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09/12/2013 09:44 GMT | Updated 05/02/2014 05:59 GMT

The Case Against Black Pete

On Thursday December 5th the fantastic state-funded nursery of my 2 year old child was visited by Saint Nicholas or, as he's known in Belgium and the Netherlands, Sinterklaas or simply "de Sint". The Sint spread merriment, distributed biscuits and oranges, and generally terrified the children (there were a lot of tears). He was accompanied by a man dressed in a renaissance pageboy's outfit and wearing full blackface, big red lips and Afro wig included - this is none other than Black Peter or Zwarte Piet. Piet's - actually the Piets' as there are many of them - precise status vis-à-vis Sinterklaas is a matter of some ambiguity and dispute. I think it's fair to say that by the most generous contemporary interpretation the Zwarte Piets are domestic servants of Sinterklaas. Depending on what version of the story you're following Piet is of Moorish descent, an Ethiopian, or a Devil (although in fairness the latter version is now relegated to the history books and not part of the modern practice). The many Piets each serve some function in facilitating Sinterklaas's journey by boat from Spain (where he apparently summers - Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey) and task of distributing gifts. These days - as sea travel is largely automated - the role of the Piets tends to be limited to distributing candy and clowning around. Piet also had a more sinister role in traditional folklore. One of his tasks was to beat the naughty children with birch and even on occasion take them back to Spain in a burlap sack. Basically Piet does the Sint's dirty work. This was not one of Piet's original roles - it's also not emphasized in contemporary practice - but came about due to a metamorphosis in Sinterklaas's own character from solitary grump to the jollier figure of today; a change expressly brought about at the wishes of the ecclesiastical authorities unhappy about a Saint being portrayed as kind of bogeyman.

Nearly every Anglophone living in the Low Countries can tell you of the time they first encountered Piet. These stories usually involve a dropped jaw and a failed attempt to explain to the locals just what might be offensive about a guy in blackface and huge red lips clowning around in a servant's outfit. A recent New York Times article related the surprise of some African American tourists in Amsterdam who happened upon a group of parading Piets eager to have their photo taken with authentic blacks! It's important to point out that Piet is loved by a great many if not all Dutch people and Dutch speaking Belgians (the Flemish). He is seen as an essential part of the feast of Saint Nicholas, which is appreciated as an ever so slightly less commercial Christmas-like celebration where children get a few gifts and lots of sweets. The first response anyone objecting (for example) to the presence of a blackface Piet in a state funded educational institution will be something along the lines of "but we love Piet". A second response will likely be something along the lines of "this isn't the racist kind of blackface", followed by "you Americans are too sensitive about race" and "this is our tradition". Americans are sensitive about race - or should be - and there are good reasons for this. We have a horrible history of slavery and institutionalized discrimination and dehumanization that rears its ugly head every time a white performer "blacks up" (which still happens far too regularly). The character of Black Piet has also met with some complaints local to the Low Countries. Since the arrival of more significant numbers of immigrants from the former Dutch colonies around the middle of the last century, the complaint that Piet is racist and offensive has surfaced and been the subject of some debate in the Netherlands, and similar debates have started this year in Flanders. Parades are even on occasion disrupted by protesters. In some Dutch celebrations there have been - unpopular - attempts to replace Zwarte Piet with servants of a less controversial hue (blue, green, rainbow). These have for the most part been dismissed as party pooping. On occasion a concession of sorts is proffered, in Amsterdam this year the mayor suggested that the Afro wigs and red lips could be dropped. But the prevailing attitude is pretty well summed up by the comments of the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte who said "Zwarte Piet is black, there's not much we can do about that". The official position (if you can call it that) of the Dutch government is that it's a children's celebration, but can be interpreted in different ways.

I'd like to make the case that Zwarte Piet is not quite as benign as most of his "supporters" think. Nor do I think that it is unjustified meddling on the part of foreigners who don't understand the culture to ask that the practice be at least curtailed. This may all seem terribly obvious to an audience in the USA or UK, but it's not to the Dutch or Flemish, and I think I owe it to my neighbours, friends and family who think there's nothing amiss about Zwarte Piet to try to explain as clearly as I can why I don't think it's just a bit of fun. (The Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg does a good job of explaining the persistence of Zwarte Piet in the New York Times).

First Piet himself. As beloved as the character is, I think that the idea of Sinterklaas having a troupe of exclusively black servants is at the very least problematic. I understand full well that it's not "real", but I also don't think it's the best image to be giving young children who will come of age in a society that is struggling with all sorts of issues involving race and what it means to have an inclusive society. The image of the Sint and his Piets presents a very unambiguous image of a binary split in race relations. More controversially, I think that many in the older generations who defend the practice may unconsciously be quite comfortable with this split. In fact it is traditionally what they have known, a remnant of the world they wish to hold onto, for what are largely unrelated reasons, and which protests like mine threaten. I think that this vision of a racialised reality is so ingrained that people can't be brought to see it, one of the reasons that this kind of objection to Zwarte Piet most often falls on deaf ears. But implicit racism can be there even when you don't see it and does not I think even always involve negative intensions.

Setting aside this more speculative assertion, in countries where racial discrimination in housing and employment is rife and well documented, the sight of the Sint and his Piets is perhaps not constructive or conducive to building more harmonious communities. I get that there is something deeply upsetting about the crude commercialization of Christmas being followed up by the moralizing of American liberals who seek to alter what's left of traditional festive practice. But in this instance I think we moralists have a point

My second objection has to do with the act of blackface itself and the contemporary image of Zwarte Piet with the Afro wig and big red lips. It's not just my American sensitivity to blackface and the history of minstrel shows and other ridiculing of black Africans that is at play here. Neither the Netherlands nor Belgium has a clean slate when it comes to historic race relations - both nations have an ugly imperial (not so distant) past. In both places there is a history of "darky" iconography and stereotypical ways of depicting Africans being used to subjugate the inhabitants of colonized nations and this iconography is still very much at work in the typical image of Zwarte Piet. Personal intentions aside, any time a white person "blacks up" they invoke this iconography. They may not be aware of it themselves, but it's happening.

So I offer a proposal, keep Piet but drop the Black. Traditions change. Mark Rutte would have us believe that Piet's blackness is a fact about the world, like the Netherlands being closer to the North Pole than Spain. It's not, it's a cultural artifact introduced into the tradition relatively recently to address complaints coming from a different source. Changing Piet is not abandoning tradition as many argue, but updating it for a different time and world. In fact it's a way of protecting the tradition. When my daughter asked me last night to sing the Zwarte Piet song I cringed and said no. In the years to come, my partner and I will do what we can to teach her that this tradition as it stands goes against our beliefs and better judgments. If she had just asked for the Piet song, I probably would have simply smiled and obliged.