The ‘blackface’ character in Dutch Christmas celebrations: Racism or tradition?

Every year on the 5th of December the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas. This is the Netherlands version of Father Christmas. But every year there is always one big talking point and unfortunately, it’s not the presents.

Zwarte Piet: What is it?

The celebration consists of the Zwarte Piet (black Pete) character. The Dutch dress up in colourful clothes, wear black curly wigs and bright red lipstick with accompanying golden hoop earrings. But most importantly, they ‘black up’ in order to create the characters for the celebration.

This has caused huge controversy recently, with many saying it is their culture and should not change. However, others disagree brandishing the tradition as “racist” and “outdated”. All of this leaves the nation very much divided, and in a time that is meant to be about bringing people closer together.

The story of Sinterklaas, is that he is an elderly white man who comes by steamship from Spain, to deliver gifts to the children, however, much like other versions of the tale, he does not come alone. He is joined aboard the steamship by Zwarte Piet, who is his helper. The general consensus is that the helper is a rescued Moor slave child, who then chose to stay and help Sinterklaas as a thank you for him giving him his freedom.

The dutch Santa with his black helper [cred: WC]
The Moors children would have had black skin as well as being covered in soot. Which is why the Dutch wear black make-up.

In fact, many Dutch people do not see the issue with this.

Danisha, an 18 year-old Dutch student of mixed race said: “I would say to the people that call the tradition racist: that it’s nothing more than a children’s holiday and that they have made an unnecessary mess about this topic. We are celebrating this holiday for decades and it was never a problem then, even people of foreign countries do not have a problem about our specific holiday.

“It’s the Dutch culture, it’s important to us and the children so it has a place in today’s society.”

Despite this, many black Dutch people have expressed their outrage – labelling the tradition as racist. Protests are becoming more common each year, with people of all colour supporting them and calling for the tradition to be changed.

Many in The Netherlands have already started to embrace this change. Particularly in Amsterdam where some no longer wear full black face make up and instead opt for a small amount of black on the cheeks to look more in line with what soot would actually look like.

Zwarte Piet traditional costume [cred: WC]
However, Amsterdam is very much an international city and you don’t have to go far away from it, to see that many still choose and prefer the traditional Zwarte Piet costume.

Many people outside of the Netherlands have questioned the tradition, with some comparing it to ‘white privilege’, as well as linking it to the famous Minstrel shows that were hugely popular in both the UK and America. The shows consisted of various acts and skits that mocked African culture and those who descended from it. These shows were eventually stopped due to the offence they presented, many now question why has Zwarte Piet not also been stopped?

Perhaps it’s because the Zwarte Piet is more than a show. It is an entire nation’s tradition and others believe that it is wrong to remove or alter a nation’s culture simply to appease those who see it is as offensive. For that is exactly what the Dutch see it as, a tradition. One that is not there to be racist but simply to entertain, tell a story and bring joy to the Dutch children.

‘I see it as traditional, not a racist act.’

Jessie Hemesley, a student at the University of Kent who is half-Dutch half-English, gave the following answer, when asked whether she thinks it’s right for traditions like Zwarte Piet to be altered for the sake of political correctness:

She said: “No, I don’t believe it’s right, I think it should be kept the same as it’s always been.

“I know there’s been a lot of debate on it recently because people think it’s a racist action. But personally, I see it as traditional. It wasn’t a racist act which was started with the aim of being racist, it just explored what would have been practiced at the time. I don’t see anything wrong with it because it brings happiness to so many people”.

So, what do you do when one side argues that it is a tradition and part of their culture, an act that is created to represent happiness and bring joy to children, not to be misinterpreted for racism and hatred.

But the other believes that is very much an outdated tradition that comes from a time long ago, to represent views that should be left in the past. After all being covered in soot, does not need the curly black hair and giant red lipstick.

The discussion very much leans into a different argument. Which is to whether traditions and entire cultures should have to change to become politically correct. Is it right to remove or alter traditions to make them socially acceptable for today’s world?

What do you think? Let us know!

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