Zwarte Piet Debate – A Call to Action (Photo DW)

Zwarte Piet Debate – A Call to Action

Not your typical Zwarte Piet Debate article – this one isn’t opinionated, but written from a Nonviolent Communication-based mediator’s—Cara Crisler—point of view with a call to action for mutual understanding and compassion.

The debate is still going strong concerning the old Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and his “Zwarte Pieten” (Black Petes). As it doesn’t appear to disappear anytime soon, I’d love to see the growing polarization turn into a more healthy discussion in which the opportunity is seized for understanding and growth.

There are different stories that explain the origin and appearance of Zwarte Pieten, ranging from former North African slaves to it’s-the-smudge-from-the-chimneys-that-make-them-black. At first glance they might be perceived as fun-loving, acrobatic, candy-tossing, child-pleasing “helpers” of the long-loved traditional hero, called Saint Nicholas, a.k.a. Sinterklaas. Yet perception is in the eye of the beholder. Those of us from North America know “black face” within a specific historical context. It was used by white actors (before African Americans could be paid for the job) to play the role of dark skinned people, and there was a visible “dumbing down” within these roles.  This practice ended decades ago in the U.S. as it was perceived by a majority to be a racist act. And thus ever since, the mere sight of “black face” is directly correlated to racism.

Racism isn’t a word or act most Dutch people I know associate with directly. Yes, their ancestors engaged in slave trade and the Dutch word “apartheid” is a well understood concept by all. But in general, on Dutch soil, tolerance has been by far more dominant than outward racism. So it’s not hard for me to imagine that the mere reference to a beloved tradition as being racist has led to many Dutch finding themselves defensive. And a strategy used to defend themselves against this accusation is to dig the heels in and fight very hard to protect the tradition just as it is. After all, in their mind, there’s never been anything “wrong” with it to begin with! Giving in now would be something like admitting wrongdoing.

I think it’s fair to say that the concept of “right vs. wrong” gets us into a lot conflict. Nonviolent Communication training has taught me that it’s a framework for thinking, and that no one has the full and ultimate truth about either. I’ve learned that underneath all of our thoughts about “good vs. bad” lie the things that are really important to us—natural, universal needs. Things like love, acceptance, safety – all of which are easy to understand and experience compassion.

If both sides of this polarized issue were to listen to each other with empathic ears, it could lead to amazing cultural understanding and a coming together as one in this country. I imagine it could look something like this:

To those upholding the tradition as it is: “Is it that you really love this tradition and you hold it close to your heart as an important part of children’s early years? Is it perhaps difficult to hear or even remotely understand that what is so fun and meaningful to you is painful and alienating for some others?  Is it that you interpret the accusation as a personal attack that you are racist yourself, and that doesn’t sit well with you? Because you don’t relate to ‘being racist’ at all – instead you relate to celebrating, fun, and togetherness?”

To those opposing the Zwarte Piet appearance: “Do you experience pain when you see the Zwarte Pieten, or anytime you see ‘black face’? Does it bring up memories or thoughts that people with dark skin are being made fun of or undervalued? Is it that you so long to be taken seriously, seen for who YOU are today, valued as a human being equal to every other human being?”

If “yes!” rings out from both sides, then we’re one step closer to mutual understanding. That’s the first critical step to take before new strategies can be considered. Are there perhaps ways to move forward so that all needs are met?  Can the tradition in the Netherlands continue in a way that fun celebration is had, special childhood memories created AND that “the Zwarte Piet opposers” feel welcome to participate in ways in which they are honored and valued for who they are?

I believe very strongly that if both sides feel truly heard and understood, then it doesn’t have to be a choice about one way or the other – but that all needs can be met through creativity. My call to action is to help move the discussion in that direction! In your communication with others, on FB, in letters to the editors, try to stay away from labels and judgments of what you think the other party is doing wrong. Get in touch with what’s motivating / really important for both sides, and express at that level. Long live the power of compassion and empathy!



The first version of this article The Zwarte Piet Debate was posted by Amsterdam Mamas on 29 October, 2013.

Cara Crisler
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6 replies
  1. crislercoaching
    crislercoaching says:

    Thank you for your comments! They bring me deeper understanding about the underlying issues involved with this whole discussion. I’d like to try to reply to each of you as I would as a mediator, in hopes of passing messages to each other in way that can be heard (curious to hear any of your replies) . . .

    @ Arjan, I gather from your words that you might be frustrated about the looming threats these days to what (for you and people you know) is an innocent, wonderful tradition. You wish everyone could see / focus on the joy it brings to children, and simply leave it as is? Perhaps for you, there are so few traditions in the Netherlands, and this is one you would really love to protect for everyone to enjoy?

    @av: I understand from you that in your youth, you didn’t experience racism at all until it was brought to people’s attention, and THEN it became an issue. I can imagine that it must be really frustrating for you that a problem appears to be created such as in the Zwarte Piet debate, where you personally didn’t experience one to begin with. And I hear you really wishing that “real racism problems” would be addressed instead, and perhaps those that only pertain to Europe and not elsewhere in the world (or from outsiders’ perspectives). And in your second comment, I hear that you really wish an “innocent child tradition” wouldn’t turn into some huge political correctness debate, when “true racism issues, like black kids with no guns being shot by police or discrimination in employment policies” deserve our focused attention. I can understand there’s a wish here for meaningful change in things that affect people’s daily lives – do I get you?

    @Thais: From your short comment, I think I’m hearing that you wish for others to see there’s validity in this debate for you – not just a minor, politically correct issue? Perhaps there are aspects of the Zwarte Pieten that offend you, and you would like for there to be openness, maybe understanding about it?

    @ Monica: Perhaps a bit like Thais, do you also wish that there was general understanding that for some the Zwarte Pieten contain elements of racism, and you’d like for this to not be overlooked? Further, that children be informed about the whole context (at least as it is for some)? I gather that honesty is really important to you, is that right?

  2. Monica Sousa
    Monica Sousa says:

    “He climbs down chimneys?” Surely that was the story in the history books isn’t it? Or one invented to negate the fact that it holds racism from the beginning. This is what you tell your children so they can become unaware of the true facts. It is sad. And to try and take an old tradition away from your culture is no a good thing, but blinding one from the truth and say it’s ok or it’s because of a chimney is wrong!

    • av
      av says:

      Ok, fine the frizzy hair. So Sinterklaas has some buddies helping him, freed black slaves (older version of the tradition). How bad is that, that some black guys are helping him or worse, punishing small white kids? Bad indeed….
      What annoys me the most with this debate is that a huuuuuuge deal is made in an innocent child tradition, just a ridiculous long debate instead of talking about true racism issues, like black kids with no guns being shot by police, or discrimination in employment policies, etc. This is a typical of ridiculous politically correct discussion, wasting good will and good intention in tiny stupid details. Focus on real life problems instead of wasting pseudo good intention in pointing at details.

  3. Av
    Av says:

    When I was a kid, I went to school were there were almost all the color of the rainbow and all religions. There was no problem, kids from different confessions were having different lunch than us and it was all ok. One of my best friend was black. One day, a guy from “stop racism” came to our school and strayed to say” your friend might be different but it’s ok”. Then we started to wonder was was wrong with our friends. Well done ” stop racism” …
    This whole debate about zwarte Piet is just a way to find racism where there is NO issue, instead of really tackling real racism problems. I would like also to emphasize that I do not see the point of comparing North America mentality and history with what happens in Europe, it is way different and quite arrogant actually. The cherry on the top being the argument “apartheid” is a Dutch word, which should have its own equivalent of Godwin point….

  4. Arjan van Jaaren
    Arjan van Jaaren says:

    Stop it and stick to the tradition as is!

    Zwarte Piet is black because he climbs down chimneys!! It has nothing to do with racism!

    Instead look at the happy faces of children as they light up dark winter days.

    Holland has few traditions, please keep this one alive. Having lived all over the world I have discussed the issue with friends. Nobody, including black friends sees any point to all this

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