Every year around this time, people in the Netherlands paint themselves in blackface and go around pretending to be Santa’s African slaves. According to polls, 92% of Dutch people think this is just fine.
They call themselves Zwarte Piets (Black Petes). According to Dutch legend, they are the “Moorish” entourage that arrives with Santa Claus (Sinterklaas) by steamship to deliver pre-Christmas presents to good children and carry away bad ones. And every November for the past 150 years, black-faced Zwarte Piet impersonators and (white-skinned) Santa impersonators have paraded around cities in Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg to build up anticipation for “Presents Day” on Dec. 5—the day when kids check their shoes for gifts (instead of Christmas)—and Sinterklaas Day on Dec. 6.
At least 600 Zwarte Piets belong to the Piet Guild in Amsterdam alone. Smaller organizations and blackface actors are scattered across the Benelux region. There is even a Hoofdpiet, or Chief Piet, played by celebrated Dutch actor Erik van Muiswinkel, who regularly appears on government-funded public TV in the holiday blackface.
But it’s not all presents and parades. This year, at a Nov. 15 celebration in Gouda, police arrested 90 anti-Piet protestors who had come with a banner reading “Zwarte Piet racism.” The scuffle ended with difficult scenes of black men being held down by policemen as clowns in black-face makeup looked on. “It’s deeply, deeply sad,” commented Dutch prime minister Marke Rutte. “You can’t disturb a children’s party like that.”
Zwarte Piet first appears in the 1850 childrens’ book, “Saint Nicholas and his Servant,” by Amsterdam schoolmaster Jan Schenkman. At the time, the Dutch empire was not only deeply involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but dependent on forced labor in plantation colonies in Suriname and Indonesia.
To many, the painted black face and exaggerated red lips instantly evoke racist stereotypes. And Dutch people of color have criticized Zwarte Piet as racist caricaturing for decades: in one iconic 1987 episode of Dutch Sesame Street, actress Gerda Havertong complains “Enough of Zwarte Piet! I’m tired of it!” to Big Bird.
But the vast majority of Dutch people say they think Zwarte Piet should stay exactly as he is—pancake-makeup, wig and all. Geert Wilders, the leader of the fanatically anti-immigration Party for Freedom has tweeted that he would rather abolish the United Nations than lose Zwarte Piet. Death threats have been sent to prominent anti-Piet and anti-racist activists like singer Anouk and to would-be organizers of “alternative” Piet shows (Green Piets, Rainbow Piets). A Facebook “Piet-ition” to keep Zwarte Piet black has gathered than two million likes—significant in a Dutch population of only 16 million.
“If Swarte Piet is eradicated, the feelings of the vast majority of the Dutch… will turn against the colored Dutch,” threatened an October 2014 op-ed in Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. “One could not, for example, look at Surinamese people without thinking they were the ones who had ruined the fun.”
“Piet-ists” also argue that the Christmas blackface teaches ethnic integration—one out of 10 Dutch citizens has a “non-Western foreign background,” according to government census data—by “introducing” white Dutch children to (fake) black faces. “But kids are freaked out by the Zwarte Piet look,” observes Marwa Nasser, 29, who grew up with annual Zwarte Piet parades in Antwerp, Belgium. “They end up crying and not wanting to get close.”
According to an official statement by the Dutch government, only three or four official complaints were made every year against Zwarte Piet until 2011. That year, the number of official complaints leapt to 113. In 2012, complaints doubled to 204. By 2013, Zwarte Piet had become the subject of multiple civil suits and the threat of a investigation by the United Nations.
That is after Christmastime in 2011 when 29-year-old Dutch artist and women’s studies major Quinsy Gario was recorded being pepper-sprayed and arrested for wearing a “Zwarte Piet is racism” t-shirt during a Sinterklaas/Zwarte Piet event in Dordrecht, Netherlands. The footage went viral and suddenly brought attention to a simple point, long-disregarded: Zwarte Piet was not funny for Dutch people of color.
Gario has since tried to illustrate the problem of Zwarte Piet by telling the story of his mother’s humiliation the day she was called the office’s “Zwarte Piet” by colleagues, in front of clients, since “Zwarte Piet” is frequently used as an insult.
After three years of vitriolic debate, anti-Piet sentiment is finally spreading. Popular Dutch author Robert Vuijsje has gone on television to renounce his own vehement pro-Pietism, and has recently released a children’s book proposing all colors of Piet. “This year is the first time there is a kind of shift in the white progressive elite,” says Zihni Ozdil, social historian at Erasmus University in Rotterdam “It’s become kind of a hip thing to be against Zwarte Piet.”
This year, for the first time, the Dutch government is finally making concessions. Tiny ones. November 2014 was the first time that Gouda’s city officials added new “Cheese Petes” and “Waffel Petes” painted yellow and checkered brown after Gouda’s famous cheese and waffles, in an effort to detract attention from the Zwarte Piets. In Amsterdam, Zwarte Piet has been made slightly less caricatural (although still very much black-face) by removing the traditional gold hoop earrings lightening the face-paint to a shade more brown than black.
“The recent Piet-modifications are in my opinion very much for the good, as they offer an opportunity for organizers, school staff etc. to accommodate the Sinterklaas traditions to the Dutch multicultural society,” says Erik van Muiswinkel, who has played Holland’s Hoodfpiet on television since the 1990s.
At the same time, notes researcher and activist Chandra Frank, police surveillance at parades has dramatically increased this year and armed officers this year are going undercover as Zwarte Piets. Dutch traditionalists continue to see any real modification to Zwarte Piet as an unfair imposition of change. Tolerance and moderation are considered a part of the Dutch national identity; to accuse a Dutch person of racism, therefore, can be seen as a failure to understand Dutchness itself.
“In Holland, if you don’t like Zwarte Piet, the most common response is, ‘go back to your own culture and your own traditions,’” says Ozdil. “But Dutch people from the Caribbean or Surinamese background have been part of this country for 400 years.”