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Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet

There are few Dutch traditions more debated, and more fiercely protected, than the celebration of Sinterklaas. The controversy has nothing to do with the jolly man in the red suit and white beard, but rather around his entourage, a slew of colorful guys named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).

sinterklaasThere are as many tales of their origins as there are Pieten. Ethiopian orphans who were saved from slavery by Sinterklaas, chimney sweeps with an aversion to soap and water, Moors who are Sint’s friends and helpers. Whatever story you choose to believe, in real life the Pieten are often Dutch (read, white) natives who paint their faces black, don a curly wig, and carry a switch.

Here we go, y’all! It’s the annual Zwarte Piet debate.

In the pro-Piet camp are the Dutch, who are beyond passionate when they declare Piet to be an innocent, festive tradition and an essential part of their culture. Piet is a lovable fairytale figure, more clown than curmudgeon, and is Sint’s friend, not his slave. He makes kids laugh and passes out candy. What could possibly be wrong with that?

On the other side is pretty much the rest of the planet. Blackface, they claim, has no place in any culture, neither as historical context nor source of entertainment, and Piet is a blatantly racist disgrace. And this from a culture that claims itself to be so modern and progressive?

Honestly, I get both arguments.

My kids and I are Americans. We live in the birthplace of the civil rights movement, and we have lots of black friends. No matter how much my Dutch friends and family value their traditions, I can’t come up with a single argument to defend Piet as anything other than politically incorrect.

But my kids are also half Dutch, and our family lived there during their prime Sint-believing years. For three weeks a year, Piet is literally everywhere — in every store, at every school, on every street corner —  and we couldn’t have avoided him if we’d tried. Which we didn’t, by the way. My kids adored Piet, and quite frankly, so did I. It’s hard not to adore someone who’s singing and dancing and handing out free candy.

Each year, the media spreads more images of Zwarte Piet in real time around the globe, and each year, the protests in and outside the Netherlands increase in both volume and vehemence. If you ask me, Zwarte Piet’s days are numbered.

And when he fades from the Dutch streets into the history books, I know it will be a good thing. But I also know I will be more than a tiny bit nostalgic.

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