Stratford Gazette editorial
The Dutch Christmas tradition of Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, is currently under hot debate. The character, a companion to Sinterklass, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, has been a controversial figure in the Netherlands for a long time. The character is typically portrayed in blackface, wearing an afro wig, red lips, and Moorish clothing.
Black Peter made the news here in Canada after Joachim Stroink, a member of the Nova Scotia legislature, had his photo taken while sitting on the lap of a blackfaced Zwarte Piet at a Dutch-themed Christmas party.
Certainly, there is a great deal of history behind the character, from the influence of Moorish Spain all the way back to Woden/Odin of Germanic/Norse paganism. Odin, who serves as the basis for the Santa Claus mythos, leaving fruit and candy in the boots of Northern European children, was often depicted as being accompanied by two black ravens.
But ravens are ravens, and people in blackface are people in blackface. No one is advocating to wipe Zwarte Piet from history, just from regular practice. There’s a big difference. It’s important to remember, in context, racist figures from the past. Characters like Uncle Remus, Little Sambo, and Fu Manchu remind us that racial stereotypes, even ones commonplace in mainstream culture, can still be hurtful and demeaning. Remembering the past helps us not to repeat it.
But some people are attempting to glaze over or ignore the racial connotations of Black Peter. Most notorious are those who claim the character is, in fact, not a racial caricature at all; that Black Peter is black because he’s covered in soot from crawling down people’s chimneys.
This is an unbelievably weak argument. If what the “soot” people say is true, then why are Zwarte Piet’s lips ruby red? Shouldn’t they be black as well? Why isn’t his clothing and his golden earrings similarly tarnished? And what’s with that afro wig? Be honest: it was never soot. The history of Zwarte Piet is well documented, from raven, to Moor, to servant, to companion. Ignoring the racial quotient doesn’t make it go away.
The Dutch are currently reevaluating this part of their culture. There, the debate is raging, with anti-Zwarte Piet protests clashing with traditionalists during the holiday season. Will the character be adapted? Changed somehow to appear less offensive? Or dropped entirely?
One thing’s for certain: In the culture of North America, blackface is one of the most socially offensive practices there is. Anyone here, Dutch or otherwise, has to learn to live with that reality, or face the inevitable backlash.