The organization “Stichting Sinterklaas Intocht Leeuwarden” (SSIL) announced that it won’t be organizing a Sinterklaas parade in Leeuwarden this year. The SSIL is afraid that protests against the contested tradition could dominate the annual event.
By Mehret Haile-Mariam
The feast of Sinterklaas is an annual celebration taking place on December 6. The arrival of Sinterklaas in mid-November, together with his helpers referred to as “Zwarte Pieten”, is one of the most popular holidays in the Netherlands. Traditionally, Sinterklaas is accompanied by the so-called “Zwarte Pieten,” dark-skinned figures impersonated by white people wearing blackface, painted large red lips and black curly wigs.
Origins of Blackface
Blackface gained popularity in the United States during the 19th century, as white performers painted their faces black to mock enslaved Africans in minstrel shows. Africans would be mimicked and depicted as lazy, hypersexual, and ignorant. Although blackface has lost its popularity in the 21st century and has been labelled as highly offensive and disrespectful towards people of African descent, other countries continue the practice.
No wonder these festivities surrounding Sinterklaas and his helpers have been accompanied by counter protests for nearly a decade now. Many argue that the depiction of “Zwarte Piet” is highly insensitive and perpetuates racist stereotypes about Black people.
The SSIL considered going with a “Grey Pete,” hoping to circumvent protests while satisfying the desire of people in favour of the tradition. However, the activist organization “Kick Out Zwarte Piet” (KOZP), which was founded back in 2014 and advocates for the abolishment of the “Zwarte Piet” tradition on Sinterklaasavond, objected.
After Elvin Rigters, KOZP activist, “Grey Pete” would only represent a light-version of “Zwarte Piet.”
As the activists of KOZP were not going to back down, the SSIL did. The organizers, afraid of the backlash they might face, decided to withdraw. According to the SSIL, the public’s safety was central in their decision-making process.
Past celebrations had seen clashes between proponents and opponents of this tradition, as right-wing supporters instrumentalized the conflict to spread their racist ideologies.