An offensive image is embraced as a cherished tradition by the vast majority.
The parade is not unlike most others. Floats, marching bands, dancers and even horses fill the streets. Large crowds of families gather in the festive atmosphere, with young children on the shoulders of parents, hoping for a good view. But once the guests of honor begin to make their way down the street, it takes not even a moment to see the difference between this parade and any other: Almost every person marching in this parade is in blackface.
In the Netherlands, one of the most popular winter holidays brings Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, to the country each November for several weeks. Sinterklaas is a thinner and more bishop-type version of Santa Claus, as he has the power to determine which children will be rewarded for being good and which will not be so lucky. He is assisted by the Zwarte Pieten — the Black Petes — usually white men and women, dressed in what is described as Moorish attire. They wear black, wooly wigs, black gloves and gold earrings. Their lips are painted bright red. And their faces are painted black.
Black Pete’s Exploitation
Beginning in November, comic portrayals of Pete can be seen virtually everywhere in the Netherlands, with Pete appearing in windows, hanging from ceilings and decorating product packaging. As an outsider, it's shocking to see the offensive portrayals of blackness everywhere you turn. And it's perhaps even more shocking to see that no one around you is surprised. Even worse, most Dutch people absolutely love the character, and will adamantly defend it.
If you’re new to the tradition, it's nearly impossible not to ask why, or how the blackface celebration can be possible in 2011. After asking around quite a bit, I received responses that typically dismissed any validity to my questions. Common responses were, “You’re looking at this from an American perspective. We don’t have that type of racism here.” Some people would try to use my words against me, saying, “You have offended me for implying that this tradition has anything to do with race. This is your problem, not mine.”
Black Pete’s Evolution
But here's why they're wrong: Zwarte Piet is rooted in a history of colonialism, slavery, racism and a continuing marginalization of black people. The character emerged in the mid-19th century as the saint's black servant. Into the 20th century, Piet's physical appearance and personality evolved to mirror the comic portrayal of black people that had risen to popularity in other parts of the world. American minstrel performers — who relied on crude and hateful stereotypes of black people to justify their exaggerated features and foolish behavior — clearly influenced the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition.
Although Piet’s appearance remains unchanged, today most people attribute Piet's blackness to his job rather than his race. Since Piet is the one to travel down the chimney of children's homes, his face gets very dirty. And although his clothes remain clean, his lips turn a bright red and his hair becomes what some describe as “Negro hair.” This explanation for Piet's apparent racial identity is popular. But quite frankly, it makes no sense.
Black Pete’s Opposition
Plenty of people aren't falling for the chimney explanation. Movements against Zwarte Piet have existed for years, largely within young, Black Dutch communities. But they face such a staunch resistance from a majority of white Dutch people that they seem only to polarize the communities even further. Cries of a national Dutch identity that is destroyed with the loss of a treasured tradition silence any notions of eliminating or modifying Zwarte Piet.
This year, the position of the Dutch majority was made clear when peaceful protestors, wearing shirts that read "Zwarte Piet is Racisme" (Black Pete is Racism), were aggressively arrested by the Dutch police during the parades for Sinterklaas' arrival on November 12-13. The pepper-spraying and arrest of Black performance poet Quinsy Gario, captured on a viral YouTube video, saw him being dragged into an alley by officers as he screamed that he had done nothing.
And now, following the dramatic images of those arrests, there is an energy in the air. I see a strong community of color, and a growing number of white Dutch people who believe change is not only possible, it's necessary. Whether this is a change to a children's character or an evolution of Dutch racial politics is a much deeper question.
Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten will be in town until December 5. That seems to be plenty of time for a larger movement against the racist character to take root. Perhaps the world should be watching. Because I sense a revolution brewing in the Netherlands.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
(Photo: EPA/ROBIN UTRECHT/LANDOV)