If children survived the loss of golliwog figures, how about Zwarte Piet? Expat Ellen Duckenfield discusses if she can still be a good mother and accept her child’s love of Zwarte Piet.
I have never been a great admirer of Santa’s helper, Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’), who funnily prances around in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands around Christmas time. To say the least, it is a tradition that makes me uncomfortable. However, now as a mum living in the Netherlands, how do I accept the inevitable – that my kids are going to want to dress up as him?
As we are thrown full throttle into Sinterklaas, images of Zwarte Piet adorn the shop windows, the wrapping paper, and the supermarket shelves. At this time of year I always think ‘here we go again’.
This is because I know it will be a struggle to hold my tongue. I don’t want to be a killjoy but isn’t something wrong here? White people blacked-up with painted red lips, afros and hoop earrings, clowning around and entertaining the crowd, being the sideshow to their lord and master, Sinterklaas. It seems too obvious even to bring it up. And yet when you do, the extent of cultural argument goes very deep.
Which side of the Zwarte Piet debate?
I once got into an almost irreconcilable fight with my mother-in-law. She suggested to me that I needed (for my own peace of mind) to think of Zwarte Piet as having come down the chimney and therefore having black soot on his face. But this argument ignores the fact that Zwarte Piet is a caricature of a black person; how does the soot explain the lipstick, earrings and curly black wigs?
Over my years living in the Netherlands I have noticed various camps of Zwarte Piet defenders. There are ones who refuse to acknowledge any reference to a black character and say the colour is ‘symbolic’ of blackened soot. Then there are those who do accept his historical roots, either as a Moorish slave from Spain or an adopted African orphan, but claim that in current day celebrations he is harmless and no racism is intended.
The people who object to Zwarte Piet are often accused of creating a problem that isn’t there, of ruining an innocent children’s festival and of over-sensitive political correctness.
Last year, however, the debate reached a new level after UN spokeswoman Verene Shepherd issued a statement in which she said that Zwarte Piet is a throwback to the times of slavery.
She has a point, and one that the Dutch nation can’t be so surprised to hear. But the reaction wasn’t well received. There have been countless aggressive denials and tactics to ridicule anyone who agrees with the UN statement, including racist bullying via social media sites and the targeting of celebrities who publicly dare to oppose Zwarte Piet.
Retaliations often seem to focus on the fact that the UN – and others who disapprove – are outsiders who don’t understand ‘our traditions’.
Though I have to question this: If a tradition is not racist, shouldn’t it withstand the scrutiny of ‘outsiders’? What about the Dutch people of foreign descent – the Surinamese, the Antillians, and communities who are most often offended by Zwarte Piet – are they also outsiders? Is that why it is ok to ignore and sideline their opinions, too?
If the tradition is innocent fun, meant to entertain children, why does it warrant such an aggressive reaction from adults?
The international references: Golliwogs be gone
Zwarte Piet as a caricature is of course not exclusively Dutch. All over the world we have had versions of this. Golliwog black dolls and toys were once commonplace but these were discontinued as times changed and our societies became more multi-racial. It was no longer acceptable to use stereotyped imagery that was deemed offensive.
I don’t think the children suffered for the loss of these toys. They adapted. Even Enid Blyton’s books were revised removing her Mr Golly character. Yet her reputation as one of Britain’s best-loved children’s writers remains the same.
Growing up in the UK we spread our toast with jam that came out of a Robertson’s jar, a brand that showed off their iconic Golliwog logo. We white children didn’t laugh into our toast feeling superior to our darker skinned neighbours. We didn’t really associate the character with real black people, but racism doesn’t have to be explicit to have an effect on our view of the world. Robertson’s chose to rebrand and drop the logo in order to move with the times. It was only jam, but traditions can change and be updated without losing out on their essence or sweetness.
I hope this can also be true in the case of the traditions around Sinterklaas (Santa Claus).
The capacity of change
Saint Nicolas as a character has been celebrated in the Netherlands and Belgium for centuries and in his current guise wears a Roman Catholic Bishop’s outfit. This I understand started in the 16th century with the spread of Roman Catholicism. Over hundreds of years, Zwarte Piet has also transformed from a black ‘helper’ who had many names in different countries and who was depicted initially as a menacing slave who tried scaring children. The way he looks today is a lot softer and friendlier. Recently there have also been updated ideas about his history, a suggestion that he was not subservient but was a freed slave.
Whatever the real story of Zwarte Piet, the history is not the only issue. It is the stereotype itself that jars and the hierarchy between white and black that it depicts. If the Netherlands were concerned about maintaining their image as a ‘tolerant’ nation wouldn’t they want to listen to the voices of those who feel oppressed? In my view it is not up to the majority to speak for the minority.
I acknowledge that I am not born and bred in the Netherlands, and I do not hold cherished reminiscences from my childhood. But there is an element by which the adults who seek to protect a ‘tradition’ for their children are actually doing so to protect their own private and treasured nostalgia. No one really wants to ruin a beautiful memory.
However, I live in the Netherlands right now.
Can I accept Zwarte Piet and still be a good mum?
I know I will not win the argument but times do inevitably change. Until they do I will try to pass down traditions to my family in my own way. Naturally, my daughter wants to wear a Zwarte Piet hat like her friends at school, that’s fine. She has just as much right as any other child to take part in the festivities. It is only the racial stereotyping that I am troubled by, not the whole of Sinterklaas.
For now, I can choose not to buy wrapping paper with the images of Zwarte Piet. I can choose (along with her hat) to paint a rainbow on my daughter’s cheeks instead of black-face, and I can choose not to join in when others sing, “Want al ben ik zwart als roet, ik meen het toch goed,” (‘Even though I am as Black as coal, I have good intentions’).
I can take small steps, diminish the effect of negative stereotypes and concentrate on the enchanting parts of the story. We can bake pepernoten, put a carrot in a shoe for the horse and write poems and a letter to Sint. Her memories of Sinterklaas will vary in some details to the memories of those who celebrated a generation ago, but will her experience really be any the less?