At December 5th, Siji Jabbar published an article in the online Guardian on the Dutch (and Belgian) phenomenon of Zwarte Piet, which literally translates to “Black Pete”. Zwarte Piet is an important, indispensable part of the feast of Sinterklaas, which is celebrated in the Netherlands every year around 5 December, and from which many Christmas traditions, most notably Santa Claus (observe the etymology), have evolved. Mr Jabbar’s article is despicable, generalising, offending, uninformed – utterly ridiculous.
To set the stage, let me first give you some of Jabbar’s quotes that pertain to Zwarte Piet, which he wrongly asserts is “a figure of ridicule”, who “must speak poor Dutch with a stupid accent, and must act childlike” :
At schools across the country, children sing songs referring to the skin tone and character of the black servant “…even if I’m black as coal I mean well…”, “Saint Nicolas, enter with your black servant”, etc, and there are other old songs about Zwarte Piet in which he’s made out to be a little bit stupid, a little bit clumsy, more akin to a child than an adult, the same generalisations previously applied to black people, but which can no longer be made explicitly.
And some more that, and I have to restrain myself from speaking in French here, gravely generalise the Dutch:
Dutch society also has more subtle ways of reminding black people of their place and keeping them there.
Zwarte Piet is not the only sign that the Dutch have a problem with race. Dutch society also has more subtle ways of reminding black people of their place and keeping them there. If you spend any time in the Netherlands, you will soon hear the words “allochtoon” used in polite conversation. […] The word allochtoon is thus used as a continuous reminder to people of colour in the Netherlands that white-Dutch people simply do not see them as an equal member of the society, let alone as Dutch, no matter multi-cultural said society might appear on the surface.
Two statements that took my breath away, because of their infinite cruelty, are:
Millions of black people were killed or enslaved by white people over four centuries, and millions more continue to suffer discrimination all over Europe and in the States, so this Zwarte Piet character is about as funny as wearing a swastika.
You don’t have to have a degree in psychology or sociology to work out that the figure of Zwarte Piet, and the use of words like “neger” and “allochtoon” ensure the continued internalisation of ideas of superiority of white Dutch people, and of inferiority and marginalisation of black Dutch people. Nor do you need it to understand the associate power of symbols like Zwarte Piet.
As funny as wearing a swastika? Superiority of white Dutch people? Seriously? Why is this person allowed to write for the Guardian? In his infinite wisdom, Jabbar even links the high unemployment rate among non-whites to the symbol of Zwarte Piet. Hell, why not throw in global warming as well?
Perhaps it is good to show that Jabbar is plainly uninformed. One of the more innocent mistakes: Jabbar states that Father Christmas is called Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. Untrue: they coexist. Sinterklaas and Christmas are celebrated separately, even though the one may find its origins in the other. So much for his “research”.
Sinterklaas is a feast of joy and happiness, where children get rewarded for their good behaviour in the previous year. This is why Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten give presents at Sinterklaas’s own birthday – 5 December. Around 5 December, friends and families, and particularly grown-ups, get together to give each other presents, which are often accompanied by poems and “surprises”.
But do you know what would have been funny if only we weren’t talking about such a serious topic? To most people, Zwarte Piet is not even “black” – he is dirty! The vast majority (perhaps everyone but Jabbar) knows that according to the tradition, or at least how it is explained nowadays, Zwarte Piet is black(-ish) because he climbs up and down chimneys to deliver presents to children. His skin is not black of itself; it is dirtied by chimney soot! This becomes clear from Jabbar’s own words: “black as coal”.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of children dress up like Zwarte Piet, because they want to be like him. They admire him. He is the trustworthy, courageous, resourceful help of Sinterklaas, who dares to walk across roofs and climb down chimneys. Does that sound like a suppressed slave to you?! For all the children know, he might as well be green or pink (if only he wasn’t using chimneys as his way into houses, of course…)!
In the first paragraph, Jabbar actually says something that is true: “the Dutch are a relatively progressive people with much to recommend them: from the high level of volunteering to absence of hysteria around subjects such as cannabis, prostitution, same-sex marriage and euthanasia.” I am not particularly fond of my own people (most often, for instance, I like Belgians much better), but if there is anything we are, it is tolerant. I don’t know a country that has been more permissive and tolerant regarding the issues Jabbar mentions, and many others.
As a matter of fact, it has been mentioned at more than a few occasions that compared to other countries the Dutch have a weak national identity – except perhaps when our national football team is playing. Sinterklaas is one of the exceptions, one of the few things we all do, one of the few traditions that survived the trends of individualisation. It is therefore that Jabbar’s assertions are offensive to the extreme.
At first, I thought, why indeed not leave out this part of the tradition, that Zwarte Piet is dirtied by chimney soot? What would it hurt? Knowing my own people all too well, continuously overly troubled by political correctness, I know that eventually feelings of guilt will surface and prevail anyway, so we might as well abolish it now.
But if you’d ask me now, I would say: no. We have tolerated enough; let us keep Zwarte Piet, and let others tolerate us, for once. There is no need for being offended, and even for anyone who is offended, the slightest effort (that Jabbar apparently was not willing to give it) would immediately reveal that today there is not even a tiny racial element in the entire tradition. If anything, it is about loving your children – small or large, black, white, or purple.
So leave Zwarte Piet alone. He’s my hero.
Post scriptum: A more informed, critical account on the issue of racism within the celebrations of the Sinterklaas feast, which does provide legitimate points arguing that the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet is in fact a form of racism, is provided by Izalina Tavares.