Blackface may not be something one thinks of when it comes to the holidays, but in the Netherlands, it’s a yearly occurrence.
Every holiday season starting in late November to the beginning of December, people throughout the Netherlands come together to celebrate Sinterklaas, a Santa Claus-like figure who comes to the Netherlands once a year from Spain to give gifts to children on the night of December 5. He also happens to be accompanied by a Moor servant named Zwarte Piet, who carries Sinterklaas’ sack of goodies as they go from house to house.
Zwarte Piet’s name in English means “Black Pete” and every year without fail, hundreds of children and adults attend parades and celebrations dressed as the fictional character. They paint their faces dark black, cover their lips with bright red lipstick, and they top it off with an afro-textured wig and gold earring.
Zwarte Piet is also depicted as stupid and someone who needs to be led in order to do things correctly. While the custom is clearly offensive and disturbing, many who participate view it as a harmless tradition, with nearly 70% of people not having a problem with the racist character according to a 2018 study.
But the fact of the matter is blackface has, and always will be, a disgusting, racist, and hurtful stereotype that affects people on a personal level. It’s not harmless and neither is Zwarte Piet.
Wil Eikelboom, a human rights lawyer from Amsterdam spends time in the city’s black communities, teaching black children to love themselves.
He told Al Jazeera,
“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.”
For thousands of black children in the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet isn’t something they can enjoy. It taunts them constantly. And instills a mentality of self-hatred. But there may be an end in sight.
Over the past few years, the black population in the Netherlands and its allies have begun to take a stand against Zwarte Piet and call it what it really is: racist.
Since 2011, artists and activists Jerry Afriyie and Quincy Gario have been working tirelessly to get the Netherlands to listen and get rid of Zwarte Piet once and for all. Together, they founded the organization Zwarte Piet is Racisme (Black Pete is Racism) and every year they attend Sinterklaas parades to protest Zwarte Piet.
But despite the movement gaining more support, counter-protesters continue to be an issue.
At the 2018 parade in Eindhoven, Jerry and his group were met with racial slurs and were even pelted with eggs. But he wasn’t the least bit surprised.
“There were bananas thrown at us. There were eggs thrown at us. We were called all types of racist slurs. We were threatened by these people, very aggressively. They even did the Hitler sign and in some places white power signs. It was 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 uses his platform to talk to schools throughout the Netherlands about race and the harmful effects of blackface. And though progress has been slow, his hard work is paying off, with some schools abandoning Zwarte Piet for Schoorsteen Piet, or “Chimney Pete” who has soot on his face.
Just because something is a cultural tradition, it doesn’t make it right. But white supremacy is one hell of a drug. And while changing the origin of Piet from a black servant to a chimney sweep doesn’t sound as appealing as getting rid of the character altogether, for Afriyie, it’s a step in the right direction.
“When we started there was this big Goliath, now we see the big group is getting smaller and the small group is getting larger.”
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This article was originally published in December 2019.