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Who Is Zwarte Piet?

The arrival of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in a Frisian village in the Netherlands on November 24, 2012. (Patrick Post / Hollandse Hoogte)

[clock] 34-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2014
A holiday tradition in the Netherlands involving blackface has sparked a debate about race, the legacy of slavery, and the vestiges of colonialism.

Morning sickness served as my constant companion during the fall and winter I lived in Amsterdam. At times I would have to park my bicycle on a humpback bridge to vomit into a canal. Maybe a smell set me off: the fishy brine coming from a haringhandel, the poop of the sad swans in the red-​light district, or the stink of some cheese at Noordermarkt. But it wasn’t just the smells pushing me toward nausea. Zwarte Piet was also making me sick. His boot-​black minstrel face was everywhere in the run-​up to Sinterklaasavond (Saint Nicholas’s Eve), which is the Netherlands’ biggest holiday and the gift-​giving equivalent of Christmas. In the weeks before December 5, when the holiday is celebrated, he haunts the shop displays, repellent but mesmerizing, like the two sides of a magnet. 

Who is Zwarte Piet? To understand, let’s start with jolly old Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas is the red-​robed, white-​bearded prototype for our Santa Claus. There are a few important distinctions between the Santa who comes to town in the US and Sinterklaas, as he’s called in the Netherlands and former territories of the Dutch Empire including Aruba, Suriname, Curaçao, Sint Maarten, and Indonesia. For one thing, Sinterklaas is thin. For another, he’s far sterner than our man in the red suit: He’s a bishop from Turkey, as well as the patron saint of children, sailors, and the city of Amsterdam. He rides a white horse named Amerigo instead of a sleigh led by Rudolph and the other reindeer. He doesn’t fly in from the North Pole, but arrives from Spain by boat. And in the place of assistant elves, he has Black Pete, known to the Dutch as Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’s shadow (persona non grata), his servant, his slave.

The locals kept insisting he wasn’t supposed to be a black man, despite his blackface guise. Instead they told me that he was Sinterklaas’s partner, or pal, and that he only appeared black because he’d come down the chimney and was covered in soot. This explanation was blatantly unconvincing because his clothes were pristine, his lips were clownishly big, and he had wooly hair. As Sandew Hira, a Surinamese Dutch historian I spoke to, put it, “How can a Dutch chimney be so different from all other chimneys that a white person can go down and come out the other end as an African?” Like many black Dutch who protest Zwarte Piet, Hira sees him as an annual irritation, a representation of the legacy of slavery without any form of shame. “They denigrate black people with this,” he said. My Dutch midwife disagreed. She saw Zwarte Piet as a reservoir of nostalgia and good feeling; a source, not an object, of fun. She allowed for the possibility that he had been a Moorish slave at one time, but if that was true, then he had freely chosen to be Sinterklaas’s faithful valet out of gratitude when the bishop purchased his freedom.

The Dutch are often fuzzy on the details of Zwarte Piet’s history. Many believe he originates in the nineteenth-​century rhyming children’s book Saint Nicholas and His Servant, penned by schoolteacher Jan Schenkman. Published in 1850, thirteen years before the Netherlands became among the last European nations to abolish slavery, the book depicted Sinterklaas with a black servant for the first time. But Zwarte Piet existed in different form long before Schenkman’s story appeared. Most Dutch don’t connect Zwarte Piet to prior myths rooted in the Middle Ages that always have Saint Nicholas operating in tandem with a servant who, under different names and disguises according to time and place, personifies a tamed Satan. This domesticated devil was often depicted in chains to convey that Nicholas had shackled and enslaved him as a triumph over evil. Several Saint Nicholas customs from other nations continue to depict the benevolent saint in the company of, and in dominion over, a symbolically evil character. 

In Austria, Saint Nicholas is paired with the demonic, horned, red-​tongued Krampus; in Germany he’s served by a sooty, mean farmhand named Ruprecht; in France and Luxembourg, his attendant is an evil butcher named, respectively, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman, loosely translated); in Switzerland his helper is a brown-​faced, brown-​robed child-​beating kidnapper named Schmutzli, and in the Czech and Slovak traditions, Saint Nicholas still rides with the straight-​up hairy devil. These monsters are Zwarte Piet’s kissing cousins. This is the Dutch spin on the old story of the mythic dyad (a pair considered to be one) of good and evil represented by Saint Nicholas and his darker half: The conquered devil is an African man. 

A children’s book from the 1920s that tells the story  of Saint Nicholas and Zwarte Piet. The cover reads, “From Spain to our country. Description of the journey of St. Nicolaas/lithograph based on original sketches for December 6th made by Corns de Bruin.” (Used courtesy of Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands.)

Without connecting their own Sinterklaas custom to such practices of moral mastery, a few Dutch people I asked about Zwarte Piet did admit that he used to be a more menacing type. When they themselves were children, they’d been warned that Piet would beat them with a stick if they were naughty, then carry them off to Spain in a sack. But nowadays, they explained, his main role was simply to make their children happy. Today Zwarte Piet scatters spiced cookies and candy, sings songs, leaves gifts in shoes placed by the door, records those who’ve been naughty or nice in Sinterklaas’s book of names, and holds the bridle of his master’s white horse. In this last posture, he reminded me a little of a lawn jockey, that American holdover from the days of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Clearly, this was why Zwarte Piet haunted and sickened me in Amsterdam. I thought I’d left this kind of nonsense behind in the United States. The United States circa 1950, that is.

On the occasions when I pointed out the problem of Zwarte Piet’s subservience in light of the centuries-​long Dutch traffic in the transatlantic slave trade, my new neighbors took offense. This was the Netherlands, they reminded me, known for its social tolerance, liberalism, political freedom, and progressive policies on gay rights, prostitution, euthanasia, and marijuana. Racial discrimination doesn’t exist here. They reprimanded me for importing the racism of my country and projecting it onto a children’s festival. Their history was not the same as ours. Couldn’t I see this? Zwarte Piet was a dear tradition, not an outdated practice. If anyone was acting backward, it was I, for mentioning race at all. 

The accusation that I was the backward-​thinking party seemed more bewildering than offensive. It’s true that as an American with African ancestry, my hackles were raised when Zwarte Piet started popping up that holiday season. At first, he was inanimate, like Pinocchio before Gepetto wished him into a real boy. There he was, as a licorice treat or a chocolate figurine. And again as a marionette, a stuffed doll, or a tree ornament on sale next to a bin of tulip bulbs. Piet showed up on posters and food packaging as well as in printed advertisements and cartoons that I failed to understand. Then he made his rounds at shopping malls and schools, and starred on TV specials where I could see he was a clumsy, dim-​witted, servile buffoon. I thought I recognized his face—​the exaggerated red lips and the bulging eyes. At first glance, Zwarte Piet resembled Buckwheat from Our Gang, except he was all grown up. Then again, he looked like the coon Louis Armstrong pretended to be, stripped of Satchmo’s irony and soul. On closer inspection, he was Mammy’s stepchild, Little Black Sambo, or a time traveler from the Golden Age in the dandy dress of a Renaissance page.

“He’s a stereotype,” I kept groaning, though that seemed too light a word for Zwarte Piet’s ad nauseam demeanor. “You’re being racist,” my Dutch neighbors replied. “We love him.” I was arguing with a wall. Their response to me as an American was certainly nothing compared to the vitriol spat at black Dutch people who dared to make similar complaints. But there is at least one thing my Dutch friends ignore in their defense of Zwarte Piet: The historical baggage of slavery is not limited to America’s shores. 

If I saw all of these resemblances, others must see them as well, including the connection to the slave trade. Zwarte Piet’s bright costume even dates from the era when the Dutch trafficked in slaves, another history my Dutch friends seemed pretty fuzzy about. The uniform includes gold hoop earrings, a feathered cap, a white ruffled collar over a doublet, and stockings under velvet pantaloons. He also sports an Afro. But his most important feature by far (as in the popular minstrel shows and vaudeville acts that dominated the nineteenth-​century American stage) is the color of his face. Starting around Halloween they sell little pots of black makeup in the drugstores. This is used by the citizens of the Netherlands in the third week of November, when tradition has Sinterklaas arriving by steamship from Spain, assisted by a crew of interchangeable Black Petes. That’s when the figure springs to life through the power of blackface and takes the city by storm. 

The connection between Zwarte Piet and slavery struck me as blatant because of my research. The year before, I’d traveled to the coast of Ghana and toured the former slave castle at Elmina, operated by the Dutch from 1637 into the early nineteenth century. This was the warehouse where captives, who were counted as heads of cattle, were held until the ships arrived to carry them across the Atlantic, where they were forced to work on plantations in the Americas for free. Many of them died of disease in the castle before boarding the ships. I’d witnessed the slender “door of no return” through which, by the eighteenth century, as many as 30,000 Africans passed each year. Many of those who made it onto the ships died, too. Now that I was in Amsterdam, I could study that death march from the other side, in the empire’s court.

In a sense, I was already looking at the legacy of this history every day as I biked the streets of Amsterdam. The city had flowered from an insignificant fisherman’s village into the financial center of the world during the era of great prosperity spanning the seventeenth century we now call the Golden Age. It was in the buildings that dated from that time—​the former guildhalls, the low-​slung houses with their gabled roofs, and the Royal Palace on Dam Square. It was hanging on the wall at the Rikjsmuseum, underwriting the magnificent brushstrokes of Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer. It was in the very quality of bourgeois life, in the enactment of leisure, a thread in the fabric of the economy that makes the Netherlands one of the richest countries in the world. Sometimes, in the evenings, I would peer voyeuristically into the windows of the narrow brick row houses. Everything seemed so gorgeously tasteful, from the light fixtures to the cookware, from the laddered bookshelves to the bowls of fruit. I asked a colleague of my husband’s why nobody used curtains or blinds. “We want you to admire our possessions,” she joked, “but not to ring our doorbell and ask to borrow anything.”

Even children young enough to believe in Sinterklaas can recite the achievements of the Dutch empire. It’s a big part of what they are taught in school and consequently is a component of Dutch cultural identity. Dutch children all learn that by 1650 the kingdom of the Netherlands, then known as the Dutch Republic, was the foremost commercial and maritime power of Europe. It dominated the world’s trade by operating the largest merchant fleet, reaping profits from colonized territories in the East Indies under the supervision of the Dutch East India Company. 

Less treated in the curriculum on the Dutch Empire is its deep involvement in the triangular transatlantic slave trade through the Dutch West India Company—​incorporated by the government in 1621—​whose initials I’d seen stamped above the archway of the slave castle in Ghana. Dutch demand for slave labor was so intense that, rather than wait to reload with tobacco and sugar, ships would often sail home to the Netherlands empty of cargo. Profits from slave labor ultimately enriched the Dutch royal family (whose current fortune is undisclosed but estimated at as much as $2.5 billion), who spent the money constructing palaces and acquiring art. But the profits also contributed to the pockets of average citizens who had shares in the Dutch West India Company and spent the money on beer. 

The Dutch weren’t slave owners: They were shareholders. Despite the active involvement of the Netherlands in the global slave trade for more than 200 years, slavery was illegal on Dutch soil. Because of this, they didn’t have to confront the miserable lives of the enslaved unfolding on plantations so far away, and for the most part, they still don’t. 

The Dutch fail to connect Zwarte Piet to racism today precisely because the culture of the Netherlands was so detached from its mercantile involvement in the slave trade back then. Merchants could claim to have shares in sugar or coffee, as if those products were divorced from the slave labor that produced them. That terminology had a distancing effect, along with the wide geographical distance between the Netherlands and its colonial outposts. In other words, the Dutch didn’t get their hands dirty. They simply enjoyed the profits grown from that bloody soil.

The Dutch didn’t go through a nation-​shaking civil war to lead toward abolition as we did in the US, or anything like our long and bloody civil-​rights struggle to dismantle Jim Crow. They didn’t limp through Reconstruction with brutal lynchings and acts of racial terrorism along the way. They had nothing in their colonial past on the scale of Emmett Till or Rodney King or Hurricane Katrina to force the conversation about the ongoing racial divide. Instead, the Dutch have Zwarte Piet, a Christmas stooge they refuse to really know, even as they refuse to let him go. 

In contrast with the golden story about the Dutch Empire, the dark chapter of the transatlantic slave trade is not a standard part of the curriculum in Dutch schools. According to Yale professor of sociology Ron Eyerman, who studies cultural trauma, “No society exists without a mysterious center, a sacred core” at the heart of its national identity. Sometimes that culture has a secret center about which no one wants to speak. Eyerman compares silence about Dutch slavery to bans on speech about the Holocaust in 1950s Germany. Although it’s a tacit agreement, rather than a legal restriction, Eyerman says in Holland “Public discussion was never formally forbidden, but there appears to have been a collective agreement on silence. This is very different from slavery in other countries, such as England and the United States, where there was great public consternation about slavery.” It would take what he calls “a tear in the social fabric” to shake the collective identity enough to re-​narrate Dutch history. That tear would need to be really big, Eyerman suggests—​a public trauma on the order of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To acknowledge the role of slavery in Dutch society as a whole, it would take that level of confrontation with disgrace, that level of sacrifice. When I heard Eyerman share his theory of cultural trauma as it relates to the Dutch slave trade, I knew right away who should be sacrificed: Zwarte Piet. He would be missed by nearly everyone, because the nation loved him so dearly. Yet he was also the face of the Nether-lands’ disgrace. 

The word “shame” kept cropping up when I talked to Hira about Zwarte Piet. In an effort to correct what he sees as a narrow Eurocentric vision of Dutch history, Hira directs a research institute developing concepts of decolonizing the mind. “We are developing a critique of the way the Dutch have been influenced by colonialism,” he said. “If an immigrant steals a bottle of Coke, he’s a criminal, but when Holland occupies Suriname, they call it ‘a discovery’ and use terms like ‘we set up a plantation.’ It’s not seen as a criminal act even though it would more accurately be described as a forced labor camp. Take the Zwarte Piet discussion. They react vehemently when we criticize him as being insane because it’s a breach of their reality. They haven’t presented colonialism and slavery as a shameful act. Shame prevents you from being uncivilized. We need to develop shame.” 

Three months pregnant, I was pedaling along Oosterdokskade to Amsterdam’s main public library when I found myself smack-​dab in the middle of the Sinterklaas parade. Now I was face-​to-​face with Zwarte Piet, or to be more accurate, Zwarte Pieten. Not all of the revelers were blacked up. Mostly it was the children. Disturbed as I was by the flagrant minstrelsy, the cultural blindness, and the political incorrectness, a part of me wanted to follow the circus. Maybe I was just procrastinating, but in comparison with my depressing research topic, the parade seemed like fun. Music blared in the near distance: a tuba, an accordion, and a calliope. I figured that my work could wait. It would have had to wait in any case. As I later discovered, there were no books on the topic of the Dutch slave trade in the English-language collection of the public library. 

A store display in the Netherlands of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet celebratory candy bars, October 2013. (Arie Kievitt / Hollandse Hoogte / Redux)

We parade-​goers gathered at the harbor before the Scheepvaartmusuem, also known as the Maritime Museum. Two years later it would run an exhibit about a Dutch West India Company slave ship called the Leusden that sank in a storm, drowning nearly 700 Africans locked in its hold by the crew. For the day’s festivities, a fleet of boats bobbed in the water. At the prow of each boat stood a stately Sinterklaas, and on the deck of each, a swarm of black bodies. There were hundreds of Zwarte Pieten. Unlike the kids in costume around me, the Petes on the boat were professional grade. That is, if you blurred your eyes from the shoreline, you might actually mistake them for black people. They weren’t in chains, of course. As a matter of fact, they were doing somersaults. 

While the Dutch cheered, I thought of Herman Melville’s classic novella Benito Cereno, the story of a boatful of mutinous Africans who break free and overthrow their white captors, at least for a little while. I could only imagine cheering if all those Zwarte Pieten worked together to chuck Sinterklass overboard into the harbor.

Given the tragedy of the Leusden, whose death toll was a drop in the bucket of the as many as 60 million Africans transported in the transatlantic slave trade (only a fifth of whom would arrive in the Americas), how could the Dutch not think of the bodies of slaves when they put on blackface and crowded onto boats for this pageant?

At noon, a bigger boat docked with the main Sinterklaas, who was welcomed by the mayor. He mounted his white horse and began his ride through Amsterdam. I followed him down Prins Hendrikkade to Damrack, toward Dam Square where hundreds more Zwarte Pieten tossed ginger cookies and danced to live music for the children gathered on the sidelines, who were also dressed as Zwarte Piet. I asked a young father to translate the song everyone was singing. “I may be black but I mean well …” he stumbled. The toddler riding on his shoulders was in blackface. It was rare to see so many black faces in Amsterdam, unless you were in the neighborhood of the Bijlmer, where the real black people lived. The parade moved down the Rokin to Muntplein, then down the Vijzelstraat to Weteringcircuit. More blackface, and yet more blackface. “Piet, Piet!” the children cried. It seemed they loved him more than Sinterklaas, who carried a miter and never smiled. Somewhere along the parade route my morning sickness kicked in again and I felt I might throw up. I realized, when we reached Leidseplein, where Sinterklaas addressed us from the balcony of the Stadsschouwburg, that I had forgotten to eat lunch. Then a happy discovery: One of the Zwarte Pieten had filled my saddlebags with pepernoten. 

British-born photographer Anna Fox documented the Zwarte Piet tradition in the Netherlands in a series of photographs she took from 1993 to 1998. These two portraits are from her series of eighteen portraits from her book <i>Zwarte Piet</i> (1999).

British-born photographer Anna Fox documented the Zwarte Piet tradition in the Netherlands in a series of photographs she took from 1993 to 1998. These two portraits are from her series of eighteen portraits from her book <i>Zwarte Piet</i> (1999).

While I munched on those little Euro-​coin-​sized cookies made soggy by the rain, one particular child captured my attention. She was older than the others, maybe ten or eleven. Her makeup was unevenly applied, as if she’d smudged her face with dirt. In her ear was a cochlear implant, and when she shouted Piet’s name you could hear the deafness in her voice, but also the joy. Her mother stood directly behind her, happy to see her daughter made so happy. I couldn’t be angry with that girl, who was guileless, nor with her mother, who had grown up with the tradition. One Piet stopped clowning long enough to give the girl cookies. I must admit it made me feel good to see that girl smiling. I felt my baby quickening inside me and looked forward to future Christmases: eggnog, “Silent Night,” midnight mass, the smell of the tree. I remembered my felt stocking stuffed with walnuts, tangerines, and candy canes, and choosing the biggest present to open on Christmas Eve. I knew I would gladly lie about Santa Claus to make my kid’s childhood more magical, just as my parents had done for me. Was there an ingredient of love in all this Zwarte Piet stuff?

Of course there was. But as protestors in the Netherlands have been pointing out with mounting force in recent years, there is also something sinister and cruel. One year after I walked my bike along the parade route in Amsterdam, a student activist named Quinsy Gario was tackled to the ground by police in the port city of Dordrecht for the simple act of showing up on the sidelines in a T-​shirt that said Zwarte Piete is Racisme. When he defended his right to free speech, they dragged him into an alleyway out of the sight of the children. There, they arrested him. The entire spectacle was captured on video and went viral on the internet, just as Gario had planned. More often than not in the media flurry that ensued, he was depicted as the enemy. The next day, five more protesters emulating Gario were also arrested; one of the arresting officers proclaimed, “Sinterklaas has rights, too.”

In October 2013 I spoke with Gario, shortly after he appeared on Dutch national television. In the two years since his arrest, he’d become a poster child for the “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” resistance campaign, pushing for empathy and public debate on discrimination through various acts of performance art. That he’d been invited on this popular left-​leaning nightly program with 900,000 viewers suggested that he had the nation’s ear. 

Gario was born in Curaçao in 1984 and raised in Sint Maarten before moving to the Netherlands to study theater and performance at the age of eighteen. His path to the Netherlands from the former Dutch Antilles reflects a larger black migration that’s been going on since the mid-​1970s, when Suriname (on the north coast of South America) gained independence only to swiftly succumb to political strife, military dictatorship, and civil war. Anticipating that the new nation would fare worse after independence than it had under Dutch rule, a third of Suriname’s population migrated to the Netherlands. Finally, and quite suddenly, the Dutch came face-​to-​face with the descendants of the enslaved. And overwhelmingly, because they had no other referent, Dutch kids called these immigrants “Zwarte Piet.” Despite their ties to the Netherlands, the Surinamese weren’t seen as Dutch.

All of this means that a substantive black presence in the Netherlands has really only existed for a couple of generations. This is another reason why the Dutch still have such difficulty connecting Zwarte Piet to racism: Until very recently, they haven’t lived among black people. 

Student activist Quinsy Gario alongside the logo for the campaign “Zwarte Piet Is Racisme,” the Netherlands, November 2011.

The Dutch may not believe they have racial issues, but from Gario’s perspective, in the Netherlands, race is bound up with immigration. Many Dutch people openly take issue with immigration, expressing distrust of “allochtoon”—​outsiders—​as shown by the election of right-​wing politicians like Party of Freedom founder Geert Wilders, who, in his campaign against what he fears is the “Islamisation of the Netherlands,” has called for closed borders. While rising xenophobic sentiment in the Netherlands is usually targeted at Muslims, there are concrete disparities between Dutch citizens who are Surinamese and those who are white. For example, the unemployment rate of Surinamese youth younger than twenty-​five is more than three times that of native white Dutch in the same age group. Gario believes that framing the conversation about Zwarte Piet as a harmless tradition obfuscates these racial issues. 

The day Gario appeared on TV also happened to be his twenty-​ninth birthday. He admitted to feeling out of step with the television producers’ stereotype of him as an angry black man. “I’m pretty calm and mild-​mannered by nature,” he told me. In the clip I’d watched, he seemed as poised, articulate, and funny as he did in our chat, even when the conversation turned hostile. Although I couldn’t follow the Dutch, I could understand that one of the guests on the show, a popular singer who reminded me of Rush Limbaugh in body and spirit, had become defensive and angry with Gario for speaking critically of Zwarte Piet. 

“He baited me,” Gario explained when I asked him to elucidate the exchange. “I didn’t shout back. I let him be the screamer. He tried poking a tiger in a cage. I’m not a tiger. That’s him. You can’t convince a Dutch person that Zwarte Piet is racist because they will say he’s not intended to be so. He’s fun and should therefore be taken in the spirit of fun. There’s a cognitive dissonance for them between intention and action. An act can only be racist if it’s meant to be racist. This is a notion of derailment and negation, a way not to engage with a discussion partner. They think racism means Nazis, gassing, the Shoah, and Hitler. So I just let him rip me apart with racist words—​it made my point better than I could make it.”

I asked Gario whether he’d been inspired by any black protest movements in the US. I expected him to name the Civil Rights Movement since his peaceful tactics to get the dominant culture to change its heart by retiring Zwarte Piet seemed like passive resistance. Instead, he surprised me by mentioning the Black Panther Party. He reached for a book on his shelf by Emory Douglass, the party’s Minister of Culture, whom he’d met. 

“This year, when Zwarte Piet comes to the Netherlands, I think there could be riots,” he said quite pleasantly. I assumed he was talking about black rioters trying to topple Zwarte Piet. Later, I wondered if I hadn’t twisted his meaning around. Maybe Gario was forecasting a white riot of Dutchmen who would refuse to let Zwarte Piet fall from grace. 

In the aftermath of the show, online responses to Gario’s position included several death threats. These were as unsettling as they were artless. According to Gario, a number of tweets called him an “ugly nigger.” “He should go back where he came from if he doesn’t like it here,” someone tweeted. “Let’s tie a rock around his neck and throw him in the ocean,” chirped someone else. “Let’s find a high enough branch to lynch that nigger. Get him a ticket back to Africa.”And this comparatively original head scratcher: “Quinsy Gario is inciting ethnic cleansing.”A policeman warned Gario that if he kept on yapping, he was going to have to eat through a straw. 

“It’s not just a black and white issue,” Clemmy Tjin-Bromet recently added when I contacted her about the unfolding drama. “Most black people here love Zwarte Piet too.” 

I first met Tjin-​Bromet when I still lived in Amsterdam. She was born in the south Netherlands but she identifies as Surinamese. When I asked why she didn’t identify as Dutch, she said it was because she was proud of her cultural heritage, but also because the Dutch didn’t see her as native. They saw her more or less as they saw Gario—​a guest. Her face, like so many “black” faces in the Netherlands, reflects the mélange of ethnic groups comprising the Dutch Empire—​not just the enslaved West Africans, but the Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, and Middle Easterners brought in as contracted workers to supplement the shortfall of manual labor after the abolition of slavery. She has a Chinese grandfather, yet she grew up in Holland being called (with a mix of derision and tenderness) “Zwarte Piet,” as in, “You just got off the boat. Entertain us.” 

Zwarte Piet frightened her as a child. Pointing to the character’s wickedness, she recalled, “He was the one to punish you if you were bad. He carried a switch. Sinterklaas is also done in Suriname. As I grew up, he changed. There were more and more of him, like the Smurfs. A handy Piet, a funny Piet, and so on, but always clumsy and dumb, and with a Surinamese accent.” 

Now that she’s an adult, Tjin-​Bromet chooses to keep her two sons at home when Sinterklaasavond is celebrated at their school, rather than overexpose them to Zwarte Piet, whom she’s come to see as a caricature. It’s impossible to avoid him entirely. “We’re known as the family that doesn’t celebrate Sinterklaas even though we do exchange presents. In our ‘black’ neighborhood there aren’t a lot of other people willing to let go of this celebration. People struggling to pay rent and feed their kids see the protest against Zwarte Piet as a struggle for intellectuals,” Tjin-​Bromet said. “My parents-​in-​law still celebrate, and we let them pick up the kids for a celebration at their place. But Zwarte Piet has no part here.”

In accordance with Tjin-​Bromet’s assessment, a recent opinion poll shows that only 27 percent of black Amsterdam feels Zwarte Piet is a discriminatory character. Ninety-​two percent of Dutch citizens don’t associate Zwarte Piete with slavery and 91 percent oppose any effort whatsoever to change the way he looks. 

Tjin-​Bromet further described the nation’s attachment to Piet as an integral part of the holiday. “Even for me, hearing all the songs and seeing the candy and hot chocolate, it brings back warm feelings. This celebration has been massaged in our brains as being good.” As hard as it is for outsiders to understand why blackface needs be a part of the Christmas season, it’s harder for the Dutch to understand how Sinterklaasavond could still be a holiday without Zwarte Piet. In part, this is because Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet remind the Dutch on the most fundamental level of the ancient struggle between good and evil, the god of light and the god of darkness. Suspending what we think we know about Zwarte Piet as a child of the slave trade and Sinterklaas as his master, a saint would be inhuman without his psychological and physical shadow. Tinkering with that balance between light and dark is tricky business. In 2006 some TV-​network executives attempted to replace the black Pieten with rainbow-​colored Pieten in a nationally broadcast children’s show. The result was public outcry. 

Tjin-​Bromet conceded that even though only a fraction of black Amsterdam was fighting the fight, the Zwarte Piet problem was getting hot. I reflected on the fact that it was actually only a small percentage of African Americans who participated in the civil-​rights struggle. A vocal minority can cause sweeping change. I was lucky to know a few of the intellectuals Tjin-​Bromet was referring to as the frontline. I’d met several of them along with Eyerman at a conference on cultural trauma as a legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. I’d been invited back to Amsterdam (as a byproduct of my writing about the Dutch slave castle) in celebration of the sesquicentennial of the abolition of the Dutch slave trade in 1863. 

One of those intellectuals was a fifty-​nine-​year-​old radio journalist and activist named Perez Jong Loy. I remember him wearing a baseball hat that said 1873, a reminder that the enslaved were forced to work for ten years beyond abolition to prevent the collapse of the Dutch sugar industry. He’d worn the hat to the conference, and also to the annual Emancipation Day parade on the day after, July 1, which marked the Surinamese holiday Keti Koti (Sranantongo for “the chains are cut”). It struck me, as I marched in the parade of black Dutch people in their bright festival-​wear to the slavery memorial in Oosterpark, that it was a healthy alternative to the Sinterklaas parade, but also that it was not a festival observed by the larger culture. It wasn’t a national holiday. And as a popular expression of blackness, Keti Koti didn’t hold a candle to Zwarte Piet.

After checking in with Tjin-​Bromet this fall, I asked Jong Loy to fill me in on the Zwarte Piet front. Specifically, I wondered what he thought should be done to change the age-​old Sinterklaasavond tradition to make it less offensive. Along with twenty other protestors coordinated by Gario, he had just lodged a formal complaint with the Amsterdam city council’s event licensing committee in hopes of banning the Sinterklaas parade I’d witnessed three years before. These grievances were aired during a public hearing, reported on television by AT5 Nieuws, and in other press, one month before this year’s procession was scheduled to take place in Amsterdam, as usual, on November 17 with Sinterklaas and 500 Zwarte Pieten. In a sleight of hand, Gario argued that the parade violated the city’s official regulations, which stipulates such events must “contribute to an innovative and creative image of the city.” Henk Leegte, who organizes the Amsterdam procession, responded to complaints by suggesting a compromise: the appearance of 100 of the 500 Petes might be altered.

Jong Loy told me, “There’s no compromise possible. No way. It’s all or nothing.” Then, as if Zwarte Piet were a real person and not a fictional character, he said, “Zwarte Piet needs to die.” He elaborated: “The idea children are getting is that they have to be afraid of black men. If I go to a village less than ten miles away from Amsterdam and go to the supermarket there, little children at the height of my knees look at me with terror and unbelievable panic, like I am a monster. They point at me, trembling, and say, ‘Mama, look, it’s Zwarte Piet!’ The parents don’t correct them.” 

Jong Loy went on to tell me he’d just been “jumped” outside of his gym after the hearing was reported in the news. An angry mob accused him of trying to spoil their children’s happiness. “It’s not just an innocent festival for children!” he stressed. “Black children are bullied with this.” 

He recounted being surrounded by bullies himself on his first day of school in the Netherlands more than fifty years ago at the age of seven, after he emigrated from Suriname by boat. His classmates taunted him with the name “Zwarte Piet” and another racial slur with no sensible translation: “Shit-​Chinese.” He remembered, “I spoke back with my hands rather than my mouth. The teacher punished me instead of them. She put me in the corridor with my face against the wall. That was just the beginning. They always outnumbered me. It wasn’t just the children. Old Dutch ladies rubbed my face with spit to see if the color would come off. I learned within two weeks after I arrived to stand with my back against the wall.” 

I wondered if this story had been part of Jong Loy’s deposition at the hearing. The decision to take legal recourse marks a crucial development in the struggle to topple Zwarte Piet. “In Holland, racial discrimination is a major crime,” he explained. “It’s agreed you can go to prison for it. But never ever has there been a racial lawsuit in Holland because they always deny the discrimination, claiming it’s not a reality, but a feeling.” Feelings are arbitrary, subjective, and too slippery to hold. Laws are not. As of this writing, the parade is still scheduled to take place, in spite of the campaigner’s efforts to have it stopped through policy. But Jong Loy told me to be on the lookout for another “spectacle.” It would be grand, he hinted, but he couldn’t tell me more than that because he was sure our communication was being monitored. 

The morning after we spoke, it came out in the press that the Dutch practice of blackface in celebration of Sinterklaasavond was under investigation by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The commissioner had received a letter tipping her off that, “the character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people as second class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority in Dutch society.” In response to the suggestion that Zwarte Piet could be a human-​rights violation, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said this was a matter for society to settle, not government. By the end of the day, 500,000 people had “liked” a Dutch Facebook page called Pietitie (Pete-​ition) dedicated to saving Zwarte Piet. Within a week, that figure climbed to 2 million. “Don’t let the Netherlands’ best tradition disappear,” the page begged.

On October 26, 2013, several hundred people demonstrated at the Malieveld in The Hague to keep Zwarte Piet as part of the traditional Dutch Sinterklaas  celebration. The demonstration was an outgrowth  of a Facebook page dedicated to saving Zwarte Piet. (Bart Maat / Hollandse Hoogte / Redux)

If anything, the desperate defense of ZwartePiet has bolstered the feeling among those who oppose him that Zwarte Piet must come to an end. “We need to teach them shame,” the Surinamese Dutch historian Sandew Hira reiterated with great patience. “We are like Little Rock in the 1950s. People were not ashamed of racial apartheid then in the US. Something changed in the civilization of America to uplift itself. That is what we are experiencing here.”

I told Hira that even I could smell it, from across the ocean. Zwarte Piet was on his last legs. In today’s world, where technology allows little to be concealed from view, Zwarte Piet could no longer stand up in the light of day. How long, I asked Hira, did he think it would take for Zwarte Piet to fall? He said he thought it could still be some decades. Or possibly less. In any case, he was optimistic. 

When I imagine Zwarte Piet’s eventual and inevitable demise, I can’t help but recall that deaf girl at the Sinterklaas parade with her mother. I still remember her bright, lovely smile in the rain. That expression of joy is probably the best argument the Dutch make in their losing battle to uphold their custom. What kind of person would rob a child of Christmas? But as Hira pointed out, “A child didn’t invent Zwarte Piet. Adults have trained them to like him as he is.” Those children young enough to never have known him will not miss him at all. 

Three years have passed since I was pregnant in Amsterdam. I’m a mother now myself, twice over. I love my children every bit as much as that mother at the parade. I try to imagine my son and daughter in Amsterdam on Sinterklaasavond. Would they be able to feel a joy as uncomplicated as that girl’s? Or would they, like Jong Loy when he was a child, be pointed at, bullied, and jeered? 

The Dutch will learn their history and its ties to slavery, and I hope they will learn it soon. When they confront that hidden core, Dutch society must also realize that there is no tradition so golden that one child’s joy should come at the cost of another’s shame.

“Children don’t change society. Adults do,” Sandew Hira said when we talked before this year’s parade. 


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