Zwarte Piet

A year ago I was having a video conference with a client in the US. He asked me, a Dutchman, what this was with this Sinterklaas guy, or Sint Nicolas – our version of Santa Clause. He had heard that there were black helpers called Zwarte Piet or Black Peter who were like servants… or perhaps like slaves owned by Sinterklaas. I carefully explained (he was a client after all) that this was a tradition not very different from the elves who help Santa Clause but that I agreed that it had a strong racist undertone. I explained that few… very few Dutch people agree with me that it had anything with racism. No… Zwarte Piet was black because he had to climb down the chimney (so he’s not black but just plain stupid). But what about those big red lips? Eh… well he scrapes his lips along the chimneys…

My client was totally shocked when I showed him images of the streets of Amsterdam with Zwarte Piets (lots of them) running around giving children candy (he’s a nice black guy). And now it turns out that UN investigator Verene Shepherd has started an investigation into the Sinterklaas tradition and is already against it, saying that we should stick to Santa Clause…. Now that’s the worst approach you can take if you want to deal with the Dutch. Now we’ll probably keep Peter black just to show the UN that we have our own mind…
There are people (most Dutch people) that argue that Piet’s blackness is a tradition that we shouldn’t spoil but the time has come for us to accept that the racist undertones are offensive to many people and that – as history has shown – it’s really not such a problem to adapt a historical character. All you have to do is consider which part of the history, of the story we can easily change without changing the plot. I discussed this with a black friend and we agreed that changing Sinterklaas into a black guy (on a black horse!) would be hard to explain away and would be just plain silly but that many details of the whole tradition could easily be changed. The solution would be to not only add colored Piets* to the celebration but also white ones. And then we can leave the tradition alone for a while as we love Sinterklaas and Zwarte… eh… colored Piet. We certainly refuse to give up Sinterklaas all together which would be giving in to American pressure as we all know that Santa Clause is actually Sinterklaas after he got a full make over last century, sponsored by Coca-cola.

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