A Triple Crisis of the Face: Justice in the Tradition of Zwarte Piet

Rietveld & Madeleine - Neither Black nor White

Rietveld & Lot Madeleine (photo: Gwen Denswil) – Neither Black nor White

December 13th, 2011

Act I: A Strange Boat Arrives on the Shore!

The Dutch national event around “Sinterklaas en zijn Zwarte Pieten” is celebrated with great enthusiasm by the population, however, already for decades, with growing complaints by some about its racist meaning or connotation. This form of protest is spearheaded by activists from Dutch minority groups whose history is partly rooted in the colonial epoch of the Dutch. Recently this yearly form of protest has become more eventful when two activists were violently arrested for attempting to protest during the arrival of Sinterklaas in Dordrecht.1

At the same time, it seems very clear that any attempt to condemn the character of Zwarte Piet provokes a defensive reproach from a large part of the native Dutch population. The message seems clear: tradition is here to stay. For years, Sinterklaas has been the most popular Dutch national holiday around, and it encompasses not only commerce but also primary school education. Those who want to change the tradition ask: whom to face in this deadlock?

It is becoming increasingly clear that many Dutch citizens of various (ethnic) backgrounds are opposed to this tradition – they feel hurt by the omnipresence of this symbol. Although this certainly should be more than enough to reconsider the continued reproduction of such a symbol, this paper attempts to go beyond the appropriation of such a hurtfulness as a kind of argumentative currency, and instead focuses on the hegemonic/coercive/anti-democratic dimensions of the public discourse surrounding Zwarte Piet and the question of the face of Zwarte Piet.

This paper asks the question: In what symbolic complex is the symbol of Zwarte Piet embedded, and why does it acquire such a fixity, when, normally, rituals adapt quite flexibly to society? Speaking from the position of a white (anti-racist) Dutch/German male, I attempt to investigate the various paradoxes that exist in the yearly “native Dutch” reproduction of the story of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Herein, I argue that a full confrontation requires more than just a look at Zwarte Piet himself. Both the Children and Sinterklaas himself are categorically part of the discursive network which sustains Zwarte Piet.

It might not have gone unnoticed by the reader that every year, a few dozens of papers are written about the racism of the Zwarte Piet tradition, among others, for introductory anthropology courses, and more rarely, as masters or PhD theses. Many of them follow this syntax:

  • Introduction: Zwarte Piet is a racist symbol, and we will demonstrate it through history.
  • Body pt. I: (More or less shallow or precise) historical survey of Zwarte Piet, demonstrating a clear racist component.
  • Body pt. II: A repetition of why racism is bad, using scholars currently in fashion.
  • Conclusion: Zwarte Piet should be changed. (Note the passive construction. Who will do it?).

Is such an analysis not missing a crucial aspect? It pretends to uncover something hidden, which is in reality blatantly obvious, at the cost of a more refined excavation of the various symbolic paradoxes which dress the “naked emporer.” One does not need to be an anthropologist or an investigative journalist to “discover” that Zwarte Piet is racist. The truly liberating gesture is not one which “exposes,” but one which renders continuity in the symbolic system sustaining the racist icon impossible.

Therefore, this paper is methodologically not a (strictly) historical one. It simply assumes – as has been proven in the literature of both proponents and opponents of altering the tradition – that a significant racist component has bled into folklore traditions during the 19th and 20th century, resulting in the present-day Piet.2 The main problematic of this paper is why the black face of Zwarte Piet has achieved such rigorous fixity, its negation becoming synonymous with a negation of the tradition as a whole for many.3

Eventually, the analysis of the symbolic network around Zwarte Piet will be theorized as a “triple crisis of the face;” the face of the other (racialized as black), the masked white face (painted black and therefore unaccountable), and the face of “the Other of the Other” or the Law (for which Sinterklaas himself is a metaphor). From this exhibition, a re-evaluation of Žižek’s Lacanian-Christian critique of Levinasian ethics of the recognition of the face of the other will be attempted. In this final section the question becomes how the modern nation state is entangled in such questions of racism, concluding in a much more ambiguous way that Žižek’s original critique of Levinas would allow for.

Act II: Preparations of the Festivities!

Why Do Adults Reproduce the Tradition in its Present Image?

Sometimes it is good to start with the obvious, stupid question. However, and necessarily, it of course turns out to be the one impossible to answer. Asking why adults reproduce a tradition is almost the same as asking why society at large reproduces itself, and therefore, eventually, mystery is the only honest answer. However, here, a small analysis and critique of common arguments regarding the reproduction of Zwarte Piet in this (and not another) form can and will be made. Eventually, the simple point is made that Dutch adults themselves are the only persons for whom they are reproducing Zwarte Piet.

Often, the Dutch defense of Zwarte Piet starts with the Children (capital c, because they categorically inhabit a fantasmatic dimension somewhat remote from their actual existence). Two arguments regarding the Children are often employed. First, (1) the Children are claimed to be ‘colorblind;’ they do not see racism. They are untroubled, innocent copies of adults. Tabula rasa’s, if you will. Therefore, a correction on Zwarte Piet is simply unnecessary. This argument is deeply problematic, because children are not only constantly looking for clear schemata, they also like to play with “the shit” of their parents.4 Psychological studies in various countries have shown very clear racial biases in children of various ages.5

The second argument (2), holds that changing the color of Zwarte Piet will confuse the Children to such an extent that the entire tradition will be at risk of cancellation. “You wouldn’t deny your children the fun of a proper Sinterklaas?” Apart from being incompatible with the first argument (if they really were colorblind, it would not matter if their color was changed), this argument is again problematic. There is no reason to believe that a change in Piet’s skin color should lead to the Children’s collective resignation from the festivities, resulting in a major pedagogical and emotional crisis for the Dutch nation. As will be explained later in this essay, the main mode of decoding this spectacle that most children employ is a willing suspense of disbelief (motivated mainly by the promise of excessive one-way gift exchange, perhaps unknowingly rendering them infinitely indebted to their parents). For children, it is truly easy to adapt to such minor changes. Having broken the illusion of some kind of demonic paedocracy risking to overthrow society leads us to another more crucial component of the reproduction of this ritual.

Almost all Dutch people have great memories of celebrating Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in their childhood: a truly thrilling and heart-warming tradition – that also contained some guys with a face painted black. Maintaining a definition of racism which is intentional (if it is not intended it cannot be racist), they are fully convinced (and perhaps to some extent righteously so) that their beautiful memories are clean, without the stain of a nasty racism. Perhaps it suffices to note that the character of Zwarte Piet has become much less stereotypically ‘black’ in his behavior over the last decades.6 I suspect that, over the last few decades, the Dutch have been de-racializing the meaning of Zwarte Piet in order to avoid the essential speech act – a coming out as racist – of changing the color of his face. The fixity of the symbol of Zwarte Piet can at least in part be explained as an avoidance of this essential speech act which would retrospectively inflict the childhood memories of the Dutch as racist.

Of course the reproduction of tradition is much more complex, and cannot be picked apart into ‘components’. The social reproduction (and transformation) of tradition can also be linked to national identity, mediascape, and discourses on history. In part, traditions are reproduced because not doing so would mean a deviation from the norm, perhaps a unwelcome gesture in the context of a “gezellige” national holiday. Tradition also belongs to the realm of language and culture – textual surfaces that history has left behind without the signature of their maker. For this text only exists as a text written and read through the practices of everyday life, as Michel de Certeau perhaps would have it.7 At the same time, it is exactly the portrayal of Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet as an unideological everyday ritual which obscures the fact that we are facing a key battle of anti-racism in the Dutch context.

We continue with the particular fixity that the symbol of Zwarte Piet has acquired. A questioning of what is here referred to as “the paradoxes of Zwarte Piet logic” might illuminate this fixity.

Facing the Paradoxes of Zwarte Piet Logic

Critics of Zwarte Piet are met with considerable resistance and often a downright prohibition of their reading. Here, the structure of such an argument/prohibition is analyzed, and their underlying move exposed. It becomes clear what ‘vector’ emerges from the problem that Zwarte Piet is so easy to mistake for a blatantly racist symbol.8

People questioning a possible racism in Zwarte Piet face a perplexing threefold denial. It is best understood through a Freudian analogy:9 Imagine that you have lent your TV to a friend. He has returned it, and after a year without using it you find out that it is broken. You confront your friend, and in a dazzling move, he denies responsibility in three versions. First, he simply denies that he has borrowed the TV. Second, he admits, after some insistence on your part, that indeed he lent the TV, but returned it un-broken. Finally, he admits that he borrowed it and adds that it was already broken from the start. What is perplexing here is the radical incompatibility yet juxtaposition of the three arguments, essentially symptomatic of repression.

In the scenario encountered by the critic of Zwarte Piet, a very similarly layered argument emerges, sometimes voiced by the same person. First, any racist meaning of Zwarte Piet is denied: he simply comes through the chimney. This version of the story is the one currently told to children (and foreigners inquiring).10 It is problematic because it is anachronistic and also holds that there is only one true meaning to the symbol. Second, most or all defenders will eventually admit that historically there is a racist influence which shaped the ritual, but that its meaning has been changed successfully to be completely devoid of any racism. This argument is arguably even more problematic, because it admits the flexibility of meaning, but at the same time radically monopolizes the power over the change of meaning, cutting off anything but the hegemonic position in the determinacy of the many meanings possibly attributable to such a symbol. Finally, some defenders will argue that yes, it has a historical trace of racism; yes, we have succesfully repaired the symbol; and in fact: it is YOU who is racist by bringing it up, in the post-racist society we live in! Arguably most problematic, this version recasts racism not only as intentional, but also as merely to be judged by the weight of its subjective impact (in this case also implied to be utterly lacking). This last version of the argument is perhaps best expressed through the Japanese pictorial maxim of the Three Wise Monkeys: Mizaru, covering his eyes, sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, speaks no evil.11

three wise monkeys

three wise monkeys

Defenders of Zwarte Piet seem at liberty to travel between incompatible argumentative positions, obscuring the essential underlying problem, which is an open unwillingness to acknowledge the validity and occurrence of other readings of the symbol (and the potential subjective and objective damage these do). Instead of admitting the racism which is so easy to read in the symbol of Zwarte Piet, a very laborious effort is undertaken to change Piet’s hegemonic meaning into a unracist one. Instead of getting rid of the signifier, the signified is changed.

A simple comparison with another near-absolute symbol, the swastika, will allow a further problematization of the defender’s position. In all of Europe, (uncritical use of) the Swastika has been more or less banned from the symbolosphere. The ban of the symbol becomes a kind of WW II monument in itself. So could the abandonment of blackface (like it has in many countries) of Zwarte Piet, for it is complicit in the production of inequalities and knowledges about the racialized other.

The swastika as near-universal symbol, however, can be argued to be less fixed than blackface. The two symbols are of a different type. The swastika is a symbolic sign: its meaning has nothing to do with its signifier. There is nothing in the swastika ITSELF that makes it mean “nazism.” Blackface, on the other hand, is an iconic sign. The signifier (the face painted black) looks like its signified (the black man). This difference accounts for the incredible difficulty for someone who self-defines through a history as former colonial subject living in a country in which racism is still an issue. And then, there still are the very important worries about the active reproduction of racism in children through the yearly rehearsal of such a racialized spectacle.

Thus, what the Dutch are essentially stuck with, is a publicly reproduced signifier which, on the hand, remains an iconic sign for a racialized reduction (the face of the black race painted in one dark black color with additional racial ‘traits’ like red lips and curly hair added, all to the effect of minimal distinguishibility of different Piets; another essential trait of racist representations), and, on the other hand, a signified which fully symbolizes both a explicit denial (and prohibition) of such a racial meaning (he came through the chimney) and a subtextual “compliment” for the black race (he is such a nice guy! And much smarter than Sinterklaas!).

Perhaps most interesting is indeed how over the last few decades (under the influence of labor migration) the signified of Zwarte Piet has transformed from an openly racialized and devilish character into the subtextual “compliment” for the black “race” mentioned above. In his behavior, Piet has become less and less of a nasty stereotype. Increasingly, he is a “nice” character, with his own name (pakjespiet, hoofdpiet, etc.). Also, more obviously racist traits like his Surinamese accent seem to have disappeared almost completely. As it seems, the complete unwillingness to change Piet’s face is accompanied by a very laborious effort to “rebrand” him into a children’s friend.

Since the late 40’s, alternative narratives about the history of Zwarte Piet have been invented which can be read as attempts to deracialize Piet’s official story.12 In 1948, Anton van Duinkerken invented a story in which Piet was released by Sinterklaas, only to decide to serve him voluntarily out of infinite gratitude. (the irony!) In 1960, H.L.M. Hoek created a theory which explains Zwarte Piet as personification of the new moon, black. What is not clear is how the currently leading story (Piet came through the chimney and became black) emerged. In general, a clear pattern of narrative deracialization emerges.

Ironically, the narrative deracialization of Zwarte Piet is only possible when accompanied by a very big prohibitive gesture towards the racialized reading. However, such a prohibition poses considerable challenges, because, according to this new “official” story, Piet has never been racist. However, until today, it is possible to buy facepaint in the color “neger,” and many other traces of a (latent ?) racism show themselves constantly. However, to prohibit these “historical remainders” openly and effectively is impossible, exactly because the official discourse ALREADY holds that Zwarte Piet has nothing to do with racism. “Get rid of the ‘last traces’ of racism in Zwarte Piet” is incompatible with “Zwarte Piet has nothing to do with racism.” This deadlock perhaps explains the reactions towards those who openly question racism in Zwarte Piet. Instead of being ignored as irrelevant, their exclamations become the site of a public debate in which there are seemingly infinite volunteers, in what can only be termed the Dutch National Zwarte Piet Defense Army. It is exactly this fortifying of Dutch culture which is symptomatic of the repression of its other.

On the one hand, we have a discourse of “re-engineering” the meaning of Zwarte Piet, the invention of new stories to tell the children, the gradual (but careful!) ban on openly racist “neger” facepaint, and so on. On the other hand, we have a discourse of Zwarte Piet as having nothing to do with racism, the associated prohibitive response to the “counterhegemonic” reading, and attempts to increase the fixity of the symbol. In the midst of this stand two major failures of Dutch democracy. The first being, already briefly touched upon, (1) the state-sponsored permissibility of a public tradition which on the level of iconic sign represents the re-enactment of a phenotypical reduction of an entire “race” to a set of stereotypical traits, effectively denying that “race” its face. In such a case, the currency of objection should outweigh the currency of subjective joy. I theorize this inability of society to get rid of this symbol, which is virtually unmistakably connected to a colonial past, the “first crisis of the face:” a recognition of the face of the other would permit him/her a kind of resolution and ambiguity which is individual, not phenotypical. The second point, and perhaps the more uniquely situated one, being, (2) the extensive prohibition of a different reading of a symbol. One needs to emphasize again: a democracy is also a democracy of meaning.

René Magritte’s famous pipe with the text ceci n’est pas un pipe can be exploited to explain the paradox of Zwarte Piet logic.13 In Dutch society, people somehow seem able to see an iconic sign of a racialized person, and nonetheless convince themselves that cela n’est pas un noir. Unlike Magritte’s humorous reversal, the cela n’est pas of the Dutch in fact is the definition of Zwarte Piet. Blackness made into the absence of the face. A definition which leads to embarrassing situations.

There are two important sides with regard to how children grow up with the Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet ritual in its narrative entirety. The first relates to what position Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet take in the moral development of children, and the second relates to how they find out that they have been duped by their parents. Both contain important insights discussed below.

Sinterklaas and Stages of Moral Development

Since Sinterklaas has a legacy of moral pedagogy, we need to explore what his positionality vis-à-vis morality in child development is. In order to explain this, a theory of moral development is invoked as a piece of popular culture: Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.14 This theory is not widely accepted as unproblematic in the social and moral sciences, nevertheless it is paradigmatic for the thinking about moral development in children that grounds the imagined moral function of the Sinterklaas ritual.

Kohlberg sketches three major stages of moral development (subdivided into a total of six stages). In the first (pre-conventional) stage, the child tries to (1) avoid punishment and tries to (2) achieve direct reward. The child deals with primary socialization; actually existing people with absolute power over him. Also, it may be added that the child is aware of the relationship between the gaze of the parent and the respective (non) occurrence of punishment or reward. In Kohlberg’s second (conventional) stage, the adolescent/adult (3) wants to be thought well of, and (4) follows laws and rules rather rigorously, using culpability as the main reference for morality. In relation to the gaze, it may be added that the fantasy of an (actually existing) gazing outside force still dominates. In the third, and final (post-conventional) stage, the adult (5) thinks morally along the lines of a social contract, and (6) uses abstract universal reasoning to determine what’s ethical and moral. Perhaps, in this last stage, the individual is least concerned with the gaze of the Other, and has turned his gaze inwards, becoming morally self-correcting regardless of any direct culpability.

It is clear that the last stage constitutes the ideal subject under abstract Law in the modern nation state, with its universal self-discipline. This abstract Law is also one which, importantly, supposedly treats its subjects as faceless: to the Law a friendly or familiar face is not less culpable.

If such a ‘developmental scheme’ constitutes the script for becoming a faceless subject to abstract law, is not the disciplining/rewarding figure of Sinterklaas to be placed in the second (conventional) stage? Like parents, he disciplines and rewards in material (and not transcendental) terms. However, the major difference is that Sinterklaas is omniscient;  as the story goes, he simply knows whether or not the child has been good. He embodies abstract universal Law (for he treats all the children as equals) in its most potent panoptical omniscience, but: with a face! As Frank Zappa would put it, he is a kind of central scrutinizer. In another vocabulary, Sinterklaas takes the role of an external superego figure, in yet another, he is god on earth. According to Kohlberg, most people never move beyond the second stage in which moral reasoning is based on culpability.

Many Dutch parents/educators employ Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet to effect a kind of second stage moral reasoning in their children. Consider the following anecdote told to me by a friend: When he was a young child he hardly ever finished his plate. One year, when Sinterklaas festivities were approaching, his father had him come to the chimney whilst a friendly neighbor was standing on the roof near the chimney. Sinterklaas had a “message” for him. The horrified child went into dialogue with Sinterklaas through the chimney. The ending can be guessed: he never left a plate unfinished again.

Humoristic as such an example may be, it also illustrates what can be seen as part of a larger body of mythologies about figures with absolute power that abound Western culture – constituting a base-level paranoia of the modern subject. “Who do you think you are?” “The boss, who has absolute power?” “Sinterklaas?” “The man” is so powerful and omniscient that he becomes almost synonymous with the Law, and the modern subject often has difficulties to tell them apart.

A twist to this is that, in recent decades, the tone of the Sinterklaas tradition has shifted consistently from an emphasis on punishment to an emphasis on reward; possibly due to the collective subconscious project of deracializing Piet (he was usually the one executing the punishment), and general shifts in pedagogical attitudes. Children are consistently less afraid of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, who have been re-branded as absolute children’s friends. If Foucault – the theorist of discipline and punishment – has any place in this discourse, it is here, albeit in a way increasingly stripped of his potency. Where Sinterklaas was once a relatively powerful metaphor for abstract Law under which the subject is conditioned to expect panopticism everywhere in anticipation of punishment, nowadays, the only moral imperative universally reproduced without any contestation is the consumerist wishlist that kids are told to construct: Thou shalt orient yourself on the market of toys and achieve strong desires for consumer goods at early age!

The true tragedies here are, however, (1) the inability of the Law to adequately respond to cries against the racist symbol of Zwarte Piet, and (2) the equally inadequate strategy vis-à-vis the Law employed by people opposed to Zwarte Piet. Such a strategy includes in its formulation (implicitly or explicitly) exactly the fantasy – embodied by Sinterklaas himself – that the Law has such a face to which one can appeal. This is best exemplified by the following wishlist jokingly expressed by a woman attending an anti-Zwarte Piet event: What would I like for Sinterklaas? Sinterklaas without Zwarte Piet! Since the Law has very little to say about representations and their respective interpretations, and Sinterklaas himself does not exist, whom to face in the struggle against racist public traditions? This is what is theorized here as the second “crisis of the face:” the Law which does not have a face and treats its subjects as faceless.

Über infantile Sinterklaastheorien

In a similar way, we can theorize the ways that children investigate and find out about the reality behind Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. The above heading is a pun to Sigmund Freud’s famous text about the sexual theories of infants, in which he theorized how infants set out to investigate sexuality, which was considered to be something exclusive to adults before Freud. Since the enigma of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arguably presents infants with a project of similar mysteriosity, it may be useful yet again to commit the scholarly sin of outlining a number of developmental stages. However, this time the development is not extended into childhood, but rather into adulthood!

The usual syntax of stages in Sinterklaas-dupedness will be outlined as follows by most Dutch, starting at inception: (1) The child is told about Sinterklaas, and once sealed by material rewards, the child believes Sinterklaas exists and that he is the arbiter who will reward him/her. Most parents mistakenly think that this stage lasts until age 12 or so. The next stage (2) can be described as a willing suspense of disbelief. In this stage, children mutually discuss the credulity of Sinterklaas, and some of them may have “information” disproving his existence. Children choose between maintaining that this “information” is wrong or taking a more instrumentalist attitude acting to believe that he exists as long as presents keep coming and parents do not object. For children, this stage is often the most prominent stage, and sometimes the secrecy of its instrumentalism can be conceived of as “getting back at the parents” for duping them, although this is probably more rare. Finally, (3) the child comes out as a “non-believer” and may decide to play along to enable younger siblings to have the same experience. After that often a different form of celebration emerges.

The conventional narrative of “believing in Sinterklaas” simply stops there, as if the act of openly unmasking Sinterklaas leaves all possible questions answered. As such, the obsession over the question of reality or fiction obliterates a much bigger enigma. From here, a few more stages of Sinterklaas-understanding can be outlined, although by no means a kind of Kohlbergian or Freudian project is attempted here.

The big question that should face children when the mask of Sinterklaas has been lifted is of course: how on earth did our parents pull this of? Unlike a normal parent-to-child prank, to pull off a Sinterklaas seems to require a massive conspiracy. Perhaps a first explanation by a reflexive child could be something in the spirit of: (4) all of the parents met and collectively decided to fool us. Of course, this explanation is almost instantly excluded, for the child knows that there are too many parents to fit into one room. Also, the child soon finds out that the parents were duped themselves by their own parents, which renders the story of the genesis of Sinterklaas as moralistic masquerade out of reach, and the child may settle with one or the other historical explanation, if it pursues it at all.

After this stage, a mixture of different attitudes may emerge. As most people are most interested in reproducing the Sinterklaas in resemblance to their own childhood experiences, no additional reflection in order to achieve consistency seems to be needed. However, especially those taking either a very active role in reproducing the ritual or in altering it probably try to find out more about how the Sinterklaas event is organized on the national level. Perhaps, one could suggest that in the next stage (5), individuals hypothesize that there exists one central institution or even a person which is responsible for the grand design and smooth execution of the national Sinterklaas celebration. Such an institution/person would render the whole consistent, and importantly, would also be the one to face when transformation is desired. Tragically, as is the nature of tradition, no institution exists which has absolute sovereignty in transforming the ritual. Only a number of heterogeneous  smaller groups exist which mutually communicate, and may have various powers to suggest change or take initiative, but without internal consistency. Only in the final stage (6) do people realize the full anthropological nature of tradition as locally reproduced and maintained/transformed through a network of agents collaborating in ant-like fashion without the imagined internal consistency of a centralized un-contestable power.

The underlying problem of attitude five is very well explained by Žižek in a chapter titled “How the Non-duped Err.”15 First, the duped err, by accepting the fiction presented by society as reality. This reflects the situation of the children who believe that Sinterklaas exists. When the mask is lifted, the duped become the non-duped. However, after that, questions regarding the agency which duped them remain, for it is clear that that agency is beyond the parents, yet nowhere to be found. As Žižek puts it: “The paranoiac’s mistake does not consist in his radical disbelief, in his conviction that there is a universal deception – here he is quite right, the symbolic order is ultimately the order of a fundamental deception – but rather, in his belief in a hidden agent who manipulates this deception, who tries to dupe him.”16 In Lacanian language, this agency would be called “the Other of the Other.”17 This lack of a consistent Other in the mass-duping of the Dutch nation is considered here as the “third crisis of the face:” There is no individual agency or institution to appeal to when trying to change Sinterklaas. Ironically, Sinterklaas himself again inhabits a metaphoric position here.

The point here is not to claim that the Dutch believe in a kind of Über-Sinterklaas, who structures deception at the highest level. The point is merely to shatter any illusion of consistency in the organization of Sinterklaas, reminding the reader of the relatively horizontal reproduction of such a ritual. Nonetheless, the lack of such a consistency can be a source of anxiety for both traditionalists and progressives regarding the transformation of Zwarte Piet. There seems to be no single preferable and efficient way to go about it; in fact, it will in all likelihood be a rather messy transformation. For traditionalists, the outlook of such a messy transformation may be perceived as a risk of undermining the tradition as a whole. Of course, they grossly overestimate the amount of consistency and “realism” needed to sustain such a tradition. For progressives, there is the simple and practical problem that the tradition has to be transformed at grassroots level, which requires participation and not withdrawal.

Anti-Zwarte Piet activists face a difficult enemy; both with regard to the Law (which treats its subjects as faceless and is inadequate at solving issues of racism and representation, not least because the constitution of the nation state always involves a legitimated ethnic component) and the reproduction of the tradition (which is not centralized, but as mysterious as the reproduction of language and culture).

Act III: Evening of December 5th: Loud Bangs on the Door: Presto!

Ethics according to Emmanuel Levinas and Slavoj Žižek: Smashing the Face of Zwarte Piet

Here, the two ethical positions outlined by philosophers Levinas and Žižek are considered in conjunction with the present case in order to problematize Žižek’s stark critique of Levinas’ position. Both positions have a common root in the question of ‘the other’ in the formation of ethical principles; a question also central to the present problematic of Zwarte Piet.

Levinas’ ethical position outlined in Totality and Infinity posits the recognition of the face as the very grounding of ethics: “The Other reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness.”18 From the recognition of this gentleness, the subject becomes asymmetrically responsible for the other, founding his subjective being-in-the-world. In this encounter, the recognition of the face marks the start of such an asymmetrical relationship upon which ethics is founded.

In relation to racism, the recognition of the face can be connected to a refusal of phenotypical reduction. In the case of Zwarte Piet, the attempts to get rid of blackface are essentially Levinasian gestures; a protest against the lack of resolution and subjectivity behind a face reduced to a stereotype. To protesters, the pervasiveness of this symbol of reduction is connected to a larger body of racial prejudices which function stereotypically. Therefore, the goal of getting rid of Zwarte Piet makes sense within the scheme of Levinasian ethics.

In his essay Smashing the Neighbor’s Face, Žižek launches a devastating attack against Levinasian ethics based around the fundamental question: where does the faceless Third (the Law, etc.) come in?19 According to Žižek, the choice of the Other whose face is recognized is always selective, and not universal, just like love. To love someone means to love someone else less, or to hate them, and as such is “a violent gesture.”20 Because love introduces a radical asymmetry, and justice should be indifferent to its subjects, “justice and love are thus structurally incompatible: justice, not love, has to be blind, it has to disregard the privileged One whom I ‘really understand.’”21 Therefore, Žižek claims that an ethical practice always has to go “BEYOND the face of the other, the one of SUSPENDING the hold of the face: the choice AGAINST the face, for the THIRD. This coldness IS justice at its most elementary.”22

Although it is a powerful argument for universalist ethics and the Law, the burning question remains the one of racisms of representation as encountered in Zwarte Piet. Can such a faceless Third effectively provide justice in the case of a historically inherited racism of representation?

Rietveld & Madeleine - Neither Black nor White

Rietveld & Lot Madeleine (photo: Gwen Denswil) – Neither Black nor White

The image Neither Black Nor White, featured on the cover of this essay, resonates deeply with the three “crises of the face” identified in this paper. Juxtaposing them onto one image will demonstrate further the centrality of the face in this problematic. In the first place, the image represents both (1) the phenotypically black face which is reduced of his resolution or subjectivity, and (2) the inaccountability of the white man whose face hides behind a mask, rendering him essentially unrecognizable. Furthermore, it also represents (3) the feeling of the modern subject under abstract Law, which treats him as faceless. To the Law, everyone is wearing blackface. Finally, a fourth, most remote, understanding can be added, reading the photo as (4) the fading, ghostly character, or nonexistence of the face which represents Law and social reproduction itself. Wearing a collar of white paper with black letters reading “neither black nor white”, this Zwarte Piet is dressed in the letter of the Law.

Juxtaposing these various interrelated faces here serves to undermine the self-confidence with which Žižek discards Levinas’ insistence on the recognition of the face. Although no synthesis between the two ethical frameworks is proposed here, it has become clear that the universalizing nation state and its institutions can not be relied on to fully eschew racisms. Especially because racism is so often deeply interrelated to questions of representation, which again are deeply embedded and fortified in categories like free speech, an appeal to a recognition of the face remains a crucial tool in the struggles of ethnic minorities to outlive the racisms which can be considered a constituent of the modern nation state. At best, a Levinasian and Žižekian ethics should co-exist, dependent on their context.

Act IV: A Mysterious Disappearance!

On the 6th of December, the day after “pakjesavond,” Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet start their “uittocht,” an event which unsurprisingly attracts much smaller numbers than their arrival. As such, phenomenologically, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet appear to evaporate as soon as the material rewards have been transferred onto the child. Perhaps, their moral presence is in a way sublimated in the presents, serving as a material token which reminds children of the structure of morality itself.

Such a disappearance is also very characteristic of the anthropological nature of ritual itself: when a transformation or obliteration occurs, people are capable of adapting almost instantly. Therefore, we can start to think of the structure of such a sudden appearance and disappearance as the ground for the transformation of Zwarte Piet. It is in the moment of his renewed emergence that transformation needs to be sought, and this will require a bottom-up approach in which especially opponents will have to start celebrating Sinterklaas alternatively. Many practical alternatives have already been proposed (colored Pieten, chimney-like painted Pieten, etc.), and here I do not intend to raise the status of one of them. A pluriversal emergence in which various practices coexist is preferable during such a transformation.

The nation-state and the Law inhabit an ambiguous position towards representational racism. The nation-state is founded upon a primordial project of ethnic reorganization, has a history of colonialism, and depends on various shades of racism constitutive of the sovereignty-guaranteeing nationalism that “glues the nation together.” The Sinterklaas tradition is also located within the nexus of such a nationalism. The Law, on the other hand, treats its subjects as faceless, and therefore has a blind spot for complex forms of representational racism. Therefore, both the nation-state and the Law can be difficult to appeal to when a transformation is desired.

Instead of conceiving of this change as a “coming-out-as-racist” by the Dutch – risking a nationalist backlash –, a bottom-up transformation is preferred. The position of such a national tradition should maintain a positionality which is not synonymous with the nation, but rather, more pluriversally oriented and more sensitive to the face of the other, filling in a lack that is fundamental to the modern nation state.


1 User paolalacle, youtube, Mishandeling???? Sinterklaas Intocht Dordrecht (YouTube, november 12th 2011). See also: Liesbeth Tjon A. Meeuwse, “Zwarte Piet Doet Elk Jaar Weer Pijn,” Trouw, November 15, 2011.

2 See Frits Booy, Op Zoek Naar Zwarte Piet (Stichting Nationaal Sint Nicolaas Comité, Eindhoven, 2008); Ruby Savage, Unmasking the Black Face of Traditional Dutch Fun (Unpublished Master’s thesis); Stereopiet (Anonymously posted thesis).

3 This year, the Sinterklaas festivity of Dutch expats in Canada was cancelled because local activists threatened to organize a demonstration if Pieten would appear in blackface. Organizer Tako Slump commented: “No Sinterklaas without Zwarte Piet. See “Sinterklaasfeest Afgelast na Ontbreken Zwarte Piet,” Nu.nl, December 2, 2011.

4 For example, growing up as a German kid in the post-WW II Netherlands has demonstrated to the present author that in fact anti-German sentiment is much stronger at age 4-15 than it is amongst adults.

5 For example: Kenneth J. Morland, “The Development of Racial Bias in Children,” Theory into Practice 26 (1987), 472-480.

6 For example, Piet’s accent has faded and he behaves less and less dumb and amoral.

7 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), trans. Steven Rendall.

8 On Schiphol, no Zwarte Piet imagery is used because it would hold up too many international travellers.

9 Taken from a chapter Antinomies of Tolerant Reason, in which he discusses the Holocaust denial of Ahmadinejad: Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Profile Books, 2009).

10 As Booy of the Stichting Nationaal Sint Nicolaas Comité puts it: “Their dark skin color is to be explained to children as follows: because of going through the chimney every year, Zwarte Piet has become black.” (translation mine) Frits Booy, Op Zoek Naar Zwarte Piet, 45.

11 An optional fourth monkey Shizaru, crossing his arms, does no evil. Shizaru in this analogy symbolizes the way that the Dutch plead innocence.

12 Frits Booy, Op zoek naar Zwarte Piet. Interestingly, Booy discredits these “theories” for being scientifically unprovable. By doing so, he misreads their intention, which is a deracialization of the narrative.

13 For a full meditation on the various implications of Magritte’s move see: Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe (California: University of California Press, 1983).

14 Lawrence Kohlberg, Charles Levine, and Alexandra Hewer, Moral Stages: A Current Formulation and a Response to Critics (Basel: Karger, 1983).

15 Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992), 69-87.

16 Looking Awry, 81.

17 Ibid.

18 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1969), 150.

19 Slavoj Žižek, Smashing the Neighbor’s Face (Lacan.com, 2006), http://www.lacan.com/zizsmash.htm .

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.


Booy, Frits. Op Zoek Naar Zwarte Piet (Stichting Nationaal Sint Nicolaas Comité, Eindhoven, 2008).

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), trans. Steven Rendall.

Foucault, Michel. This Is Not a Pipe (California: University of California Press, 1983).

Kohlberg, Lawrence, Charles Levine, and Alexandra Hewer, Moral Stages: A Current Formulation and a Response to Critics (Basel: Karger, 1983).

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1969).

Meeuwse, Liesbeth Tjon A. “Zwarte Piet Doet Elk Jaar Weer Pijn,” Trouw, November 15, 2011.

Morland, Kenneth J. “The Development of Racial Bias in Children,” Theory into Practice 26 (1987), 472-480.

paolalacle, YouTube, Mishandeling???? Sinterklaas Intocht Dordrecht (YouTube, november 12th 2011).

Rietveld, and Lot Madeleine (photo: Gwen Denswil). Neither Black Nor White. 2011. Photograph. Exhibition Zwart als Roet.

Savage, Ruby. Unmasking the Black Face of Traditional Dutch Fun (Unpublished Master’s thesis).

“Sinterklaasfeest Afgelast na Ontbreken Zwarte Piet,” Nu.nl, December 2, 2011.

Stereopiet (Anonymously posted thesis).

Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992).

Žižek, Slavoj. Smashing the Neighbor’s Face (Lacan.com, 2006), http://www.lacan.com/zizsmash.htm .

Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Profile Books, 2009).

3 thoughts on “A Triple Crisis of the Face: Justice in the Tradition of Zwarte Piet

  1. I read your essay with much enthusiasm. Unfortunately, I have to admit that my lack of knowledge of continental philosophy made it difficult for me to fully understand the argument. As far as I did understand it, please correct me if I am wrong, I took your argument to be that there is much important symbolic meaning in the tradition, that clearly reflects racist cultural tendencies. Moreover, you claim that the most commonly heard defense of the ZP tradition does not satisfactorily show that there is no (unintentional) racism involved. You even argue that the defense is paradoxical, which would truly be a disappointing conclusion: the Dutch are unable to avoid absurdities in their argumentation.
    While you don’t argue for it in much detail, I think you could say that the ZP tradition may be historically rooted in racist practices. However, I do not quite see why this leads you to conclude that we should change it. Moreover, I think we can quite easily form a defense of the ZP tradition that does not lead to eminent absurd beliefs.
    Why do we care about racism? Simply because we believe it is unjust that some people do not get the same real opportunities in life than others. Obviously, not all forms of racism bring (severe) unequal opportunities about. For instance, if a person looks Asian, we may simply ask him “are you from Asia?” and, while this is a completely racist question, there is no real harm done. Similarly, we may say that ZP is a black character based on racist views from the past, without this harming any people in a real sense now. It would of course be harmful, if it would greatly influence the way we treat black people today, but I do not see this at all. The important part of the question: “is ZP a racist tradition?” is whether the meaning we give to it today, rather than in the past, is racist, and if so, how this harms black people today? And an argument defending that it does, I have not seen (but maybe I missed that) in your essay.
    So, to conclude: a way in which we formulate the three claims you find in the defense of ZP such that they do not result in a paradox, considering different kinds of racism, is:
    1) ZP is racist, after all, he is a black guy, but this is (close to) unharmful if it comes to racial justice.
    2) The fact that the tradition may, or may not, have been rooted in a harmful racist tradition is not considered by anyone who still practices the tradition today
    3) As parents and children who enjoy the ZP tradition do not attach a harmful racist meaning to the practice, making the historical harmful racism more explicit, may in fact lead to more people attaching a harmful racist meaning to the practice.

    I am curious what you think about this.

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