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On the Blackness of Black Peter

I spend a lot of time debating online, and I'm often surprised at what people get upset about. Last year, when the city of Brussels decided for once to replace its Norwegian-grown christmas tree with a modern tree-like sculpture made of steel, light and plastic, thousands of people flocked to internet forums to denounce this as an unacceptable attack on Western civilization. They claimed, on no basis whatsoever, that this was all a conspiracy by Belgian Muslims to undermine Christmas celebrations and pave the way for the establishment of Sharia law in Belgium.

There was not a shred of evidence for this, and it made absolutely no sense, but that didn't prevent numerous otherwise sane people from hurling obscenities at anyone cooly pointing out the facts of the matter and the complete absence of any controversy. One year later, as a very organic, European-grown tree is making its way back to Brussels' Grote Markt perfectly on schedule, some of these fools are still convinced that it's only through their "activism" that Brussels still celebrates Christmas.

So I've seen more than my share of people who voice angry opinions about things they know nothing about. Yet I don't think I've ever seen so much mindless rage as has poured over the Zwarte Piet controversy that now engulfes many of my friends' virtual walls and other usually pleasant discussion fora. Since this absurdity shows no sign of blowing over anytime soon, I thought I'd here lay down the facts as best I understand them, so I can point to this post in any future discussion. I'm not sure it will convince anybody, but it will sure save me a lot of typing.

So here's a very abbreviated list of arguments I've seen spouting all over the internet, and why they don't make any sense.

"The UN is threatening to ban Zwarte Piet"

No, it's not. Some people who think Zwarte Piet is a racist symbol got to the UN's attention, and its Human Rights Council asked the government of the Netherlands for clarification, which it gave. That sums up the extent of official involvement on this.

Shockingly, the UN does not have the authority to ban cultural demonstrations in its member states. Its UNESCO specialized agency has the authority to investigate cultural and educational issues on an advisory basis, which is what it's doing here. End of story.

"The UN is wasting valuable resources investigating this"

Actually "investigating" is much too strong a word. The UN's Human Rights Council received a complaint from something called the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, a group consisting entirely of volunteers and apparently unaware that the whole of humanity is of African descent.

In response to the complaint of these unpaid volunteers, UNHRC wrote one letter in January, to which the Dutch government replied in June. I don't know how many letters those two entities write each year, but I'll venture that it's enough that two additional missives don't make for an overwhelming burden.

"We've been doing this for thousands of years, why is the UN attacking an age-old tradition now?"

I like this one a lot, because it happens to be wrong on all possible levels.

While the closely-related holiday of Christmas does go back thousands of years, even to pre-Christian traditions, the first references to Zwarte Piet only appeared in the middle 19th century, and the character continuously evolved well into the 20th. As age-long traditions go, this is a very recent one.

More to the point, the character was not suddenly made controversial by the United Nations. Dutch citizens of all races have raised concerns about him for at least a generation. It seems that the UN probe originates from Dutch citizens who, unsure on whether they'd get a fair hearing in the Netherlands, looked for international mediation.

And obviously, just because we've done something a certain way for a long time doesn't absolve it from reconsideration. Slavery, denying the vote to women and bullfighting are only three examples of despicable practices that endured for centuries before anyone started questioning them. I'm sure you can name many more.

"There can't be anything racist about Zwarte Piet because he's not black! He's just a chimney sweep whose face is covered in soot."

I've seen this raised a lot by French-speaking Belgians, who kinda-sorta-have a bit of a point.

The legend of Père Fouettard (literally "whipping father", the French equivalent of Zwarte Piet), as told in north-eastern France and French-speaking Belgium, is different from its Dutch counterpart, and goes something like this : a greedy innkeeper kidnaps three wealthy kids on their way to a prestigious boarding school in order to rob them. He slits their throats and, in some versions, hack them to pieces and cook them in an earthy stew for his evening dinner. A passing Saint-Nicholas discovers the crime, resurrects the children and binds the innkeeper to his service. He now follows him on his errands, sweeping chimneys for Saint-Nicholas to crawl into, and punishing ungodly or otherwise bad children who deserve no gifts but that of a sound whipping.

In some parts of France the character is still undoubtedly pictured as a White chimney sweep:


Elsewhere, however, especially in Brussels, the character is represented exactly as he is in the Netherlands, like this :


Now, this curly-black-haired dude wearing lipstick might very well be a chimney sweep (although judging by his impeccable colorful clothes he must have changed since his last assignment), but then he's a black chimney sweep. Incidentally, the above image happens to be the cover picture for a facebook group dedicated to defending the character against the mighty UN. It has nearly 50.000 members, many of whom repeatedly assert to anyone who'd listen that the guy pictured there is clearly white.

Now, it's perfectly fine for reasonable people to disagree on whether or not the legend and its current representation raise the question of racism. But anyone who says the UN is deeply misguided about the nature of Zwarte Piet only betrays his ignorance. The Dutch character is not, and has never been, a chimney sweep. He's simply the black servant of Sinterklaas.

If you're disinclined to trust me on this, just read the Dutch government's answer to the UN questions. It clarifies some confusion on whether or not the Dutch government is planning to nominate the Sinterklaas festival as a piece of Intangible Cultural Heritage worthy of safeguarding, and emphasises that the Dutch government does a lot to prevent racial discrimination, which it certainly does.

But at no point does the official response of the Dutch government raise any question on the ethnicity of Zwarte Piet. He's a black guy. Always has been. If you don't know that, you don't know anything about this controversy.

"This is one more attempt to undermine our culture by outsiders, who resent Western civilization, want to divide us, and are sure that all white people are racists"

I've kept that one for last because it is the most insidious. Again, before it was an international phenomenon, this was for years a controversy among Dutch citizens, so the claim that this is an attack by "outsiders" is patently false.

But what makes this claim especially loathsome is that many of the complaints voiced against Zwarte Piet were made and are made by Black Netherlanders of Surinamese and Antillean descent. Why are these Black people Dutch citizens ? Because a few centuries ago, the Dutch Empire claimed Suriname and the Antilles as colonies, enslaved the local population and brought African slaves there for economic benefit. It takes a very special combination of ignorance and xenophobia to describe as "outside aggression" the concerns of Dutch citizens who live in the Netherlands only because their ancestors were once the personal property of the Dutch Empire. Here again, if you don't know this, you have no business being upset about any aspect of this controversy.

Many people also want to blame Muslims for this, for some reason. Here's a recent post on that same pro-Père-Fouettard group:


This is, if at all possible, even more ridiculous. Suriname and the Dutch Antilles are overwhelmingly Christian and have negligible Muslim populations. The only evidence I've found that the Muslim minority in the Netherlands care at all about this is a survey that found many Dutch Muslims understand how the character of Zwarte Piet might be considered offensive by... black people.

In conclusion

I have not adressed in the above the question of whether or not the Zwarte Piet character is in any way racist. Nor am I going to make any suggestion on whether or not the celebrations of Sinterklaas should be changed or in what way. This is ultimately for the Dutch to decide. It almost goes without saying that I don't wish the character to be obliterated. No-one wants that. He's part of our history and shared heritage, even if the Dutch government won't make that claim to UNESCO just yet.

What I do wish is that more people would take the time to study the symbolism behind the character. While he's today only a playful candy-giving fool, studying the legends behind his existence and the society where they evolved is deeply enlightening.

Most of all, I wish everyone who has fond childhood memories of Sinterklaas celebrations would pause a moment before joining a protest group on facebook and writing knee-jerk reactions to things like the recent UN probe. I get why you might understand any suggestion that one of your beloved childhood characters might be racist as an accusation that you, yourself, are racist. But that's not what the UN is saying. That's not what I'm saying. That's not, as far as I can tell, what anyone who has voiced an opinion on this is saying. We just want people to reflect a little on how the character came to be represented as he is. Try it, you may find the exercise is worth your time.

This has turned out so long that I feel a need to thank those who unwittingly contributed to it. While there's a lot of original research in the above, I would never have taken such an interest in, nor learned so much about this issue, without the writings of and discussions with Caroline Sägesser, Marcel Sel, Aziz Madrane and Séverine de Baets. Obviously none of them has read this at the time of publishing, and any mistake is solely mine.

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