Growing up with the Zwarte Piet: “When Sinterklaas Left the Country, I Was Relieved”

By Hazal Karaagac

Illustration by Sabine Besson

The traditional fictional character of Zwarte Piet has been increasingly criticised for its underlying racist connotations. Since the early 2010s, parades and protests have taken on increasingly political and violent tones. The Herring interviewed two students and one lecturer born and raised in the Netherlands to retrospectively talk about their experience of growing up with the tradition.

Every mid-November, two weeks before Feast Day on December 5, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat from his home in Spain. On that boat, he is assisted by many Zwarte Piets, “helpers” with black-painted faces, curly hair, and Moorish attire. The tale has it that the Zwarte Piet’s skin is darkened by ash as they enter houses through the chimney to put little gifts in the children’s shoes.

Wanjiku van den Akker, a third-year Social Science student, was born and raised in a Dutch-Zambian household near Amersfoort. She recalls that everybody celebrated the tradition until the protests started. She expresses that what initially unnerved her was the image of thousands of black people looking up to one white man. Van den Akker says, “It was disturbing to realise this as a child. Then I thought about my childhood: all the white kids around me said, ‘You do not even need to wear skin paint for the Zwarte Piet! You do not need to do anything to your hair to look like the Zwarte Piet!'” Van den Akker adds that, in her experience, these expressions are often normalised in a predominantly white environment.

Soon after, van den Akker drew parallels with Dutch colonial history as she learned more about it: “Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piets come with a big ship, just like the black people who were also transported with big ships as slaves. I also realised that Zwarte Piets were usually seen as stupid. I remember when the Zwarte Piets performers would come to our elementary school, they would misspell things on the board, and they were just there to be funny and dumb.” She concludes that people associated Zwarte Piet with black people and began to reflect on how the narrative ridicules her, as well as her black relatives and friends.

When van den Akker started expressing her opinions more vocally about the Zwarte Piet in high school, she says that she had to argue against many people and was often seen as the hysterical, emotional black girl. “People were angry with me. I had a reputation in high school; teachers who I never knew came up to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re the girl who always talks about Zwarte Piet!” She adds, “Some people would tell me not to touch their tradition. Their tradition? I grew up in the same town and shared the same passport, so I could also criticise it.”

As soon as November arrived, van den Akker wished to leave the Netherlands, and be away from the celebrations. She says, “Even when I was quiet, I still felt pressure from people around me. Not even just in real life but also on social media. I would not look at my phone to avoid seeing the racist tweets on black people who are against Zwarte Piet. When Sinterklaas left the country, I was relieved.” Van den Akker acknowledges that there has been headway in the Zwarte Piet matter, though the recent violence against peaceful anti-Zwarte Piet protesters in Staphorst signals that progress remains to be made.

A second-year student of Dutch and Sudanese origins has somewhat conflicting memories surrounding Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. She remembers, “I think as a child, I was positively associated with the story because it was a very nice time of the year that we celebrated with our family.” She states that as a child, it was hard to recognise the problematic aspects, adding, “I was still a person of colour. I’m brown, and my natural hair is afro and curly: those are also the characteristics of the Zwarte Piet.” She would be called “Zwarte Piet” by her schoolmates, although she struggled to see the connection they made.

One of her core memories of celebrating the tradition is when she was ten and participated in a Sinterklaas musical for kids as a Zwarte Piet. She was required to be dressed up in the attire, and her face was painted, and she wore an afro wig. She recalls being baffled, “not because I knew what racism was, but more so because they told me to put on black face paint, red lipstick and an afro wig. I already have afro hair and brown skin, so it felt bizarre.”

As she gained the confidence to discuss the issue with others, she was often disappointed by the response. “When I tell people that the Zwarte Piet is the depiction of a black slave, they tell me that it’s a fictional character and it’s for children anyways. Then I try to explain that it’s harmful to children, especially because it builds the connotation of any person with afro hair and black skin being a slave.” She expresses her frustration about the insufficient progress.

Dr. Lia van Wesenbeeck, a lecturer at AUC and an economics professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, grew up in the diverse city of Rotterdam. She recalls enjoying the Sinterklaas celebrations during her childhood. “Rotterdam is a port, and Sinterklaas would enter the city on a boat. On the boat, there would be many Zwarte Piets. Traditional Zwarte Piets were white people dressed up as the Zwarte Piets.” She says that when she was a child, the tradition was all very acceptable, and it never struck her as weird, adding, “For me, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet were all magical figures. They were not as real as my family around me.”

Van Wesenbeeck admits that for a long time, she had not considered the issue’s controversy. When the other side of the story became more apparent to her, she recognised the problematic connotations of the Zwarte Piet. As a solution, she finds that instead of full face paint and other afro characteristics, ash marks on the face would be enough to sustain the story. She expresses that she cannot understand the resistance to change as the story was already altered throughout its history. She remarks that people in less ethnically diverse cities tend to be less tolerant of such adjustments, saying, “They have their own thing, they have their own life, and they will not tolerate change because it is threatening. A part of the narrative is ‘We are not going to let them take away our tradition’. So it is an ‘us and them’ story.”

For van Wesenbeeck, it is interesting to observe the prevalence of an “us versus them” mentality in rural areas with a majority-white demographic. Since locals hardly encounter non-white individuals, compared to more diverse cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, she thinks, “Maybe when you are used to seeing the diversity, you also accept it as a part of the Dutch identity, and when you only see white people, you have a polarising sense of identity, where ‘us’ is very homogenous.” 

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