A Very Racist Christmas?

The Dutch still portray Zwarte Piet -- Santa's helper -- in blackface. Some want them to stop.

Gerard Stolk vers Noël (Flickr)
Gerard Stolk vers Noël (Flickr)

One Dutch bicycling blogger tried to figure out the logic behind Piet’s representation last year, writing that a “Moorish Piet probably wouldn’t even be black since what the Europeans referred to as ‘Moors’ were mostly Berbers and Arabs from northern Africa. As a resident of a city with a considerable population with roots in this region I can assure you that they’re usually not particularly dark skinned. But heck, Shakespeare also portrayed Othello as black … so who am I to argue?”

While it can be debated whether Piet was supposed to have been a devil or a Moor, or how Moors appeared to European eyes, it is clear that the Black Peter costume and imagery cross into heavy caricature. Piet’s story has evolved over the years to focus less on the religion-heavy, former-devil narrative in favor of a more kid-friendly, beloved companion, a shift that accounts for much of the nostalgia and local attachment to the character.

While the country does not have the same cultural history as the United States — so conversations on minstrelsy and blackface take on a very different tone — there is a legacy of racism in the Netherlands that continues to this day. This creates a very loaded discussion around the beloved Dutch symbol. Moreover, the stark break in perception around the impact of Zwarte Piet also brings into focus why the country has problems with the discussion of race.

There is an “unchallenged notion” of cultural superiority in the Netherlands, Dzodan said, and it hinders an honest conversation about Piet. “A culture cannot [consider itself] simultaneously superior and deeply flawed in terms of racism,” she said.

Many countries in Europe are currently struggling with rising xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments, fueled in part by the tanking global economy. The public conversations revolve around the need for unity, which can lead to demands for assimilation into society before acceptance.

But while Muslims are currently the lightning rod for controversy, other disparities lurk quietly behind the scenes. According to Dzodan, Dutch citizens from Suriname under the age of 25 “who are, for the most part, of mixed Afro-Caribbean heritage, for instance, have an unemployment rate of 27 percent, versus a national rate of 6.9 percent for [native, white Dutch in the same age group].” If you just frame the conversation about Zwarte Piet in “cultural or religious” terms, she said, you obscure the racial issues.

So is Zwarte Piet just one of the many symbols of a long-overdue racial reconciliation in the Netherlands? Perhaps, but that day is a long way off. For the last few years, the calls to condemn, reform or change Zwarte Piet have only gotten louder, leading to a brief change in 2007, when Piet’s face was depicted as multicolored instead of black. This version was markedly less popular than the current, controversial incarnation, and so, in 2011, you can still see scores of Dutch citizens blackening their faces, pulling on a curly wig and taking to the streets to celebrate Christmas by upholding a racist tradition.

Latoya Peterson is the editor of Racialicious.com and a contributing editor to The Root. 

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