Blackface is Standard Costume for Santa’s Helpers in Holland


Every November, St. Nicholas parades
through Holland like a king, flanked by his helpers. These are Zwarte Pieten,
or Black Peters. For some, they’re a sacred
yuletide tradition. For others, a racist symbol. Black Pete first appeared in a Dutch
children’s book of the 1850s, when Dutch colonies still had slaves. And now it comes: “His servant is laughing, and beckoning. Whoever is sweet gets candy. Whoever is bad gets the switch.” From then on, says Author Frits Booy, Black Peter became part
of the holiday ritual for kids of all ages. It starts when we are very young. We meet St. Nicholas and Black Peter. That’s a very important
part of our youth. Not only for me, but for
thousands of Dutchmen. By the 1900s, Black Peter had gone
from being Santa’s servant to a menace that punished bad children while Santa rewarded the good. In the 1950s, Black Peter became
a smiling caricature. Nowadays, many Dutch children learn that Peter is
not black, but dirty, because he went down the chimney
to deliver presents. There is no trace of racism
or discrimination in the acting and speaking and
doing of Black Peter. Nowadays. In the most recent polls,
from the late 1990s, 96 percent of people said Black Peter had
nothing to do with discrimination. That finding surprises even
some of the Dutch. It must be patently clear that
Black Peter is an abominable racist representation of black people, and we, as white people, it should be self-evident that
you don’t make fun through the impersonation
of black people. The rare anti-Peter protest is met
with passionate opposition, and even threats of violence. Holland’s Black community has
remained silent, mostly. Playwright Mark Walraven used to
dress up as Black Peter when he was younger. And then I started working
with Cosmic Theatre, and there were black people
mainly working there. And they told me, “We don’t
celebrate Sinterklaas, because of Zwarte Piet.” I was really astonished.
I had never heard that before. It’s a taboo topic, because
in the Netherlands, people do not think of themselves
as racist, and it hurts, probably. And the tradition is important
to Dutch people. It is their youth, their happiness, and they don’t want
that to be attacked. Theatre director Ernestine
Cornvalius wanted to bring the discussions she was having with
other blacks to a wider audience. She convinced Walraven to write a play about a man who believes that only
black people should play Pete. Its premiere received a warm
response last year in the largely immigrant Biljmer
neighborhood of Amsterdam. Holland is not as white as
it was in the 1850s, when Black Peter was invented. Today, 14 percent of residents
come from outside Europe, leading some to say it’s time
for Black Peter to retire. If Zwarte Piet didn’t exist, or if Zwarte Piet could be blue,
or gray or pink, then I would be more interested
in this tradition, and with more happiness.
I would probably participate. And I remember one person in
the audience last year telling us, “When my two children play together,
and one of them is hurt, and he says ‘I’m hurt,’ then I teach them that
the other one has to stop.” So why can’t we talk like
this about Zwarte Piet? But most Dutch people don’t
want to let go of the tradition. I hope that Black Peter
will continue. I hope he will be here
for many, many years. I find you may place between
the Black Peters, Peters who are not black. Some. It’s just playing a beautifully
dressed blackface, but then what kind of
blackface is it? For most here, it seems, Black Peter is just
Santa’s jolly little helper.

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