Zwarte Piet and My Own Racist Blind Spots

In 2011, I met my South African wife in Belgium. Her friend Crystal was visiting the town where we both lived in late November that year. Both of them were absolutely shocked when they saw Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete).

Blind spots

Up until that point, I had never ever considered the racist implications of this servant of Sinterklaas, the Dutch and Belgian predecessor of Santa Claus.

I’ve always considered myself to be an inclusive person. And I’ve been naive at points; there is a lot of lingering institutional and/or tradition based racism around me and within me. This is an example of that. As the short Vox documentary below indicates, Zwarte Piet is black because of the ashes of the chimney. That’s the concept I was raised with and that I accepted for truth.

But it was a blind spot. When I came to South Africa, Kim at one point asked me: would you happily explain Zwarte Piet to our friends who are black? The answer is “no.” I can list all the justifications that I’ve heard a lot, but it doesn’t change the simple fact that there’s a strong racist undertone in Zwarte Piet.

Not seeing the racist side to Zwarte Piet is probably one of the biggest racist blind spots I’ve ever had. I was entirely oblivious to it. It’s challenging because we do not have bad intentions so it feels very personal if someone is pointing out the flaws. A natural response is to be defensive. But it’s not the right response.

Sinterklaas

While I would hate for the Sinterklaas tradition to disappear, it’s time for Zwarte Piet to go. It’s way past time.

Even if we don’t have racist intentions – and I genuinely believe that goes for a lot of Belgians – this doesn’t change the fact that Zwarte Piet is still a racist concept: it’s showing a stereotypical depiction of black people and has a lot of references to our colonial, slave-trading past.

It doesn’t really matter if some of us – as white people – think that it’s not that bad. We’re not the ones affected. We don’t get to choose whether or not Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype.

With Sinterklaas, we celebrate the generosity of Saint Nicholas. The fourth century Christian – himself being born in modern day Turkey – gained fame for helping and standing up for the poor and powerless. The addition of Zwarte Piet smears this. Let’s get rid of this racist caricature and make it a feast of generosity again.

Vox doc

Vox made a short documentary on Zwarte Piet. Two notes on the video below:

  1. It was nice seeing an interview with Mieke Bal. Her book on narratology was one of the central sources to my MA thesis on narrative criticism of the Gospel of Mark. She’s a cultural critic that should be heard.
  2. It’s interesting how Vox feels the need to appropriate the tradition of Sinterklaas to the American audience by talking about “Dutch Christmas.” No Belgian or Dutch person associates Sinterklaas with Christmas whatsoever. The person of Santa Claus thanks a lot of his image to Sinterklaas, so it’s quite culturally insensitive to do this. The irony …

Featured image taken from Zihni Özdil’s website – if you know Dutch, go check out his blog. He’s been writing about the Zwarte Piet tradition for 9 years.