Yesterday, a court ruled that one of Holland’s much-loved Christmas traditions was “insulting” to black people and perpetuated racist stereotypes. The Amsterdam mayor was given six weeks to decide whether or not he would hold the city’s annual Sinterklaas parade, a Christmas street party. What could possibly be so legally problematic about that, you might wonder?
The problem begins with Zwarte Piet. Like most Dutch children (you’d never guess it from my name, but my mother is from the Netherlands) I eagerly anticipated Zwarte Piet’s visit each year. He’s the trusted helper of Sinterklaas, or Father Christmas. Father Christmas is old and fat, so he needs his obedient side-kick Piet to scale down all those Dutch chimneys and deliver sweets and presents.
Zwarte Piet translates as Black Pete. And why is he black? From all the soot, I was told. Yet even a small child can see that Zwarte Piet is more than a little grubby. His face is painted black, he has thick, cartoonish painted on lips, and tight black curls. He’s a white man in blackface.
In recent years, this has become the subject of fierce national debate in Holland. Of course, it is absolutely baffling to outsiders that the racism of Zwarte Piet should still be under discussion in a 21st century, multi-cultural society. There are of course plenty of Dutch people who maintain that Zwarte Piet is an outdated, racist tradition that ought to have been abandoned decades ago. And I’m with them.
But there are also plenty who argue that it’s simply an innocent bit of festive fun. Perhaps we all tend to be weirdly, irrationally attached to Christmas traditions. When I first wrote about this subject last November, Dutch relatives contacted me to suggest I had simply “misunderstood” the point of Zwarte Piet. Almost all of the Netherlands loves Zwarte Piet, the deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher argued at the time, and “you can’t say the whole of Holland is racist”. And so, he concluded, with an astonishing jump in logic, that Zwarte Piet can’t possibly be racist.
Sometimes the pro-Piet camp engages in long pseudo-historic analysis to try and prove that Zwarte Piet was definitely not a slave, implying that the blackface is just some inexplicable curiosity. Other people have gone so far in their defence of this “harmless fun” that they have sent death threats to anti-Zwarte Piet campaigners. The far-right in Holland has made alarming advances in recent years, and the Zwarte Piet debate has revealed another ugly dimension to these politics.
Yesterday’s court ruling is limited in scope. Within six weeks the mayor of Amsterdam will report back on his decision. Last year, Amsterdam authorities made a ludicrously small adjustment to his outfit: Piet stopped wearing earrings as these are seen as symbols of slavery. This year, they might make more drastic changes: perhaps Zwarte Piet will really just have a couple of smudges of soot on his cheeks.
Yet even if Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas parade is banned, this won’t stop other cities from holding theirs unless they too end up facing legal proceedings. Here’s to hoping that next year’s Sinterklaas parades will be truly fun for everyone (apart from the racists) and that Holland will finally let go of its strange love for blackface Zwarte Piet.