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‘Look, a Black Piet!’

By Marthe van der Wolf

Being black and having an Afro most of my life, I heard this once too often. Probably every black person in the Netherlands has been called a “Black Piet” at least once in his or her life. Especially in the weeks prior to December 5. It hurts, it always has an always will. I never really knew why it made me feel uncomfortable. I grew up as an adopted black child in a white liberal home where I was told colour doesn’t exist. And I believed that. But still, the comment was hurtful at the time.

Black Piet is the “little” black servant of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is the Dutch Santa Claus that brings children gifts before December 5. He is a white man, on a white horse, with his black servants to hand out sweets to the kids or punish them if they were bad. Every year, kids and adults dress up like Black Piet. Faces are painted black, red lip stick is put on and an Afro-wig. This is a direct resemblance of the portrayal of black people by Europeans dating back to almost four centuries ago. And of course, Black Piet always acts loud, silly and brainless. Growing up celebrating Sinterklaas I felt excluded as my face didn’t need to be painted. And as a kid, that hurts.

While most countries understand it’s not appropriate to dress up in this manner, not this country. The revered response is that this is a tradition in the Netherlands and it should not be questioned! Black people are told it has nothing to do with the colonial/slavery history. “Piet is black because he climbs through the chimney to bring the gifts. Haven’t you listened to the Sinterklaas-songs?” Your average Joe will you that if you don’t like it, you might as well go back to where ever you came from. A shared opinion people speak of more freely and unashamedly since the fierce popularity of anti-immigrant right-wing parties. White liberals will claim they don’t see colour so their kids will continue to celebrate Sinterklaas without anyone explaining the meaning or context to them. When questioning if this tradition and celebration is racism, eyes are rolled and they huff out a sigh. You are told that this discussion is over since it has nothing to do with racism.

Four young black Dutch people went to the arrival of Sinterklaas. Which is a huge event broadcast on national television. The four handed out flyers and wore T-shirts stating: Zwarte Piet is racisme. They were assaulted by the local police and arrested in the process. The images of the violent arrest raised anger, as the video rapidly dispersed over Facebook and YouTube. But this was not broadcast on national television because the discussion on Black Piet is structurally ignored. But the broadcasters always happily portray those few black Dutch people in the audience of the Sinterklaas arrival. The image of a multicultural nation is portrayed through non-whites embracing the tradition of the Dutch by the so-called progressive media.

A friend of mine from Cape Town was spending some time in Amsterdam this fall. I witnessed him telling a Dutch girl he believes Holland is more racist than South Africa. She was so shocked by his comment and ignored him from that moment on. It’s not up to me to decide who is more racist than the other. What I can tell you is that Dutch people certainly don’t realise when they are or when something is related to their slavery and colonial history. They get offended and tell you that the ones who think this tradition has racist elements, are racist themselves. After all these years I have finally figured out why it is distressing to me when referred to as Black Piet. And now that I know, I can’t express this, for I would upset white people’s feelings.

Marthe van der Wolf is a freelance journalist. She is also enrolled at the Centre of African Studies at UCT to complete her master of philosophy.

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    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Good Grief – slavery was universal. The favourite slaves of the Barbary pirates, who were Arabic Jihadists, were the Christians captured off the European ships, especially as house slaves. The Ottoman Turks were slaves of the Arabs – who overthrew them in a slave revolt. The favourite slaves of the Romans were the Europeans and Jews (think of the film Ben Hur). Joseph in the Bible was a slave of the Egyptian pharoah. The Fingos (from whom Bishop Tutu and Thabo Mbeki descend) were slaves of the Xhosa.

      Slaves were not all black! The African slave trade was started by the Arabs 1000 years before the white colonialists arrived in Africa – when the whites simply became another customner for the Arab slavers.

      And the more I think about it the more obvious it is that if Santa Clause has helpers to climb up and down chimneys they will be black from the soot!

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Certain cultures were banned from slavery always – the Jews of Israel and the Hindus of India for example – but in the rest of the world it was universal.

      And the blacks of Africa can hardly be ancestors of the slaves sent to America who would not be in Africa but in America! They are more likely to be the descendents of the blacks who caught the other blacks for the Arab slavers!

    • Mpumzo

      I found this quote quite interesting even though it pertains the USA context, juts for the purpose of comparing our societys’ attitudes about the correct relation between the government and the media:

      “The United States has made it through more than two hundred years without ever finding it necessary to prosecute a journalist for soliciting a public employee to disclose confidential national security information. This is not because such solicitations have never occurred, but because employees have usually complied with the law and, when they have not, the press has either acted responsibly or the resulting harm has not been thought sufficiently serious to justify an intrusion into the freedom of the press.”
      University of Chicago Law Professor Geoff Stone (2007)

    • Mpumzo

      Please disregard my comment above. I posted to the wrong blog.