Through a Different Lens: An (Indonesian) Perspective on Zwarte Piet
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the action group Kick Out Zwarte Piet (KOZP), I dedicate this piece to amplifying their mission of visibly changing the racist figure of Zwarte Piet in Dutch society. Discussions surrounding this topic have been presented in different media outlets hundreds of times before. But for this piece, I aim to share my perspective - as someone stemming from a former Dutch colony (Indonesia), moving to the Netherlands, and getting introduced to Sinterklaas festivities, including Zwarte Piet.
Growing up in Indonesia, I often heard the phrase: “Jangan nakal, nanti ditangkap Pit Hitam loh” (translation: don’t be naughty, Black Piet will kidnap you). It was a common joke that my mom and aunties would use as a threat to discipline the children in our family. However, the image of Zwarte Piet was never really present in my life. Or at least not as a blackfaced figure in colorful clothes like how it is portrayed in the Netherlands. In my opinion, there are two reasons for this absence of imagery. First, Sinterklaas was not a widely celebrated holiday like in the Netherlands and former Dutch colonies in the Americas. There are no parades, no television series, and no children’s books featuring Zwarte Piet. Their popularity was limited to their job as kidnappers of bad and naughty children. Or second, it could be because nobody exposed me to any media with Zwarte Piet when I was a child. I only realized how absent the image of Zwarte Piet was from my life in Indonesia when I moved to the Netherlands in 2018. One day, when I was studying at the university library in Singel, my friend asked if we wanted to see the Sinterklaas parade at the Dam Square. Out of curiosity, I decided to go with her. For the first time in my life, I saw the Zwarte Piets; it was not at all how I envisioned them this whole time.
That was not the first time I observed this contradiction between the claimed Dutch values of acceptance, liberalism, and tolerance, and my own experiences living in the Netherlands. Zwarte Piet is just one of many cases that shows the controversial side of these Dutch values. But having to witness such an overt act of blackface, with the curly wigs, red overlined lips, and gold hoop earrings, during a festive celebration will remain ingrained in my brain as an example of how backwards the Netherlands is when it comes to racial awareness. Quoting the Dutch scholar Gloria Wekker, Dutch exceptionalism denies the racial discrimination and colonial violence that coexist alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia. Wekker coined this paradox ‘white innocence’. The Dutch national identity usually centers around the Dutch ‘tolerant’ and ‘liberal’ ‘way of life’. They take pride in their socio-economic and cultural progressiveness, and have successfully projected this image to the rest of the world. It is no surprise that my perception of Dutch society was also rooted in this cultural liberalism.
This piece is not the first in this magazine to discuss Zwarte Piet alongside the concept of white innocence. Despite the blackface activities being banned in some municipalities, including Amsterdam, a large percentage of the Netherlands either remain in full support of or indifferent to Zwarte Piet--the latter is a more accurate reflection of ‘white innocence’. Echoing what Eline has said in a previous piece, the action of condoning Zwarte Piet as a figure and rejecting that its portrayal is problematic stems from and correlates with the colonial and neo-colonial project of the Netherlands.
But why is the image of Zwarte Piet almost completely absent in Indonesia, when the idea does appear in our childhood stories? And why is it so much more prominent in the former West Indies colonies? This different degree of prominence of Zwarte Piet within the former Dutch colonies--those being demarcated under what used to be the Dutch West Indies and the Dutch East Indies--is what intrigues me the most. The critical discussion on Zwarte Piet is much more prominent in the former Dutch West Indies such as Suriname, Curacao and Aruba than in the former Dutch East Indies, which is now Indonesia. My guess would be the different relations from the Dutch metropolis, the Netherlands, to the former colonies in the Caribbean and Suriname (where Zwarte Piet is present) and to the former colonies in Asia (where there is no celebration of Zwarte Piet).
Growing up in Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, I did not receive the same education as children in other former Dutch colonies. And it is perhaps logical to focus on one’s own national history or identity as a country, not as a group of colonies that share the same colonizer. But this lack of education ultimately leads to a lack of awareness of the shared experience of Dutch colonization. On top of that, decolonization from the Dutch is a more complex story. This is shown by how differently it took place in Indonesia and in Suriname and the Caribbean. Is the lack of Zwarte Piet a sign of the successful decolonization of Indonesia?
Not in my opinion: Decolonization is not limited to a state withdrawing from the former colony within a period of time. In this sense, decolonization would be interchangeable with independence or sovereignty. And the concept of independence sometimes is even contested, as seen by the Indonesian declaration of independence and the Dutch-Indonesian Round Table Conference. However, decolonization is more than that: It is a process of dismantling colonial power in all forms. This includes the social, cultural, and economical subjugation of a nation. I believe that power relations still remain between the Netherlands and Indonesia, as a former colony. Perhaps not as prominent as other former colonies, but to an extent, power play still exists in our diplomacy. Can the absence of Zwarte Piet as a Sinterklaas tradition in Indonesia be simply due to it not being introduced back in the colonial era? Or are there deeper reasons for this? Are the power relations between Indonesia and the Netherlands different than between Suriname and the Netherlands, for example?
So far, I have shared my perception of Zwarte Piet as someone who grew up in a former Dutch colony, and how it differs from how it is portrayed in the Netherlands and also other former Dutch colonies. In the end, Zwarte Piet, how we celebrate Sinterklaas, that is all tradition. How can we decolonize traditions? Upholding these colonial traditions seems to contradict what people claim as the core Dutch values. It is very clear to me that the tradition of Zwarte Piet should be banished in all forms - even alternatives like Roetpiets and ‘grey’ piets are still derivatives of Zwarte Piet. These ‘more acceptable’ forms of Zwarte Piet still project a certain stigma against Black people. As the action group Kick Out Zwarte Piet (KOZP) has stated in the past, these alternatives are just symbolic solutions to divert society’s attention from the actual problem of institutionalized racism.
I admit that it is easy for me as an ‘outsider’ who did not grow up celebrating Sinterklaas to say that Zwarte Piet should be completely erased from existence. I know that Zwarte Piet plays a crucial role in the Sinterklaas holiday, in the story of Sinterklaas and all of the festivities. Erasing them from this tradition may change, and even erase, the holiday completely. It’s a core childhood memory for a majority of Dutch people. But on the other hand, this holiday is harmful to certain groups of individuals, especially children, just because they are of a certain race or having a certain skin color. It is another ramification of unconscious, ‘innocent’ racism, of holding on to a blackface caricature. Therefore, it is one thing to respect traditions but it is also another thing to harm others.
Finally, I am not implying that Indonesia is more progressive than the Netherlands in terms of racial awareness; nor is Zwarte Piet my tradition to decolonize. I think we all can admit that racial ignorance is a global pandemic, a universal fault. Rather, while reflecting on my first encounters with Zwarte Piet here in Amsterdam, I started thinking about the anti-blackness present in Indonesia. It cannot all be blamed on the colonial legacy - former colonies have agency in this day and age, in these postcolonial contexts. Culture is dynamic, after all. It changes over time. And while many seem adamant to cling onto ‘old’ traditions like Zwarte Piet as a part of Sinterklaas, change will always be inevitable.