Is ‘Zwarte Piet’ Racist? Yes. Yes, very much
The conclusion already spelled out in the title, hopefully, shouldn’t come to a surprise to basically any person that doesn’t live in a place that has Dutch as an officially recognized language. As a Dutchman though, it’d be an understatement to say that voicing said conclusion over here would be met with serious skepticism and resistance.
As it’s December the 5th and people in the Netherlands, followed by Belgium, will be celebrating Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), and the Zwarte Piet “debate” has been in full swing, I found it timely to touch on this topic myself and hopefully also inform people wanting to get to grips with the issue.
Who is Zwarte Piet?
Zwarte Piet (Also known as ‘Black Pete’ or ‘Black Peter’ in English) is in the lowlands generally known as the personal servant(s) of Saint Nicholas, whom assist him in providing gifts to good children (and, slightly earlier on, punish bad children) in a celebration that’s not dissimilar from Christmas in other places. Though originally the Saint only had a single servant, today there is no one ‘Zwarte Piet’. There are dozens of Pieten, often identified by their designated functions; you have your navigation Piet, gift-wrapping Piet, singing Piet, and so forth. The Piet characters often are clownish in demeanor & don bright colourful renaissance era-like attire, and are quite commonly depicted in popular media as being acrobatic.
But the most important thing to note is how the character is portrayed physically. Aside from the aforementioned attire, people playing the character(s) do/did so by covering their entire face in black face-paint, and donning red lipstick, big golden earrings, and a black curly wig. Again I hope that no-one from the outside world has trouble understanding what’d be the issue with that, but in case there is any confusion let it be known that this practice is a particularly egregious modern-day example of blackface. Blackface (to grossly simplify here) roughly refers to the practice mostly done by fair-skinned people, where they among other things cover their face in black makeup in order to physically depict black people, which historically is done with the intent of or at minimum has the effect of denigrating mainly people of African descent by playing an offensive caricature. It is usually on these grounds one can find someone objecting to the practice of playing Zwarte Piet.
Pointing out that the practice is an instance of blackface is often met with resistance and counter-objections. I hope to address a few common ones here, and especially one I have seen not-too-infrequently from at least my late childhood on.
The Childhood Story
To my experience the most popular way of explaining away Zwarte Pieten having black faces goes something like this: Though not naturally dark-skinned, the faces of Zwarte Pieten are black as they are covered with soot, for they climb through chimneys all day to deliver children presents, similar to Santa Claus. I’ve been told this tale as a kid, and though I tentatively accepted the explanation given at the time I think even 7-8 year old me had some lingering questions, such as ‘What’s with the red lipstick?’ or ‘What about the black curly hair?’. Even upon only a moment’s reflection the story told doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny.
It’s worth noting that this kind of explanation when aimed at kids wasn’t actually an attempt at a real factual explanation of why things are that way, rather it seeks to explain things in the way the just-so stories told by parents to children asking questions like ‘Where does the Easter Bunny keep all their eggs?’ seek to explain. And yet, I know of instances where people in order to soothe concerns about racial sensitivity will use the childhood story to explain away the questionable aspects of the practice of playing Zwarte Piet. But as I already just suggested, the childhood story is merely a post-hoc explanation of the character’s appearance and isn’t a genuine account of the actual evolution of the practice; the story is to the best of my knowledge completely ahistorical.
Nevertheless, if the pro-Piet person genuinely believes that is the actual explanation behind the current-day practice, they should surely be amendable to getting rid of the lipstick, earrings and wigs, and rather than cleanly covering the entire face in black paint make them appear more like how real people working with chimneys looked like. Surely that’d be more in line with the story told, and this is also exactly what a significant number of people protesting Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands propose as an alternative. And yet even this extremely moderate attempt at reforming the character is strangely enough far from met with acceptance from those inclined to preserve it. It is rather met with mockery and sentiments along the lines of the proposal being ‘political correctness run amok’, which leads me to investigating the next popular retort.
‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?’
Another common reply is that kids don’t care about whether the character is considered offensive or not; it’s just uppity adults that make a ruckus. But it’s hard to see how that’s an effective response that thoroughly engages with the implications of the criticism that playing the Zwarte Piet character is racially insensitive, which if true presumably gives us good reason in favour of either altering or abolishing the practice altogether. Also note that counter-objection cuts both ways; if children don’t care either way, what’d be the trouble in altering or doing away with the practice? I sure wouldn’t have cared that much as a kid, and I also doubt kids today have that much of a passionate commitment to keeping the Piet the way it is like many of their parents do. Assuming we did away with the practice entirely starting the next Sinterklaasfeest, I’m going to bet that even 5 years from now the kids of then will care approximately 0% about the fact that we abandoned some old dated tradition. It is in fact the parents, not the children, that make a big deal about preserving Zwarte Piet.
A related yet mutually contradictory reply is that anti-Zwarte Piet protesters are in fact ‘Ruining Sinterklaas for kids’ by opposing Zwarte Piet. Now they can mean two different things by this: Sometimes it refers to the way how opponents of the practice of playing Zwarte Piet go about protesting the practice, but sometimes proponents also seem to just mean the fact that the current Piet will be in some way altered itself constitutes ‘ruining the magic’ for children. I will first focus on the latter as it’s the easiest to dispense with, mainly as we’ve already established kids probably don’t intensely care about the status of Zwarte Piet. Those who are of the age that they still believe in the Saint and the like might get curious as to the sudden change were it to be implemented, but I seriously question whether they’d be inconsolable over it. I suspect there is a degree of projection going on on the side of pro-Zwarte Piet parents and other guardian figures when it comes to the question of the plight of the children.
As to the former, it depends. I’ve heard proponents allege that they’ve seen protesters go around shaming even children who are indifferent about the controversy to their faces. Now I have no idea if that is actually true or a gross exaggeration, but if it’s true then yes, such people are obviously misguided in doing so. Children from age 3-11 who passively accept the practice inculcated by their guardian figures can hardly be seen as morally culpable for said acceptance to any significant degree. The target of rebuke should obviously be the guardian figures and other people who themselves actively are trying to hold on to the practice, and who have an effect on what children will see as appropriate and participate in.
But generally speaking, those marginal exceptions of reprehensible conduct aside, I think common ways of opposing Zwarte Piet are very much acceptable. Online rebuke, plastering ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme’ stickers and posters, public protests, even ones that might be perceived as “disruptive” protests (As all protests that are in any way effective will invariably be regarded as) are completely legitimate and permissible tactics. As the argument discussed in the paragraph directly above targets unacceptable means, it evidently doesn’t apply to the means I’ve sketched out here. If one is inclined to say that even the tactics I described (Even if they target the right people in terms of rebuke, and even though the methods of protest ostensibly don’t involve any sort of serious rights-violations) are somehow impermissible as well, I very much invite them to explain why they feel that way, for I do not see it. On that note I’ll be moving on to the last common argument that I think is prominent and serious enough to dignify with a thorough response.
‘Traditions are Sacred’
The last resort for the proponent to make the practice beyond reproach is to appeal to the fact that it’s a long-running tradition. They’ll seemingly selectively adopt a naive kind of cultural relativism where we need to accept any and every cultural practice and to criticize certain customs constitutes an unacceptable level of disrespect for a given group’s traditions, regardless of the contents of the tradition in question. I have even in one instance heard a person bite the bullet and give the example of bull fighting in Spain as a tradition that we should respect in spite of our own attitudes. This I repeat is a very naive way of looking at things, and treats our “dislike” of in this case bull fighting as something akin to personal tastes without cognitive content, rather than serious ethical objections to what’s to my mind an obvious case of needless animal cruelty.
Let’s do a little thought experiment: Let’s say it were to be found out that every leap year for the past century people in Canada secretly have had a tradition where they ritually killed off and cooked up all their first-born. Evidently it’d be a long-standing tradition that’s been practiced for generations, and it might well be significant to the participants and part of their culture, and yet I think it’s fair to say that any even remotely plausible moral theory would allow for at the very least serious repudiation of the practice. Of course that’s a very extreme example, but it’s just to demonstrate that something being labeled a “tradition” doesn’t by that fact make it beyond criticism. And at any rate, even though the practice of playing Zwarte Piet doesn’t involve infanticide, I think it’s also fair to say that it’s problematic enough to also be subject to criticism. Again people are free to respond if they disagree with the last sentence, but as it stands I’m pretty confident in my claim that a tradition being racist (even if it doesn’t involve murder) is sufficient grounds for objecting to said tradition.
Lastly, in the Netherlands at least there’s been a substantial increase in xenophobic sentiment in recent years, in particular directed toward Turkish and Moroccan citizens. And I know from firsthand experience that at least some of the people inclined to make the tradition argument above also love to call the cultures and traditions of Turks and Moroccans “backwards, barbaric, and misogynistic” compared to ‘our’ “enlightened, secular, and tolerant” society. And of course that’s just a load of xenophobic rubbish, but it does show that at least a number of the people making the tradition argument actually in some scenarios agree with my assessment that “tradition” isn’t necessarily above criticism (Though for all the wrong reasons), so this means those people either are being inconsistent or are being dishonest in arguing that.
Anyhow, in concluding thoughts: I believe it’s fair to say the idea that the practice of playing Zwarte Piet is racially insensitive holds, and that none of the popular counter-arguments assessed here serve as much in the way of powerful objections to people imploring to abandon the practice.