December 4 – Blackness in European Folklore: The Dutch Case of Black Pete

Blackness in European Folklore – The Dutch Case: Black Pete
December 4, 2014
6 – 8 pm, 223 Moses Hall, UC Berkeley
Panel discussion

This panel discusses the Low Countries’ holiday blackface character Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and the ongoing contestations it raises in the Netherlands from several perspectives. What can Black Pete tell about the way in which the Netherlands deals with its legacy of colonialism and slavery? Can the Black Pete controversies shed light on the way in which Europe deals with blackness? And how does it relate to issues of racism and the politics of representation in folklore tradition in general?

Every November, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas), the Dutch version of Santa Claus, enters the Low Countries accompanied by numerous black faced helpers named Black Petes, cheerful characters that dance around and hand out candy to the children who assembled to welcome the Saint. Although the holiday is widely celebrated and much loved by many Dutch, a minority has been criticizing the Black Pete figure for its negative stereotyping of black people; Black Pete wears blackface and an Afro wig, has bright colored red lips and plays a servile and sometimes backwards role. While opponents want to change Black Pete’s appearance, advocates of Black Pete aim to conserve it as an important part of a harmless children’s tradition that is a defining feature of Dutchness. In recent years, the controversies over Zwarte Piet deepened and heavily polarized Dutch public opinion.

The Black Pete figure has roots in European folklore, where the devilish and often dark colored Rupert or Krampus accompanies the Saint, and was reimagined as a dark-skinned Moor figure in the mid-nineteenth century. In the Netherlands, which has a progressive self-image of being a tolerant nation where racism is not much of an issue, the Black Pete’s criticisms go beyond this holiday figure: opponents, including white people and many people of color who have been voicing critiques for several decades, find there is a lack of discourse to address racism in the Netherlands in general and its relation to the country’s legacy of colonialism and slavery on social, political and economical levels.

In 2013, the Black Pete debates gained international attention when a UN working group concluded that Black Pete was racist and advised the government to instigate change. The debates intensified, as many Dutch do not agree with the interpretation of Black Pete being racist, value the figure’s strong affective and playful character and its own agency, and feel that a tradition is being taken away from them by a small minority and by outsiders who don’t understand it. While the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, when asked about the UN report, infamously said that ‘Black Pete is Black. I cannot change that because his name is Black Pete, not Green Pete’, more and more minor changes can be seen, such as the introduction of ‘Rainbow Petes’ of different colors in festivities and children’s books. It raises the question if and how the Netherlands is finding productive ways to deal with issues of race and racism and redefine its relation to its history and tradition.

In this panel, Kwame Nimako (UC Berkeley) and Markus Balkenhol (Meertens Instituut) will discuss Black Pete in relation to folklore traditions, questions of citizenship, politics of representation and the remembrance of slavery. Dutch artist and anti Zwarte Piet activist Quinsy Gario will be interviewed. Annelise Morris (UC Berkeley) is a respondent and the audience is invited to join the discussion afterwards.

About the speakers

Kwame Nimako is visiting professor at the African American Department at UC Berkeley. He taught at the University of Amsterdam for more than 25 years and is the founder and director of the Black Summer School of Europe. He published extensively about ethnic relations, economic development and international migration.

Markus Balkenhol (via video) recently obtained his PhD with an ethnographic study about the commemoration of slavery in the Netherlands. Currently, he is a postdoc at the Meertens Institute for Dutch language and culture and at the Department for Religious Studies at Utrecht University.

Quinsy Gario (via video) is a Dutch Caribbean artist and activist. He became well known with his project ‘Black Pete is Racism’, during which he was violently arrested by the police for wearing a T-shirt with the same text at the 2011 Sinterklaas welcome event.

Annelise Morrisis a PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley in Anthropology, focusing in African Diaspora Historical Archaeology. Her research interests include: ideas of race and processes of racialization, materiality, articulations between racialization and capitalism and processes of history and memory.

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