Blackface in the Netherlands: Black Pete and Saint Nicholas

Last week, I attended my first SURJ meeting in Oakland. I introduced myself as a white guy from a xenophobic and racist country in north-western Europe. I'd say that most Oaklanders would associate the Netherlands with Amsterdam, tulips, Van Gogh, and smoking weed. Some might even recall the legalization of gay marriage in 2001 and euthanasia in 2002. So why does this seemingly liberal country have white people put on blackface to play “Black Pete,” the foolish servant of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas), as part of a national tradition?

Image: Joris Leermakers (license)

Perhaps the simplest explanation is that many Dutch people do not consider “Black Pete” to be racist. In 2013, the UN High Commission for Human Rights received an official complaint about Black Pete. The Dutch government’s response did not acknowledge that the blackface tradition was racist, stating that “people’s opinions about this festival differ.” 

 

I have fond childhood memories of Sinterklaas. As a child, I would put my shoe next to the fireplace with a carrot in it for the white horse of the saint, with the expectation that a present would magically appear overnight. I remember the fear and excitement of meeting Sinterklaas in person and getting candy from Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). And I loved opening all the gifts on Sinterklaas Eve, December 5, with my parents, sister, grandparents, and other family.

Looking back, I find it strange that my middle-class, left-leaning, politically correct family did not question the role that Black Pete played in the celebration. He is portrayed as a foolish black servant of Saint Nicholas who speaks Dutch with an absurd foreign accent, dances around like a jester, wears big golden earrings, and has huge red lips. It doesn’t end there: children are told that if they misbehave, Zwarte Piet will spank them, put them in a canvas bag and take them to Sinterklaas' homestead in Spain for an undisclosed amount of time. This was especially scary to me as a child, because Sinterklaas supposedly observed all of us carefully throughout the year.

As an adult, I can now see that Black Pete reinforces grim colonial stereotypes: the wise, wealthy, white, bearded saint keeps everyone in check, while his dumb obedient servant does the dirty work and heavy lifting.

The celebration of Sinterklaas is part of my cultural heritage. But I now see, and disagree with, the openly racist message that it carries. I am eager to engage with my family and friends and openly talk about it. But how? Should I tell my 7 year old nephew that Sinterklaas isn't real and that this non-existent benevolent saint is a racist? Or should I call my sister and learn more about her take on it as his mother? I'll probably start by calling my sister. I’ve got to start somewhere.

Blog posts are written by individuals within SURJ are not representative of the entire organization.