Opinion: Zwarte Piet

POSTED: 11/28/11 8:01 AM

It’s that time of the year again: December 5 is around the corner and especially Dutch people get ready for their annual Sinterklaas celebration. Over time, this celebration has become the center of a controversy. Politically correct characters and hypersensitive others have been training their guns for already quite some time on the bishop’s helper Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).
In the Canadian town of Vancouver there will be no Zwarte Piet this year, because the Afro-Canadian community filed a complaint. Zwarte Piet is insulting, outdated and a racist stereotype according to the Afro-Canadians.
This complaint puts the plaintiffs in the category of hypersensitive people who see racism behind every tree. They focus in on the simple observation that Zwarte Piet is black (which should not come as a surprise), and they forget to consider his historical and traditional background. Amazingly, the Dutch-Canadian community in Vancouver bent under the pressure. Organizer Tako Slump told the Vancouver Sun that he had done some research and that he had concluded that the Afro-Canadians have a point. He even assured them that there will be no “offensive black faces” during this year’s celebration.
Between 400 and 600 Dutch-Canadians attend the celebration every year, which is not exactly a crowd, considering that 3.1 percent of the population is of Dutch descent. Remarkably, the same percentage is Afro-Canadians or Africadians as they are also called. The Africadians consider Zwarte Piet a symbol of colonialism and slavery. The poor black man as the humble servant of the white guy who gets the horse and the costume that would make the Pope jealous.
Zwarte Piet’s history and origins is unclear in the sense that there are so many stories and theories flying around that they make one’s head spin. With a multitude of explanations it is also easy to get confused or to focus on the wrong explanation.
One of the things Zwarte Piet does is climbing though chimneys to put presents in children’s shoes. Some think he is an Italian chimney cleaner. While this story has lost quite some credibility due to the introduction of gas-powered central heating systems, the link between climbing through chimneys and being black is obvious. Any white guy who’d do that job would come out of those chimneys looking like, well, Zwarte Piet.
Sinterklaas-songs also refer to Zwarte Piet’s acrobatics in the chimneys. One reference says that the bishop’s helper is black as soot.
And let’s do Zwarte Piet some justice here, he is a huge improvement over an earlier Sinterklaas-assistant. Before Zwarte Piet became part of the tradition, Sinterklaas was accompanied by none other than the devil himself.
Okay, we understand that black people would have some trouble swallowing the story that Zwarte Piet is in fact a replacement for the devil; but that argument only holds up if Zwarte Piet is a black man himself. Whether this is historically correct or not has so far not been established.
To be fair to the Africadians and others who hold the same opinion about Zwarte Piet, there are also explanations that support their point of view. The firm belief that Sinterklaas hails from the land of the Moors (now Spain) has turned his helper into a Moor and therefore into Zwarte Piet.
The Dutch Meertens Institute holds that Zwarte Piet originally was white and that his name was Jan de Knecht (John the Servant). The Germans call him Knecht Ruprecht, and the French call him Le Père Fouettard – and both are white.
At the heart of this dispute is obviously the question of whether it is fitting in the twenty-first century to depict somebody in a helper’s role as black. If we look at our own service industry (timeshare, and hotels) and we consider the skin color of the people who clean rooms, and do other low-level jobs we simply do not see many whites there.
Let’s first tackle a potential misunderstanding about the term low-level job. This is not demeaning; it is just a characterization of where a job fits in an organization. The top job is for the general manager, but that same general manager would be utterly out of his depth if there were no people available to do these so-called low-level jobs. On the contrary, the way employees on this level do their work is crucial for any organization’s success.
Consider in this context for instance the role of garbage collectors, or that of cleaning ladies in offices. Where would we be without them?
Anybody who saw the movie The Help will have been disgusted with the way the upper-class whites in the American south treated their black servants.
These days, we like to say that skin color does not matter. That’s the politically correct thing to say. But in real life, skin color does matter, but only up to a point. The black community was elated when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. The euphoria has died down and now Obama is just another president.
If the Obama success story has taught us anything, it is that skin color does not matter at all. That goes both ways: being black does not come with entitlements (the American voters did not say: Ah, poor Obama, the guy is black, let’s put him in the White House; that’s too much irony). Black and whites voted Obama in the White House because they believed in him – not (at least not only) because he was black.
The message Obama has sent to the world is that anything is possible, but that people – black, white, yellow or green – should not take anything for granted. The opportunities are there for everybody, but the ones who manage to educate themselves always end up with the best part of the cake.
Rather than lamenting about Zwarte Piet’s skin color the Africadians in Vancouver and others who waste their time on such matters, ought to set their own agenda, define where they want to go, determine what they need to get there, and than just do it.

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Comments (2)


  1. Theodore says:

    “The Dutch Meertens Institute holds that Zwarte Piet originally was white and that his name was Jan de Knecht (John the Servant). ”

    Could you quote the text on which you base this statement about the Meertens Institute? I rather doubt it holds that position with that many words, you see in the 1928 version of “Sinterklaas die Goeie Heer”, the companion of Saint Nicholas is described as
    “Jan de Knecht, zoo zwart als roet,
    met een ketting aan zijn voet”, which does not suggest said Jan would be white. There was a long period in which the personel of the saints had varying names, Jan and Piet seem to agree with the same, he is just a regular employed guy, who just happens to be black- view of the character.

    Nevertheless there was indeed a picture of a man on a horse and another man printed around 1800, of which the subscript claims that it is a pictures of St. Nicholas and his servant, however the picture is a mirrored copy of an older work of art which had nothing to do with St. Nicholas, so the entire white Jan de Knecht may well have been made up to explain the presence of that guy. White Jan de Knecht seems thus to have been a one-shot, whose existence can be explained well by the used illustration.


    (has pictures of the white Jan-de-Knecht print and its original.)

    which should not be read without taking notice of this update on Zwarte Piet research,


    Both texts in Dutch.

  2. tj says:

    I think that this African Canadian community needs to stop being so sensitive. Yeah, Zwarte Piet may have a racist background, so what? He’s a part of Dutch culture. I seriously doubt any Dutch celebrators are racist. They are just celebrating a classic part of their culture. Let people celebrate their culture without getting all butthurt about it, because nobody necessarily agrees with the message anymore. It just doesn’t matter.