Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet:

Why a holiday has me talking to my kids about blackface

By Tracy Brown Hamilton

Sint and Piet
Dutch postcard, detail, St NIcholas Center collection

When my son was 5, I took him to see the World Press Photo exhibit. I’d taken him every year since he was a baby, but that year — 2015 — he was noticeably more cognizant of what he was seeing and had many more questions.

The recipient of the World Press Photo Multimedia award was the video of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of Staten Island police, which my son watched with some confusion. “Who are the men in dark clothes?” The police. “Why are they holding that man on the ground?” They are arresting him. “Why won’t they let him breathe?” Because he’s black.

I didn’t say that, even though it was the most immediate and honest answer that sprung to mind — it just seemed like too much to lay on a 5-year-old. Talking to children about racism is complex — and, according to Margaret A. Hagerman, sociologist and the author of “White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America,” when it’s white parents raising white kids in predominantly white communities, talk is not enough. Instead, Hagerman says, we need to instill a compassion and openness to diversity through our actions.

We live in the Netherlands, a country that generally prides itself on its liberal tolerance and “post-race” identity. There is an attitude of being blind to race, making racism in the country seem like an impossibility. Sensitivity to political correctness is seen as a typically American response based on the United States’ own dismal racist history.

Incidents such as Garner’s killing put America’s race divide in an undeniable light, but other indications of racism are more subtle. In the Netherlands, we have entered the season of Sinterklaas, a major Dutch holiday — similar to Christmas in the United States — that has attracted increasing criticism for its racist tones over the past decade, both within and beyond Dutch borders.

The tradition is this: On the second Saturday of November, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) arrives in the Netherlands on a steamboat from Spain, along with Sinterklaas, a towering, thin and plushily dressed figure. Hundreds of people gather to watch the steamboat arrive, with Piets dancing and waving while brass band music plays, until Sinterklaas disembarks on a white horse, with the Piets walking at his side, to greet and offer treats to children. The ritual repeats in various cities across the Netherlands until Dec. 5, the name day of Saint Nicholas.

Piet is, according to folklore, an assistant to Sinterklaas and of Moorish descent. Traditionally, since Piet’s first appearance in a children’s book in 1850, Piet is portrayed as a very dark-skinned character with large red lips, curly black hair and giant hoop earrings. When Piets appear in person, they are portrayed by volunteers in blackface.

Unlike Santa Claus, who comes one night a year, Sinterklaas and Piet stick around for a few weeks, leaving presents for children in shoes left out by the fireplace each night. A nightly news program — “Sinterklaasjournaal” — covers the adventures and high jinks of Sint and his servants, and makes the experience both magical and believable for children.

But we are also inundated with news of protests and riots among those in favor of the Piet tradition and those who wish to see it end. And discourse between Dutch politicians and international bodies such as the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which urged the Netherlands to put an end to racial stereotypes and blackface, is less joyful. As a parent, I want my children to participate in local customs, to enjoy them with innocence and wonder. But I also want them to be sensitive to others and, obviously, not racists.

I came to the Netherlands as an expat, intending to stay a couple of years. Having children and deciding to raise them here made me an immigrant, and one of the unspoken rules of such status is to make an effort to integrate with your adoptive country, its customs and its ideals as much as possible. For the most part, that is easy to do here.

But during Piet season, it’s not that easy. While the dark, all-over black makeup has, in some areas, been replaced by a less heavy-handed “sooty” look (the story being that Piet is dirty from climbing through chimneys to deliver presents), the origins of the character and his appearance remain steeped in racism. And explaining racism to children in the context of one of their most celebrated characters — most kids want to dress up as mischievous Piet, very few as the more serious Sint — feels akin to explaining animal abuse through the lens of Santa’s reindeer.

I recently asked my son, now 8, whether he thought blackface was offensive. He has no real sense of what racism is, no concept of “blackface” as a tool for perpetuating unflattering racial caricatures, and he still believes Zwarte Piet exists rather than being a white Dutch person in makeup. So his response sounded a bit like Megyn Kelly’s sentiment that blackface was okay when she was a kid, “as long as you were dressing like a character.” He also offered that while he’s never seen someone in “whiteface,” he wouldn’t find it offensive as much as weird. I told him I thought it was never okay, which he seemed to accept but not fully understand.

You hear a lot here that Piet is not meant to be offensive and therefore is not. I have the choice of treating it as a harmless tradition that Dutch people have enjoyed for generations and hold very dear, or explaining to my children why blackface is never okay.

My children (I also have two daughters, ages 5 and 6) don’t care what color Piet is. They love the character and the holiday and have no sense of how or why it is hurting and offending people. It’s my job to explain the issues without ruining the magic for them. So I have allowed my children to dress as Piet — in Renaissance-like attire complete with a feathered cap — but have drawn the line at blackface. And I still have a visceral reaction to seeing Piets everywhere around me.

We keep the parts we like, and we don’t allow them to participate in the parts we don’t — even if it makes me look like an oversensitive American. Regardless of where we live and what others find acceptable, my kids need to learn first from the example their dad and I set. If I ignore something I believe to be wrong, I’m failing them.

Tracy Brown Hamilton is a freelance writer and mother based in the Netherlands. Find her on Twitter @tbrownhamilton. From the Washington Post, December 4, 2018, used by permission.