A Reasonable Alternative to Zwarte Piet

Guest post by Patricia Schor

There is something fundamental when one engages in social struggle that is daring to believe in real transformation.

A short while ago I watched a wonderful documentary about the US Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, where a historian defined it not as a struggle of good against bad or evil, but of good against normal. This poignant statement transported me back to the Netherlands year 2013, where and when public institutions sponsor and host the largest children’s party that centres on the figure of the holy white elder Sinterklaas accompanied by a retinue of jolly black servants: the Zwarte Pieten. This is normal or, at least, its presence is so insistent in the Dutch public sphere that the line between common (as frequent) and normal (as acceptable) is easily—and purposefully—blurred.

Due to mounting domestic protests and to international commotion, Dutch public institutions seem to be slowly realising that there is something dodgy about Zwarte Piet. It might be that it is, after all, not that normal. Still, they stay put for who determines the terms of normalcy or, better, who establishes the limits of what is morally acceptable in the public sphere, is the same white establishment. And for the Dutch white establishment, demands for changing their national tradition must be reasonable and all parts must meet somewhere in between their antagonistic claims. Out of this balanced and agreeable conversation, alternative elements to the tradition should emerge.

People of colour are expected to take into consideration that the Dutch white establishment is very fond of its national mascot, which is a blackface. This fondness shows in the violence people of colour meet when voicing criticism to Zwarte Piet. And so, to achieve a compromise with the establishment, people of colour should signal willingness to adjust just a little this tiny racist legacy.  The white autochtonous might then reluctantly but so generously agree to adapt Zwarte Piet.

An acceptable mid-way could be to keep the figure but without the Negroblack face-paint, or we should perhaps take off its Creole earrings, or the Afro wig? Maybe keep the previous but undress it of the characteristic Page attire, or keep the servant’s shoes and skip the Burlap bag? These would all qualify as acceptable alternatives for keeping Zwarte Piet in the Sinterklaas yearly parade, in the primary schools’ curricula, in day-care activities, in public television and actually everywhere in the public sphere throughout the Netherlands, between the months October and December.

Whenever I encounter Zwarte Piet, I am haunted by an analogous racialised stereotype, that of the Jew. Blacks and Jews have been subjected to stigmatisation over the centuries and the articulation between these racialised representations has been made throughout modern history (see Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Jean Améry, Paul Sartre, a.o.). It was in the XIX century, at the heyday of the Empire and pseudo-scientific racism, when the racist stereotype of Jews ran loose in Europe, that Zwarte Piet entered the much older Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas. What is striking is that, today, the stereotype of the Jew would be unthinkable in a Dutch public feast, and rightfully so, whereas its sibling, Zwarte Piet, is overly present, very much alive and well. I wonder why the figure of the greedy Jew is absent from the public sphere rather than having survived as a friendly jolly Jew, perhaps without the big nose, or with the nose but without the hunchback, or maybe with the previous but not the money-case? That would have been, after all, a reasonable alternative that would bring together antagonising parts, the objectified subaltern Jew and the white establishment, somewhere in the middle.

What hides behind the idea of an acceptable middle-ground between equal parts? The notion of parity between the hegemonic establishment and the subaltern subject, between the dominant majority and a marginalised minority is myopic and ideological. This misconception hides the fact that it is the hegemonic part that defines the terms of the conversation, how, when and who enters it and what is open for negotiation.

A national commemoration of the magnitude of Sinterklaas is serious business in the Netherlands for it involves a multitude of commercial and public agents and resources targeting children, telling them what is normal, good and acceptable, and what is fun.

Throughout history, the non-white Dutch have lacked the entitlement to deliberate about Dutch national culture and society. Throughout history they have been defying their assigned place at the back of the bus. What is actually at stake in this struggle is people of colour’s entitlement to participate in defining the terms of normalcy, the limits of what is acceptable, in the Netherlands. When people of colour unambiguously reject a notion of reasonability imposed by white supremacy, and take the front seat of the bus alongside the autochtonous, Zwarte Piet will vanish from the Dutch public sphere.

A caricature of the black – face, clothes, attributes and a relationship of docile subservience to the master, each and all part of a racist package – is not acceptable. Zwarte Piet must go and give way to something new, to something good that we want to offer to the next generation. This is a reasonable alternative.

6 thoughts on “A Reasonable Alternative to Zwarte Piet

  1. Can’t they just make Zwarte Piet a white guy who is black because he’s covered in the from the chimney (even though the Dutch no longer use chimneys) rather than a blackface? I noticed that even making that suggestion is met by Dutch hostility. Something about the freedom of speech only being allowed to be openly racist, not offer any kind of constructive criticism/solution of certain racist traditions…

  2. Although I understand the point of view of Patricia, after all Santa Claus in the USA also comes alone with his rendeers, I plea for Black Pete to go natural. There is a human interaction between Pete and Sinterklaas that is more like an odd couple than a bishop with his slave today. Sinterklaas all by himself is pathetic. Because Holland is a multicultural society Pete will naturally get a multicural appearance.

  3. Zwarte Pete is a racist image and all of Amsterdam know it . It is very offensive to the black population of the world. I am a proud Black American woman , and for some reason I love Holland Amsterdam. I always thought that the country respected the human condition better than any other country . Zwarte Pete the SLAVE is not a positive reminder of the trials and tribulations of the Black man!

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