Amsterdam – The late-November arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands heralds three weeks of holiday festivities.
And, for the eighth year running, it is also accompanied by protests against Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, Sinterklaas’ helper, who many see as a racist stereotype.
While Sinterklaas, portrayed as an elderly white man, arrives by ship and rides a white horse through parades across the Netherlands, hundreds of adults and children dress up as his helper, Zwarte Piet, wearing blackface, painted large red lips and black curly wigs, and some with large golden earrings.
This year, Sinterklaas’ arrival on November 17 was greeted by protests against Black Pete in 18 cities across the Netherlands. Around 40 people were arrested, primarily counterprotesters supporting Zwarte Piet, who attacked anti-racist demonstrators with eggs and bananas, and in some places, Hitler salutes.
In Eindhoven and Rotterdam, the counterprotests in support of Black Pete were particularly intense, with reports that extreme right-wing supporters had dressed up as Zwarte Piet, and handed out candy and right-wing political party stickers to children.
We were threatened by these people, very aggressively. They even did the Hitler sign, and in some places white power signs. It was a like a weekend of Dutch racism in full display
Jerry Afriyie, along with Quinsy Gario, was one of the two founders of the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign in 2011.
He said: “There were bananas thrown at us. There were eggs thrown at us. We were called all types of racists slurs. We were threatened by these people, very aggressively. They even did the Hitler sign, and in some places white power signs. It was a like a weekend of Dutch racism in full display, and people saw it.
“A lot of people were shocked, but you know who was not shocked? Black people are not shocked. We have been saying it.”
Afriyie arrived in the Netherlands from Ghana when he was 10.
“They would call me Zwarte Piet, or you are dirty just like Zwarte Piet. You are only good to be Zwarte Piet.”
Until then, he thought the Sinterklaas festivities were just about fun and collecting sweets.
“I was a child and not politically aware, but I realized we played this dress up with this character who is dumb, who is silly, who doesn’t know much, who needs someone to lead the way, who keeps messing up, who is looking very ugly, and then realising that I am the butt of the joke, I was 12 years old when I realised it.
“So, I was like hold on, this thing that I thought was fun seems to be that I am the star of this play without knowing it, and definitely not the role I want to have. On the bus, people would throw those candies they make for Sinterklaas season, they would throw it at you making monkey sounds.”
He tried to engage both students and teachers in a dialogue, but as he puts it, the country just looked away.
Many people in the Netherlands support Black Pete, and a majority of the country seems resistant to changing the tradition.
In a controversial statement in 2014 that has gone viral, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: “Black Pete is black and I can not change that because his name is Black Pete.”
“It is not green Pete, or brown Pete, it is Black Pete … I can only say that my friends in the Dutch Antilles they are very happy when they have Sinterklaas because they don’t have to paint their faces, and when I am playing Black Pete I am for days trying to get the stuff off my face.”
The exact origins of Black Pete are mired in myth and controversy. Dutch people have a slightly different origin story depending on when and where they grew up – in the big cities of the industrial west or in rural parts of the rest of the country.
The basic story of Sint-Nikolaas, or Sinterklaas, in the Netherlands is that he comes from Spain, arriving by steamship, with a black helper, who, when his sack of toys was empty, would fill his bag with children who had been bad and return to Spain.
Most would agree that it was a schoolteacher from Amsterdam, Jan Schenkman, who first introduced the character of Zwarte Piet in an illustrated book, Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht, in 1850.
It was a time when the Netherlands was still deeply engaged in the slave trade. The Netherlands didn’t abolish slavery in its territories until 1863.
Historian Lise Koning has written about the link between Zwarte Piet and the blackface minstrel shows created in America in the 1800s that were known throughout Europe.
Others connect Zwarte Piet to traditional narratives from the Middle Ages in which Saint Nicholas was paired with a dark helper who represented a tamed devil or evil character.
Whatever the exact origins, it is clear that the character of Zwarte Piet is a tradition and history that many Dutch have yet to come to terms with.
Wil Eikelboom, a human rights lawyer in Amsterdam who represents many in the anti-Black Pete movement, says he grew up with a “Chimney Piet” myth, “who was black because he came through the chimney and was a harmless helper. It was embarrassingly late when I realised that if he came through the chimney you don’t have thick red lips or black curly hair, this is probably a stereotype of a black man, and this had to be pointed out to me by protesters.”
“To accept that a part of your childhood memory is in hindsight a racist thing is very difficult for a lot of people.”
A typical refrain from those who don’t want change is that the festival is “for the children”, but Afriyie sees it differently.
He lives in a black community, Amsterdam Southeast, and was raised there.
“I was trying to do my part to put some pride into these young black girls and boys, be proud of who you are, because we have seen many examples of children coming home and jumping in the shower trying to wash their skin off because the children at school are teasing them that they are ugly, that they are dirty.
“One girl recently was asking why can other kids get clean but I can’t? Why is my dirtiness permanent? And she was referring to her skin.”
People are free to do Shabbat, Ramadan, pray three times a day but a Dutch person is not free to celebrate Black Pete? It's an outrage.
The Black Pete narrative has already changed in Amsterdam in recent years.
Now, it is common to see white people with dark smudges of makeup, in place of the previous Piets in blackface.
But not far outside of Amsterdam, it is not difficult to find people celebrating as Zwarte Piet wearing blackface.
Just 20 minutes north of Amsterdam lies the small idyllic tourist centre of Zaandam, with windmills and chocolate factories.
This year Zaandam hosted the main Sinterklaas arrival parade on November 17, televised live by the Dutch broadcaster, NTR.
Today, anti-racist protestors peacefully calling for the abolition of ‘Black Pete’ – the blackface servant of the Dutch Santa Claus – were spat on by bystanders, attacked by violent mobs, and beaten by the police officers supposedly in charge of their protection.
— Tom Vandeputte (@tvandeputte) November 17, 2018
Even though the broadcaster said in October there would be no Zwarte Piet characters in blackface, Zwarte Piets were there by the busload, 150 in total, escorted by dozens of police officers. No protesters were allowed near the event.
In a traditional Dutch bar, Jonathan, a hospitality entrepreneur sits watching a football match. He’s reluctant to comment at first, but eventually says that he believes the Black Pete debate is ridiculous.
“If there is one country where people don’t discriminate, it’s the Netherlands. Why do all Dutch traditions have to be ruined? People are free to do Shabbat, Ramadan, pray three times a day but a Dutch person is not free to celebrate Black Pete? It’s an outrage. In all honesty, I think it’s a political game. It’s a distraction from the things that really matter.”
“Black Pete is not about Black Pete,” says Lambrecht Wessels, a conflict analyst.
He sees the growing battle over Sinterklaas’ helper as a proxy for much larger issues in the country, mainly rapidly changing demographics, economic insecurity and a lack of a proper migration policy, all of which have fuelled a recent rise of nationalist politics in the Netherlands.
“People’s fears are expressed through Black Pete. When these other issues are addressed, then people will be more ready to change Black Pete to sooted Pete, or chimney Pete.”
While some feel that those changes are still not enough, Afriyie is optimistic about the progress being made.
He spends much of his time talking to schools about race and Zwarte Piet.
“A lot of schools have changed Zwarte Piet. Utrecht has changed, this year Rotterdam says they will do like Amsterdam next year. When we started there was this big Goliath, now we see the big group is getting smaller and the small group is getting larger.”
As the debate continues, one thing is clear: when Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet leave the Netherlands on December 6, the controversy of Black Pete will remain, awaiting their arrival next year.