Friday, October 25, 2013


Excerpt 'How to Be Orange,' 2013 - 

‘You’re only here because you’re black.’
- Johan Cruyff to Edgar Davids

As a comedian, I love Zwarte Piet. Black Pete is good for business. Santa Claus has his elves; Sinterklaas has his negers. Some people say Zwarte Piet is racist, such as the group of people who protested the annual Sinterklaas parade with T-shirts saying ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme.’ Of course, the cops arrested them. …Otherwise people might have noticed!

I remember a science fiction film, where the aliens emit a substance that makes humans thinks they’re adorable, instead of hideous. Zwarte Piet seems to emit a similar substance that works specifically on Dutch people.

For years, I’ve been performing shows at Boom Chicago Comedy Theater, making jokes about Zwarte Piet. The most entertaining bit is always after the show, when Dutch people passionately argue that Zwarte Piet is not really black. They insist: ‘It’s the soot from the chimney’ that gives Zwarte Piet his red lips, hoop earrings and afro.

I was invited to sit on a panel to discuss Zwarte Piet, and I said yes. The event was called ‘Zwart van Roet’ (black from soot). The panel was hosted by Quinsy Gario, the founder of ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme.’ He’s also the one who was arrested – and beaten – for wearing his T-shirt at that Sinterklaas parade. Was he bitter? A little.

I decided to share my story about Zwarte Piet. It’s the same story I tell in the Zwarte Piet show at Boom Chicago. My kids are half-Dutch, and they love Zwarte Piet, But it got awkward when he came to our door.

My wife is Dutch, and – according to her – we celebrate Sinterklaas in the ‘traditional Dutch way.’ That is to say, we do it as simply as possible. We get a sack full of presents and we give it to the neighbor. The neighbor waits five minutes and drops the sack at our door. He rings the doorbell and runs away. The kids then open the door and – even though there’s no one there – they scream and cheer with glee. It’s the most cost-efficient theatrical trick ever devised. No costumes, no actors, just a sack of props and a huge result. Leave it to the Dutch.

One year, when my daughter was three, we finished dinner early and got ready for presents and pakjesavond. It was almost 6 o’clock, it was already dark, and – before my wife could say ‘Zwarte Piet will be here soon,’ we heard the doorbell ring. My wife looked at me to ask, ‘Did you go to the neighbor already?’ I shook my head no. But my daughter – being three years old – was already at the door. She yelled ‘Yay!’ and whipped open the door. And there, standing in the doorway, was a guy with a black face, dark curly hair and a brightly colored red & yellow outfit. The outfit said ‘DHL Post.’

Now I don’t know whose decision it was to send this guy out delivering packages on the 5th of December. But sure enough, my daughter was living the dream, her eyes filled with joy. I was looking at her, thinking, ‘Please, don’t say it...’ and moved towards her, but not quickly enough! She raised her hand and yelled, ‘Zwarte Piet!’

My wife and I were frozen, as the color drained from my face. Our eyes locked as we got whiter, and the DHL guy got redder. The American in me was paralyzed with shame: we’ve made my daughter a racist!’ But the Dutch part of me just said play along: ‘That’s right! It IS Zwarte Piet! Sometimes Papa has to sign Zwarte Piet’s Magic Clipboard! And Papa hopes Zwarte Piet never has to take the 5 December evening shift again.’


Consistently, after I tell that story onstage, I’ll have someone come up and ask if I made it up. ‘It’s not true, right? The part about your daughter pointing to a black person as Zwarte Piet?’ How could it not be true? It happens all the time.

At the ‘Zwart van Roet’ event, there were plenty of black Dutch people with the same story. One man said he was in a cafĂ© in late November, when he found himself being laughed at. There was a four-year-old Dutch kid who’d called him Zwarte Piet. The man responded by telling the parents that people should know the difference: ‘No hat, no feather, no Piet!’ They just laughed at him. 

Another man had a kid point at him on the street and call him Zwarte Piet. He told the kid ‘I’m not buying presents for you.’ The man said the parents were so offended they wrote a letter to the newspaper claiming they had been victimized: ‘With that kind of attitude, this man is just asking for trouble.’

I’ve received similar feedback from telling my story online.
- 'These complainers are just hyper-correct white people or aggrieved descendants of slavery who look for a reason to complain. They're just the latest batch of moochers who would rather complain about nothing than do something with their lives.'

- ‘Every year, you people feel discriminated because of a little black makeup? Show a little character.’

- ‘Non-white people who complain should start their own tradition of dressing up in sandals and long hair because they’re all doing one big hippie imitation.’

And those were nice ones. Then there were these:
- ‘Shapiro, it’s simple. Follow our traditions or get out.’

- ‘To be honest, you sound like a twat. merry christmas numb nuts.’

(note: these comments were given anonymously or pseudonymously.) (note: they are reprinted with misspellings intact.) (note: the misspellings are not as bad as the comments left by some native speakers, so you can give them some credit.)

Further feedback highlights American holiday hypocrisy:
- ‘We’ll eliminate Sinterklaas, when you give up fat Santa.' 

- ‘How can Americans lecture us about Sinterklaas with their over-commercial Santa Claus? It’s like the Vatican lecturing us about child abuse.’

- ‘Santa Claus is helped by elves who are very small people. Is this not equally discriminatory?’

I’ve received so many comments that center on Santa’s elves that I feel I should point out a key distinction: an elf is modeled on a mythical creature. Zwarte Piet is not. For the comparison to hold true, the American tradition of Santa’s helpers would have to be some kind of ethnic Dutch stereotype. For that logic to hold up, Dutch people would have to be living in America and confronted at Christmastime with a character called, say, ‘Buck-Tooth Dutchie.’

Santa would always be accompanied by a bunch of Americans dressed up like Anky van Grunsven and dancing like horses. It may not be very flattering. Nor very accurate. And – when Dutch people would complain – the Americans would respond, ‘Don’t be silly! We love all you square-faced, square-teethed Dutch people. Now dance like a horse for us!’


The Zwarte Piet issue became clearer when Geert Wilders pulled out of the Dutch cabinet in 2012. There was a big headline in Spits, saying:

To me, ‘Zwarte Piet for Widlers’ could only mean one thing: ‘Zwarte Piet Supports Wilders Politically.’ This seemed unlikely.

Or ‘ZWARTE PIET VOOR WILDERS’ could also mean a ‘Zwarte Piet is being given to Wilders,’ perhaps as a personal assistant. Then the black-face would offset the hair dye.

Or perhaps it was voor in the sense of before. As in  ‘We’d work with Zwarte Piet before we’d work with Wilders.’ That was closer to the truth. But also totally wrong.

I had to ask a Dutch friend of mine to explain it for me:
‘It’s obvious! “ZWARTE PIET VOOR WILDERS” means Wilders is taking the blame crashing the Cabinet.’

Me: ‘Okay. But why Zwarte Piet?

Dutch guy: ‘It’s from the card game, when you end up with the Joker. That’s the Zwarte Piet.’

Me: ‘So Zwarte Piet is The Joker? That would be an interesting Batman remake…’

Dutch guy: ‘No, Zwarte Piet means you take the blame, you lose. You get the Zwarte Piet.’

Me: ‘Ah. And of course Zwarte Piet isn’t really black – he’s just painted black. So “Wilders Is Being Painted Black.” Like zwartmaken?’

Dutch guy: ‘Yes! Zwartmaken is bad, Wilders is bad.’

Me: ‘So Zwarte Piet is bad – ?’

Dutch guy: ‘NO! Zwarte Piet is good!’

Me: ‘But if zwartmaken is bad then making someone black is bad…’

Dutch guy: ‘Well, Zwarte Piet isn’t really black. It’s just the soot from the chimney!’

Me: ‘Okay! So what’s the bad part? The soot is bad?’

Dutch guy: ‘No.’

Me: ‘Okay! Then the black-face is bad?’

Dutch guy: ‘No.’

Me: ‘Okay! Then just BEING black is bad.’

Dutch guy: ‘Yeah …but in a good way.’


Back to the ‘Zwart van Roet’ event. The guy behind the ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’ T-shirts is Quinsy Gario. A highlight of the Great Zwarte Piet debate was Quinsy sitting next to Jeroen, the director of the kids show Sinterklaas Journaal. You’ve got to give Jeroen some credit for showing up. He started by giving a compliment: ‘Intelligent debate so far. I admit, I’d assumed you’d all be just a bunch of “Bijlmer types.”’ (The Bijlmer area is renown for its high concentration of African and Caribbean citizens.)

Good old Dutch honesty. And, thus, whatever credit he’d had was immediately thrown out the window.

Jeroen of Sinterklaas Journaal went on to insist that Dutch people do not see Zwarte Piet as black. He insisted: ‘It’s just the soot from the chimney.’
I wished for his sake that he’d have brought his lawyer along: ‘Jeroen, did you not see the poster for the event? Did you not read the title?’
Further, Jeroen denied that the makeup for Zwarte Piet is called ‘Neger Zwart.’ While they debated that point, we watched as the technician did a Google search on the big screen onstage. Again, Jeroen insisted: ‘It’s not called “Neger Zwart”.’ And onscreen we were looking at several examples of makeup called ‘Neger Zwart.’

By the end, Jeroen admitted that maybe the depiction of Zwarte Piet could be seen as offensive to ‘certain’ people. He admitted that next year they should do things differently: they should write in a few lines about how Zwarte Piet is not really black.

I watched this year’s Sinterklaas Journaal. I didn’t see anything about how Zwarte Piet is not really black.

Yet, I also noticed that my daughter grew out of her phase. She no longer confuses black people with Zwarte Piet. In fact, when she was watching the (white) actor Eric van Muiswinkel on TV, she recognized him as the Head Zwarte Piet, even without the makeup.

To be honest, my kids are now old enough they no longer believe in Zwarte Piet, and they no longer want to celebrate Sinterklaas. 

What’s to become of Zwarte Piet? At the ‘Zwart van Roet’ event, there was an organizer who told how he went around to all the shops on the Bijlmerplein and lobbied them to remove Zwarte Piet imagery from their windows. I couldn’t help thinking: ‘Why waste your time with Hema shop windows?
The Hema headquarters is already at Bijlmerplein 355!’

It was by appealing to the management of Dutch confectioner Buys that they agreed to change the name of their traditional cookies ‘Neger Zoenen.’ (Zoenen means kisses.) (Neger you can guess.) After some pressure, the name of the chocolate covered marshmallow cookies was changed to simply ‘Zoenen.’ No shame, no blame. Just change the name.

Quinsy Gario ended his comments demanding that all Dutch people admit that Zwarte Piet is racism. I don’t see that happening. But I do see some signs of change. McDonalds had a whole ad campaign for a dessert with pepernoten – the traditional cookies thrown by Zwarte Piet. The ad featured a nighttime Amsterdam skyline, blanketed in snow. That was it. No Sinterklaas, no Zwarte Piet. It still got the point across.

But personally I hope Zwarte Piet won’t disappear. He really is great for business.