In the Netherlands, every year in November, the mythical figure Saint Nicolas arrives, kicking off a month of celebration and anticipation of December 5th, which is his day of birth and the day all the children in the country receive gifts from this Saint Nicholas, “Sinterklaas”. With this arrival starts a yearly polarizing public debate on the racist component to this celebration.
First appearing alongside Sinterklaas in a book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman in 1850 was Zwarte Piet, a clown-like servant traditionally played by Dutch white people with their faces painted black, their lips exaggerated in thick red paint, with curly black wigs and thick gold hoop earrings. One can easily draw comparisons to the blackface tradition as we know it from Jim Crow era in the United States of America and the United Kingdom’s Golliwog, both banished since mid 20th century. Even though black and brown people in Holland and its former colonies have been opposing the Zwarte Piet tradition for as long, the response by Dutch lawmakers, the general public and mainstream media has always been to shrug these concerns off. Protesters are portrayed as overly sensitive, the overall consensus being “this is a tradition, something innocent and for the children. Nothing racist about it.”
While most of the country has grown tired of this endless debate and some mainstream media have caught on to the racism in the blackface tradition, in recent years the voices against Zwarte Piet have gone from brushed off to willfully ignored by the powers that be, their peaceful protests from being blocked by authorities to violently broken up. In large part through the efforts of Quinsy Gario, Jerry Afriye, Mitchell Esajas, Jessica de Abreu, Sylvana Simons, Naomi Pieter and others, activists are gaining traction within the major cities. As a result, 46 of the bigger cities in the country have gotten rid of the traditional blackface figure, with one-third of the Dutch population now living in a municipality free of Zwarte Piet. Along with growing disapproval, backlash by the extreme-right has intensified, culminating in a recent violent attack by a group of men, ages 13 to 37, carrying bats, weapons and heavy fireworks, on a private assembly of anti-Zwarte Piet group Kick Out Zwarte Piet.
Only five arrests were made and the country’s Prime Minister has yet to address - let alone condemn - this terrorist attack.
This November, 10 years after the first Anti Zwarte Piet shirt, Patta has worked with Piet Parra on a t-shirt from which all profits will go to Kick Out Zwarte Piet, to encourage and support KOZP in the fight to make the Sinterklaas tradition a celebration for all inhabitants of Holland.
The t-shirt features a Zwarte Piet figure on the front, by Vincent van de Waal. And a quote referencing a 90s rap group 3rd Bass song “The Gas Face” adorning the back, in Piet Parra’s signature handwriting.
The “Blackface Gets The Gas Face” T-Shirt will be available in-store at Patta Amsterdam from Saturday, November 23rd and online from Monday, November 25th.