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Zwarte Piet: The debate rages on

Are you familiar with the old children’s tune "The Song That Never Ends?" It goes a little something like this:

This is the song that never ends..
It goes on and on my friends..
Some people started singing it not knowing what it was..
And they'll continue singing it forever just because..
This is the song that never ends..
It goes on and on my friends..

The debates and controversies surrounding Sinterklaas are a lot like that old ditty. It drags on and on with no end in sight. Every November like clockwork newspapers, websites and Twitter accounts suddenly fill with vitriolic chatter about the holiday and its traditions.

On one side, there’s the "Zwarte Piet is racist!" crowd who are convinced that the character is archaic at best and deeply offensive at worst. They think he should be substantially revised or tossed onto the same cultural compost heap as outdated ethnic caricatures like Fu Manchu and Amos & Andy.

They’re also unwilling to accept the typical explanations why the holiday isn’t racist (many locals argue that Piet isn’t actually black, merely that his skin is covered with soot from climbing up and down so many chimneys). Piet’s opponents often ask questions like, "Well, then why does he have curly hair?" and "why are his clothes so clean?"

On the other side of the debate, there’s the "Pro Piet" contingency that considers the character a beloved bit of local folklore and part of a Dutch tradition that’s as innocent and wonderful as clogs and windmills. They argue that opponents are overreacting or that they’re too influenced by political correctness. After all, this holiday is for children, right? How could a children’s holiday possibly be racist?

And so it goes.

There’s obviously much more to this than meets the eye. The bickering over Zwarte Piet invokes concerns about everything from xenophobia to integration to nostalgia to tradition to racial politics. Is this annual debate really about the colour of Piet’s skin? Or does it serve as a catalyst for much larger issues ranging from expats feeling marginalised in Dutch society to locals fearing that their culture is being eradicated by immigrants and unwanted influence from other nations?

"The Dutch are a former global power whose influence has waned. In addition, their culture is vanishing at a rapid rate," said Chad, an American expat who writes a blog titled Chad in Amsterdam. He hosted a "30 Days of Zwarte Piet" debate on his Twitter account last month. "They feel Sinterklaas is one of their last remaining vestiges of culture," he said.

Like many, Chad argues that the entire holiday shouldn’t be entirely discontinued, only that Zwarte Piet should be revised. One theory is that Piet may be slowly phased-out or altered as he becomes increasingly controversial and as the Netherlands becomes more culturally and racially diverse in the years to come.

There’s already signs that his days may be numbered. The character has definitely been toned-down since the ‘60s, when actors portraying Piet often adopted offensive Surinamese accents and behaved more like court jesters than devoted assistants in charge of everything from navigating the Atlantic to delivering presents to millions of Dutch kids.

zwarte piet

Take a stroll through a V&D department store this holiday season and you’ll encounter Sinterklaas displays featuring photos of children in Piet hats but without their faces covered in black makeup.

"The Dutch are known for being culturally open but they’re behind the times on this one," Chad said. "They actually have no choice in the matter. Sinterklaas can stay but the archaic, racist icon that is Zwarte Piet will inevitably vanish."

The tradition is already undergoing changes outside of the Netherlands. A Sinterklass celebration in western Canada was cancelled last year following a debate over whether or not it should include Zwarte Piet. Lawmakers in the former Dutch colony of Suriname have removed the character from government-sponsored celebrations. Sinterklaas festivals in the island nation of Curacao now feature multi-coloured Piets.

So why not drop the "Zwarte" and make Zwarte Piet just Piet? Many argue that this is the obvious solution that will effectively end the controversy. If actors playing Piet put on fluorescent makeup instead of black facepaint or smear fake soot on themselves everybody wins, right? Not quite.

"The only people who are offended by Zwarte Piet are foreigners," said one Leiden resident, who asked to remain anonymous. "I don’t really care what they think and neither do most actual Dutch people. Piet has always been black and that’s that."

Negative reactions from many locals to Piet-opponents have been fierce over the past few years. Three protesters at a 2011 Sinterklaas event in Dordrecht were dealt with harshly by police.

In 2008, two artists organising an anti-Piet march in Eindhoven received death threats. In November, an anti-Piet critic named Quinsy Gario was harassed by Dutch writer Tom Staal. After Gario refused to participate in an interview, Staal showed up at his apartment dressed as Zwarte Piet and pretended to be a postman in order to gain access into the building.

When Gario didn’t answer his door, Staal was filmed throwing cookies at it before departing. It’s people like Staal that may help ensure that the road to a less-offensive Piet could be a long one.

Welcome to the Debate That Never Ends...

Share your opinion! Is Zwarte Piet an outdated and offensive character, or a beloved part of an innocent Dutch tradition?
 

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