Zwarte Piet and blackface: white privilege in crisis

Op 24 november was Nadira Omarjee van de VU een van de sprekers tijdens De Oplossers Live over Zwarte Piet. Hieronder haar bijdrage aan de discussie.

The Dutch are known for tolerance and antiracist traditions such as support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Yet, The Netherlands maintains a tradition of blackface. Zwarte Piet is The Netherlands’ Achilles heel.

Claire Weeda (2012) argues that Zwarte Piet has been imported into Dutch society from an old-German tradition and as such is an ‘invented tradition’, implying that Zwarte Piet can therefore be open to change. I will argue that the resistance in removing blackface from the Sinterklaas festivities has more to do with the social imaginary of what it means to be autochtonous Dutch. Autochtonous refers to indigenous people or not from migrant or colonists ancestry. I will also argue that autochtonous Dutch enjoy white privilege (Steyn 2007) that allows for a normative, dominant position in society that is embedded in the power/knowledge nexus. And thus in order for change to occur around the Sinterklaas tradition, autochtonous Dutch need to embrace an intercultural society that rethinks Dutch history of colonialism and slavery.

The Dutch government uses a classification system that defines ‘from the soil’ as Willem Schinkel suggested[1] or indigenous or ‘pure’ Dutch as autochtoon and new Dutch referring to people with migrant or colonist ancestry as allochtoon. This is problematic because the term autochtoon implies ‘white’ Dutch[2] and normalises and privileges ‘white Dutch’ so that allochtoons implying people without ‘pure’ Dutch ancestry are ‘not-quite Dutch’, supplicating a social imaginary that is hierarchical with white Dutch privileged over the not-quite Dutch allochtoons. In this context, the symbolism of ZP is significant in that it ignores the Dutch history of colonialism and slavery by perpetuating white privilege through state sanctioning. And here I refer to the verdict on April 24, 2015 ( reports) that The Netherlands’ Public Prosecutor decided that he will not prosecute organisations who make use of the figure Zwarte Piet arguing that ZP cannot be proven to provoke racism, discrimination or offence.

In the book Dutch Racism, Rebecca Brienen argues that the character of Zwarte Piet is more closely aligned with ‘the idea that blacks were arrested in terms of their development and were therefore ruled by base desires and impulses, rather than reason, as well as the idea that blacks were not members of the same species as white people, but were rather closer to apes. Opinions like these were used to justify slavery, colonial rule, and segregation into the twentieth century’ (Brienen 2015: 185). Brienen’s argument highlights the perceptions associated with Zwarte Piet that get hidden behind discourses that claim innocence and deny the racist historical context of blackface. She shows how Zwarte Piet cannot be separated from this historical context (and I add here, white privilege) that underpins the Sinterklaas tradition. She thus highlights the need to confront notions of innocence associated with Zwarte Piet.

Jan Nederveen Pieterse (1995) in his book “White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture” shows how Western representations through history have depicted Blacks as submissive, subordinate and humorous. He claimed that ‘In a world that is becoming smaller and societies that are becoming multicultural, it may be time for Western culture to examine itself critically in terms of its views of other cultures’. In recent history, in the 1970s with the civil rights movement, The US began to remove representations of blackface. And, in the 1980s, The British had removed the Golliwogs from Enid Blyton’s children’s books.

Frantz Fanon, the father of postcolonialism, also ruminated on the occurrence of blackface. Fanon claimed in a footnote (Notes: 38.) in BSWM (1961: 136) that:

It is unusual to be told in the United States, when one calls for the real freedom of the Negro: “That’s all they’re waiting for, to jump our women.” Since the white man behaves in an offensive manner toward the Negro, he recognizes that in the Negro’s place he would have no mercy on his oppressors. Therefore it is not surprising to see that he identifies himself with the Negro: white “hot-jazz” orchestras, white blues and spiritual singers, white authors writing novels in which the Negro proclaims his grievances, whites in blackface.’

Fanon suggests here that ‘whites in blackface’ is a way of appeasing blacks of the offences and aggressions perpetrated against them.Linda Alcoff (2006) in her seminal work titled “Visible Identities : Race, Gender, and the Self” suggests:

“A reduction of racism will affect perception itself, … Toward this, our first task, it seems to me, is to make visible the practices of visibility itself, to outline the background from which our knowledge of others and of ourselves appears in relief. From there we may be able to alter the associated meanings ascribed to visible difference.”

Alcoff highlights the importance of making racists perceptions visible because once visible, as Jessica Robles (2015) argues, it then also offers opportunities for repair.

Michel Foucault explored the idea of the power/knowledge nexus. In The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1977: 29, 62, 65, 87, 100, 118, 158, 203) Foucault argued that the arbitrary system of signs is associated with the influence of power to knowledge or the power/knowledge nexus. This implies that knowledge is directly related to power (McNay, 1992: 13). The power/knowledge nexus can also found in the relationship between theory and practice or discourse and materiality (McNay, 1992).

The exit for Foucault from the binary implicit in the power/knowledge nexus is through resistance. Resistance can be sought through making racists perceptions visible and by offering new reparable representations. This means that any claim on truth or knowledge production is not a priori but instead requires a critical examination. In this context, a resistance to change the blackface representation of Zwarte Piet shows how some forms of knowledge production lend themselves to perceptions that perpetuate the normativity of white privilege.

In South Africa in 2014, two white women students from the University of Pretoria dressed themselves up as black domestic workers for a 21st birthday party. This dressing-up in blackface for fancy dress parties has subsequently occurred at Stellenbosch University as well as Wits University. Photos of the students at the respective parties turned up on Facebook. Although these were private parties, the photos were made public on a social media site, thus the universities were obliged to investigate the cases. The photo of the students from the University of Pretoria was also reported to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). In South Africa, blackface constitutes a racist act and people can be prosecuted for it.

With twenty-one years of democracy, in post-apartheid South Africa, blackface still occurs in the private domain. However it becomes public when it enters social media sites such as Facebook and twitter. The occurrence of blackface in post-apartheid South Africa is indicative of a resistance to change and a way of upholding white privilege by playfully objectifying blackness. However these occurrences of blackface also offer opportunities to recognise the space for repair of racist perceptions. In the case of the students at the University of Pretoria, these students were removed from their university residence and were given community service. Social media responses from blacks towards the occurrence blackface indicated hurt and anger. Some people were offended because their mothers were domestic workers who had raised white kids in order to support their own families. These sacrifices seemed to be blatantly disregarded by the students. Thus the social media responses’ to blackface in post-apartheid South Africa also offered a moment of reflection and learning for both blacks and whites alike. It showed how structural racism affects the way entitlement works in representations such as blackface.

Within the frame of white privilege, Zwarte Piet is understood as part of a history of Dutch colonialism and slavery, and as Fanon claimed, a way of whites appeasing blacks. But blackface does not appease. Instead it is a way of fixing blackness as a subordinate position. The inherent subordination of blackness in the playful act of blackface removes the subjectivity of the black person through the enactment of blackface by the white person and this is with reference to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic (Benjamin 1988). ZP, in this context, symbolises a play at white dominance and a submissive positioning of blackness but with the historical inference being marginal to the festivities. If mutual recognition were employed as lens to exit Hegel’s master/slave dialectic would this not offer the opportunity for repair of a racist representation in the form of ZP? Would that not mean that the public display of blackface would be removed from the tradition? However if conditions for mutual recognition were to occur it would mean that the power/knowledge nexus and a revision of history would have to be brought to the fore so that there would be an understanding of why blackface cannot be celebrated.

Removing blackface from the Sinterklaas festivities is also about a much deeper anxiety in autochtonous Dutch society. It is about a fear of losing white privilege that is based on a social imaginary of autochtoon Dutch. And this autochtonous Dutch social imaginary is about wanting to hold onto the values of familiar old traditions that feel under siege with the influx of others, as Alex van Stipriaan suggests. Resistance is then about maintaining and fixing an identity in a highly migratory global community whereby culture and traditions have become ever changing, fluid and rehearsed through the use of new technologies so that the old is no longer familiar or pure but is instead is a hybrid. There is an anxiety belying these allochtoon others who are not the normative and yet if familiar old traditions are eroded then autochtoon Dutch traditions will no longer be the normative.

Thus the anxiety behind the resistance to revising the tradition is based on a much deeper fear of loss of identity. But this fixed and rigid notion of autochtoon Dutch identity is what causes the crisis in national identity. As Jan Nederveen Pieterse argues, the current global context requires changing the familiar old traditions to reflect the diversity in society. And this, is due to high levels of migration, decolonisation and technological advancements. This requires autochtoon Dutch to rethink identity as fixed and instead embrace the unknown, uncomfortable, awkward, new other that is part of the Dutch nation. It requires a retelling of history so that the old is still remembered and the new is forged without a repeat of the old injustices. It is about understanding and accepting that to be an intercultural society some notions of Dutch (pure or not-quite) have to be done away with to create space for a more integrated and inclusive society. It requires an understanding of the self and other without a hierarchical binary in place. Thus the obvious opportunities for repair are to scrap the hierarchical classification system of autochtoon and allochtoon in everyday speak and all other forms and, to revisit the history of Dutch colonialism and slavery.

And in conclusion, to finding a solution to the Zwarte Piet crisis, it is not necessary to get rid of the Sinterklaas tradition. However in order to maintain the tradition and remove the racist historical implications of Zwarte Piet, it is important to remove blackface and allow for a racially integrated representation of Sinterklaas and his Pieten.


Alcoff, Linda Martin. 2006. Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brienen, Rebecca. 2015. Types and Stereotypes: Zwarte Piet and His Early Modern Sources in Essed, P and Hoving, I (eds) Dutch Racism. Leiden: Brill.

Essed, Philomena and Hoving, Isabel. 2015. Innocence, Smug Ignorance, Resentment: An Introduction to Dutch Racism 1: Narratives and Legacies of Dutch Racism in Essed, P and Hoving, I (eds) Dutch Racism. Leiden: Brill.

Fanon, Frantz. 2001. Black Skins White Masks. London: Penguin.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. The Order of Things. An archaeology of the human sciences. London: Tavistock Publications.

Hubinette and Lundstrom. 2014. Swedish Whiteness. Unpublished.

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Steyn, Melissa. 2007. ‘The diversity imperative: Excellence, institutional culture, and limiting assumptions at some historically white universities’. In: Communitas, 12: 1-17.

Weeda, Claire. 2012. Images of Ethnicity in Later Medieval Europe. Amsterdam: Amsterdam School for Culture and History. (Doctoral Dissertation).

Zizek, Slavoj. 2006. How to read Lacan. London: Granta Books.

[1] Willem Schinkel whilst in conversation with Philomena Essed at the ECREA conference on November 19, 2015 suggested that notions from the soil are problematic because they encompass a sense of entitlement.

[2] Hubinette and Lundstrom (2104) argue that the Swedes live with a contradiction whereby they consider themselves antiracist yet they are also anti-immigration and cannot accept that being an integrated and multicultural society means giving-up the notion of being a pure white society.