Traditionally, Zwarte Piet is played by a white male or female with black make up. The ship carrying Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrives from Spain which likely harks back to the days when the Netherlands was ruled by Spain. It also lends credence to the idea that Zwarte Piet was a Moor. The relationship between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet has been depicted as one of employer and servant. In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas is not the fat jolly ol’elf as North Americans depict Santa Claus, but a tall figure with a white beard who is strict, just and righteous. Zwarte Piet is the mischievous one who enjoys folly and will play with children.
A black figure who is cheeky and acts as a servant to an authoritative white master has obvious racial symbolism. In one version of the story, Zwarte Piet was a travelling Moor who St. Nicholas befriended in Spain, and who agreed to help St. Nicholas in the delivery of presents. The version I had always heard was that Zwarte Piet was black because he travelled down chimneys to deliver presents to children. The black paint on the face was therefore to represent the soot of the chimney.
Modern day Netherlands is multicultural. One only has look to the elite athletes and sports teams to witness how diverse the population of the Netherlands has become. Out of concerns that one of their traditional symbols is racist, the Dutch have attempted to tone down the symbol of Zwarte Piet by having him appear in a rainbow of colours. As this effort failed to catch on, they have reverted to the traditional Zwarte Piet.
The question this raises is how far a culture must go to accommodate its changing population? Zwarte Piet is a perfect example of this because he is a black figure that has been integral to one of the most joyous holidays for Dutch children. He makes them laugh but also keeps them in their place under threat of being taken away to Spain. He could be black because of chimney soot or he could be black because he is from Spain (or Africa).
I recently completed a Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s wonderful autobiography entitled Infidel, where she talks about the Dutch penchant for viewing the actions of its growing Muslim population through a lens of cultural relativism. She portrays the Muslim communities, particularly Somali communities in the Netherlands as embracing isolation from the rest of Dutch society as they view the country as inferior to their war torn homelands. In Hirsi Ali’s views, the Dutch turn a blind eye to the repression women from these communities face as the Dutch strive to accommodate the cultural differences of these groups. One of Ali Hirsi shocking realizations is that there is a certain power in accusing the Dutch of racism because the Dutch abhor the thought of being racist and will go out of their way to rationalize the cultural differences with their growing immigrant communities. Furthermore, she notes that the Dutch are not alone in harbouring racist views as the immigrant communities similarly hold racist views. What she does take the Dutch to task for is being too willing accept the practices of immigrants because the Dutch are fearful of being called racist or intolerant. In short, there is not dialogue about the changing nature of Dutch society because the Dutch have embraced a culture of cultural relativism.
This is where my search for understanding begins. With the approach of December 5th and the associated Sinterklaas party, should Black Pete be forgotten? Certainly some of my friends less familiar with Dutch traditions view Zwarte Piet as a symbol that should be shunned and left in the colonial past. I am less willing to embrace Piet as merely a symbol of race, but like many I loathe the idea that I may be promoting racist symbols. I hope that my views are sensitive to the plight of others, but where the line is drawn of what is tolerable and acceptable is not always clear in the cultural sands.