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  • Writer's pictureChuka Nwanazia

RTL Late Night and the Zwarte Piet Debate - What Do We Know About it?

Last night on what used to be one of the Netherland's most popular late night shows, awkward moments took place to earn that episode of RTL Late Night "One of the Netherland's Most Awkward Episodes" in television history. A pro-Zwarte Piet commentator refused to sit on the same table with an anti-Zwarte Piet activist. Jenny Douwes, the white Dutch lady had said before the broadcast that she did not want to enter into any kind of debate with Jerry Afriyie, the black anti-Zwarte Piet activist. According to her, RTL show host Twan Huys had promised that this would not happen.

It must be noted that almost a year ago, Jenny Douwes had called for a blockade of the highway to Dokkum so that anti-Zwarte Piet activists, including Afriyie, could not demonstrate at the arrival of Saint Nicholas during the opening of the Sinterklaas festival. The blockade endangered road safety, but more importantly: the pro-Zwarte Piet activists attacked the freedom of expression of their opponents by physically obstructing them from expressing their objections against Zwarte Piet.

So what exactly is Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and why is it the source of so much tension in the Netherlands?

To understand the controversy that is Zwarte Piet, one must take a look at its history.

In recent years, Zwarte Piet has been in the centre of heated debates in the Netherlands. A lot of people, especially blacks in the Netherlands, see the figure as offensive and racist while others think it's a Dutch tradition that is both harmless and fun for children.


Saint Nicholas with his Black Petes in the Netherlands - Beejonson

To understand the Zwarte Piet figure, one must take a look at the Dutch festival called Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas widely celebrated in the Netherlands, Belgium and in some other European countries as the feast day of Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas' Entry from Spain

Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of Dutch children arrives every year from Spain to spread happiness and good cheer among Dutch children. His arrival annually takes place every November in a different city. He arrives on a boat and the entry point is usually surrounded by Dutch children singing and waving at him. He is usually surrounded by dark-skinned fellows with either Afros or curly hair, wearing earrings and also dressed in an old Moorish costume.

Zwarte Piet (Black Pete)

The Zwarte Piet figure, as we know it today, is not really that old. The first Zwarte Piet image appeared in 1850 in the children's book 'Sint Nikolaas and his Servant', a book by Jan Schenkman. From that very moment, images of Sinterklaas accompanied by a dark-skinned assistant became increasingly popular in the Netherlands. Lots of people still had questions about the dark-skinned fellow as they knew nothing about him. He was sometimes pictured in a Turkish costume (including a fez), or in an Indian suit. It was not until the twentieth century that Black Pete received what would become his regular and normal clothing: a costume worn in the sixteenth century in Spain by Moorish slaves.

Today, Zwarte Piet has been reinvented to be child-friendly. In the past he was meant to frighten naughty children. He carried a rod with which children were flogged, and in a worst case scenario, also carried a bag with which he carried those naughty children off to Spain. Dutch children were dead frightened of this dark-skinned servant to Sinterklaas who was neither friendly nor fun.

Post World War II

For a long time, Sinterklaas had only one Piet with him. After the Second World War several Piets began to appear. As the years went by, the feast of Sinterklaas (with the Black Petes) slowly became an accepted tradition as each Piet got his own task. There was a Piet for wrapping gifts, a Piet for the horses, a Head Piet (or leader of the Piets) and a Piet in charge of Sinterklaas' transportation.

The Zwarte Piet Debate

Zwarte Piets (Black Petes) in the Netherlands - Beejonson

The Zwarte Piet tradition has come under a lot of criticism in recent years. A frequently heard complaint is that Zwarte Piet confirms prejudices about black people. He is good-natured, not very smart, physically strong and is always playing the role of a 'willing' servant and seen as a source of amusement for white folks. These characteristics are, according to the anti-Zwarte Piet critics, confirming the preconceived opinions that white people have of blacks and that children, especially white children grow up having of black people. They are prejudices that go back to the time of slavery when black Africans had to be good-natured despite the terrible circumstances they faced and also had to serve their white slave masters which included white children. Several critics have called on the government to make Zwarte Piet a kind of clown and that can be yellow, brown, white or black. It shouldn't just be black, Zwarte Piet should have different colours and that way, it becomes a tradition that is inclusive and everyone can enjoy.

Pro-Zwarte Piet Protests

There are groups of (white) Dutch folks who feel that Zwarte Piet is a Dutch tradition that must not be tampered with. "It is an unchanging tradition" they say. While these pro-Zwarte Piet protesters speak only out of emotion and never with facts or reason, history has shown that the Sinterklaas festival has been altered and refined over the centuries to meet present standards. In the Middle Ages, parades were held during the festival in honour of Saint Nicholas. A number of participants were known to wear black faces. They represented devils and symbolised the evil that the good Saint Nicholas had overcome. In time, those black-faced devils were replaced with a negro who later became 'Zwarte Piet'. Critics believe that if the Sinterklaas feast can be altered a couple of times in history to fit into whatever standards white Dutch folks felt was 'okay' for them, then it can also be changed now to remove its offensive nature and promote inclusivity.

Another point presented by the pro-Zwarte Piet protesters is that all traditions in the Dutch community are by definition 'good' and should therefore be retained. Anyone who doesn't agree with it should leave the Netherlands. Really? Do the Dutch actually remember that there was once a time when Dutch culture entailed keeping women at home as housewives, not giving them a right to vote, be themselves or even have an opinion, discouraging girls from going to school to get an education because marriage was their final destination, and let's not forget keeping slaves. I think it is a good thing that the Netherlands has been able to put an end to a lot of those strange traditions from the past. Anti-Zwarte Piet activists are of the opinion that if the Dutch can put an end (or alter) to some of their old and senseless traditions, they can definitely alter the Black Pete tradition.

The Dutch defend their so-called traditions with as much enthusiasm as they can muster. Even Dutch celebrities who call for an end to the Zwarte Piet tradition have been met with hate and death threats. Dutch singer Anouk is one of those celebrities. She had to get accustomed to death threats after criticising Zwarte Piet via social media. She now knows that anyone who advocates for change in a 'strange' tradition - no matter how small the proposed change may be - calls for an outburst of mass hysteria. They attacked all her social media pages with racist curses and her partner and family were not left out of it.

One funny (and very unintelligible) thing that I've heard Dutch people say is that Zwarte Piet's skin is black because of the coal in chimneys. You see, the general belief among the Dutch is that Zwarte Piet has to climb down chimneys in order to deliver presents to little kids, but here's what's strange: if Zwarte Piet is black because of the coal in the chimneys, then why does he have an afro or curly hair? What about the red lips? And how come his whole is covered in coal? If a person were to climb down a chimney, I'm guessing only some parts of their body would be covered in coal. No their whole body! And that definitely wouldn't give them an Afro or curly hair!

The Dutch also tell people that the Sinterklaas festival is pre-eminently a children's party and they do not appreciated the fact that critics demonstrate against a Dutch tradition that brings joy to little children. They make it seem like anyone criticising Zwarte Piet is automatically looking to spoil a children's party!

It's quite sad that they seem to forget about the many black children who are DUTCH and are continuously bullied (especially during Sinterklaas) because of Zwarte Piet. This remains one of the main reasons why anti-Zwarte Piet activists criticise the tradition and want its end.

Anti-Zwarte Piet Protests

Anti-Zwarte Piet Activism

Most (white) Dutch people see these anti-Zwarte Piet protesters as 'non Dutch/Western' folks who come into their country with the aim of destroying their tradition. They forget that the Zwarte Piet criticism comes mainly from highly educated Dutch citizens of Surinamese and Antillean descents, who have lived their whole lives in the Netherlands. They form an integral part of Dutch society and thus Dutch culture.

Anti-Zwarte Piet activists stand for an end to racism and the beginning of inclusion. Many of them don't even want the tradition to end, they only ask that it be made more inclusive. How about Piets of different colours? It doesn't matter whose side you're on but here's something you need to know:

34 pro-Zwarte Piet activists blocked the A7 expressway at Joure last year to prevent an anti-Zwarte Piet demonstration. The Netherlands' Public Prosecution Service charged them with deliberately blocking the road and obstructing a demonstration. The pro-Zwarte Piet activists blocked the road, so protesters against Zwarte Piet could not travel to Dokkum, where the Saint Nicholas' entry was bound to take place. The Public Prosecution Service blamed the pro-Zwarte Piet activists for violating an important right in the Dutch Constitution: 'the right to demonstration'. Jenny Douwes, who had called on the pro-Zwarte Piet protesters via Facebook to go out en masse and block the roads was also charged with incitement.

The same Douwes came on RTL Late Night yesterday and refused to sit at the show's table with anti-Zwarte Piet activist Jerry Afriyie. Afriyie was initially not allowed to sit at the table with Douwes, the show host Twan Huys and other guests. The anti Zwarte Piet activist had to sit in the audience because Douwes had indicated that she did not want to debate live with her Afriyie. The funniest part was that Twan Huys, the show host had actually promised her that she would not have to go into a debate with Afriyie! Isn't Dutch television a funny place?

The Netherlands is supposed to be a developed country where her citizens should be civilised enough to converse even when they disagree with each other. Douwes and other pro-Zwarte Piet protesters were wrong. You are free to disagree with anyone but taking away their right to protest is a crime! Coming on national television and demanding that they not sit on the same table with you is just wrong and RTL Late Night and their host should be ashamed of themselves for promising something like that.

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