored Pieten. Honestly, that was creepy. AF.

I agree with the changes. It’s been a tradition for a long time which is loyally celebrated yearly by families with small children or simply to celebrate Sinterklaas and spend time with the family. People change and thus traditions also need to alter to keep up with time. Maybe it has been a tradition going on for too long, but I feel like the expectations and demands are instant.

I understand that people can feel offended because they make the link to the color of the skin and when the decision was made to only have black soot marks on their faces, I was perfectly happy and fine. Even a white Piet works!

However, such changes are never enough. All the Sinterklaas songs do not even contain ‘zwarte’ anymore when they mention zwarte piet - so it’s simply Piet. People expect instant change. All the decorations that people own, must be destroyed according to the extremists as they are not ashamed to break in stores to remove the old decorations.

Then ofcourse, on the pro-piet there are also the extremists who I do not agree with either. Why do the Hitler arm? Why so nazi? Why so mean? I mean, we can’t make everybody happy - that’s simply never going to work with so many people, but extremists on both sides are, in my opinion, well.. too extreme.. I feel like some people forget this celebration is not about adults. It's about the kids. Maybe people should just ask a kid, "Hey, what do you want/think/feel?"


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My name is Shannon, I am a digital designer. Born and raised in Amsterdam, living in Berlin.
I write about travel, Steemit, design, food, life and any thoughts I have!


As someone who lived in an apartheid regime pre and post i have to say people dressing up is the least of my worries I couldn't be bothered. As long as you dont fuck with my right to live where I want, work where i want, do what I want, study what I want, date who I want, and hold me back from opportunties based on skin colour then im pretty fine!

Trust me when you're a kid and they tell you you can't go to this beach because its "slegs blankes"/"Whites only" everything else is a cake walk!

Excellent point. Certainly, dressing up or even applying make-up as a person with different physical features is not racist, and, in most cases, not even harmful to anyone.

It's not. And honestly, it only happens 3 weeks in a year..

Right. And any true racist would not limit their racism to 3 weeks per year, right?

Shit bra i personally think it's pretty hectic, there's all form of mild racism that doesn't seem too harsh but is still not helping the situation. That's my 2 cent so I dunno...

Agreed, there are mild forms, I've seen it happen and been a part of it! Integration was never going to be a smooth process.

But really do we care about mild though? Does any South African even take their Nandos mild? No, we want it HOT! lol

Hahahah that's a good one :)
You right though

Maybe, but the entire portrayal isn't even in a negative way. Yes, they dress up like that, but they don't act like mean assholes. They are loved by the kids. They are playful, funny, give candy, you name it.

That's a great point and I completely agree with it. I think people are so (indirectly) offended by everything around them, that it slowly becomes unbearable. Traditions become offensive and slowly disappear to please the world. Next thing you know, they're gonna ban tomatina because people feel sorry for the tomatoes.

Great article @sjennon - Level headed take from a local <3

Who cares! Live and let live I hear some folks say

In the Hollywood Movies about Thor and the avengers the character of the god Heimdal (who created the European race by sleeping with three classes of women) is play by a black man. Nobody cares about that? When I grew up I was taught that if I was offended it was my problem.

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