Zwarte Piet is Racisme — or "Black Peter is Racism" — might as well be Dutch for "shots fired."
Activist Quinsy Gario was recently beaten and arrested for publicly protesting — and using that highly charged slogan — at a Dutch Christmas celebration in an attempt to call attention to a very simple fact: The depiction of Zwarte Piet, a beloved Santa's-helper folk character in the Netherlands, is racist. Every year on St. Nicholas Eve, a Dec. 5 holiday in honor of Santa Claus, scores of celebrators apply garish blackface and take to the streets dressed as Zwarte Piet.
Gario's protest isn't the first time Piet has come under scrutiny. Flavia Dzodan, a South American-born, Amsterdam-based activist and author of the blog Red Light Politics, did not mince words in a conversation with The Root.
"I am afraid to say — and I know this will not go down well with many Dutch white people — that Black Pete is tainted beyond redemption," she said. "There is no redeemable quality in this character in its current incarnation. There is no going around the racist nature of a character that acts as a de facto slave for a white saint, who is portrayed as clumsy and mischievous, who is used as an instrument to instill fear in children who misbehave."
Historically, global mythology has not been kind to darker-skinned residents of the planet. Traditional folklore from Europe often depicts black- and brown-skinned people as devilish, mischievous or inherently dull-witted and made for servitude. Subconsciously, the repetition of these portrayals has a damning effect: the linking of blackness with wickedness. Most of the classic fairy-tale collections available on Amazon Kindle have at least one derogatory reference to dark skin — everyone from Hans Christian Andersen to the Brothers Grimm wove the politics of the day into the stories that are still with us centuries later.
Zwarte Piet enters this framework in the 1800s. His original story varies, but most accounts have Piet being either a page for St. Nicholas or a devil whom Nicholas vanquished and enslaved. In keeping with the already negative imagery, Piet is sometimes used as a motivator to keep children in line. But this isn't Santa Claus' naughty-and-nice list; some versions of the Zwarte Piet myth have him kidnapping bad children and whisking them off to Spain.
Why Spain? The legend of Zwarte Piet also occasionally refers to him as a Moor, a term that was more colloquial than scientific and referred to one of the many different groups originating in North Africa that at one time controlled Spain. But the phenotypic marker of the Moors varies, while the depiction of Piet stays fairly consistent: dark skin, curly hair, red lips.
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.
Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist, anti-racist activist and deputy editor of Fusion’s Voices section, opining on pop culture, news, video games and everything that makes life worth living.