Dutch Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet: innocent fun or a racist tradition?
Former PhD student Robert Mwadime from Kenya had only been in Holland one week when he had a strange encounter. Stepping off a train, a little boy took one look at him and, with fear in his eyes, ran away as fast as he could. The child's mother was visibly embarrassed and quickly went over to Mwadime to explain her son's behaviour. Apparently that morning she, as parents all over Holland do at this time of year, had threatened her son that if he didn't behave better, Zwarte Piet would take him away in his sack. Mwadime has to laugh as he recalls how the boy had mixed him up with Zwarte Piet.
But not everyone finds this association funny. "When I first came to Holland three years ago, I had read a lot about the Dutch having an open, tolerant and liberal society. It's true in general if you look at the laws. But I think that in some ways the Dutch can be quite conservative." John Tovar, from Colombia and a recent MSc graduate, had his first real confrontation with Dutch culture when he witnessed Sinterklaas arriving in Wageningen: "I found it pretty weird! Could this actually be a white guy with a group of slaves?" He kept asking people about it, but it simply did not fit into his image of the Dutch at all.
People here are quick to defend this truly Dutch tradition as great fun - and it is! This is the one time of year you can really poke fun at your friends and family, by writing poems supposedly from Sinterklaas, to go along with a gift especially designed to 'surprise' and often to embarrass them. And children love it because they get candy and gifts from Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet for the weeks coming up to 5 December.
There are many legends surrounding these two characters. Everyone pretty well agrees that Sinterklaas was a wealthy bishop from Turkey, who in the 4th century AD carried out good deeds for the poor and for children in Europe. But the stories around his assistant, known as Piet in Holland, are less clear, and more recent. These stories range from him being an orphan slave freed by Saint Nicholas to help him during his travels, to being a Moorish page from Spain, a chimney sweep, and even the devil in earlier times.
Tovar feels uncomfortable with the images presented by the two characters. "Sinterklaas is the good guy, the serious one who commands respect. But Zwarte Piet is a clown in his colourful outfit, curly-haired wig and bright red lips. He's also the one with the stick who puts children in a sack if they're naughty." Tovar is not the only one who is uncomfortable, as this debate comes up every year in Holland. One girl he knows has a Cameroonian mother, and grew up in Holland but was not allowed to celebrate this tradition at home. In the bigger cities, Piet has come out in different colours: yellow, green, blue, or half white, half black. "I'm not criticising tradition, but Holland is now a multi-ethnic society, and I think that if part of the society is offended, then parts of this tradition should be looked at carefully. The kind of contrast presented can work on the subconscious of people."
But it is a very difficult tradition to avoid. Mayra Sumter, a student from Suriname, arrived in Wageningen four years ago. In her first year, she accompanied her nieces to their school in Amsterdam to see Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in class. The children have been brought up here and do not question this tradition. However, Sumter was offended by the Piets, and the fact that many of them spoke with a Surinamese accent. She thinks that this stems from the history of Suriname having been a Dutch colony for 300 years. With Piet, the Surinamese-Dutch accent seems to be used for comical effect, and Sumter finds this degrading: "I see Zwarte Piet as only one part of a whole story of discrimination in present-day Holland."
MSc MAKS student Rhiannon Pyburn from Canada has also found the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet uncomfortable. "It reminds me of a show that used to be popular in the UK called the 'Black and White Minstrel Show' in which white people blacked their faces and made parodies of black people, imitating their music and dance. To me, Zwarte Piet looks uncomfortably similar to the minstrels, who were blatantly racist." As a result, Pyburn has had some clashes with Dutch people about her opinion of Zwarte Piet. She likes the tradition of writing poems and making creative gifts, but does not want anything to do with Piet.
When Tovar told his corridor-mates that he did not want to celebrate the tradition at all, they did not understand: "Not one of my housemates took my complaints seriously. They just thought I was being extremist." In his second year, Tovar decided to turn the tables on this tradition when he was asked to play Zwarte Piet in a show organised for new MSc students. "I wanted to break the stereotype, so I suggested that I play Sinterklaas. Everyone agreed, and we even ended up having a group of white students playing the assistant Piets - without face paint." The show was greeted with laughter, including from programme director Dick Legger.
When Legger was asked about this episode, he responded immediately: ""First off, I would like to mention that Zwarte Piet is not seen as a 'Negroid' figure here at all, and therefore there is no question of racism in my mind about him. I was brought up to believe that Piet was a kind of 'bogeyman' who would pick up naughty children and take them back to Spain. Because he had to climb through the chimney to get into the houses, he would get black from the soot."
Legger also does not think that children mixing up Piet with black people should be taken seriously: "If Dutch children shout out and call you Zwarte Piet, I don't think that should be a problem. When I lived in Suriname, many children would shout out things at me because I was white, but I never felt that they were yelling out abuse. I think that most people would laugh this sort of thing off."
Nevertheless, the debate continues. Last year, a student at Erasmus University in Rotterdam Bianca Berends was one of eight nominees for the Het Parool/University of Amsterdam 'National Thesis Prize'. Her research centred on the image of Zwarte Piet in children's stories. Berends analysed seventy Sinterklaas stories between 1900 and 1998 to see how the character of Zwarte Piet has developed over time. It turns out that he has changed a lot. In the first half century, he was portrayed as a seriously scary 'bogeyman', who then transformed into a jolly, comical figure, and in more recent times, has become a comical sidekick who keeps messing up his responsibilities. According to Berends: "These stories never lay an explicit link between being dumb and being black. But this stereotype is definitely implicit in them. And because the Sinterklaas tradition is so strong in the media every year, it can have a huge impact on children from an early age."
Legger: "This debate comes up every year in Holland. I for one would find it a great pity if our Sinterklaas tradition disappeared - I hope that it will last a long time." Most critics do not ask for the whole tradition to disappear, though. Piet has changed in the past, and Berends thinks that he should keep changing. "To me, the best solution would be to have both black and white Piets. It would also be good to have the 'head' Piet take on a more serious role, similar to that of Sinterklaas. For that matter, why not have him on horseback as well?" Sumter is optimistic that this tradition will change, but stays realistic: "There are signs of progress, but you can't expect 500 years of oppression to change overnight."
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrived in Wageningen last Saturday | Photo Guy Ackermans