Zwarte Piet, wie kent hem niet?

Sunday, December 18th, 2011 @ %I:%M %p | Life

This is a line form one of the traditional St Nicolas songs that children in The Netherlands will sing leading up to the holiday on December 5. Part of the tradition is the character of Zwarte Piet, Black Pete. He helps St Nicolas, or Sinterklaas, with bringing all the gifts to the children, keeping track of who has been good and bad during the year and so on. In the past he was often characterized as clumsy, very friendly but not very smart, speaking with a Surinam accent. In recent years his role has been elevated somewhat to a capable assistant of the Good Holy Man.

Yesterday I read a very interesting opinion on the festival of St Nicolas and in particular Zwarte Piet by It is interesting because it gives an outside view. A few weeks before I read a newspaper article reporting on the Dutch society in Ottawa canceling a St Nicolas parade in response to racism and discrimination protests over the character of Zwarte Piet.

Initially my reaction to both was a wary one: “ohh, just let it be, it’s just an innocent children’s festival.” Not unlike what Jessica Olien writes she encounters when trying to discus the topic with Dutch people. That made me take a step back and consider this issue more objectively.

I don’t know about the context in which the tradition came about regarding the intent behind the designed role and appearance of Zwarte Piet. But likely it built upon the prevailing opinion that black (or probably any non-white) people were children of a lesser god; not as intelligent, smart, enterprising, noble – insert your favorite – as the white. If I look back upon my childhood in the 60-ies and early 70-ies some of that was still present and visible. Since then, as the Slate article as notes, it has been equalized a bit but certainly the visual image is still there: the good saint is white and the wise leader, the assistant is black and in a subordinate role.

I believe it is time for the tradition to take the next step and let go. It will be hard to rename and rebrand the character. On the other hand if we just retire “Zwarte” from his name and insert something different then all the song lines still rhyme. Rhyme is an important aspect of the experience. How about “Goede” (good), “Sterke” (strong), “Grote” (great)? Well, you get the idea. And the black face paint has to go. There is no way it be can argued that one should not read any racist intent or characterization. It doesn’t matter what the intent is, this is about how it is received.

Let’s put Zwarte Piet to rest and move forward.



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