“Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.” -Dennis Leary
It’s that time of year again. Cold weather, pretty lights, snow, presents…and Zwarte Piet.
In the Netherlands, it’s not Santa Claus, it’s Sinterklaas. And he isn’t aided by elves but by Zwarte Piet, which literally translates to “Black Pete.” Fortunately, I was prepared for this holiday by David Sedaris, who wrote an article for Esquire about the tradition (audio of a Sedaris reading here). The origin of Zwarte Piet isn’t clear. According to one story, Sinterklaas defeated a devil and enslaved him as a helper. Other stories suggest that Sinterklaas is from Turkey and his assistant is a Moor, hence the dark features. Another history suggests that the Zwarte Piets were Sinterklaas’ slaves until the early part of the 20th century, when the characters transform to Sinterklaas’ helpers or friends. Or that Sinterklaas liberated Piet from a slave market in Ethiopia and Piet was so grateful he decided to stay on as a servant.
I doubt even members of the Tea Party would have the audacity to claim that a bunch of white people dressed up in black face with curly wigs and big red lips and gold hoop earrings isn’t racist. Yet many Dutch, unfortunately, continue to embrace this tradition. One of oft-heard defenses of Zwarte Piet is that he isn’t actually black, he’s a Moor. This insight into Piet’s history actually reinforces the racism argument. For starters, “Moor” is considered a pejorative term. Nothing like defending racism with racism. Secondly, if Piet is actually from Western North Africa, he would be fairly light-skinned with more Arab features than African features. Another defense argues that the reason Zwarte Piet is black is because climbs down the chimneys to deliver presents and thus gets covered in soot. The Dutch must then have the world’s most interesting chimneys, since those traversing them only get their faces coated in soot, simultaneously reddening just the lips. And making their hair black and curly.
Regardless of the history or obvious negative stereotypes, many will suggest that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are part of an innocent fable for children and it’s the adults who foist racism into the story. But kids are aware of race and they absorb all of those negative stereotypes. In a country with few racial minorities, the first exposure to non-Western Europeans many Dutch kids have is Zwarte Piet. It doesn’t exactly get the discussion of race off on a good foot. It’s hard to move past ingrained cultural norms, even when they are blatantly racist. It’s difficult for people to admit that they participated in something considered by many to be racist. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I swear I saw fewer kids in blackface this year than I did last year. Let’s hope that trend continues.