This is the season I dread. How can that be, when, here in Europe, Christmas is around the corner, children await presents and winter slumber beckons?
Well, it is because I live in the Netherlands, and Zwart Piete or Black Pete – a simpering, exaggerated cartoon of a Black person – is everywhere. In the Dutch tradition, Black Pete accompanies Sinterklaas, their Santa, on his duties.
He is a sidekick and helper, enforcer and lackey. And from late October onwards, his image – fat red lips, buggy eyes, piratical earrings and unyielding, sinister smile – is omnipresent.
At my local bakery, gingerbread cookies shaped as Black Pete, his plump lips a frosted fondant, are on sale. At the department store’s window tableau, an animatronic Black Pete, in flamboyant costume, defies gravity in mid-jig. At the supermarket, Black Pete consumables – chocolates, cupcakes, marzipan treats – proliferate in each aisle.
His presence so oversaturates the country – his wooden image erected at public squares, his Joker-like rictus of a smile strung up with lights in foyers – that he occupies one’s consciousness, and shows up in my dreams.
My induction into this caricature was a decade ago. My eldest daughter, Soraya, was a toddler. Her Amsterdam daycare invited parents to drop by for a visit by Sinterklaas.
This orchestrated arrival is a ritual, enacted with fanfare in Dutch cities, and replicated in schools. Before December 5, Sinterklaas’s feast day, our man in the red suit, plus posse of Black Petes, arrives in the Lowlands. They are said to travel by boat from Madrid.
I imagined North America’s aseptic Christmas. A Santa Claus figure with a detachable white beard wiggling kids on his knee, a rote inquiry as to whether they had been naughty or nice and a Polaroid snapped for the family archive.
And so we parents assembled, and the daycare staff, in hushed voices, told the kids they had a special visitor. At the appointed hour, in walked Sinterklaas, looking vaguely familiar: fake facial hair and red velvety clothes.
Behind him was the revelation: four young Dutch men in blackface, wearing Moorish vests and stockings, nylon afros affixed to their heads. They careened around the room, and, as the staff pumped up the music, danced excruciatingly. The children, mostly under three, had looks alternatingly transfixed and upset – one boy started crying. Me too, almost.
As the music blared, and the daycare staff clapped hands in unison, the snotty, static children absorbed this spectacle. What could my daughter Soraya, keenly watching, be seeing?
These white men, at any other moment, would likely be as considerately reticent as other Dutch people I knew. Yet here they were, in knickerbockers, berets and frizzy wigs, revelling in masquerade.
A Dutch parent, Frits, leaned in, telling me what the song meant. Sinterklaas, the lyrics said, would leave presents on December 5 for obedient children. Misbehaving kids, though, Black Pete would kidnap, snatch in his sack to Spain, to work as a penance.
The Black Petes finished their jauntily punitive song and threw pepernoten, spiced cookies, into the air. The children scrambled, bouncing off one another, to collect them.
The parents assembled near the snacks, Frits passing me warm mulled wine or gluwhein. He recounted how, as a child, the songs were more menacing. In his versions, Black Pete vowed to spank delinquent children with twigs or throw them into canals.
I contemplated this, as Soraya stuffed pepernoten, squirrel-like, into her cheeks. Black Pete is a figure at once ludicrous and disturbing. In his absurdly shiny blackface, in his minstrel-like gesticulations, he is a dolt. Explicitly subordinate, his only purpose is Sinterklaas’ bidding.
Yet in his punitive threats, in his enforcement of behavioural norms, Black Pete is a demonic monster. Someone who, as a beloved cultural figure, dangles child trafficking as an incentive to behave.
In the years since, I have encountered the awkward Dutch shuffle around Black Pete. Many are unillusioned about his connotations – from Dutch slavery to American minstrel shows – yet attached to the figure.
They want Black Pete to be innocent and warm. Yet his patronising blackness, his identikit subservience, takes nimble footwork to dance around. And so a protracted bout of protest and counter-protest ensues in the Netherlands. Each year, the companies which offer Black Pete merchandise shrink. And each year, populists and die-hards inveigh against an attack on their culture.
For me, Dutch innocence around Black Pete concerns the pleasure and pretence of masquerade. Those four white men at my daughter’s daycare a decade ago were absolutely in their element in blackface and Moorish costume. This was the very definition of masquerade – a false show – and yet it revealed something real.
Those who dominate may pleasurably pass as others who, in every other sense, are peripheral or invisible. Black Pete is, as outlandish expression, inarguably artificial. Yet that very deception underlines the realness of racial hierarchy.
It is no accident that attachment to Black Pete has deepened since the Netherlands’ empire disintegrated. When Suriname became independent, in 1975, a mass migration ensued from the Caribbean. Just as the Dutch digested the contraction of their worldly projection, they had to accommodate black and brown people as entangled presences. And so Black Pete asserts an imagined, but no longer tenable, demarcation.
For it takes work to differentiate what we all are – humans – into types and creeds. The seemingly stable but slippery realms of tradition, ritual and culture allow us to wear the masks that pass and divide.
At that Sinterklaas party a decade ago, the daycare gave us a departure gift. It was a horseshoe-shaped plastic headband. Two Black Petes, smiling grotesquely, stuck out like bunny ears on springs.
I confiscated it from Soraya, when her back was turned, and sequestered it on top of our bookcase. When we had guests, especially from the United States, I would bring it down, to enjoy their shocked faces. It was a furtive pleasure to tell foreigners about this peculiar tradition.
Two years ago, a family originally from Suriname settled on our street. They were ethnically Indian, descendants of indentured labourers from Bhojpur and Awadh, who came to the Dutch Caribbean in the late 19th century. Young and stylish, in our gentrifying, primarily white neighbourhood, we did not speak much beyond pleasantries.
The day before Sinterklaas, I saw the father, like me, taking his children to school. His two brown children were decked out in Black Pete gear. Dark skinned, they nevertheless applied the sooty face-paint that white children, in bicycle lanes, had on.
They too were in on the masquerade – unreal yet very real – of racial hierarchy. They pretended to be categorical others they were not. They sidled up, in their application of blackface, to a reigning fiction. And in so doing, they reasserted distinctions – prevalent in the Netherlands and in Suriname – that do not wash off.
I came home and fished out the Black Pete headband. There they were, those inexhaustible, red-rimmed smiles. They blamelessly said: it is just tradition, just fun for the kids. I put it in the garbage and closed the lid, one less bogeyman stalking my dreams.
Ajay Gandhi is a faculty member at Leiden University and Senior Fellow at the Maria Sibylla Merian Centre Conviviality-Inequality in Latin America.