Santa’s Helper in Blackface: An Interview with Dutch anthropologist Pooyan Tamimi Arab about Racism and the history of Zwarte Piet

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On November 13, 2011, a group of Afro-Caribbean Dutch protestors were arrested in the city of Dordrecht, Netherlands for protesting figures associated with the Dutch holiday tradition of Sinterklaas. (You can see a play-by-play of the protests and arrests here) These figures, deemed Santa’s helpers, are called Zwarte Pieten (or Black Petes), and they arrive  on a steamboat alongside Sinterklaas (or St. Nicholas, the Dutch Santa) dressed in Shakespearean clothing and wearing wooly black afro, braided, or dreadlock wigs, bright red lipstick, golden earrings, and blackface. The Zwarte Pieten are the comedians of Sinterklaas who cheerfully play brass instruments, throw sweets, play tricks, and often end up as the butt of practical jokes throughout the holiday season.

Two Zwarte Pieten, courtesy of Wiki Commons

People from outside of the Netherlands are often shocked when confronted with the Zwarte Pieten. They associate these figures with  the American tradition of blackface minstrel-shows which contributed to the proliferation of racist stereotypes, attitudes, and perceptions within a racially divided society. The Dutch are aware of this issue, and how it looks to outsiders. This year, Vancouver’s cancellation of the Sinterklaas celebration due to Zwarte Piet made it into the Dutch news. The organizer of the festival said “We will have to teach the Canadians and the entire North-American population what Zwarte Piet really is.” This attracted much commentary and criticism from the Netherlands. But foriegn outrage and rejection to the Zwarte Piet isn’t new to the Dutch:  In 2008, Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, made the decision to remove Zwarte Piet  from its holiday lineup in response to tourist and layover flyers’ protest. Yet despite criticism from the outside world, Zwarte Piet remains a popular figure whom the vast majority of Dutch people want to keep at the center of Sinterklaas festivities.

I have interviewed a Dutch anthropologist from the University  of Utrecht, Pooyan Tamimi Arab, to get the perspective of an insider academic. Though Tamimi’s parents are both Iranian, he grew up in the Netherlands and considers himself Dutch. As a child, he enjoyed the figure of Zwarte Piet alongside his classmates. In high school, however, Tamimi experienced an increasing discomfort with Zwarte Piet as he came to understand the way in which he is portrayed and the reasons he is embraced. Yet whenever he tried to broach the subject, he was rebuffed with an explanation that Zwarte Piet has always been a part of the Dutch Sinterklaas festivities. This explanation almost implied that those who questioned Zwarte Piet were in some way un-Dutch.

Tamimi feels that as an academic, it is his role to point out the fallacies surrounding Zwarte Piet’s historic origins. Arguments such as the debate over Zwarte Piet and his racist image have everything to do with the ways in which history is presented.  Dutch nationalists focus on preserving tradition at any cost, and often invoke history to do so: they stress that tradition and nation is old and has old roots. As historians, could it be our job to stress that traditions are invented and not as rooted as people think?  Tamimi gives an example: Most Dutch people claim that Zwarte Piet has been around forever. They don’t know that Zwarte Piet was invented in the 19th century and became a family-friendly Sinterklaas icon only in the 20th century, “..and that’s not old.”

I asked Tamimi if this spirited clinging to Zwarte Piet could be connected in any way with the election of Dutch Parliamentary leader Geert Wilders of the PVV, the Netherlands’ right-wing anti-immigration political party. Tamimi believes so: “the immigrants and nonwhites who oppose Zwarte Piet have to do with Wilders. They are edgy, and unsure of how to respond to Holland’s new anti-immigration legislators.”  Tamimi says that the Dutch who voted Wilders into power supported the leader’s vote against the European constitution. “They are closing themselves off from the rest of the world. You see it in all kinds of things. In the Zwarte Piet discussions, they don’t care and they feel no shame about how they are perceived. If a nonwhite immigrant says that they believe Zwarte Piet to be racist, they will be shut down.”

Zwarte Piet blackface Kit which can be found in most Dutch supermarkets during the holiday season. (Angela Sutton, 2011)

Tamimi says that most Zwarte Piet supporters get angry when called racist. They are  not interested in engaging in debate, and instead reject all criticism of this figure. But for many non-white Dutch people, Zwarte Piet is the elephant in the room. Sometimes, Tamimi doesn’t dare talk about it because he can sense the anger coming from other Dutch compatriots before he opens his mouth.

“But what nonwhites say is paramount. If black people in Amsterdam say the figure of Zwarte Piet is racist, then it is racist because they say so. Sinterklaas is a white guy on a horse surrounded by black fools. The Pieten are morally risible characters. Fans of the Zwarte Pieten can laugh at them, and take candy from them, but they don’t want their daughters to marry one.”

Though Tamimi is still in the minority with his view, he isn’t alone. The “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” movement is at its all-time strongest, and the internet is splashed with bloggers weighing in on the debate. Blogger  Peter Breedveld writes (my translation) “Yet Zwarte Piet is self-evidently racist. The explanation that he is so black from a chimney is an insult to everyone’s intelligence…Zwarte Piet is a typical negro-caricature.”  Breedveld  goes on to explain that over time the different explanations given for Zwarte Piet only serve to worsen the racist imagery. He asserts that the very fact that Zwarte Piet exists in a racist country full of anti-immigration laws is proof of the racist nature of Zwarte Piet. “We were the last to abolish slavery and we are the only ones who still wear blackface,” he writes.

In searching for the balance between honoring holiday traditions and forging an inclusive society, the historians’ role becomes key. The world becomes more global every day, and not less, despite the policies racist leaders like Geert Wilders might implement. Nations can never truly shut out the rest of the world. The Netherlands in particular will  be unable to sustain an immigrant-phobic stance because its history as a colonial slave-trading powerhouse of the Atlantic World will catch up with the nation. By including the voices and wishes of all Dutch people, not just the Caucasian ones, the Netherlands can begin the healing process that invariably accompanies such a brutal past.

Now is the time to begin, while the Sint Nicolaas Genootschap Nederland is attempting to get the tradition of Sinterklaas on a UNESCO list to protect it as a world heritage. Tamimi asserts that it is important now more than ever to showcase the controversy surrounding the figure of Zwarte Piet before he becomes enshrined and protected in his current racist form.

Rainbow-Petes, an alternative to Zwarte Pieten (courtesy of the Facebook Regenboog Pieten Fan Page)

I would argue that Zwarte Piet protestors are not a group of Grinches and Scrooges. They do not want to destroy Dutch children’s holidays. Removing the racist elements of the Sinterklaas festival does not have to mean obliterating Dutch tradition, only amending it to fit a more inclusive society.  While the Afro-Caribbean majority former Dutch colonies of Suriname and the Antilles still celebrate Sinterklaas in the Dutch way, some people there are questioning Zwarte Piet. Last year, some groups of  Paramariban revelers have adopted the figure of Zwarte Piet in innovative ways which fuse Dutch culture with national pride: they have brought back the tradition of rainbow Pieten to Suriname. The video clip of this parade shows both black and white Surinamese celebrating the arrival of the inoffensive rainbow Pieten. The rainbow Pieten do not seem to mar the joy and spirit of the event, and revelers in Paramaribo appear to love their rainbow Pieten as much as their counterparts in The Hague enjoyed the arrival of the Zwarte Pieten.

To close out, I asked Tamimi what he thought about the future of Zwarte Piet.  He replied “It’s a very sensitive issue and it is too soon to tell. I have a saying that goes ‘In Holland you can say nasty things about God, but don’t mess with Zwarte Piet.’”

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6 Responses to “Santa’s Helper in Blackface: An Interview with Dutch anthropologist Pooyan Tamimi Arab about Racism and the history of Zwarte Piet”

  1. What To Think Of Zwarte Piet? | Light Sound Dimension Says:

    [...] and harassment from non-Dutch friends and colleagues. The source of their frustration? The dark, shocking, horrifying and racist Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, in particular the character of Zwarte Piet [...]

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  4. Akihiko Says:

    Congratulations, you really shloud be proud of all that you have done, see, experienced and accomplished. Your resourcefulness and resilience have served you well. Not everyone arrives at the one year anniversary (anywhere) and can provide such a heartwarming assessment. Well done. Perhaps arriving on Pakjesavond (Sinterklaas Eve when the Dutch celebrate with family and close friends) was a good sign! Looking forward to hearing more in year two.

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  6. It’s For the Kids! « dutch porridge Says:

    [...] personal view? I agree with Angela Sutton, who argues that removing offensive elements of a tradition does not mean that a tradition has to [...]

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