My name is Gray Piet

No blackface and a virtual gig for Sinter's cyber-serfs.

Punctual as ever, Sinterklaas arrived this year not in the flesh, but at the fictional fantasy village of Zwalk - het fictieve dorp Zwalk. It was an unusually secretive entrance - een geheime intocht gekozen, kept under wraps due to coronavirus regulations, then relayed live in a three-hour ceremony on public broadcaster NTV. 

Many of the customary celebrations across the Netherlands have been cancelled, but enthusiasm for their virtual substitutes seems undimmed. In Amsterdam, Amersfoort, Arnhem and Den Bosch, Sinter was online to greet well-wishers, reported nu.nl. Rotterdam created an interactive game for children. Outside The Hague, Saint Nicholas arrived stealthily via his traditional port of entry at Scheveningen - as seen in a pre-recorded video from local broadcaster Omroep West.

Sinterklaas in the season of Covid-19 means improvisation - betekent improviseren, wrote Benti Banach in De Limburger (paywall). A villagers’ committee in Neuwstadt commissioned a film of Sinter fielding questions from local children: he kept his distance, but it was still very personal - Op afstand en toch heel persoonlijk. The saint’s migration from offline to online - de virtuele Sinterklaas - succeeded because children believe it - want de kinderen geloven het, summed up the headline. 

Kick Out Zwarte Piet, a protest group, denounced the new arrival as ‘blackface-light’, a fictional skin colour for the same purpose of racial stereotyping

The saint has been working remotely since well before the coronavirus. Last year, for example, he could be found seated at his desk in a virtual house - virtuele sinterklaashuis - in Limburg, busily logging entries in the Big Book, his annual performance-related audit of children’s gifts. 

In 2019, visitors to that virtual base, located on a side street in Limburg town centre, donned virtual reality headsets to search for missing pages. Guided by robotic helpers, these assignments were designed to test their Piet skills - uitdagende oefeningen om je pietenskills te testen, reported Marijke Helsloo for the Zoetermeer edition of In De Buurt.nl, a neighbourhood information site.

Coronavirus rules mean necessity has become the mother of invention for digital entrepreneurs, making this year’s Sinterklaas into a pilot project for future festivities. In the imagined streets of Zwalk, NTV dispensed with Black Piets - Zwarte Pieten. Many actual towns are reluctant to abandon the clowning figures daubed in black face-paint, but 2020 is turning into a busy year for alternative Piets.

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No red lipstick. ‘Variable’ hair

In a September article for bd.nl, Robert van Lith reported a decision by the Sinterklaas committee in the Noord Brabant town of Schijndel. In incremental steps, Black Piets would be replaced to make way for a new generation of Gray Piets with gray (English spelling: grey) faces - grijze piet

Gray-ness is intended to signify - well, what exactly? Something post-racial. Not skin deep. Gray Piets are soot sweepers, reported nu.nl: they don't wear gold earrings, nor red lipstick. This year, Gray Piets were slated to land in the municipalities of Breda, Dordrecht, Den Helder, Leeuwarden and Venlo. 

With Sinter gone, unemployed Piets are rounded up for deportation in the footsteps of other dark-skinned immigrants

In Het Parool, columnist Theodor Holman took his counter-resistance to a local library where books featuring Black Piets are banished from the shelves. Why stop there? In his imagined dialogue, Holman’s truth-seeking alter ego reminded the librarian that the so-called saint - die zogenaamde goedheiligman, first recruited his Black staff in the course of a colonial project. 

Sinter abused his colonial office - misbruik heeft gemaakt van de koloniale overheid, to introduce Christianity - om het koloniale christendom in te voeren, wrote Holman. For his freedom-loving protagonist, Christianity is another dubious proposition: the religion has strange ideas about love, for example - vreemde ideeën heeft over de liefde, but wasn’t shy of violence - geweld niet schuwt

Since colonialism was wrong, how is Christianity any different? I note here (it could be a typo) that Holman omits a question mark after this sentence, making his original into a statement: Wat is kerstenen anders dan ­koloniseren. The librarian agrees to remove the Sinterklaas books, too: the saint is morally reprehensible - moreel verwerpelijk. A pervert - een viezerik. All those Piets, not one female helper - geen vrouwelijke pieten.  

In De Volkskrant, Micha Wertheim made an opposite case in similar style. Holman’s barbs were a mild corrective by comparison: his satire recalls the civilising tradition of Horace (65–8 BCE). Wertheim chose invective, of a harder-edged Juvenalian kind. For Juvenal, Roman poet of the second century AD, the function of satire is not to repair our flaws but to expose and destroy them.  

Taking her cue from the NTV spectacle, Wertheim speculated on how Sinter’s new media career could end. He stumbles over his words, vomits during a live broadcast, collapses from a reported stroke. A life support machine is disconnected, after a statement from prime minister Mark Rutte to confirm that a valid euthanasia certificate had been signed. After Sinter, Wertheim predicted, all unemployed Piets will be rounded up and deported in the footsteps of countless other dark-skinned immigrants. 

As in some dystopian check list of moral outrage, stories emerge about children touched indecently by the holy man. An eight-hour documentary on VRPO investigates, stirring populist indignation: Sinterklaas had no right, no claim to our children! Henceforth, the ceremony will be reserved for adults only. All white Dutch people shall gather in an open meadow: Dat zal gebeuren op een groot weiland. It goes downhill from there, of course. I’ll come back to that.

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Satire versus bullshit

If Black Piet’s absence from NTV’s make-believe village of Zwalk proves anything, it’s that nobody in the Dutch media is ready to forget him - yet. Some newspaper columnists deplore political correctness for diluting tradition. Others detect a hysterical, dissembling tone to the moralising. Whether or not the debate is moving in the right - sorry, a better - direction, their argument remains vexed, even vicious. More Juvenal than Horace.

Here, as a benchmark, are some examples of the spirit of Horatian satire in modern times: Gulliver’s Travels in literature, Saturday Night Live on television. They start from an unspoken premise that if our eyes and ears can just be opened, then confronted by our limitations, we can all do better. Some examples of Junvenalian satire, for contrast: George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm or 1984, in which the idealism of a socially engineered society culminates in tyranny and betrayal.    

On this spectrum, the instincts of NTR’s Sinterklaas were proudly Horatian. The script writers and producers who devised the fantasy land of Zwalk are by nature idealistic. In their fictionalised statelet, the Netherlands is made inclusive by creativity and humour. Nobody here would miss Black Piets: their crude tradition is superfluous - futile, even - to Zwalk’s peacefully untroubled denizens.

Kick Out Zwarte Piet, a protest group, dismissed Gray Piets as a made-up skin tone which serves the same purpose of racial stereotyping.

It’s a different and bloodier story in the post-Sinter pastoral of Micha Wertheim’s imagination. In the open meadow pictured by the De Volkskrant columnist, heritage-loving white people - alle blanke Nederlanders die onze cultuur een warm hart toedragen, are free to strike darker-skinned compatriots with iron bars - welkom zijn om met ijzeren staven in te slaan op landgenoten wier huid donkerder is. During these beatings, some make jungle noises. The rest chant in unison that they’re “not racist”. 

If Wertheim's sinister futuristic fable is on to something, the new Gray Piets seem an unequal remedy for the racial pride of the Dutch hinterland. Kick Out Zwarte Piet, a protest group, describes his gray variant as ‘blackface-light’. Another made-up, fictional skin tone - ingezet als een fictieve huidskleur, reported the NoS website, to serve the same “bullshit” purpose of racial sterotyping. A demonstration against the new arrival was planned in Venlo. 

Schijndel residents may have opted, incrementally, for gray. But Sinterklaas committees in neighbouring Veghel and Sint-Oedenrode clearly didn’t agree - konden het duidelijk niet eens worden, reported Robert van Lith in September. His comparison of press releases - zo blijkt uit de persberichten - revealed deep dismay at slowly but surely bidding farewell to Black Piet - over het langzaam maar zeker afscheid nemen van Zwarte Piet. That sentiment is harder to gloss over.

Regular participants in the street ceremonies were divided, acknowledged Lambèr Gevers, chairman of the Sinterklaas Schijndel foundation: “A large number of our volunteers want to stop when Piet is no longer brown”. Organisers don't want to lose all their volunteers - we willen niet al onze vrijwilligers kwijt.   

Mired in cynicism, De Volkskrant’s Micha Wertheim missed the real public service in the Sinterklaas television spectacle

Meanwhile, Sinter’s migration to the online realm of live chat and pre-recorded video buys some extra time. Plus, crucially, the chance of valuable exposure for advertisers. In a comment posted on nu.nl, R_Wolters wrote that even when his children still believed in Sinterklaas, they didn’t want to go into town for the welcoming ceremony - wilde ze helemaal niet naar de intocht bij ons in de stad. Watching from home was much better - vonden ze het veel leuker - because on the small(ish) screen they could see what happens. 

Micha Wertheim argued that children are the unsuspecting prey of television executives. The daily journal of Sinterklaas news is nothing more than an opportunity for the public broadcaster to collect extra advertising revenue on the backs of gullible children, she wrote - om over de ruggen van goedgelovige kinderen wat extra reclamegeld op te halen. Ay, there’s the rub.

From the depths of cynicism, Wertheim missed what may be the real public service. Television depends on advertisers, often global brands. Their budgets pay the actors and cameramen who finally captured Sinter and exiled Black Piet. Money is a reliable motivator. Mammon, in the form of advertising spend, is a catalyst to cancel racist tropes in public ceremonies.

NTV’s audience seemed to like the results. The saint’s venerable shine survived, wrote Woody21 in another comment posted on nu.nl. Now aged 41, Woody21 knew of nothing more beautiful than to watch Sinter’s arrival while sitting with the children on the sofa - Samen met de kinderen op de bank, mooier is er niet. Perhaps everyone can agree that Sinterklaas isn’t just for children.