Why Do Dutch People Put on Blackface To Celebrate Christmastime?

What to eat, drink, buy, and think during that special time of year
Dec. 14 2011 3:25 PM

In Holland, Santa Doesn’t Have Elves. He Has Slaves.

The racist Christmastime tradition Dutch people have begun fighting about.

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He was pepper-sprayed and pushed into a doorway where an officer held him by the neck and rubbed the pepper spray into his eyes and nose. He was then taken into custody along with a researcher and a journalist who had accompanied them to record their presentation.

The Dutch often say they don't have a problem with race. But the way Gario (and many others I talked to) see it, in the Netherlands, race is inextricably connected to immigration—something many Dutch people do openly have a problem with, as suggested by the rise of such politicians as Geert Wilders, who has expressed a deep distrust of immigrants and has called for closed borders. (Wilders was praised extensively by Anders Behring Breivik, the man behind the Norway terror attacks.)

Allochtoon is a Dutch word for immigrants and their descendants, which means, “originating from another country.” These outsiders are accused by Wilders and others of exploiting the country’s resources and social services while not integrating properly into Dutch society.

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Gario is not the only artist and activist making an issue out of Zwarte Piet. In 2008, Petra Bauer and Annette Krauss organized a march as part of an exhibition exploring the meaning of Zwarte Piet. When the media caught wind of the exhibition, the artists received death threats, and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven canceled the march. Being Allochtoon, Bauer and Krauss were told they didn’t have a right to be offended by Zwarte Piet. Bauer and Krauss were shocked by how unwilling many people were to even discuss the issue. “Wilders brought our exhibit up in Parliament. He wanted to cut funding for the Van Abbemuseum for even allowing people to talk about it,” says Bauer. But Krauss says the cancelation of the march ended up being a good thing. “People who had never had said anything about Zwarte Piet started reaching out to us.”

Since the late 1960s, changes to the tradition have given the Zwarte Piets a more respectable and friendly position in Holland’s holiday theatrics. In 1968, Hoofdpiet was introduced—he is a leader in charge of all of the other Zwarte Piets—and, since that time, other Piets have been introduced as well: There is a Piet in charge of navigation, a Piet who wraps presents, and another Piet who is in charge of pepernoten cookies. Small changes in the outward appearance of the character have also been made: Earrings are no longer as common and wigs have become more curly in texture rather than coarse and frizzy.

In the past, Zwarte Piets often had a Surinamese accent and played the role of a bumbling fool. But now—during the major televised arrival of Sinterklaas, at least—one Hoofdpiet plans and organizes while another Piet acts silly, working the crowd that gathers in the streets and waits for Sinterklaas, who arrives in their wake, regally waving from his spot atop an all-white horse, wearing long cloaks and the stiff pointed hat of a bishop.

The awkwardness of this attempted shift toward a kinder, gentler Zwarte Piet is amusingly captured by David Sedaris in “Six to Eight Black Men,” first published in Esquire and collected in the book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. While the Zwarte Piets were once openly “characterized as personal slaves,” Sedaris writes, now they are described as “just good friends.”

I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.

It’s possible that a period of mutual hostility has now come to Holland. In the past few weeks, news outlets like the left-leaning newspaper Volkskrant have begun to cover the subject with a flurry of opinion pieces. Earlier this week, Flavia Dzodan, an activist who was born in South America and lives in Amsterdam, spoke with Latoya Peterson, of Slate’s sister site The Root, about the racism of the Zwarte Piet figure. For the moment, at least, it looks as though Gario’s arrest has helped to enlarge the conversation he and others have been asking others to join for some time.