Why we should change Zwarte Piet

Next week Sinterklaas (the Dutch version of Santa Claus) will arrive in the Netherlands. A joyous event for kids of course, but for adults it tends to come with a debate most people like to avoid: the one about Zwarte Piet. The debate has been around for a long time already, but in the past few years it has grown to outrageous proportions, mostly because of social media. I have friends who insist the figure needs to go and I have friends who refuse to change it. Most people seem to be done with the entire issue by now or just don’t have a strong opinion about it. They keep quiet, silently hoping the matter will finally be settled this time.

A little summary for people who don’t know who or what Zwarte Piet is. The easiest way to describe the figure is by comparing it to one of Santa’s elves. There’s a lot of them and they help Sinterklaas out with everything he does. They find out who has been nice this year, they wrap the gifts, they give the children candy and they deliver the gifts on the 5th of December – unlike Santa, Sinterklaas can’t do all that by himself. They are cheerful and can do all kinds of acrobatic tricks, but they can also be a bit dumb – similar to clowns. No issues there, except that Zwarte Piet (literally ‘Black Pete’), is portrayed by people in blackface. We generally say Piet became black because of all the chimney soot, but he also happens to have curly hair and bright red lips. With this look the entire figure suddenly seems to turn into a weird caricature of a slave. A happy one, perhaps, but a slave nonetheless.

Of course, the protests against a figure like this can easily be understood. Even though I personally never noticed the similarities between Zwarte Piet and black people as a kid (honestly, does Zwarte Piet look anything like everyone’s childhood hero Eddie Murphy?), the fact remains that the figure has a lot of traits that can be seen as characteristic of black people. There’s plenty of stories of black people being called a Zwarte Piet by young kids while walking down the street, which may not be meant as an insult, but can definitely be taken as one. With Zwarte Piet staying like this you’re not just contributing to the racist way of viewing black people as slaves, you’re also insulting them by ‘teaching’ the kids who do see the similarities that black people are jolly, dumb clowns. If we just change the appearance of Zwarte Piet, for example to the popular Schoorsteenpiet (Chimney Pete, with smudges of soot on his face), the entire issue will be dealt with immediately.

Although the image of Zwarte Piet may seem outrageous to anyone not familiar with the figure, a lot of people want him to stay. He has been Sinterklaas’s faithful companion for a long time and many Dutchies want to keep that tradition intact. The festivities and all the details surrounding it are associated with good, happy feelings and it makes sense that people want their kids to have the same experience. They are afraid that changing the appearance of Zwarte Piet will affect the entire story, eventually causing it to completely disappear after a while. Although this may seem a bit far fetched, I understand where they are coming from because of something I will call the actor problem. In many places a neighbour will dress up as Zwarte Piet to visit the kids down the street, which is possible because they can completely disguise themselve by painting their face and covering their hair with a wig. Changing the figure to something like Schoorsteenpiet will make them recognisable to the neighbour kids, making this practically impossible. Although unlikely, it is possible for this to have a detrimental effect on the entire party. That’s a risk a lot of people aren’t willing to take.

Apart from the actor problem people have many other ‘reasons’ to protest, but those are usually easy to tackle. A common one is the kids-argument: “The Sinterklaas festivities are meant for kids, so adults shouldn’t worry about it so much. Changing it will be confusing for the kids – maybe they’ll stop believing!” The thing with this argument is that we are indeed dealing with kids here, so we can easily turn the entire point around: They are kids, they don’t care what Piet looks like! He just needs to bring them candy and gifts! On top of that: in a few years they won’t be kids anymore, so even if you get that problem it’ll be gone soon. If you do indeed believe that the party is for kids, you should be fine with changing it. Yes, it’s a tradition, but it’s a tradition for kids and kids don’t even understand traditions, they haven’t been around long enough for that.

Although I generally understand why people like Zwarte Piet – I don’t have a personal problem with the figure because it means happiness to me as much as it does to others – I don’t see any valid reason to keep him looking this way if people feel insulted by it. There are plenty of options that aren’t insulting at all and changing it won’t matter for the kids. The figure still plays the same role, they’ll just look a bit different. Even the actor problem with Schoorsteenpiet can be dealt with, by simply creating a little network of people playing Piet. Your neighbour goes to the kids three blocks away and their neighbour will come to you. It may be a bit more work, but I think most will people agree that it’s worth the effort. The Netherlands prides itself on being a progressive country, so it’s about time we take those progressive steps on this matter too.

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