Zwarte Piet Blackface Ban in Groningen: Why It Is Still Controversial
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Weeks away from the first ever blackface-free Sinterklaas parade in Groningen, locals are still conflicted over Zwarte Piet’s allegedly racist image
Sinterklaas’s colourful companion is going to flaunt one less colour in Groningen’s parade this year, ever since the municipality announced that Zwarte Piet actors can’t do blackface anymore. Nevertheless, locals passionately debate the popular character’s allegedly racist imagery, even as the countdown to this year’s celebration has started.
Originating from the Germanic tradition of a captured demon who is forced to assist its captor, Zwarte Piet was first introduced as Sinterklaas’s servant in an 1850 teacher’s book which helped soften the saint’s stern image. The kobold-like creature gradually evolved into a jolly figure which distributes gifts and sweets to children.
However, because of his depiction, which includes an afro wig, big hoop earrings, overdrawn red lips and, most disturbingly of all, blackface make-up, Zwarte Piet is not only seen as a child-friendly tradition, but also a controversial figure linked to slavery and colonialism, resulting in initiatives such as a U.N. report urging the Netherlands to actively promote the elimination of racial stereotyping and the Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Haarlem and Hilversum Sinterklaas parade bans on blackface.
“Black Pete is chaos personified, a disguised trickster archetype” whose disguise “becomes racially specific only the moment you recognize it as such”, says traditionalist Zwarte Piet supporter Kasper Nijhoff.
Indeed, when it comes to not seeing the figure one has fond memories growing up with as racist, even KOZP (Kick Out Zwarte Piet) member Willem van der Sluis says “I think it’s a genuine statement, but that’s also personalizing, individualizing something that’s really not an individual thing - racism is a structure”.
“KOZP no longer really debates whether black Pete is racist or not. We want to move forward and start the discussion from the premise that it is racist and focus on what can be done to combat institutional racism”, he adds.
However, for Kasper and other like-minded traditionalists, “attempts at mediation (such as opting for an altered, more politically correct Zwarte Piet) were already made in the 2010’s and rejected by the other side. We’ve already ran out of compromising space and still, they think it’s not good enough”. (Blackface) Zwarte Piet “is a Dutch tradition that needs to be preserved”, he insists.
Others see things differently. “Women not being allowed to work when they got married - that used to be tradition; Having slaves – that used to be tradition; Colonialism – that used to be tradition. So, I think it is very good that traditions change and go with the times” says Groningen City council member Wesley Pechler.
As Groningen’s first Sinterklaas parade without blackface Piets draws closer, Zwarte Piet traditionalists and reformists continue raising the stakes. PVV senator Ton van Kesteren has even suggested holding a referendum to “see what Groningen really thinks about Zwarte Piet”.