Sinterklaas beyond black and white

By João Rickli

I must honestly admit: I don’t like Sinterklaas. Being a Brazilian anthropologist studying (in) the Netherlands and living here for 4 years, every time I see the colourful decoration in the streets and hear the foolish songs being played in the supermarket, I think: “here he comes again, the annoying Sint with his Black Pieten. My dislike of the festival has one main reason: I can’t help seeing the racial aspect of its main characters.

When I talk about it with my Dutch friends, some of them tell me that for (white or black) Dutch people the racial content of the celebration is not visible and, therefore, has no meaning anymore. But the image of this powerful colonial master, wearing a bishop’s mitre, riding a horse called Americo (!) and followed by a crew of black tricksters is just too powerful for me to be convinced that “if people don’t see it, it’s not there”.

Some other people tried to justify the content of the festival playing the culture card: “It is part of Dutch culture; people don’t take it in a racial way, so it’s ok.” Culture here appears as a well defined package of “things” that apparently should be carefully maintained. It is not very convincing. Smoky bruin cafés could also be considered a “thing” in the Dutch culture bag, but the majority of people supported the government when it decided to blow away the smoke. Why then, should the racial component of this Dutch celebration remain?

The reaction to this question is, normally, the story about the failed attempt to create a politically correct version of the festival, disguising its racial content through the introduction of new colours for the Piet. Besides the Black Piet, there would be a Green Piet, Blue Piet, Pink Piet, and so on. Thus, the trick to neutralise the racial aspect was to move the blackness of the Piet from the category “race” to the category “colour”. The whiteness of the Sint, however, remained untouched, and the essential difference separating Sint and Piet became even more explicit. The attempt to remove the racial identity of the Piet ended up, instead of placing him closer to the Sint, throwing him outside the human species! Dehumanising the Piet through the introduction of unnatural colours radicalises his otherness. Piet ended up looking like an alien.

Another friend offered me a different opinion. She said: “You didn’t grow up here, you’ve never left your shoes by the door waiting for the Sint’s gift, you’ve never fed Americo with hay or carrots and you’ve never sung the foolish songs. You’ll never understand its enchantment.” This idea made me look to the Sint with new eyes. My friend is also talking about culture, but not as a closed list of “things”. Culture, here, is alive, is an experience that produces enchantment. Beautiful image! Experience points to openness and change: the same cultural “things” can be a bit different every time they are enacted again and they can be lived and interpreted differently by different people. Enchantment is not accessible to rational thinking but it has to do with shared feelings and memories. It goes far beyond ideas of what is right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Culture, in her view, is not a bag full of trash that we are condemned to carry for the rest of our lives, but a way of experiencing the world, with all its paradoxes, differences, incorrectness and embarrassing histories.

My friend’s opinion helped me to understand Sinterklaas a bit better and accept him as part of a specific experience of the world. Now I need to learn the songs.

Prettige feestdagen!

João Rickli is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU University in Amsterdam. He is specialised in anthropology of mission and globalisation, doing his research about Dutch Protestant worldviews.

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10 thoughts on “Sinterklaas beyond black and white

  1. Hanna 03/12/2009 / 09:26

    Dear João,

    Honestly I was getting quite annoyed when I read the first part of your article, since Sinterklaas is a feast for children. Children never seem to make such a fuss about these issues. They love Sinterklaas and they love Black Piet (probably even better than Sint, because of all the candy and pepernoten; and they don’t have to sit on his lap). Therefore I was very happy to read your final conclusion. It would be a shame to take away such a joyful experience for all these children because of our adult quarreling.

    Enjoy your stay in Holland!

    Regards, Hanna

  2. Mandy Ronda 03/12/2009 / 11:04

    Dear João,
    I felt attracted to this essay due to my own aversion to Sinterklaas. Firstly, the ritual of gift-giving stimulates consumerism on a very young age; I remember myself when I was asked to make a list of presents (that is, things, not experiences or wishes) I wanted and I would collect toystore magazines and cut out as many pictures of all the stuff I wanted. Secondly, I think the reaction of your friend illustrates the rigidity of the Dutch to acknowledge the many racial aspects and references to slavery connected to ‘Sinterklaas’, symbolizing our struggle with critcism which in fact leads to the politcizing of such topics; Verdonk and Wilders are holding on to ‘Sinterklaas’ as a typical Dutch celebration that cannon be touched, just as a child firmly holding on to its toy. The ‘enchantment’ argument indicates how the Dutch are able to naively present stereotypes and images that refer directly to colonial history, simply as a Dutch tradition. The celebration of a white bishop who is the ‘boss’ over a group of black people who dilligently work to enchant and entertain the Dutch, should be blown away in contemporary society just as the smoke in the ‘bruine cafés’.
    Warm regards, Mandy Ronda (MA SCA)

  3. Rosa 04/12/2009 / 15:56

    I do not think dutch children experience zwarte piet as a black person. He is more of a fairytale figure. I do agree that the racial connations are embarrasing and should be done away with. Maybe the solution would be to introduce a black bishop? And tell the Dutch children that Sinterklaas comes from West Africa. That might also help to balance the stereotypical idea of western goods flowing to Africa if Sinterklaas does it the way around.

  4. Bert Konig 06/12/2009 / 21:31

    Please, please, please, do not harm our Sinterklaas! En leave Black Piet be! We love them as they are. I very much agree with Rosa, to see Black Piet as a fairytale character, just as Sinterklaas himself. They are no longer a Roman Catholic bishop and his black slave, they are mixeed up wit others, pre-christian gods, and as such part of Dutch folklore.
    I do not believe in political correct Sinterklaas, history gave him that form, just as Black Piet is African, dressed in 17th century clothes.
    The merchand of Venice, by William Shakespear, has a very nasty part for Shylock, a jew. In modern eyes the play isn’t very jew-friendly. But doe we re-write that play? No, we take the time it was written into consideration, and enjoy it.

    So is Sinterklaas an oldfashioned bishop, and Zwarte Piet is not his slave but his servant. Also is Sinterklaas not a white colonial. When Saint Nicholas was living, there were no colonies, and he is not white in the meaning of Western European, but he comes from the south of Turkey, from the city of Myra. And every Dutch knows that! So much for colonialism.

    About the presents, check the original legends for the meaning of them, it was no consumentism, it was charity, combined with some miracles, not consumentism. That is what it became, and I agree, that is a shame.

    So I repeat, leave Sint and Piet in peace, we love them. If you fail to do so, you will surely be taken to Spain for it!

  5. arjan 07/12/2009 / 16:00

    I agree that there can be many ways in which the history and mythology of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet can be understood. And that there’s many interpretations and intentions that are far from any consious racist act.
    But honestly I get a little bit tired of these responses claiming there’s nothing wrong with Piet; that ‘we’ mean no harm with it and that kids just see him as an innocent fairy tale figure. This becomes irrelevant if you look at daily pratice; just ask around how many people with dark skin colour have been identified as ‘zwarte piet’ by kids on the street or in the bus. The other day I heard a story of a black nurse who had a kid coming up to her consistenly asking for pepernoten. And I’ve seen the most progressive open-minded people playing Zwarte Piet as a dumb servant with a thick Surinamese accent: ‘Owwww jee Sinterklaas, ben ik aloeweer die kadoootjes vergeten. Owww oewat stom van Zoewarte Piet!’ Sound familiar?
    I also used to say Piet was black from the chimney, till I realised that doesnt explain the big red lips, the black curls and the golden earrings. Leave alone the fact that most images of Piet in illustrations are extremely similar to the stereotypical pictures of black people in the 1920’s (just look at a Piet-marsepein); big red lips, completely black faces (from the chimney?) and a bit of a foolish, puzzled look on his face. Check for instance: http://www.bonlinegarnituren.nl/bonline/tt2006927142110.jpg

    And let’s face it; the traditional depiction of Zwarte Piet is a negative one. Wie zoet is krijgt lekkers, wie stout is de roe. And who is carrying de roe? And how about the saying: de Zwarte Piet krijgen?
    I would definitely not pledge for the abolishment of Zwarte Piet, but in a society where more and more citizens haver a dark skin colour that is not the result of shoe-polish make up we should be able to talk about his representation beyond the level of ‘he’s just a fairytale figure’ or ‘we really don’t mean it in a racist way and everyone understandst that’.

  6. Lorraine 09/12/2009 / 14:14

    Dutch children do experience Zwarte Piet as black. I will never forget when my son at the age of two or three, saw a black person on the street when it wasn’t the period of the holiday and pointed at him and said “zwarte Piet”. So rosa I don’t agree with you. I think that arjan is right, we shouldn’t immediately due away with the tradition, but it has to be talked about seriously. But when those from far criticize Dutch culture, it is difficult to swallow. Why is it that as anthropologists we are willing to deconstruct everything in other cultures, showing colonial historical remnants, identifying moments of oppression, stigma etc, but when it comes to the white dutch culture, only the white dutch know best.

  7. lll 04/12/2010 / 22:35

    They are black because of the ashes in the chimney…

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