Zwarte Piet and My Run-In With Blackface

Photo: Nabil Ayers

In November 2006, my band was in the midst of a European tour. Though we loved exploring unfamiliar cities, we ached for the comforts of home as the holidays approached. None of us were from the same place—we were born in cities spreading from New York to Anchorage, but we shared an understanding of what the holidays meant to us: a jovial Santa Claus; a fragrant, decorated tree and lots of food.

On Thanksgiving, my bandmates and I crowded around a Chinese restaurant table in Groningen, Holland, spinning a lazy Susan stacked with greasy dumplings and piles of fluffy rice. Later that night, our hotel lobby bustled with drunk women in nurses’ uniforms. The attendant explained that the bar was hosting a costume party, in which everyone dressed as they would at work. A few steps into the crowded bar revealed that, indeed, most women were dressed as sexy nurses, and most men wore blackface. I was suddenly confronted with dozens of overserved white men in colorful, puffy pants, oversized afro wigs, bright red lipstick and very, very dark painted hands and faces that caused the whites of their eyes to glow.

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I immediately felt stunned, angry and uncomfortable and my stomach filled with the heat that I only feel in extremely dangerous situations. But it wasn’t as if I’d walked into a Ku Klux Klan meeting or Nazi rally, in which—as a half-black, half-Jewish person—I’d feel personally threatened. I knew that each of these men was dressed as Zwarte Piet, a traditional holiday mascot in Holland.

Two days earlier, Holland glowed with familiar holiday lighting and decor. As I walked down a crowded high street, a doll in a store window caught my attention. The doll was about eight inches tall and could have been made from a stuffed black sock, before he was decorated with ornate trimmings—sparkling silver pants and a matching shiny gold cap that circled his round face like a halo. Two wide eyes beckoned me to come closer to discover his full, smiling red lips.

My mind went straight to the 1899 children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo—the doll in the window looked a lot like the titular character, who had similar exaggerated features. Several more dolls were spaced across the bright, happy window display. Each wore more colorful clothing than the last, and each used wide eyes and a big smile to endorse the store’s expensive glassware.

I’d seen plenty of racist imagery in America, but never in a crowded shopping district in a nice, upscale neighborhood. I took pictures of the dolls and that night, I showed them to several locals, alongside the simple question, “What’s this?”

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“Ah, yes. That’s Zwarte Piet,” was the common response, usually with an accompanying smile. “It’s an old Dutch tradition.” I knew that Zwarte translated to black and my understanding came quickly into focus: Black Pete was Dutch Santa’s little helper. One person explained that Zwarte Piet was not actually meant to be black—that his skin had become dirty from sliding down the chimney—a widely refuted argument that’s not supported by Piet’s pristine clothing. Nobody I talked to seemed even a little bit concerned or offended. “It’s just a funny old tradition. It doesn’t mean anything,” I was told repeatedly.

It occurred to me that, like my bandmates and our shared understanding of what the holidays meant to us, the locals I surveyed in Holland had the same feelings about Zwarte Piet. He was an icon with whom they’d grown up and learned to accept as part of their traditional holiday experience. He was harmless.

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Zwarte Piet’s history goes back to the 1850 book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht, which translates to St. Nikolaas and his Servant, by the Dutch schoolteacher Jan Schenkman. In the book, Santa Claus had a Moorish—and therefore black—assistant, in the most accepting versions of the tale. Slave in the most condemning. December 5 in Holland marks the annual Feast of St. Nikolaas, or Sinterklaas, in which St. Nikolaas arrives to offer children presents and candy. He’s assisted by several Zwarte Piet characters—typically white men in blackface.

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Although the blackfaced men at the hotel bar had caused me great discomfort, I relished in one thought: This would never happen in America, which, for all its faults, didn’t feel anywhere close to this blatant in its racism at that moment. But my thought was only a flash of false comfort. Though I’d never personally experienced anything of such magnitude, I knew better than to visualize an America in which such a thing couldn’t happen.

Two years later, we elected our first black president and in my Brooklyn bubble, I felt like issues of race in the United States were improving. But around the same time, social media made it easier than ever to share the fact that I was wrong, allowing everyday people to report with great frequency the shameful mistreatment of non-white Americans.

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Now it’s 2019 and non-white Americans have continued to excel in every field from politics to science to ballet. Country artists rap, rap artists twang, and the lines between the two blur more with each passing day. At the same time, elected leaders like Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been recently caught wearing blackface. Both men condemn and apologize for their behavior, citing they were young, dumb, inexperienced.

And in Holland, a country with a slave-trading history like ours, a country who abolished slavery in 1863—two years before we did—Sinterklaas lives on. Holland’s official website makes no mention of Zwarte Piet, while Holland Explorer states that “Sinterklaas doesn’t come alone. He arrives with his white horse Amerigo and a team of the Zwarte Pieten, who probably have been stuck in chimneys for a while.” Protests have existed for decades, and the United Nations has demanded change. Some schools and businesses have done away with Zwarte Piet, while others have chosen to modernize him with golden skin or the complexion of a rainbow. But many Dutch citizens have no desire for change, citing that Zwarte Piet has always been, and should remain, an emblem of Sinterklaas and the holiday season in Holland.

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My first encounter with Zwarte Piet was alarming. When that experience was upstaged by dozens of life-sized specimens in a hotel bar, I felt a hot flame shoot through my stomach. I didn’t see a bunch of drunk men who would someday regret what they’d done. I saw an oblivious, complicit mob who, if ever scrutinized for their behavior, would respond, “C’mon. Zwarte Piet was in a televised parade, in every store window, in every school. Everybody was doing it!” And they’d be right.

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About the author

Nabil Ayers

Nabil Ayers is a Brooklyn based writer and US head of the 4AD record label.