For four years Alicia Suárez from Utrecht in the Netherlands has played the Dutch folklore figure of Zwarte Piet at a company, but she has now been told not to do it next year. The reason? Alicia is black, having been adopted from Colombia as a baby. Zwarte Piet has also always been black, but as his skin colour has become a sensitive issue, so has Alicia’s.
Zwarte Piet is the assistant of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, and accompanies him when Sinterklaas enters the towns on the first Saturday after 11 November. Traditionally he was considered to be a Moor from Spain, which explained his dark skin, but this has sparked controversy in recent years, especially since he is normally played by a white person painted in black. The Zwarte Piet has thus been replaced by Chimney Sweep Piet, where the only colour added is stripes of soot.
To be on the safe side, the company that used to hire Alicia has now opted for the new version. She was prepared to play Chimney Sweep Piet starting next year, but the company is afraid that her natural skin colour will make people think of the now banned Zwarte Piet anyway.
To Alicia this is a big disappointment, as she has always enjoyed playing the character, and the occasion comes only once a year. To FWM she says:
– I think it’s terrible.
She does not see any racism whatsoever in the tradition, or the “blackface” that goes with it, and thinks that this discussion will only get more polarised. Nevertheless, Alicia is determined to play Zwarte Piet also next year:
– I just think it’s fun to be Zwarte Piet. Already as a small child I really enjoyed it.
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