Is Zwarte Piet really racist?

Angelo Soliman
Angelo Soliman

The public discussion surrounding Santa's helper Zwarte Piet -or Black Pete- is flaring up again and the anti-Zwarte Piet movement is gaining momentum: an Amsterdam judge recently ruled that Zwarte Piet is considered offensive to ethnic minorities. The United Nations has been calling on the Netherlands to review the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet.

When we became aware of this debate in 2012 it was clear that this would be our next documentary topic. Of Dutch-German extraction I am familiar with Zwarte Piet and as a child I always enjoyed this tradition: a great children's party which I and my sisters longed for with great anticipation every year.

To foreigners in the Netherlands this tradition must appear strange. It is easy to jump on the band wagon of political correctness, claiming the moral high ground and declare this tradition racist. This is the perspective taken by some ethnic minorities in the Netherlands supported by the UN.

Supporters of this tradition however ask whether or not all local and national traditions need to be in conformity with UN guidelines. They claim that Zwarte Piet is not racist at all, that it is a tradition going back into pre-Christian history and that political correctness is simply being taken too far.

It is easy to get all emotional in this debate. So perhaps it is a good idea to start with a definition of racism. This is how the Oxford dictionary defines the term: "The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races."

Does the character of Zwarte Piet meet these criteria? Yes, a white person is painting him or herself black in the face. They wear clothes and jewelry that can be associated with European enlightenment, which, despite its name, still permitted the trade slave. The crucial question however is this: does Zwarte Piet distinguish people of black colour as inferior? Does being Santa's helper make Zwarte Piet a slave of inferior race?

Especially those with an Anglo-Saxon and northern American background submit the claim that this tradition is clearly racist: to them the act of painting a white face black is already discriminating against ethnic minorities, but being Santa's helper further consolidates that position. Santa sitting high on his white horse is the impersonation of western and Christian culture; his army of Zwarte Piet’s is reduced to being slaves in charge of giving out presents and sweets.

The Dutch however take a different perspective. The origin of Zwarte Piet is by no means a recent invention. Zwarte Piet is a tradition that reaches far back into pre-Christian culture. The idea of the scary black man who comes to get your children and women if they do not behave is nothing new, and is not connected to race at its roots. Some one with a pitch-black face and dressed in a strange costume is simply a great deal scarier. This variation of Zwarte Piet is still alive in parts of Germany, Switzerland and the Alsace.

Rituals such as this exist for various reasons. And before we abolish Zwarte Piet we should consider these reasons in more detail. Zwarte Piet is not just a great children's party - it is an initiation for children learning to become responsible members of their local community. Being part of this ritual is a great deal for local communities: children, adults are all involved. Zwarte Piet is viewed in this context not as an 'inferior member of another race', but the exotic bringer of gifts and presents. This is a perspective that Anglo-Saxon and northern American spectators to Santa Claus and Zwarte Piet find most difficult to apprehend.

Western European culture is not saturated to the same extend with Anglo-Saxon metaphors regarding slavery, and though slavery existed in Europe, slaves in Europe had a different experience. The story of Angelo Soliman is a good example. ( Brought to Europe as a slave, he was taken in by European aristocrats, joined an elite Freemason society of which Mozart was a member, and later in life became the tutor to the children of the Austrian emperor. His image resembles Zwarte Piet closely; similar images were used to market various brands of coffee and chocolate. It is this naive and romantic notion of an exotic 'Zwarte Piet' who replaced the scary 'Zwarte Piet' going back to pre-Christian times that is so loved and cherished by the Dutch.

Is it racist? Are ethnic minorities really portrayed as inferior by the figure of Zwarte Piet? Should this tradition be abolished? Should the Netherlands conform to UN guidelines? How far should political correctness go? What would our world be like if local traditions disappear without taking into account history?

The discussion surrounding Zwarte Piet lacks depth. When we started research on this documentary we reached out to both sides: the anti-Zwarte Piet as well as the pro-Zwarte Piet camp. So far the anti-Zwarte Piet camp has produced a lot of 'politically correct' rhetoric, but they have yet to follow up on our request to participate in our documentary.

The pro-Zwarte Piet side on the other hand was very open to discuss this topic. When we met with a Zwarte Piet (we respect his wish to remain anonymous) who for more than 30 years was the Hoofd Piet every year, we learned that this Zwarte Piet was self-critical with a lot of understanding about the history and its current context. He understood that Zwarte Piet needs to change if this tradition is going to survive.

So we are curious where this film is taking us. But one thing is clear: this discussion will not go away and perhaps the Dutch are required to review their romantic but naïve notion of Zwarte Piet. There is hope: the Dutch are very pragmatic and they will find a solution which retains Zwarte Piet perhaps in a revised form as part of a great children's party and ritual; a party which makes a lot of families very happy very year.



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