How do you start an article that will surely offend somebody? How do you write about something that divides a nation? How do you formulate a text that is meant to explain something, that you barely understand yourself? The answer to all of the above: You immerse yourself in the objective history of the issue. And this, ladies and gentlemen and God save my soul, is the history of Zwarte Piet.
I have to acknowledge who I am in this context, before I start discussing the facts. I am an extremely privileged little white girl, so I would never try to explain what it feels like to be offended by the image of Zwarte Piet. There are enough very competent people that can do that. I grew up with a Dutch mother in Sweden, which means that I celebrated Sinterklaas, but not really. We did the pepernoten and presents part, but the history of what we’re celebrating and why was never really clear to me. My starting point then, is that of a curious bystander, trying to understand this part of a culture that I might someday actually adhere to, if I decide to stay in the Netherlands for good.
The history of Zwarte Piet
For this piece, I interviewed Jop Euwijk and Frank Rensen. The two of them just released a book about the history of Zwarte Piet, and conveniently enough for us Communication Science students, they have a focus on how the media has helped shape the discourse around Sinterklaas and his helpers. This is what they explained to me:
“The Sinterklaas holiday has been celebrated in the Netherlands for ages, in different shapes. Zwarte Piet was introduced to the festivity in the 19th century, while the holiday was already celebrated in the 15th century, honouring the Saint Nicholaus. So, he is a pretty recent addition.
The most influential happening in the history of Zwarte Piet was the release of the book “Sint Nikolaas and his servant” in 1850, written by Jan Schenkman. This book introduced the black servant, who was still nameless, to the wider audience. In the upcoming decennia, his popularity increased. Yet, there was still some variation in what role he played in the feast, and what his name was.
The birth of a popular culture, with mass media (including newspapers, magazines, books, radio and TV) made sure that in the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, the Sinterklaas holiday became more uniform, and with it, the imagery of Zwarte Piet. Throughout the country, he was given the same appearance and role. According to us, illustrators and creators of Zwarte Piet were inspired by famous western representations of Africans. For example, there are similarities between paintings portraying white masters and their Moorish page-servants. There are also striking resemblances between the blackface minstrel-tradition found in (movie)theatres. Largely, in this part of the popular culture, unequal power relations between white and black people play a significant role. That is also where we find the link with colonialism and racism.
However, there have also been White Piets who participated in the entry tour of Sinterklaas on several locations, among others in Amsterdam. There were Spanish noblemen and Scottish lifeguards who walked alongside Sinterklaas, and in some places, they still do. They just don’t make it to the screen. Or the movies. Or books. The focus is only on Sinterklaas, and Zwarte Piet.”
The White Piets just don’t make it to the screens. The focus is on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet
Celebrating goes wrong?
Looking at this from a communication science perspective, we can see that Zwarte Piet is not founded in some century old tradition of how the holiday should be celebrated. Rather, he is a pretty recent addition, basically created by the mass media. According to Stuart Hall, one of the most famous and acknowledged communication science scholars, the media has the power to uphold the power of the ruling groups in society, by creating a discourse about issues, that fit the powerful. Additionally, it is no news that the media has the power to determine not only what we think about, but also how we think about it. By using elements of slavery and ridicule found in minstrel-shows, the Zwarte Piet created by the media showed the audience how to think about people of colour. And this is not an opinion. This is facts and scientific theory.
Cover: MysterieusVP / Final editing: Ramona Nouse