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Black Face, Dark History: Zwarte Piet

Just like many other nations across the globe, the Netherlands heavily engages in the festivities that accompany Christmas. Decorations are in abundance and friendly greetings are commonplace. Perhaps, what the Dutch cherish the most, is the tradition of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Zwarte Piet is a character that represents one of Santa’s little helpers. It is hard to miss. Typically, people don an afro wig, a colourful hat and attire and black face. Expressing the slightest bit of contempt garners fierce debate and those defensive claim that it is “part of Dutch tradition!”. Others suggest that the black face represents soot because he is usually climbing down chimneys. As a black Dutch national, I believe the tradition is repugnant.

I was born in the Netherlands and moved to England when I was 5

I was recently granted the opportunity to return to the Netherlands briefly. The thought of going back was exciting, I knew I still had some memories from my time there that I was keen to relive. My parents had seldom spoken about our life in the Netherlands – unless asked – and a little while after I had arrived, I understood why they didn’t.

I had arrived there in the summer and remained there for the majority of the winter. The landlords were friendly. So, it was surprising when I came downstairs one morning to do my laundry and was met with a group of Dutch people in thick blackface. You can imagine how uncomfortable it was for me?

I had discussed the possibility of verbally denouncing it but could not summon enough confidence nor support from my peers. As weeks went by, I would often be confronted with people in black face in and around the building. They would be chuckling and conversing amongst themselves, unbeknownst to the effect it would have on me: a person with a permanent “black face”.

As a historian, I often reflect on the history of the Netherlands and how its earlier economic success was tied to slavery. The Dutch were key players in the brutal affairs of colonialism and many of their colonial assets were dependent on the labour of slaves. They exported Africans across the Atlantic and brought them to small islands such as Curacao, which wasn’t autonomous until 2010 when the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved. Many enslaved people were taken elsewhere to Spanish colonies and forced to work so others could enjoy the fruits of their labour. Amsterdam became a hub of activity with many merchants and financiers profiteering.

Some Dutch historians seek to ignore the role that slavery played in the economic prosperity of the Netherlands. A more critically engaged historian would realise that it plays a part in how black people and ‘foreigners’ are treated.

Support for Zwarte Piet is strong. Although, many believe the support for it is declining steadily downwards. An outward critic can be found in Jerry King Luther Afriyie, a Dutch activist and leader for the activist group “Kick Out Zwarte Piet”. He continues today to work towards removing the tradition and has gained quite a following.

In 2015, a UN report called on the Netherlands to remove the tradition of Zwarte Piet. It is believed to negatively portray stereotypes of people of African descent and is reminiscent for many as a “vestige of slavery”. In addition, the previous Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, spoke about his attitude shift about Zwarte Piet, commenting that it had undergone “major changes”. Polls are thought to be reflecting such sentiments. In 2013, 89% of the Dutch were in support of blackface and in 2017, it fell to 68%.

This tradition needs to be removed in its entirety, especially with the country’s history of slavery considered. I fear for the impact it could have on black people who live in the Netherlands and are confronted with this character, year after year. Not to mention, the young children who are encouraged to see this caricature, and might possibly adopt the stance that it is normal. There needs to be more pressure applied to make staunch supporters realise how traumatic it is and why it needs to be forbidden entirely.

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