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We have just survived another Sinterklaas season in the Netherlands.The wintery gift-giving festival promotes a white-washed mythology based around the figure of Saint Nicholas, who was Bishop of Myra in what is now present-day Turkey during the 4th century. While there are various traditions across Europe to honour the memory of this particular saint on the anniversary of his death (December 6), according to the Dutch, he arrives on a steamboat from Spain each year accompanied by his white horse, named Amerigo, and an entourage of enslaved black folks collectively known as Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes).
In the earliest iterations of the Dutch Sinterklaas festival, Piet was closer to the demonic Krampus character associated with Saint Nicholas in other traditions. However, in the mid-1800s, a Dutch teacher reintroduced the festival as the ultimate white patriarchal supremacist fantasy in his book Sinterklaas en zijn knecht (Sinterklaas and his Slave): Saint Nicholas would now be accompanied by Piet, a young servant of African descent.
By the turn of the century, Piet looked increasingly like a golliwog, with wide eyes, a grotesquely enlarged mouth and lips, a wild afro and jet black skin, as well as golden earrings, a common feature in colonial era artworks to demonstrate the wealth of the owner of an enslaved person. In the flesh, he was depicted by a white person using blackface make-up and buffoonish behaviour to portray the Saint’s servant. It was quite common until recent years for white Dutch folks playing Zwarte Piet to use a mock Surinamese accent as well, linking the character inextricably to the Dutch colonial slave project. Over the years, as Sinterklaas parades became more popular across the country, the Saint would be accompanied by more and more Pieten.
It is crucial to place Zwarte Piet in the context of rising xenophobia and racism towards black people in the Netherlands. For instance, journalist Seada Nourhussen recently announced she would no longer contribute a regular column to Dutch newspaper Trouw due to the racist hate mail she has received over the years. In addition, leader of political party BIJ1, Sylvanna Simons, has faced vicious racist threats for calling out discrimination faced by Dutch people of colour. In ERIF’s recent report, community organiser and writer Simone Zeefuik discussed the need for uplifting and supportive gatherings of black Dutch women, as well as a broader sense of black Dutch collectivity in the fight against racism in the Netherlands.
ERIF also spoke with artist and exhibition maker Richard Kofi, whose work focuses on the creolisation and decolonisation of museums as well as notions of Africaness and Dutchness. Meanwhile, Marny Garcia spoke to ERIF about her work as part of the Afro Students Association (ASA) at Leiden University’s campus in The Hague, to make the institution more inclusive for students of colour. The anti-black and Islamophobic racism towards students and teachers was recently reported in Leiden University’s newspaper and it is striking that the author of the article did not feel comfortable to publish their name. Additionally, campaign group Kick Out Zwarte Piet (KOZP) were forced to cancel a gathering planned with ASA in The Hague, due to threats to the safety of protestors.
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Picture of a city council conversation in Arnhem that got out of hand when pro-Zwarte-Piet protestors threatened council members that problematized and discussed the city's Sinterklaas celebration