Analyzing a Dutch tradition through the history of Western creations of stereotypes of black people

Dear Bloggers,

In the Netherlands we have an old traditon called Sinterklaas his helpers are black petes. Jolly guys who are the best friends of kids now. Although this was different in my childhood if you were naughty you would be beaten with a twitch or even taken to Spain in the sack. I was scared of the guy.
Dutch society, and therefore the Dutch people, take much pride in being extremely tolerant and anti-racist. Their history proves it; their open policies demonstrate it. Yet there is a huge discrepancy between what is claimed by society in general, and what many minorities experience. The traditional Dutch celebration of Santa Clause, “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, is an example of such a discrepancy. The character of Black Pete, “Zwarte Piet,” in the Sinterklaas holiday has been a very controversial issue in The Netherlands. Many believe that the depiction of Black Pete is racist. This blog will look at the historical origins of some of the most standard stereotypes pitted against black people by Europe and the United States, and use them as a foundation for analyzing the portrayal of Black Pete and the controversy surrounding it.

 Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet

Europe and the “Savage”

Throughout history, images of Africa and black people as perceived by Europeans changed with the circumstances of societies. The first major stereotype of black peoples to be discussed is the African "savage". This concept of savagery used against African peoples is not specific to Africa. It is directly related to the Eurocentric belief that technology and industrialization are symbols of, and nature is a symbol of the lack of, evolution and "civilization." Societies which believed that the natural environment was something to be respected and protected to be lived in harmoniously and not owned as they were considered primitive, un-evolved, and unorganized people who had no ability nor desire to make 'good use' of the opportunities right in front of them. This attitude was first developed by European immigrants to the Americas, and expressed through their judgement of Native Americans. Peoples seen as "savage" by Europeans were considered to be sub-human lacking any sort of culture or history and living in anarchy.

 A missionary playing "The white saviour"

The primitive savage stereotype also served as a justification for the missionary in Africa. Africans were depicted as lacking any system of morality or religion, and condemned for heathen practice of worshipping idols connected to the devil and against God/Jesus. Missionary agendas served to defend and maintain the image/self-image and dominant role of the Catholic Church that had been losing ground in a secularized Europe. "Saving the lost heathens" justified the missions, with much of the imagery depicting the missionary as the center of attention, using the "lost heathens" to be "saved" as a sort of scenery always shown in groups, lacking any individuality or characteristic that could personalize, yet in many cases depicted as thankful and/or in adoration of their "white saviour."
Once the colonial rule was established, however, the African could no longer be depicted as the enemy: "Savages had to be turned into political subjects." The brutal and threatening savage was turned into a childlike, unintelligent, and therefore harmless savage, content with the colonial establishment. This, of course, was the same as the stereotypes propagated by the missions. It served the Europeans' need to not feel threatened by Africans, and to have one's justifications for colonization (including conversion) validated; they needed and wanted to be 'taken care of', and the hierarchy within this was a natural product of the inherent state of the African and the European. Thus developed the notion of the colonized spectacle: black people functioning for the entertainment and enjoyment of Europeans.
I would explain it "this kind of humour serves as part of the culture of domination. Laughter stigmatises and thus demarcated the frontier between cultural worlds."

 Native African or Savage

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

In The Netherlands, Santa Clause, the character developed from the historical figure (or some say legend) Saint Nicholas, is celebrated separately from the traditional Christmas holiday. Contrary to the American Santa Clause coming from the North Pole with his reindeer; the Dutch Sinterklaas comes from Spain on a boat with a group of black servants, the Black Petes (“Zwarte Pieten”). Let me try to explain how Sinterklaas is celebrated. "A few weeks before the official holiday, Sinterklaas comes to the Netherlands (and Belgium) on his steamboat with all his Petes, into the city and the presents which they prepared in Spain during the year." This is a performance by adults for the children in nearly all major cities. The event is shown on Dutch television. The Mayor of a given city welcomes Sinterklaas. Schools and families welcome Black Petes. Towards December 5th, children can put their shoes in front of the fireplace. During the night St. Nicholas visits all the houses by traveling over the roofs on his horse. Often the children put straw, carrots and water near their shoes for the horse. Black Pete enters the houses through the chimney to put little presents in the children's shoes.
Theories about the history behind the characters of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet vary. The story of Saint Nicholas exists in various European countries. St. Nicholas was a bishop of Myra, (in the region of present-day Turkey) in the 4th century A.D. There are many legends about the exceptional selfless acts of kindness he is said to have performed in his life for many kinds of people. The Catholic Church declared him a saint. Many tales about his life made him the patron saint of almost every possible group in the society. There are a lot of speculations, but none of them are based on facts. The legends about St. Nicholas are all written after his death…and cannot be proven.
Others claim that St. Nicholas did exist but that the Sinterklaas of today is a fusion of St. Nicholas and Wodan, the ancient Germanic god. As the highest god, Wodan had a fellowship. He rode an eight-legged horse in the sky, and was assisted by his two servants, Eckhard and Oel. Wodan also owned a javelin with a snake and two black ravens, which would inform him about the behavior of people on the ground. In the Middle Ages Sinterklaas traveled with a creature on a leash that represented the devil. “This creature disappeared for a couple of centuries. At the end of the 19th century, Sinterklaas was again given a servant, a young black man in the costume of a 16th century page.

 Native Americans

The speculations about this figure are varied as well. In 1850 Jan Schenkman wrote a children’s book called ‘Saint Nicholas and His Servant’. There is no name given to this "servant." He is simply referred to as such. Some claim that the portrait of the servant is inspired by the representations of the Moors in portrait art of the 17th and 18th century.
Enter the modern day Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Leading up to W.W.II, Black Pete’s job was to investigate which children had been “bad,” and to take them away in his sack and/or whip them for discipline. Today, the dominating image of Black Pete is more one of entertainment for others’ enjoyment: He helps Sinterklaas deliver the presents and no longer acts as the one who brings punishment to the bad children. But the old task of Black Pete is still referred to in a funny matter. Many parents joke and say “I will tell Black Pete to take you with him to Spain!”. Sinterklaas will ask Black Pete to see ‘The Book’, which lists all the right and wrong things a child did. Over time, Zwarte Piet’s character morphed into a group of Black Petes; all considered a Zwarte Piet, but each with different characteristics.
In the celebrations, Sinterklaas, who is white, is played by a white person. Black Pete is played in full blackface, usually by a white person as well, or by a black person also in blackface. The actors paint their faces black with huge red lips, wear a curly wig and Moorish dress. “They are portrayed as young, and agile, and do much running and jumping around and acting like acrobats," as they need to climb on the roof. Sinterklaas is portrayed as old, wise, mature, calm, and in control. In celebrations and the media, Black Pete is overwhelmingly viewed by children and adults as unintelligent and clownish.

 The boat with presents for everyone

These and other characteristics were found to be typical characteristics of Black Pete as well as black characters in general in Dutch children’s books.
Sinterklaas is considered the employer/owner of Black Pete. Black Pete has no autonomy with regards to what he is doing or where he is going; Sinterklaas is the boss. He will tell Black Pete, for example, to give him his book and hold his staff. Furthermore, Sinterklaas will sit on a chair while the Black Petes always stand. The Black Petes are holding the sack with presents and the roe (a kind whip which is not in use anymore) in the other hand. Sinterklaas would decide if the child needed to get the roe or a present.
Many people would describe the overall image of Black Pete’s portrayal as “white people dressing up as black and acting stupid.” This sentiment is echoed by a lot of dark skinned people on of them is a 15 year old student who recalls celebrating Sinterklaas in her younger years at school: “they are like Santa's helpers…the funny one, the grumpy one, the nice one…I do think it’s discriminatory, – the way he acts and everything, it is very messed up …they’re sort of dumb on the TV and all.” Another trend in the portrayal of Black Pete is for those playing him to speak with a Surinamese accent. It's just that children will subconsciously store all this information and when they've read another book or see something on television, etc. that's the same, it's also stored, and it adds up."
For these and many other reasons, some people see Sinterklaas as it is now done as racist in nature. Black Pete has similarities with remainings of concepts from the transatlantic Dutch colonial and slave past.
Actions of different organizations and institutes are almost 20 years focused on reorientation of the concept or abolishment of Black Pete because of the racist element and its psychological effect on the black Dutch children of African descent. 

 Zwarte Piet or Black Pete

The way Sinterklaas and Black Petes are celebrated has a negative imagebuilding with children because of the projection of a superior white race of Sinterklaas against the inferior black race of a dumb black helping Pete, and so the superior vs. inferior thoughts are growing.
Other people in Dutch society, mostly white but some of color, disagree with these sentiments. Some recurring themes were "why do we have to change tradition? We've been celebrating it this way since for years." A very common argument is that Sinterklaas is for children who love Sinterklaas. Therefore it is not racist. Adults are making it into something that children don't even care about. Sinterklaas is considered not racist because it is a Dutch tradition which children enjoy”. This is not the case for many black children.
The only thing I can still remember with certainty is the black make-up on my skin as if my face became heavier, the thick layer of lipstick of which I had the feeling that it would slide into my mouth if I would talk too much, and that I found it ordinary that I became Black Pete, although destiny had designated me as a Sinterklaas...I end up to the conclusion that this was 'normal'.
Other defenses of Sinterklaas have been more threatening in their nature. Many are openly dismissive of the raising of the issue, seeing it as an example of Dutch culture being stripped away by the growing immigrant population. One will hear statements such as "we have so little left." People will become quite angry about it. Recent research on racism in the Netherlands, spoke of some of these issues as well. It focused on the trend of Dutch people using Sinterklaas as a measure of how 'integrated' an allochtoon (an immigrant or (grand) child of an immigrant) really is. They will ask "do you like Sinterklaas?…do you enjoy Sinterklaas?…"
There is this anti-racist norm, but there is also a very strong feeling that anything should be able to be said, there should be no taboos…but people aren't allowed to say anything is racist. Nothing can be racist, it's just too bad…There is racism somewhere, but this particular thing is not part of that…accepting it would require action…if we all agree it is not so bad, then we don't have to do anything about it.

 Cartoon of Sjors and Sjimmie and how they adapted through time

Other responses to the idea of Sinterklaas exposed another aspect of the common Dutch mentality. Many have expressed sentiments such as "it's silly to think that Black Pete makes people believe that all black people are like Black Pete." But still it is recognized as the colonial and blackface elements, yet still do not believe it to be a big deal. "There's so many other bad things in the world…If black people are celebrating it…" Many other dismissive sentiments were expressed throughout the discussion of Black Pete, during the lst couple of weeks.

 Sinterklaas riding his white horse Amerigo


Examination of the history of white depictions of black people exposes the deeply ingrained stereotypes that are inherent within and promoted through the Sinterklaas and Black Pete tradition as it has been and is celebrated. The physical characteristics portrayed in Zwarte Piet are the standard western stereotypes of black people as expressed through imagery and performance. Black Piet is an expression of numerous classic Western prejudices against black peoples that depict inferiority. He conveys the position of both a servant, and the child that exemplifies the paternal/ childlike imagery of the colonizer to the colonized, the missionary to the converted, and the master to the servant. He embodies stupidity as well as the immaturity created as justification for reason to discipline as well as the comedic spectacle of the African too savage to be able to fully become 'civilized'. He is pitted against the personalization and reverence of the one white savior-like figure among the masses.
What needs to be addressed is not whether this tradition (or elements of it) is racist, but why the majority of Dutch society is denying the truth that it is. The answer, we believe, is not at all specific to the unique characteristics of the Sinterklaas/Zwarte Piet issue. The answer is not even specific to the Netherlands, or to Europe for that matter. The larger issue is the gross misunderstanding of what "racism" is, of how "racism" works, and white guilt and identity.

 Wodan on his eight legged horse Sleipnir

Those who have a deeper understanding, however, know that "racism" represents a state of mind that supports or creates means of causing harm to one or more specific racial groups. Racism is not just explicit: it is implicit, and, in fact, is mostly implicit. Racism is not just the conscious; it is subconscious and, in fact, is mostly subconscious. Racism does not just enter the minds of whites but is internalized in the views of people of color themselves. Racism is not just about intention: it is about function, and, in fact, is mostly about function. One cannot just adhere to stereotypes about others and then claim they're not racist because they didn't mean to harbor the prejudice that exists inside them. For a marginalized person, any experience with prejudice, is an experience with racism.
Is this only out of ignorance however, or does it also stem from people's resistance to face their own demons? Haven’t these issues been brought up before, or does our extremist definition of racism serve as a way for us to separate ourselves from those other kinds of people, who intentionally and openly hate. Can we look down on them and say, "I'm not racist, I'm not one of them?" 

 Odin and his black crow

What happens when one is so concerned with not being something that the people refuse to look at themselves critically in fear of finding what they don't like, and in many cases greatly oppose? But the resistance keeps the Dutch and so many other people from being able to learn about the more complex, subtler, psychological, and institutionalized aspects of racism in an open, objective, and holistic way.
When someone says Sinterklaas is not racist, answer, "what is racism," not "yes it is." When someone says they should be free to say whatever they want, tell them that you also should be free to point out the prejudice inherent in what they say. And furthermore, if they believed in what say they believe in, they would be not resistant but open to the comment because that is how growth and change takes place. When someone says Sinterklaas is an old Dutch tradition, ask them if they then believe that other cultures of people who have come to the Netherlands should hold on to all of their traditions regardless of anything else. This will expose the hypocrisy that often rests in their answer. And when they say again, (as they often will) "but it's our tradition," what would be your answer?

The Old Sailor,


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