Every year during the weeks leading up to Christmas the Dutch go blackface crazy. Visitors to the country unaware of this peculiar holiday tradition probably imagine they have arrived in the midst of a massive Minstrel Show revival or some other horrid festival of antiblack racist stereotypes. The Dutch proudly decorate their streets and stores with blackface imagery and adorn themselves in blackface make-up and Afro wigs to depict and celebrate the story of Sinterklass (Saint Nicolas/Santa Claus) and his helper “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete). According to the tradition, Zwarte Piet, an African, is a devil that Sinterklass has defeated and enslaved. His purpose as Sinterklass’ helper is to punish naughty children by taking them away to Spain in a burlap sack. Good children are rewarded with a gift.
This tradition—which includes street parades and celebrations in towns and cities across the Netherlands—has not gone unopposed. But protests that the images are racist have been ignored by the Dutch media or dismissed. Many folks in the Netherlands apparently don’t grasp the insulting nature of this tradition or don’t care who it offends.
Our friends over at Africa is a Country are featuring an article by Tom Devriendt that offers an excellent overview and current update of the Zwarte Piet travesty: “I Remember Black Pete.” Be sure to view the enclosed video clips.