Unique tradition

Anna Szekeres (21) from Hungary, studying History: “When I arrived in the Netherlands a year ago, I didn’t know anything about the phenomenon of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. At the end of last November, I saw the first Sinterklaas items in the shops, and I asked my fellow Dutch students what this meant. They explained that it was a Dutch tradition, part of their culture. The Zwarte Piets are just Sinterklaas’ helpers, who distribute sweets and gifts, they explained. As I see it, the Piets have black faces because they enter people’s houses down the chimney, which makes their faces sooty. If you look at it that way, I don’t really understand what’s racist about it. I think it’s nice that children paint their faces like Zwarte Piet, and I feel that this is a unique tradition. It unites people, and that’s good.”

Extremely shocked

Ayanda Ntuli (21) from South-Africa studies International Bachelor Communicationa and Media and recently wrote a blog about why she thinks Zwarte Piet is racist: “Coming from a different background, I’ve never experienced anything like blackface. I grew up in South-Africa and England with black people around me. When I first saw Zwarte Piet, I thought: ‘Oh my god, what is this?’ It seemed a little off to me. It felt like mockery: people painting their face black, the wigs that are very similar to my hair, the earrings. Dutch people kept telling me that it’s a celebration for children, that it’s done in schools. That made it even stranger to me. How could you introduce children to black people this way? I have friends at some student associations and they do sometimes dress up and people come in blackface. They don’t understand how offensive it is. For them it’s a fun dress-up gathering. I told my friends that it seems offensive to me. Their understanding is that Zwarte Piet is not racist: people have a very positive connotation with Zwarte Piet, he brings sweets and presents to children. To be honest, most of my friends disagree with me: they just don’t see Zwarte Piet as racism. But it doesn’t add up to me: the blackface and the wig are racial stereotypes, the golden earrings and the outfit are from colonial times and Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’ helper. I think I could understand the character without the blackface. I don’t disagree with the celebration, but I would feel more comfortable with it when the racial features are taken away.”

Extremely shocked

Exchange student Emma Dailey (20, United States) doesn’t understand the Dutch saint at all: “I first heard about the Sinterklaas tradition from a friend in Shanghai who was asked by the Dutch expat community, together with some of his Dutch friends, to dress up as Zwarte Piet. I asked him what that involved and was extremely shocked when I heard that blackface was part of the tradition. Because of my American background, I believe that blackface is completely unacceptable in any circumstances. The claim that the black make up is ‘soot from a chimney’, although the costume still comes with a curly wig and gold earrings, is ridiculous. Another thing that concerned me was that my friends were surprised at my indignation. I demanded that my Shanghai friend asked his employees to use soot instead of full make up. Eventually he did ask, but they didn’t do it. I also think it’s a shame that there’s so much violence and hate in a children’s celebration. Yes, tradition is important, but such a small change shouldn’t be a problem.”

Protests too vocal

First year IBCoM student Olivier de Vries (20) from Switzerland: “I was quite surprised when I first heard about a character called Zwarte Piet. Initially it seems quite racist, particularly when it’s used in a children’s celebration. However, my Dutch friends got quite wound up about it all, because it belonged to their childhood and they really cherished it. They told me that they’d never associated the black skin colour with race and that he’s a very popular figure. I saw Zwarte Piet for the first time on a pack of pepernoten, but I discovered more about the tradition from my fellow Dutch students. Most of them agree that Zwarte Piet isn’t racist. Personally, I feel that the protests are too vocal, particularly during the celebration. It’s intended for children, and that’s being forgotten.”


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