Every year in the Netherlands, Dutch people celebrate the arrival of St. Nicholas into their country with a feast. St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas is assisted by his servant called Black Pete or Zwarte Piet – a short black man dressed in a Renaissance costume who helps Santa distribute gifts and candies.
Traditionally, white people dress up as Zwarte Piet complete with blackface makeup, Renaissance garb, afro wigs, hoop earrings, and red lipstick as they welcome Sinterklaas’ arrival by boat from Spain into a Dutch harbor.
Zwarte Piet, the companion of St. Nicholas, first appeared in a book by Jan Schenkman in 1850 and was described as a Moor from Spain. Zwarte Piet or Black Pete appears at the annual feast of St. Nicholas celebrated every December 5th.
However, the Zwarte Piet tradition has become controversial these past years, as the celebration is believed to have its roots in slavery. Director Roger Ross Williams gives people insight into the popular character’ s past through a CNN digital short film he made entitled Blackface.
Williams, who won an Oscar for his short film Music by Prudence in 2010, said most Dutch people are not aware of the racial implications of the friendly character. “It was shocking to me. The arguments of the Dutch is that it’s a children’s holiday and that it’s a tradition,” Williams said.
The Blackface director faced racial slurs online when he announced the release of his short documentary. He said he was called “black monkey” on social media and was also told to not meddle with their “innocent children’s holiday.” “They wrote things like ‘Eat a banana, you f******g black monkey,'” he said in an interview. “I thought: if Zwarte Piet isn’t racist, then why are you saying these racist things to me?”
“When I made a film about how Uganda persecuted and murdered homosexuals, the Ugandans also said yes, but that’s our tradition, you as outsider don’t understand,” Williams said.
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In an article the director published, he said he decided to make Blackface because he thinks celebrating the character of Zwarte Piet fosters black stereotypes in the country. Most Dutch people see Black Pete merely as Sinterklaas’ jolly assistant who loves kids, but they fail to see the struggles of black people when the Netherlands was still a slavery-practicing nation during the 17th and 18th centuries. “They’ll say that Black Pete is not blackface, but you’re literally blacking up your face… and (adding) hoop earrings and an Afro wig,” Williams explained. “It’s pretty obvious to us, but it’s like a whole country in denial.”
However, the Blackface director is not alone in this fight. A U.N. committee has requested the Netherlands to get rid of the character, but the country rejected the request, according to the New York Times. In response to U.N.’s suggestion, Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, proposed a “Black Peter Law” last year. The law aims to ensure Zwarte Piet would remain as he is.
Last Saturday, hundreds of protesters from Amsterdam and Rotterdam welcomed Sinterklaas, who arrived by boat at Meppel in the Netherlands, with a call to get rid of the “blacking-up tradition” while locals who came to join the parade said they do not see the tradition as racist but a special time for children to have fun.
Since the Dutch government does not want to give up the Black Pete tradition, Zwarte Piets covered their faces with streaks of soot instead of fully blackening their faces.
Blackface has been available to view on CNN’s official website since Sunday, Nov. 29. Williams said this short documentary is an account of his personal experience with Zwarte Piet and not a journalistic report.
[Image via blackpetethedocumentary.com]