The issue of whether Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype or a harmless folklore character has dominated the national (and international) press for weeks, so why not a debate on an advertising blog? After all, there is a huge responsibility within the advertising and design sectors in perpetuating the image and narrative of ʻBlack Peteʼ, the subservient companion of Sinterklaas (or Saint Nicolaas).
The stylized depictions of Piet – with blackface, black curly hair and large red lips – on confectionary, toys and store-displays recall the ʻblackfaceʼ mascots that are long banned in other Western countries. The similarities to the golliwog, Little Black Sambo, the Black and White Minstrels and all the other racist caricatures of the high imperial age are undeniable. So, isnʼt it time that Zwarte Piet joins them in the dustbin of history?
The British equivalent of Zwarte Piet is the long-banished golliwog. ʻGollyʼ, a stylized and commercial version, danced his way across the labels of Robertsonʼs jam and marmalade products for 91 years. He was a living versatile mascot-like logo. However, by the 1980s, Golly was regularly caught in the eye of politically correct storms. Much like todayʼs debate on Zwarte Piet, Robertsonʼs defended Golly as a fictional nursery land character, not a depiction of a black person. In 2001, the company bowed to the inevitable and shelved their contentious mascot.
Before the unavoidable vitriolic abuse from the locals, let us explain. As expats, we view this issue as outsiders – and are untainted by childhood nostalgia or political consciousness. We see Zwarte Piet for what it is: an anachronism and a dreadful reminder of a colonial past. The explanation that Piet is blacked-up because of the soot picked up when shimmying down the chimney is a cover-up, and a fallacious argument when observing his immaculate jerkins and pantaloons.
We see Zwarte Piet for what it is: an anachronism and a dreadful reminder of a colonial past
Weʼre not suggesting that the 2.2 million people who signed/liked the ʻPietitieʼ harbour any sinister attitudes towards black people. What we see is a knee-jerk defence of something called ʼtraditionʼ. The fear that some outsider, like the UN or a smart- arse expat, is going to stop them doing what they have always done. But employing tradition is a smokescreen. Unlike history (which is fixed and the past), tradition exists in the present and can always adapt to changing tastes and times. As even traditionalists will acknowledge, the ritual of the ʻSinterklaasfeestʼ has itself evolved over the last century. Not only was Black Pete promoted to Sinterklaasʼ assistant rather than his slave, but he also changed his gender and multiplied into a whole army of helpers. In recent days, Piet has even discarded the large gold hoop earrings. So whatʼs the big deal in a further adaptation of the story? A multicolored Piet? A version that is less offensive and sits better in a multicultural age.
So whatʼs the big deal in a further adaptation of the story?
To be clear, weʼre no party poopers or ʻzeurpietenʼ. Weʼre not looking for the abolition of this quintessential Dutch holiday tradition. The many other ingredients of the festivity (especially the drawing of ʻlootjesʼ for ʻPakjesavondʼ) combine to create a more authentic, sincere and fun party than the Coca-Cola-bastardisation-of-St- Nicolaus that happens on December 25th. We say let the party continue, but letʼs tweak it for the 21st Century! Will the tradition be any less fun when Piet has a different colour? Of course, not. After all, once children receive their sweets and presents, they donʼt care what colour Piet is.
As members of the advertising community, why donʼt we not only engage in the debate – but accept our responsibilities? Weʼre the sector propagating and commoditizing this racist mascot. And through all the jolly cartoons on packaging and in advertising, we normalise a range of behaviours, attitudes and values. Why pat ourselves on the back with campaigns highlighting more digestible (or mainstream) injustices and social causes – yet ignore a contentious issue that is right at our doorstep? Letʻs walk some of that talk. Letʼs make a stand and say No to Zwarte Piet. Too often, the sector follows rather than leads.