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Sympathy for the Devil

November 21, 2011

By Meike Mol

The arrival of Sinterklaas was celebrated on Sunday November 12 in Dordrecht. A perfect opportunity to draw the attention toward the racist roots of Zwarte Piet or Black Piet, or so judged. Armed with printed shirts and banners Jerry Afriyie(30) and Quinsy Gario (27) made their way to the festivities.

They never got a warm welcome. Instead, their peaceful protest was met with a violent police arrest.

Afriyie and Gario seemed to have touched upon a sensitive topic in Dutch society. For many, their views pose yet another threat to an old Dutch tradition. And indeed, it cannot be denied that Zwarte Piet is in fact part of a tradition. This tradition is however not characterized by pepernoten, chocoladeletters and miters; instead it is colored by the colonial past of the Dutch.

To find the origins of Zwarte Piet, we have to go back to pre-Christian times in Holland. Parallels can be made between the legend of Sinterklaas and the figure Odin, a Germanic god worshipped in Northern- and Western Europe.

Many customs present in the Sinterklaas festivity can be related to this pagan figure. The depiction of Sint riding the rooftops on his white horse are very similar to how Odin rode the sky on his grey stallion. More importantly, we can conclude that Sinterklaas stole the idea of his black comrades from Odin; already back in the days, Odin carried around two black ravens as his companions.

But there is more to the history of Zwarte Piet. The legend of Sinterklaas survived the centuries, and so did his black friends.

In the early middle ages they undertook a drastic change in role; under Christianization, Sint remained a good holy man, but the Church promoted Zwarte Piet to being the direct representation of the devil. The relationship between good and evil was not one characterized by equality: With all his goodness, Sint had triumphed over evil and was thus free to make the devil into his servant. These mischievous servants performed whatever action was required from them following the white man’s instructions.

The image of zwarte piet as a slave grew only stronger during the colonial period of the Netherlands.

Although Sint originally was only accompanied by two Zwarte pieten, their numbers rose along with the colonial expansion. Also, the dominant Eurocentric view placed the white rulers far above the colonials in levels of power, but also in civilization and intelligence. The colonials had no idea of reality, were lost and stupid and had to be saved by the Western űbermensch; and so did zwarte piet. As a finishing touch, their dress was changed to that of a 17th century Moore page.

Finally, the still persistent image of Zwarte Piet was complete: one of an evil, dumb, black slave, meant to entertain his master.

We cannot ignore the history of this legend; it perpetuates the approval of the Netherlands’ racial past.

People who explain the colour of Zwarte Piet’s skin as a result of climbing through a chimney, or argue for the positive contemporary associations made with him, use nothing but a simplistic and weak excuse for continuing a tradition rooted in discrimination.

We should rethink the role and representation of Zwarte Piet to prevent the spread of its vividly discriminating messages among youngest members of Dutch society.

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Categories: Opinion
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