Zwarte Piet or Black Peter-is he acceptable material for a story?

No story this week, but instead a philosophical muse on a subject my conscience has been wrestling with.

On my recent trip to The Netherlands to visit friends, I became acquainted with the character who goes by the name of Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. In all the years I have been going to The Netherlands I have never come across this young man/boy, but that is due to the fact that I have never been there in the run up to Christmas.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Dutch way of doing things, Zwarte Piet is as much a part of their xmas celebrations as Father Christmas is in the UK/US. He is Santa Claus’s (Sinterklaas) trusty and slightly naughty side-kick. The two festive fellows arrive by boat in November and are presented with keys of the town, thereby gaining permission to run across roof tops and deliver gifts to the good children of Holland.

 

Schwarte Piet & Sinta Klaus

Xmas, Dutch Style

 

The joyous public, (yes, I know, not all of them), dress up as Zwarte Piet to join in the fun.

 

Dressed up as Black Peters

Dressed up as Black Peters

 

All over the country, images of Zwarte Piet crop up, in shop windows, and in confectioner’s windows especially, as small chocolates and biscuits are left out for the visiting guests.

 

Black Peter in a confectioner's window

Black Peter in a confectioner's window

 

He obviously recalls the ‘gollywog’ of Robinson’s marmalade fame (at least in the UK), but I think he went out of favour ages ago. Quite rightly, in my opinion, because he was hardly the most positive image of a black person for a white child growing up in a middle class white environment in the 70/80’s.

In fact, I find it impossible to imagine hundreds of people ‘blacking-up’ for fun and rampaging around the streets of the UK. It could only be read as racist here I think. There would be riots. (It seems to be the new thing anyway).

In The Netherlands though, it appears to be quite accepted. Having said that, I haven’t spoken to any black dutch people and they might well have a different take on this. I found it all quite uncomfortable and a bit shocking. As I walked around Utrecht with my partner, we both felt a bit disturbed by it all.

But here’s my dilemma: I really wanted to include Zwarte Piet in a story. I have an idea for a series of tales involving mythical/traditional characters and he would happily fit in. But is it morally right? I don’t know the answer. In Holland, apparently, it would be. A few hundred miles away in good old Blighty, I think it might be overstepping the line. What’s a writer to do? When is using a black character like this racist and when is it not?

I decided not to use him at all for the moment until I can take advice from you.

For a better explanation of Zwarte Piet’s origins and the differences between our Santa Claus and Sinterklaas click here.

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5 comments on “Zwarte Piet or Black Peter-is he acceptable material for a story?

  1. John Wiswell says:

    That looks sweet. I would positively indulge in these festivities. Especially dig the Pope Santa.

  2. I’d want to know more about your proposed story, since Zwarte Piet is a culturally specific character. If your story has to do with or refers to that culture there’s nothing wrong with it.

    Now, if folks paraded down the streets of a U.S. town in black face like that there’d be trouble….

    • With a capital T.
      Thanks for the feedback. I suppose you only know you’ve caused offense when someone tells you. Piet might crop up in an episode of the Mythical Creatures Emlpoyment Exchange series i’m working on.

  3. That is an interesting and awkward situation – I suspect its probably happened because it’s just never stopped and so is firmly entrenched as an Untouchable Tradition. I’m almost certain there must be traditions in the UK and US (although I can’t think of any examples immediately) which the Dutch would be equally horrified at.

    I also don’t think there’s any mockery intended – that photo of the blacked up group shows that, they’re all just smiling and enjoying being the character. If they were sticking their tongues under their lips then it might be a different situation.

    And as for you using Zwarte Piet as a character – I honestly don’t see why not. As long as you’re treating him respectfully (which I’m almost certain you would be given your concerns) and don’t make him say things “wha yessir boss, righta ways boss”.

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