Posted by: Hannah | 12/03/2013

change is hard

This is Zwarte Piet (Black Peter):

Zwarte Piet is a big part of the Christmas tradition in The Netherlands – like Rudolph, he’s a supporting character in the mythological gift-giving pantheon, only with more casual racism and uncomfortable connotations. He first made an appearance in 1850, and was described as a “servant” of Sinterklaas; he is dressed in Moorish garb and is always depicted with thick red lips, big gold earrings, and a head of kinky hair.

In the 1950s, the traditional story was modified to call Zwarte Piet a “helper” rather than a servant. There is also a mythology now circulating that says he was a slave, but that Saint Nicolas / Sinterklaas freed him and in gratitude, he voluntarily travels along beside the Big Man, tossing candies to children. There is also a ‘new’ version of the story that says he is black with chimney soot – no explanation as to how going down the chimney also gives you big lips and an Afro.

In recent years there has been a major backlash against Zwarte Piet, both internationally and in The Netherlands, because he is almost always portrayed by white people in blackface. It is such an important discussion right now that the UN Human Rights Council has formally requested that the Dutch government examine the tradition and look at ways of modifying it to be less, well, racist and horrible.

Dutch people have worn shirts proclaming “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” to Christmas celebrations, and been arrested for it.

Organizers in New Westminster, BC cancelled their Sinterklaas celebration in 2011, after protests and pushback from the community as a whole. Asked to remove Zwarte Piet – or at least perhaps modify the costume – they instead took their ball and went home, refusing to examine carefully and critically why essentially bringing an old-timey minstrel show to a family event in the 21st century was perhaps troubling.

What I’m saying is that this is a big story in the Dutch community, and has been for several years. Even I knew about the controversy surrounding Zwarte Piet as far back as two years ago.

Which is why this picture and the attendant fallout this week has so enraged me, to the point where I’m going all political on a blog where I normally don’t:

See that cheerfully-smiling fellow sitting on the lap of that dude in blackface? That’s Joachim Stroink, and he’s a recently-elected Member of the Legislative Assembly here in Nova Scotia. He represents the ethnically-diverse riding of Halifax Chebucto.

He is of Dutch descent, although he was born and raised in Canada. He has two young daughters. He was attending a Christmas celebration thrown by members of the Dutch community, and he tweeted that picture of himself captioned “showing some love to Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet”.

By late evening, he’d deleted the tweet. By the next morning, he was posting Facebook statuses with the ever-popular non-apology – “I’m sorry if you were offended, but it’s part of my Christmas tradition and cultural heritage.” By 2pm yesterday, he gave a tearful press conference where his defense was essentially total ignorance of any problem or issue that might be associated with blackface.

Some thoughts on that:

  • You grew up in the same Canada I did, Mr. Stroink, and in an urban area rather than a rural one. I knew from a very early age that blackface was problematic, because my parents taught me so. It’s clear that yours did not – and now your daughters are growing up in the same innocent ignorance of a terrible symbol of institutionalized racism. Do better, Mr. Stroink.
  • You got caught doing a damn stupid thing, and instead of admitting your mistake and using this to open a dialogue, you first tried to scrub the evidence and then cried when you got caught. You say that you “didn’t sign up for this” and that you got into politics because you wanted “to better Nova Scotia”. This was your chance.

I love my home. I love Nova Scotia. Despite the many problems, I can’t imagine raising  my children anywhere else. My roots go deep here. But racism is alive and well in this province, and if you don’t acknowledge that, you are part of the problem. An awful lot of folks seem to think that if you aren’t actively screaming the N-word out your car window that everything is fine. But the comments sections on all local media yesterday were full of people bellowing about “political correctness run amok” and “preserving traditions” and “it’s all in good fun”.

I talked about this on Twitter yesterday. I got called a “biggot” (yes, that’s how it was spelled) and a “cunt”. This morning a random person from The Netherlands sent me tweet after tweet with pictures of Zwarte Piet celebrations, saying that “just labeling something you are not familiar with is kind of racism too.” No, it’s not. I actually am familiar with it, and when the story broke I did some reading and learned about the historical context for the myth before I started shooting my mouth off. You know what? IT IS STILL RACIST. Seeing men, women, and children, all in blackface, lining the streets of Dutch towns as a way to celebrate the holidays makes me uncomfortable, and sad. There is a semantic distinction to make here – the tradition as it currently stands is racist, but I don’t think every single person in that crowd is. It’s a lack of awareness, it’s an unwillingness to learn and change, it’s the same humming la-la-la-I-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU that characterizes so many conversations about race in this province and indeed this country.

We are not blameless. I wish that this whole situation would open up a dialogue and let us start talking about these issues with an eye to repairing some of the damage. It doesn’t look like it’s going to, but maybe.




  1. Well said!!!

  2. This year is the first I’ve ever heard of Black Peter. I’m really appalled.

    • I had no idea it was being celebrated in Canada, to be honest. I had blinders on, too. And I am also appalled.

  3. I just don’t know why Piet/Pete can’t be portrayed as a white/European character? Keep the renaissance clothes and the hat, drop the wig and the facepaint. It’s time for the Dutch to get over their distant past as a colonial power in far off lands. That the character has been retconned into a chimney sweep just proves that the Dutch know it’s a disgusting image. I generally think of the Netherlands as a progressive, inclusive cultural, so the refusal to alter the custom is strange.

    I was aware of the Black Pete tradition, because I visited Holland once and it was late November and he was shown in advertisements and store displays. I found it disturbing. However, I was not aware that people of MY generation, who are born and raised in Canada and exposed to pop culture and modern media could be thick enough to give tacit approval to the racism inherent in the costume. Then he posted the image on twitter? What a bonehead move.

    What I’d really like to know: who’s the fool that agreed to dress up in black face?

  4. I have a bit of a unique perspective on Zwarte Piet, because I lived in the Dutch Caribbean growing up. I was old enough to observe rather than absorb the Christmas traditions, and even as a child, Zwarte Piet struck me as somewhat obscene, although I couldn’t have explained why in words.

    So I get it, about the racism.

    That being said, I also understand the Dutch point of view. Zwarte Piet has racist beginnings, but his current incarnation is not intended as any kind of commentary on Black people. He doesn’t embody any of the racist stereotypes that we associate with blackface – thick ebonics bumbling tomfoolery, etc (we own a 1930 children’s blackface play which is ASTOUNDING in its racism). To the Dutch, he is simply an elf. His black makeup isn’t intended to make someone resemble a Black person – they would argue that he is BLACK Peter, not BROWN Peter. His clownish facepaint is, to them, no more offensive than a white clown’s face paint.

    Even my own school, which as an American International School had a zero tolerance policy against racism (one white kid once called a brown kid “dirty” and ended up in the principal’s office, and another time a kid wrote a swastika on a piece of paper and the entire school was called to assembly to get a lecture from the principal) but Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet visited us on a white horse every year.

    In fact, as I remember it, Zwarte Piet was as often played by a black person in black face as a white person. I thought that was interesting.

    In other words, to the Dutch, Zwarte Piet is simply a beloved children’s character who HAPPENS TO RESEMBLE racist sterotypes from America. Asking them to cut him out for political reasons is like if someone demanded that we stop portraying Santa as fat (Sinterklaas is thin!) because he promotes obesity.

    We defend the memories of our childhood vigorously, so I understand the Dutch’s resistance to changing their culture and their childhood to satisfy the rest of the world.

    But when people are offended, we should care, and we should be sensitive about it.

    If the Little People of the world rose up and demanded that we eradicated elves from our own Christmas pantheon, we would do it.

    We would get rid of the Elf on the Shelf, tell our children that Santa is surrounded by normal height workers or perhaps makes his toys himself. We would stop playing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer because it portrays short people as elves. We wouldn’t play “Elf” because it involves little people represented as elves.

    We would wipe elves out of Christmas, because it had offended people, and even if we might not understand it, we would be sensitive to it.

    ….wouldn’t we?

  5. World Moms Blog had a great post about Zwarte Piet, posted by a mother whose adopted child is Ethiopian:

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