Every year in mid-November Sinterklaas (a Dutch version of Santa) arrives in towns all over The Netherlands and the Dutch Caribbean, including Curaçao where I was born and live, to hand out gifts to children. He’s accompanied by scores of blackface helpers who wear gold jewelry and red lipstick to exaggerate the size of their lips. These characters are named Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete”. During parades they dance wildly, throw candy around and yes, tell children who “have behaved badly” that they (the Petes) will put them (the children) in a large bag and take them to Spain. Most of the Petes have either a cane or a large burlap bag in their hands. From time to time the white old and wise Sinterklaas would ask the Petes to “tone down”. It’s very common to see children weep at the sight of these blackfaces. I did as a child.
Confronted with recent outrage, the Dutch (the inventors of this tradition) tend to argue that Black Pete is a Dutch thing, and that outsiders don’t understand the Dutch culture. Wrong. Black Pete is an expression of numerous classic Western prejudices against black peoples that depict inferiority and the servant to the master attitude. Those who claim it’s a Dutch thing don’t know history. Well documented are the Blackface Minstrel entertainment shows in the USA that disappeared in the 1960s. Coincidently these Minstrel shows started about the same time as the Dutch Black Petes did in the 19th century. See left photo above.
When people say, (as they often do) “but it’s our tradition,” tell them: “so is racism.” The Dutch unwillingness to accept that its tradition is plainly racism has lots to do with its fear for much larger issues: rapidly changing demographics i.e. the “browning” of The Netherlands which is fueling Dutch extreme nationalist politics.
What mostly baffles me however is why a large group in Curaçao -given our painful racial past- would want to hold on to this disturbing tradition. Often the same group who everyday complains about Dutch colonial behavior. Shouldn’t we know better than to hang on to something with racist undertones? It’s not a question whether this tradition (or elements of it) is racist but rather why we are denying the truth that it is. As a society, we need to take a hard look at ourselves.