Every year in November and December, thousands of Dutch people paint themselves black or dark brown and process through towns to celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas. After decades of activism against this tradition, the scales are finally tipping. Within a few years, opinion has shifted from an utter failure to understand the protests, to attempts at change. But how did the Dutch manage to be blind to the offensive character of this tradition for so long? Is Dutch culture perhaps more racist than its progressive reputation suggests?
Dutch society is certainly suffused with racism – as is Western culture generally. Yet most racism – “everyday racism” – is not committed deliberately, which in many ways makes it harder to challenge. It often takes the shape of casual remarks or unconscious judgements. In the Netherlands, one of the forms this everyday racism has taken is Black Pete, Zwarte Piet.
Black Pete is part and parcel of the feast of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas of Myra, Roman Catholic patron saint of children, sailors and prostitutes, has in some Protestant countries metamorphosed into Santa Claus and Father Christmas. In the partly Protestant Netherlands, his feast, which has medieval roots, continues to be celebrated separately.
It is the country’s largest annual celebration, eliciting more eager anticipation and mobilising more public and commercial institutions than King’s Day and Liberation Day put together. The festival peaks on December 5 but officially starts halfway through November, taking possession of the shops as early as late summer. It is primarily aimed at children, and the experiences it inspires are among the fondest childhood memories many Dutch people have.
The festivities have moral overtones of reward and punishment. Black Pete’s role has never been fixed, but during the last few decades it has been Pete who mediates between the anxious child and the godlike figure of Saint Nicholas. Whereas the latter evokes a degree of fear, Pete is approachable and loveable. This explains part of the attachment many Dutch feel towards Pete.
But clearly depicting Black Pete is no innocent business. The figure has a dual ancestry as both servant to and antagonist of the saint. In many parts of Europe, performances of Nicholas have long been accompanied by an anti-saint or devil, in order to ensure that both reward and punishment remain on the minds of their audiences. Sometimes, this devil carries a chain as a sign of his final submission to the power of good.
The chain returns gruesomely in the more recent tradition, beginning in the 19th century, that portrays Pete as an African man in the service of a European saint. Although dark-skinned servants in the Netherlands could not technically be enslaved in that period, slavery did very much exist in the overseas territories of the Dutch empire. It is this history that most activists point to as being silenced by the uncritical acceptance of Pete in his existing shape. To aggravate matters, in the 20th century Pete merged with the Sambo caricature, the stereotypically lazy and docile plantation slave with his red lips, golden earrings and infantile behaviour that could be found in many (children’s) books.
The endurance of Black Pete always comes as a shock to those unfamiliar with the Dutch custom, particularly those from English-speaking countries. Anti-racism activists in the Netherlands have made grateful use of this cultural disjunction between the Anglophone and the Germanic world (blacking up also occurs in countries such as Belgium and Germany) by confronting their compatriots with the judgement of international experts, or through use of the British vox pop.
This approach, coupled with demonstrations and judicial action, seems to be taking effect. Although there have been protests since the 1960s, these were never picked up by the mainstream media or in national politics on the scale we are seeing now. This year, an unprecedented number of Dutch intellectuals and celebrities spoke out against the stereotype; national politicians have taken a stance; and sellers of seasonal sweets and decorations have deemed it wise to change their marketing strategy.
So why has Pete been able to pose as innocent for so long?
Lacking a civil rights movement like the one in the US, including subsequent educational reforms, the Dutch have not learnt to recognise the racist Sambo character. Various academic studies have also noted a second factor: the cherished Dutch self-image of being an open and fair society.
A large part of the Dutch public, as well as the political establishment, including prime minister Mark Rutte, have responded to criticism with outright denial. They refuse to let their fond memories be tinged with the hateful epithet of racism. Anger at the suggestion that their childhood friend might be a racist fantasy has been running so high that riot police had to be on stand-by for this year’s opening of the festive season.
Still, because much of the critique has focused on blackface in the narrow sense, there is now a tendency to erase representations of people of African descent altogether. In children’s books, for instance, Pete is increasingly pale, and a large Dutch internet company has even completely eliminated Pete from its adverts, now only showing the old white saint.
These steps run the risk of replacing a racism of ridicule with a racism of marginalisation. Surely it is not Pete’s colour which is racist, but the servile and subhuman features of Nicholas’s “cheerful little help” that existing depictions have associated with that colour for so long. Possibly, existing celebrations elsewhere might offer inspiration. This winter in racist Europe, I encountered a popular representation of a dark-skinned man, not as a slave or servant, but as a king.