We turned the corner onto Dam Square, and high above us, a smiling man in blackface dangled mid-rappel above an H&M store. His giant teeth sparked all the more white against the rain-soaked sky, against his coal black makeup, against the ruby red lipstick.

Photo: Hans Pama

We had just arrived to Amsterdam, were trying to walk off our jetlag, and didn’t know anything about St. Nicholas Day, when the Dutch celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas, a white-bearded St. Nicholas; unlike Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is skinny, wears a tall miter hat, carries a crozier, and brings children presents the night of December 5, the eve of his name day, and not on Christmas.

Every November, Sinterklaas arrives by steamship and then rides his white horse through town, accompanied by his blackfaced sidekick, Zwarte Piet or Black Pete — a swarthy version of the helper elf who either delivers presents or spanks children with his bundle of sticks, depending on whether the children have been nice or naughty. Black Pete learns this information by peering down chimneys and spying on children.

“Oh my God,” I said to my husband, as we watched Black Petes rappel off buildings, dance in the streets, throw candy to children. “They’re in blackface,” I whispered, as if my husband could have somehow missed it.

“Maybe it’s not racist here,” my husband said. “It’s a different culture. Maybe blackface doesn’t have the same significance as it does in the US. Maybe their black faces are meant to be chimney soot?”

“Seriously? That’s a lot of soot.”

“You don’t know. You can’t claim to understand another culture’s traditions.”

As it turns out, many Dutch people agree with my husband — they love Black Pete and are not willing to see him go. Or even change. When we met up with my Dutch friend Marcella and asked her what she thought, she said, “Maybe they could just put a little coal on their cheeks instead, so it looks like soot. I wouldn’t mind that. Or maybe change him to another color. But many people are conservative — they want to keep Black Pete just as he has always been. They grew up with Black Pete and want their children to do the same.”

When I am the outsider — as we always are when we travel — I try not to judge, but in the end, cultural relativism only goes so far, and for this tourist, the blackfaced Zwarte Piet seems downright insulting. Mean, even. These mischievous Sinterklaas servants not only wear blackface, they paint giant red lips onto their mouths and wear afro-type wigs, gaudy gold hoop earrings, and a Tudor-ruffed velvet pageboy outfit — a get-up that is something like Renaissance court jester meets swashbuckling pirate.

What seemed to me blatant racism in the worst possible way was being celebrated by thousands of smiling people. Some children even wore tiny Black Pete outfits, complete with blackface. White children, that is. And street vendors were selling Black Pete dolls and t-shirts, buttons, and mugs that read I Heart Zwarte Piet.

“It’s tradition here. People don’t want to give it up.”

Along with Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet is a symbol of Dutch identity. And what could a couple of American tourists know about it? Aren’t we seeing this tradition through our own cultural lens, an American vantage point — one that is informed by an ugly racist past, which has led to a present-day institutional racism? If I sound apologetic, it’s because I want to remain aware of my own cultural misunderstandings. But at the same time, I want to stand up for something I can’t help but see as wrong.

It’s always hard to talk about racism, not only because we really don’t want to admit that it still exists, but because it shakes our very foundations; once we pull at a thread, the whole system starts falling apart. But maybe that’s exactly what we need. Because when we start to question things, a dialog begins, and that’s where the magic happens — where borders are dismantled and boundaries are crossed, and that’s the landscape of connection, of change, of hope, and finally, of love.

The sound system in Dam Square began playing “We Are Family,” and the Black Petes jumped around, cavorting arm in arm — dancing caricatures with silly red-lipped smiles. I took a few photos just to prove that this really was happening, and then said, “I can’t stand this. Let’s go.”

My husband agreed that this scene, white people in blackface dancing to Sister Sledge, was, in fact, troubling, Dutch tradition or not. “You’re right,” he said, “this is hard to watch.”

At first, it seemed that no one else was at all disturbed. On the contrary, most people were enjoying themselves and the daft antics of the Black Petes. But as we weaved through the crowd, I noticed some people — three to be exact — wearing t-shirts with a red cross through Black Pete and the slogans Zwarte Piet Niet! and Zwarte Piet Is Racisme. “See!” I told my husband. “Some people here do find this offensive.”

Then we noticed news crews conducting interviews. I tried to eavesdrop but didn’t have much luck, considering I don’t speak Dutch.

“They are talking about Black Pete,” I told my husband. “This is becoming a thing.”

“You don’t know that,” he said.

“They’re asking those guys to speak on behalf of all black people about what they think of Black Pete. I bet that’s what’s going on.”

“You always say things you don’t know with such conviction.”

“I can tell,” I said. “But I wish I could understand what they were saying.”

“Uh-huh,” my husband said.

When we got back to our hotel, I asked the innkeeper about it. He told us we had been lucky enough to arrive on the day of the Sinterklaas Festival but that people were, in fact, beginning to protest Black Pete, and that there was a Facebook page claiming Black Pete was racist. “But,” he said, “supporters of Black Pete put together another Facebook page that got a million likes overnight. More likes than any other Dutch Facebook page. It’s tradition here. People don’t want to give it up.”

the St. Nicholas party went on as usual, with Black Pete hanging by ropes from the rafters.

The Facebook page the innkeeper was referring to is now up to 2.1 million likes, but Devika Partiman, one of the representatives of the Facebook page against a blackfaced Black Pete, Zwart Piet Is Racisme, told me this:

“There is indeed a page that ‘supports’ Black Pete but the background is quite dubious. The page is called ‘Pietitie’ (putting “Piet” and “petition” together), and was created by a marketing agency to make a statement about the power of social media. The page does not make any statements about Black Pete. All they say is ‘We are against abolition of the Sinterklaas fest.’ Well, nobody actually wants to abolish it, but still it is seen as the page against any change in Black Pete. All we want is to get rid of everything blackface.”

And is that really too much to ask?

In Amsterdam, I had asked our innkeeper, “Do you think Black Pete is racist?”

“I don’t know,” he said, not seeming to care one way or the other. “Black Pete is black because of the chimney soot. It’s a festival for the children. It’s not meant to be racist.”

“But chimney soot wouldn’t make the whole face black. And what about the lips and gold earrings? What about the wigs?”

He just shrugged.

“But if some people are taking offense, they should change it. Don’t you think? I mean, some traditions need to change.”

My husband gave me the “enough is enough” look, so I stopped asking questions. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

So I did some research and learned that Zwarte Piet was created by cartoon artist Jan Schenkman a decade before slavery was abolished in the former Dutch colonies. According to the tradition, Zwarte Piet comes from Spain, which was why he was originally depicted as a Morisco, or Moor. Moriscos were Catholics secretly suspected of practicing Islam and were consequently expelled from Spain in the early 17th century. Black Pete is, in fact, black. And probably Muslim. And depicted as a dim-witted black servant to a tall white dude with a crozier. And the Black Pete costume? That was the usual outfit of the slave in the 17th century. This clothing was in fashion at the time, mostly worn by wealthy white males. Putting the black slave in fancy clothing made them a fashion accessory to their masters. So the blackface isn’t just chimney soot after all, but an insidious racism more profound than skin-deep.

The Netherlands is one of the top nations in terms of civil liberties and political rights; it was the first country in the world to legalize same sex marriage in 2001. In many ways, they have their shit together in terms of human rights, so hanging onto the blackfaced Zwarte Piet is nothing less than puzzling.

But perhaps this disconnect is happening because the Dutch are liberal on so many levels, making it easy to deny what, from an outside perspective, seems to be a blatant display of racism and white power. But white privilege means that we get to deny our unearned privileges exist. It means that if we swear something isn’t meant to be racist, then that should be enough. Or that if racism is embedded within a culture’s tradition and folklore, it’s off limits in terms of criticism. To talk about it would mean deconstructing an entire system of beliefs, and those very beliefs keep the majority power in power.

In 2012, proposals by the Dutch were made to declare the Dutch Cultural Historical Tradition “Santa Claus and Black Pete” as Immaterial Cultural Heritage and selected the Saint Nicholas Event as one of the intangible heritages to be submitted for inclusion in the UNESCO list. In January of 2013, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights wrote a letter, asking the Dutch to reconsider Black Pete because he not only reminds its citizens of the country’s past involvement in the African slave trade, but that Black Pete tends to “perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism.” But in October of 2013, the UN dropped the racism charge, and as my husband and I witnessed, the St. Nicholas party went on as usual, with Black Pete hanging by ropes from the rafters.

What do you think? Should the Dutch rethink the depiction of their beloved Zwarte Piet? Or should the rest of the world mind its own business and let the Dutch enjoy their provincial holiday traditions just as they have always been?

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