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Black Pete

December 7, 2012


Over the last decade or so I’ve been fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time in the Netherlands and I’d declare myself a fan of many things Dutch (design, architecture, museums, cycling, cheese, etc), but I’ve always struggled with the phenomenon that is Zwarte Piet – Black Pete.  To sum it up, it’s a seasonal tradition during which Santa (Sinterklaas) and his helper Zwarte Piet appear in towns and villages the length and breadth of the nation on December 5th and, from what I understand, throw sweets at people.  The photograph above is a generally accurate interpretation of the duo, one man in a beard, pretending to be Santa, and the other blacked up, pretending to be, well black.  There are, of course, a number of songs and other entertainments around the celebration and it’s as deeply embedded in Dutch culture as the colour orange, tulips and clogs.

When I dared to suggest to my Dutch friends that someone nicknamed Black Pete had some fairly racist overtones and wasn’t the type of tradition progressive social democracies should be encouraging, I was roundly criticised for my unenlightened view of Dutch culture and it was strongly suggested I had offended the nation with my opinions.  Blimey Charlie.  This article in the Guardian explores the phenomenon from a deeper cultural perspective and suggests that Zwarte Piet represents a darker undercurrent in Dutch culture.  What do you think?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Rushworth permalink
    December 10, 2012 12:55 pm

    Interesting debate going on in the Guardian comments:

    06 December 2012 9:47 AMLink to this comment
    Copy the link:

    Recommend35@Bertxin – As the follow on comment was about “comment bingo”. I would have thought it was obviously a parody of the comments that come out on these sorts of topics.

    While I generally do agree with the article (dressing up to make fun of people of a different race is racism). My understanding of the tradition is slightly different, when i was young my local town also had a “black Peter” festival.

    However, that black Peter was not a racist character but was supposed to represent the child/elf who puts the coal in the stockings of the naughty children, when the character appeared it was clear that the character was “black” because of coal dust (black dust on face and clothes rather than full black face)”.

    If this is the originaly intended celebration, it shows how cultures change through influence and hopefully it won’t be too long before further change for the better will occur with regards to the seemingly odd cultural attitude to a racist theatrical appearance (if thats the best description).
    It adds to my thoughts of how we as people have selective memory about our past but the influencial strength of ‘tradition’ seems to be dependant upon how many people like or follow ‘tradition’. Has the current tradition been so heavily influenced by times of slavery? I’m not an expert.

  2. December 25, 2012 11:43 am

    I was in Amsterdam this year and stumbled on the parade. As an American from Oakland CA, I was shocked. Thousands of blue eyed “black” folks. I saw no protesters but many black children watching the parade. They were delighted. All they saw was lots of people that look like them, sort of. What if Holland got rid of the black face but not the black. If all of the Black Peters were real black people then it could be a parade honoring the history of Blacks in Holland and all of the gifts they have received.

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