First off it is important to say here that most Dutch people have no idea what blackface is and therefore will not recognize it. So it would be important to first educate people about this. The header shows Tintin with blackface characters. An explanation of what blackface is can be found here. In this piece please note the following: However, the original and archetypal Zwarte Piet is believed to be a continuation of a much older custom in which people with black faces appeared in Winter Solstice rituals. In other parts of Western Europe and in Central Europe, black-faced and masked people also perform the role of companions of Saint Nicholas, who is known as Nikolo in Austria, Niklaus in Germany and Samichlaus in Switzerland. Also on Saint Martin's Eve, black-faced men go around in processions through Wörgl and the Lower Inn Valley, in Tyrol.
that poses the problem or going further back the confusion that came from Schenkman choosing to use an African boy for this role. These three elements are not found in Black Pete masquerades. Pictures of Zwarte Piet in the first half of the 20th century show a black Black Pete but not with very pronounced red lips (if they were red to begin with, which they often weren't), usually no earrings and also a afro wig isn't seen in all cases. In childrens books and other drawings the visual language that looks like blackface start around the 1900rds. The overlap of the black face in combination with the additions of the wig, the lips and the earrings does look like blackface and this is brought to the attention. In combination with the black face it must be said that it does resemble blackface and that is something that should be adressed. The most effective way would be to remove those three things. Judging the whole character of Black Pete on his outer appearance and claiming him to be only blackface and therefore racist is too strong of a judgement and disregards all other influences on Black Pete as is shown by the information on this website. This is fragmentary and wrong. Claiming that there is nothing worth protesting against would be not right either. For the meaning of black and white in the Sinterklaascelebrations please refer to "What the Sinterklaascelebration symbolizes" under the tab "Midwinter celebration."
Problems with the interpretation of Black Pete
The fact that Black Pete resembles blackface raises other problems when looking at him. For example The picture on the website of Zwarte Piet is Rascisme with the date of september 19th 2012. (There is both an english and a dutch version.) shows a black Pete explaining seven things that are supposedly wrong with Black Pete. It was a surprise to see this picture. They mention the wig, lips and earrings but also the black face, the switch and the bag and explain them in a way that given the information available on this website is historically incorrect.Especially since knowing what the four characteristics of Black Pete (and other companions of Saint Nicholas) are: namely a black face, a bag, a chain and the switch. The chain is not mentioned here, but pictures with the chain reappearing in it will be shown later on. (Note: the chain is not part of the current Black Pete, these are older pictures! They indicate a continuation of Black Pete of older companions of the Saint that carried a chain that was not a symbol of slavery but of the submision of the pagan figure to the Saint as the church wished to see this. The confusion with a slavechain is understandable but not correct.) Sometimes the contents of the bag, the sweets are seen as a link to colonialism. However the trade in spices predates colonialism. Also there is a receipt from Dordrecht form 1360 which mentions "Claescoeck" (Janssen) and we know that spices were used for this. There is no direct link to colonial history. Sweets en spices have been part of the celebration long before this. The page attire (or just his colourful outfit) also doesn't really pose a problem since all kinds of people in various positions were dressed like this.
Behaviour and hierarchy, the word "knecht" In addition to these things people sometimes adress Black Petes behaviour as connected with blackface and the minstrel tradition also. There is however an older explanation for this, because Black Petes mischievous behaviour stems from a much earlier date and has a lot to do with his pagan origins. (Renterghem) Making faces and acting funny was a way to react to the sometimes very demanding stance of the church and authority. This behaviour does not include the now disappeared Surinames dialect that some actors used portraying Black Pete to disguise their identity even further. This was a non historical addition to Black Pete that he can freely do without as he is doing today. Also some people see in the Saint Nicholas, Black Pete combination the slavemaster and his slave and some people insist that this is the only way to look at this duo. It is important to be aware of how this hierarchy stems from a much earlier time also and has to do with the fact that light must conquer dark (even if darkness is very important for fertility and nightrest! and also that disobedient behaviour is sometimes necessary) and that the church wanted the christian saint to be in charge of the pagan companion. The church called him a devil to make this clear but that is not his origin! So Schenkman placing his version of the companion in the same position is a continuation of that practice and has nothing to do with a slavemaster and his slave. Here the following can be added: In the studies and arguments a lot of times paintings are used of royalty or nobles with a slavepage at their side. Also merchants can be portrayed like this. Sinterklaas is neiter nobility (or royalty) or bourgeoisie (middle class). He is clergy, a member of the cloth! He is a bishop, a clergyman not noted for having slaves to highten their status. The parallels that are drawn, go limp where this is concerned. Also people have trouble with the word "knecht". They suppose this is a synonym for slave. This is not true. The current title would be employer nothing more, nothing less. A lot of people have ancestors that were called "knecht" in their jobs.
The Dress-up party that takes place every year during the Sinterklaascelebrations has, when one looks only form the perspective of the blackface likeness, again very negative.connotations, if it were not for the fact that this also has a much older history. Here too it would be incomplete and incorrect to not also view this from the perspective of Dutch and European history. All kinds of aspects of dressing up play a part in that, this also goes for blackening the face. It is good to realise that this custom didn't start in 1850. This practice is much older, an was a part of the Sinterklaaseve. One can also not assume that from one day to another people took to the by Schenkman newly introduced figure of Black Pete, but that this image merged slowly with the older depictions. Another reason why people for whom this practice was relayed generation to generation without the connotation of slavery and colonialism do not understand the disgust people say they feel when seeing this ritual performed en it explains also why they do not consider it problematic. In this light it seems wrong to accuse people too easily of "cognitive dissonance" as is done on anti-petesites because there is a lot more going on. Interesting is the following: in Sinterklaasje kom maar binnen zonder knecht (1998) (Saint Nicholas step inside without your companion) it is stated that it is weird that Sinterklaas is portrayed by a woman. In the picture down below of 1924 from Zeeland both Saint Nicholas and the Black Petes are portrayed by women. On the painting of Xaver von Paumgarten from 1820, the role of Saint Nicholas is also portrayed by a woman. This isn't so strange. What is strange is that a darkskinned person supposedly cannot play the Saint, but should always portray Black Pete. This is not correct.
A new (old) Black Pete
People object very strongly to the character of Black Pete. It seems that they also have litte knowledge of his origins and appearance before 1850 or deny that there is such a history. Their interpretation of the character is very much and understandably influenced by his resemblance to blackfacefigures. It was most likely Schenkman who changed the companion into an African boy who from the second edition of the book on got a more and more blackface appearance. Seeing as the predecessors of Black Pete never actually were depicting a human this dehumanizing of the figure in itself is not strange and because Schenkman introduced the African boy it is no surprise this visual language of that time was used to portray him. Some people claim an analogy to the swastika symbol here as it was used in Nazi Germany. The Nazis however did use this swastikasymbol in a different way than Hindus en that is why it was never banned in the whole of Europe. Also Black Pete with his multidimensional origin is different than "Blackface": With Black Pete the resemblance to blackface was pasted onto an already existing (and already black!) figure. (Very briefly portrayed by Schenkman as an African Boy). To most people this was nothing more than an outer change. Not a change of the figure in itself. It is very important to be aware of this when discussing Zwarte Piet with someone. Also he was never used as a racist symbol or to glorify slavery by the people who celebrate Sinterklaas. There is no evidence of that. Contrary to the 1/8th tilted swastikasymbol that the Nazi's did use in their gruesome ideology. It is very important to remember this when interpreting Black Pete!
There are no Sinterklaasstories or practices that have a racist connotation to them or refer to slavery. Interpreting these stories from just the perspective of the blackface likeness leads to too far reaching conclusions regarding it's supposedly racist content especially when you know what other perspectives this could be viewed from and what different outcome you would have. So other than this resemblance there is no reason to believe that the implications that lie behind blackface do apply to Black Pete in the same way. However there are some songs, most of them old and forgotten that can raise questions. The fact that they are forgotten also tells us that it isn't linked to Black Pete and could also be attributed to ignorance of the author of the song. There is one song that is still sung today that people do strongly object to. It is the song to with the line: Want al ben ik zwart als roet, ik meen het wel goed. (Even if I'm black as soot, I mean well). It can be questioned here if this is meant to refer to people of african descent per se (compare white as snow), fact is that with the blackface resemblance it is not a surprise that it is interpreted this way. Suggestions have been done to change the text to "zwart van roet" (black because of soot) or "zwart met roet" (black with soot). This would be an acceptable solution that could take away any confusion there might be.
The action group Zwarte Piet is racisme wants to change him according to Schenkmans story that he travels through the chimney a lot and therefore becomes black with smudges on his face like a chimney sweep or even have coloured Petes. This is of course not the historical explanation for his blackness and since the Schenkman way of portraying Black Pete is opposed so profoundly going back to a more historical portrayal would seem more logical. Especially since the black companions in other parts of Europe aren't met with this opposition and therefore can act as examples of what the new Black Pete can look like. With all the ingredients available there must be someone that can come up with something good. Such a figure that doesn't resemble blackface but is still black will not meet with everyones approval, but the majority will most likely think this an acceptable compromise. There will always be people with a different opinion.
It appears that from february 22nd 2014 the focus is not on changing Black Pete but to remove him from the celebrations altogether. And another link. where we see the action plan to remove Black Pete. Why people then would be ok with keeping Sinterklaas who some people refer to as the slavemaster is incomprehensible. But since the interpretation of Sint and Piet as master and slave can be questioned with the information provided on this website it can also mean that most people do pick up on the positive things that are visible in the Sinterklaascelebration and Black Pete despite what they see if they look at Black Pete as blackface.This says a lot about what is truly portrayed for this positive side to still shine through all the critique.
In this picture we do see the chain again. Here it is not the chain that is out of place it's blackface. It would be advisable to take away the big red lips, the earrings and the afro wig and make Black Pete more in line with the other companions of the Saint. Close to his history but definately not as blackface. Phiny Dick Versjes uit de oude doos, Sinterklaas, Kerstmis en Nieuwjaar. Deel 6, 1941
1924 province of Zeeland notice the chain on the Black Pete to the left. A continuation of a much older practice. Notice that both the Saint and Petes are played by women!