Why This Blackface Christmas Tradition Won't Die

Photo:REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images.
For the last 150 years, Dutch citizens have celebrated the holiday season with blackface. Every year, on the feast of St. Nicholas, families gather to greet Sinterklaas (the original Santa) as he arrives by boat, accompanied by a handful of helpful friends. These helpers — known as Zwarte Piets, or "Black Petes" — come dressed as literal minstrels, complete with black pancake makeup, bright red lips, and floppy Renaissance-style caps. And, according to 92% of Dutch people, there's nothing racist about it.
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But, the tide may be turning, albeit slowly. Although the vast majority of Dutch residents believe the Zwarte Piet tradition should remain exactly as it is, there is a small but growing movement of dissent. Last month, 90 protestors were arrested at a Sinterklaas event in Gouda. Police had forbidden demonstrations in the area of the event, but the crowd refused to disperse, holding up banners reading, "Zwarte Piet Is Racism."
The complaint seems so obviously valid, and yet supporters of Zwarte Piet claim that argument itself is racist. They say these characters represent mythological stories, not historical events.
However, until the mid-20th century, Zwarte Piet wasn't so much Sinterklaas' friend as his slave. David Sedaris wrote about the tradition in his essay "Six To Eight Black Men," explaining that in the early days, "if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him." For good children, the men left gifts and cookies in their shoes. The Dutch have since cut the slavery and violence out of the story, but the blackface remains.
Regardless of what "pro-Piets" say, so does the bigotry. After Dutch news program RTL4 Nieuws reported on the controversy, its Facebook page lit up with comments like, "If Black Pete must go, then all blacks must go," and "If Zwarte Piet was a ni**er, our shoes would be gone rather than full of ginger cookies and gifts."
Despite growing cries for change, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said the government should stay out of the Zwarte Piet issue. "Personally, I think he can stay black. But, this is a matter for the community. It is not a task for politics," Rutte said in a press conference. But, the protest, he claims, was "deeply, deeply sad...We should not disturb a children's party in this way."
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