Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Netherlands’ parliament is having none of it.
This week, the Dutch government has been fighting off a bizarre proposal: to make public parades of performers in blackface compulsory.
This winter, the country’s far-right Party for Freedom (PVV in Dutch) tabled a motion to force Dutch cities to continue using blackface make-up when dressing people up as Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”), the traditional sidekicks of St. Nicholas who accompany the saint during yearly public parades on December 5. In recent years, Zwarte Piet has become an increasingly controversial figure, and several municipalities have responded by creating a new version of the character with piebald, multicolored face make-up rather than an all-over layer of black.
It’s reassuring of Dutch lawmaker sanity that the PVV’s attempt to ban this new practice was roundly rejected by the Dutch Council of State at its first hurdle on Tuesday. The proposal nonetheless offers a curious window into the Netherlands’ strange debate over tradition and racism. In the U.S., you might expect politicians to debate a ban on blackface make-up in public celebrations. In Holland, they’ve been debating whether or not to make it obligatory.
The debate over Zwarte Piet has been rumbling for some years. Many Dutch people reject insinuations that the tradition is racist. Some see even attempts to change his make-up as proof of the onward crawl of that great bogeyman, political correctness. For them, Piet is a figure viewed with affection, a cheerful prankster attached to positive childhood memories and lengthy tradition, seen more as a fantasy clown figure than a black person, per se. Some occasionally defend him by claiming that his dark skin is due not to ethnicity, but soot that has rubbed off on him as he’s climbed down a chimney.
Others reject this as naivety—willfully affected to avoid confrontation with racism. The Zwarte Piet tradition actually dates back to 1850, when slavery was still legal in the Dutch empire, and the character was traditionally represented as a servant to St. Nicholas, and arguably his chattel. The term used to describe him was Knecht, a word meaning servant but also with unmistakable pejorative overtones of subjecthood. Moreover, Piet’s curly wig, skin color, and bright red lips cleave so exactly to stereotypical representations of blackness that calling claims to the contrary disingenuous is putting it mildly.
Predictably, the rosy view of the tradition is by no means shared by the Netherlands’ ethnic minorities. In a survey from 2013, over half of Amsterdammers of Surinamese, Caribbean, Ghanaian, and Moroccan origin saw the figure as “discriminatory towards others,” compared to 25 percent of residents of Dutch origin. In addition, 39 percent of Surinamese parents also said they were uncomfortable with the idea of a Zwarte Piet appearing at their child’s school, a not uncommon occurrence.
There have been moves to soften and modernize the tradition in recent years, reframing Piet as St. Nicholas’ friend. But as David Sedaris has commented (in a quote repeated in this article on the tradition):
I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.
The Zwarte Piet character is nonetheless a tradition most white Dutch people object to changing. A survey of 1,700 people in 2013 found 91 percent of respondents were against changing Piet’s appearance in public parades. The PVV’s call to enshrine Piet’s blackface appearance in law came moreover with some public backup, accompanied as it was with a petition signed by 2.1 million people.
The Dutch Council of State’s decision not to forward the motion for parliamentary debate should stop any further attempts to force Dutch parades to continue the blackface tradition unchanged. Its ruling—that such decisions are not a matter for central government—nonetheless has another edge. Resistance to the tradition may also grow over time, but the state itself will make no move to change it.