Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam this week, with his hundreds of Zwarte Pieten (his helpers, all named Black Pete) like he traditionally does every year in mid November. He has been doing so for at least 75 years now, but it might have been the last time the festivities looked like they did all these years. Something is about to change, not so much about Sinterklaas himself, as well as about the Zwarte Pieten.
The Zwarte Pieten traditionally wear pageboy uniforms, black make-up with large painted on red lips, curly wigs and golden earrings. Protesters say the Zwarte Pieten are racist caricatures and should be banned. They do have a point here. The tradition’s defenders say there is no racial insult intended by the way Zwarte Piet looks. That is true of course, but it doesn’t change the racist impression it makes. This debate has gone on for years, but it is now intensifying because anti-Zwarte Piet activists have tried to stop the traditional annual festivities in Amsterdam around the arrival of Sinterklaas, because of the racism aspect. And even the UN jumped in with a panel that will examin whether the tradition is racist.
Some anti-Zwarte Pieten activists have suggested his blackface should be replaced with black smudges, since children are usually told his face has become black from going down chimneys. Well, that’s not too much to ask, is it? It fits in the tradition perfectly.
We could even add some white faced, rainbow faced and other colours of make up for the Pieten to it.
The Zwarte Pieten have already changed a lot. They used to act foolish, like a jester, but nowadays they are smarter than Sinterklaas in many ways. And they have many different roles and responsibilities like way-finding, managing, making music, the ten thousands of gifts, etc. which changed their name from all being ‘Black Pete’ into Way-finding Pete, Managing Pete, etc.
Traditions change all the time, so why not change the way the Pieten look? I hope next year the arriving of Sinterklaas and his Pieten will be nicely traditional but with different looking Pieten.