In Amsterdam the opinions are split on whether Zwarte Piet, the pitchblack helper of bearded do-gooder Sinterklaas is a racist personage. A poll by the Bureau for Research and Statistics, commissioned by the City of Amsterdam, has shown that more than a quarter of the city’s dark-skinned residents feel discriminated by Piet’s persistent existence; most native Dutchmen disagree though. The majority of Amsterdam’s Turkish and Moroccan residents understood the opposition against Zwarte Piet.
The Sinterklaas tradition in the Netherlands is a celebration that actually pays homage to Nikolaos of Myra, a historic 4th-century saint from Turkey who had a reputation for secret gift-giving. Every year around the first week of December, men dress up in red robes and mitres to bring gifts to children around the country. They are accompanied by Zwarte Piet, a wacky helper who hands out candy and does all sorts of crazy tricks.
The tradition has survived fierce opposition in the Netherlands from the immigrant population, who feel that Sinterklaas has racist undertones, because Zwarte Piet is an insensitive caricature of a Black person whose sole role is that of a subservient servant of a supposedly wise, bearded white man. But Dutch people say Zwarte Piet should not offend anybody, because the whacky helper is not a Black man, but a white helper who got smudged because he came down the chimney to deliver the children their gifts.
Last year the opponents found a likeminded soul in Amsterdam City Council member Andrée van Es, who said it is about time The Netherlands does away with the tradition. “The Sinterklaas celebration once began without Zwarte Piet. It’s time it continues without Zwarte Piet,” she said. Van Es thus became the first Dutch City administrator to publicly denounce the Sint’s black helper. She was vilified on online communities but her stance still prompted the City of Amsterdam to commission the poll.
For the research, carried out just after the Sinterklaas celebrations of December 2012, the Research and Statistics Bureau interviewed 823 people online, among which 91 “Internationals” from the Uk, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand; in addition 474 people of Surinamese, Turkish, Moroccan and Ghanaian origin were interviewed in the field. One interesting observation was that the higher the educational level of the respondents, the more likely it was that they would have a problem with Piet.
The outcome showed that of the Surinamese respondents, 27 percent felt discriminated by Zwarte Piet, 50 percent understood why others would feel discriminated against and just about 19 percent didn’t feel Zwarte Piet was an affront. Of the Antilleans interviewed, 18 percent felt discriminated, 55 percent understood why others could feel discriminated against and 24 percent didn’t feel discriminated.
Turkish and Moroccan Amsterdammers had less of a problem with Zwarte Piet for themselves. Only three percent of Turkish and five percent of the Moroccans feel personally insulted when the black helper appears, but a large group (30 percent of Turkish and 58 percent of the Morrocans) view it as discriminating against others.
It is unclear what the city intends to do with the poll results. Fact is that slowly the Netherlands starts to look differently at the personage of the Sint. Councilwoman Van Es had suggested that in the future Piet just have one smudge over his face; many respondents in the research seemed to agree.
HUXX is Marvin Hokstam, a Caribbean journalist who is rapidly going from reluctant to carefully amazed by Amsterdam