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Is the blackface zwarte piet ‘tradition‘ in decline?

THIS TIME of year brings celebration of St Nicholas's Day - 5 December - in the Netherlands and Belgium. It's presided over by the Saint - who is basically Santa Claus, except he's a bishop. He's routinely accompanied by at least one racist stereotype character named zwarte piet, a servant or slave usually portrayed by a white Dutch person in blackface.

An Amsterdam window display

This section of a window display from an Amsterdam confectionary shop, featuring zwarte piet dolls, is from late 2018

NUJ Netherlands Branch, whose members are mostly freelances and work predominantly for English-language media in that country, has responded to the "zwarte piet" phenomenon. They have been monitoring, especially, biased reporting of anti-racist protests around zwarte piet. In this they have been inspired by the NUJ's Code of Conduct and its Race Reporting Guidelines. These state that journalists "should not originate material which encourages discrimination on the grounds of race or colour."

The NUJ's National Executive Council last year passed a motion that "supports journalists in Continental Europe in their efforts to encourage non-discriminatory reporting of zwarte piet and those trying to raise a discussion about his rôle in the Netherlands and Belgium in the 21st Century".

Last year anti-racist campaigners, organised as Kick Out zwarte piet (KOZP), were escorted to safety by riot police in the city of Maastricht after being pelted with stones and fireworks by "opponents". Reports of "skirmishes" between KOZP activists and "opponents" in the city of Venlo portrayed "opponents" as the victims - though a police statement made it clear that all those arrested were "bystanders, not part of the KOZP group." Neighbours of Akwazi, a rapper of Ghanaian origin, chased away a group of racists in blackface who turned up outside his house, as we reported last December.

This year, a survey revealed that the majority of Dutch organisations – local authorities, clubs and societies - that put on St Nicholas parades had quietly ditched zwarte piet. Most - 123 out of the 210 responding - had replaced the character with "Chimney Sweep Pete", who has a light dusting of soot on his face, as if he's come down the chimney to bring presents. Chimney Sweep Pete has already largely taken over in Belgium.

A smaller number of these parades - 32 - featured some zwarte piets still in blackface among a crowd of characters with faces made up in random colours, or crowds of "colourful Piets" made up in colours other than black. Parades featuring "traditional" zwarte piet still in blackface are now rare, with only ten places reporting that they still planned to feature them in their parades. The remainder of municipalities in the survey planned parades with "other variants", or hadn't yet made plans or preferred not to reveal these plans.

A 2020 survey showed approval for "traditional" zwarte piet in the Netherlands continues to fall, with 55 per cent of those surveyed in 2020 approving, down from 71 per cent in 2019.

There were still incidents this year. In the fishing village of Volendam, KOZP was planning a demonstration against the planned parade and its old-school zwarte piets, until that parade was cancelled due to a stricter anti-Covid regime.

Zwart Piet is not that traditional. The character was invented by children's book author Jan Schenkman in 1850. Saint Nicholas, by comparison, has been leaving gifts for poor girls with no dowries for at least 1500 years.

A parade in the city of Breda went ahead, featuring "Grey Petes". KOZP turned out - in what was reportedly the only protest around zwarte piet that day, and possibly the only one this year. KOZP activists described the Grey Piets as a "bogus solution" and a demonstrator told local news outlet Omroep Brabant that Grey Piets were a "worthless compromise". A video of a group of Grey Piets shows them with faces made up in such a dark shade of grey that most people wouldn't be able to distinguish it form blackface.

The Freelance continues to keep an eye on developments.

29 November 2021

Emelia Kenlock, Chair of the NUJ's Black Members' Council, adds:

Like my colleagues in Europe, I have had first-hand experience of the zwarte piet phenomenon. In 2011 I took my family on a trip to Amsterdam: we arrived on the weekend of 5 December, unaware of it. The moment we landed at Schiphol airport we were greeted by a giant zwarte piet, whose job it was to distastefully entertain the tourists. By the time we had driven through the city to get to our apartment we realised that the offensive blackface clown at the airport wasn't random. As we strolled through the famous Dam Square we did a quick Google search to find out exactly what zwarte piet meant. It was at that point that we confirmed that we had unknowingly been witnessing this bizarre and racist "celebration". We couldn't ignore or escape the degrading images that filled the city. Depictions of zwarte piet were featured in practically every shopfront marketing campaign, on the faces of people in the streets and in the media, including children's television programmes. Everywhere we turned we saw zwarte piet.

I believe that the media should be held accountable for its role in fuelling such racially-biased narratives. Black Members' Council stands in support of the journalists and activists who have campaigned for many years against this outdated, racist "tradition".