Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution
Change Becomes More Widespread
Piet's image continued to evolve in 2014. The official entry was in Gouda and offered a compromise focusing on Gouda distinctives: Stroopwafel, yellow Cheese, and white-faced clown Piets accompanied traditional Piets.
In Amsterdam the gradual image shift continued with the introduction of Roetpieten or Soot Piets. About 20% of the Piets sported alternative images with soot-blackened faces, no earrings and no heavily made-up lips. This is a dramatic change from the traditional Piet. The mayor had noted that the 2014 Piets will not look the same as before, "Zwarte Piet is evolving in his appearance."
The Sinterklaasjournaal, a daily 10-minute Dutch TV program watched by millions of children, gives all the news about Sinterklaas and his adventures. It begins around five days before his arrival, continuing until Sinterklaas eve. The first Wit (white) Piet appeared in the 2014 storyline when all the Zwarte Piets left the steamboat when they thought it was sinking. So retired Grandpa Piet (Opa Piet) started a Piet School in Gouda to train white helpers. When one asked, after going down a chimney, "Am I black enough?" Grandpa Piet replied, "The important thing is that you can go down the chimney; the color of the Piets is irrelevant." Sinterklaasjournaal is iconic for the Sinterklaas celebration. When asked how change will come about and if it will continue, anti-Zwarte Piet activist Quincy Gario said, "It depends on the Sinterklaasjournaal." The 2014 program ended with a Black Sint riding a white horse and Sinterklaas himself on a black horse. Though these reversals weren't presented as equivalent, their introduction does open the way to future changes.
|Sinterklaasjournaal closing scene with Opa Sint & Sint
|Sint and Piets without makeup from Nickelodeon|
Resistance to the traditional stereotypical portrayal of Zwarte Piet continues to grow. Ninety protestors were arrested in at the official entry in Gouda. Sixty for protesting outside the designated area and thirty others on both sides of the issue for disturbing the peace. Emotion runs high on both sides. One protestor said, "I'm here to show that we as descendants of slavaes . . . no longer tolerate 300 or so black look-alike slaves accompanying the Saint," as he was escorted away by police. The prime minister commented, "Deeply, deeply sad. Everybody can debate one another, we can endlessly discuss the color of Black Piet, but we should not disturb a children's party."
The next day in Amsterdam dozens of peaceful demonstrators made the point that a growing number of people are uncomfortable with the status quo and are determined to keep the issue in front of decision-makers.
Zwarte Sints (Black Sinterklaases) have appeared in several places—and for very different reasons. At the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, Zwarte Sinterklaas and Wit Piet were part of an exhibit raising questions about race relations 150 years after slavery was abolished. Sint and Piet switched roles at a Kiel, Antwerp, neighborhood meal for seniors as a surprise and to send a signal that traditional expectations shouldn't be held too tightly. The seniors found the surprise disarming and loved the switch. A youth association in Amsterdam's Bijlmer neighborhood made the switch as an ironic statement as they had always seen the Piets as smart, shrewd, fearless, dominant, well-informed, and knowing all your secrets. Therefore they would rather identify with Piets. These exchanges, for whatever reason, are certainly related to the current debates swirling around Zwarte Piet.
Kiel, Antwerp, Belgium
Support for change is growing. Popular Dutch author Robert Vuisjie went on television to renounce his own earlier vehement pro-Pietism. He also wrote a new children's book with Piets in all colors. Social historian Zihni Ozdil says, "This year is the first time there is a kind of shift in the white progressive elite. It's become kind of a hip thing to be against Zwarte Piet."
This shift, however, is not without a backlash, as shown by the many Zwarte Piet supporters, especially outside major cities.
Questions about racism and Zwarte Piet have spread to places that celebrate Sinterklaas outside the Netherlands. In Sint-Niklaas, Belgium, former alderman Wouter Van Bellingen recalls being taunted growing up as a black kid in the mostly white town, "Look, there goes Black Pete." He says democracy isn't just about numbers. "It is about the will of the majority and the rights of the minority. As a majority you have to be sensitive and show empathy for things that are hurtful to a minority. Saint Nicholas is a great celebration in itself," he said. "Only I think you need to get rid of Black Pete to turn it into a party for everyone."
The Stockholm Dutch Club holds a Sinterklaas party each year at the Swedish Dutch Embassy for expat children. It changed its plan following objections from the Afro-Swedish National Association. Traditionally Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet came to the embassy following a public boat ride. The club announced, "We respect the feelings and opinions of different groups . . . and will not portray Piet as a black painted helper anymore. He will look a little different, maybe have a different color on his face."
Primary schools in Utrecht, The Hague, and some in Amsterdam announced in that in 2015 Zwarte Piet would no longer be welcome at their school celebrations. They do not want children to be upset or offended. Schools would decide individually what sort of festivities they would have. In The Hague it was specified that Piet would lose his red lips, curly hair, earrings, black skin, and not appear as a servant.
Venerable high-end Amsterdam department store de Bijenkorf annually decorates for the season with spectacular Piets climbing in the large open space extending the full height of the multiple-level store. 2015 saw, for the first time, golden Piets taking the place of traditional blackface ones in the flagship store on the Dam. The golden Piets will be extended to seven more stores in 2016.
|Golden Piet at de Bijenkorf, 2015
Golden Pieten at de Bijenkorf, 2015
Zwarte Pieten at de Bijenkorf, 2014
Photo: Studio Koning
Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Maastricht, Brussels, and Antwerp all announced they would have alternative Black Petes with soot rather than blackface in 2015.
Soot Piet (Roet Piet) from Brussels
Soot Piet (Roet Piet) from Amsterdam
The national official entry in Meppel did not have Zwarte Piets with gold earrings or bright red lips, meant as a concession to the push for change. Four buses from Amsterdam and Rotterdam brought activists who said white people in blackface is racist. The campaigners, who aim to influence adults and not disturb children, remained in the agreed area approved by Meppel authorities. It was a peaceful demonstration, mostly silent, making a visual statement. "They don't realise how offensive it is. They think it's a joke, but it demeans people with dark skin," said Jessy de Areu, from stopblackface.com. There were no arrests.
Change is coming most rapidly in cities of 50,000 or more and much more slowly in smaller towns and villages, where there has been hardly any change at all. Half of the schools in the larger cities have completely stopped having black Piets. Thus the areas of North and South Holland and Utrecht have seen the most change, while Drenthe, Friesland, and Zeeland, the least. Change has come in places where parents and teachers agree, most frequently bringing in soot streaks and a mix of other colors.
Retailers respond in varying ways. The most common is to begin offering a variety of images for Piets. That is what grocers Albert Heijn and Jumbo, along with other retailers, such as Vroom & Dreesman and Hema, have done. Blokker and Xenos haven't made changes as yet. The grocery chain Lidl is the only one of the major five reported to have completely eliminated images deemed racial caricatures. They will have coloring pictures that children may color as they choose. Albert Heijn has all colors including black, on their private label products; items from other sources are accepted however they are. Albert Heijn says, "Despite our motto—Everyone is welcomme at Albert Heijn—unfortunately we cannot now do what is good for everyone." Aldi and Spar made no comment, though Aldi hasn't shown Piet in past adverts.
|This approach from JUMBO, trying to please everyone, pleased no one,
and led to protests from both sides
Retail Netherlands takes part in round table discussions at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, with the hope of coming closer to consensus. Representatives of Retail Netherlands meet with those from the Piet Guild, Sinterklaasgenootschap, Surinamese-Dutch comunity, and the official Intocht (arrival) town. Retail Netherlands predicts that coming to agreement will take several years, as deep-rooted traditions and emotion are involved. Such a big cultural change does not happen in a year. Communications expert Betteke van Ruler expects that within five years all such images will no longer be seen in shops.
Sinterklaasjournaal's position is critical. Vroom & Dreesman have said they'll follow the program's lead. Dieuwertje Blok, Sinterklaasjournaal presenter, says her eyes have been opened regarding Zwarte Piet. She notes that the Sinterklaasfeest doesn't rise or fall on the black color and she's gradually come to see that others see it differently and that the blackface is, in fact, rather weird. "Blackface is an American—racist—caricature of black people." She doesn't think such change can be imposed from above by politics or Sinterklaasjournaal; rather it needs to develop naturally in society. She believes "that process has been put in motion."
Change and pressure continue in other places. Dissent over blackface Piets is growing in Belgium in similar ways to the objections in the Netherlands, though the usual depictions are still widespread in shops. In both Australia and New Zeeland critical response to events at the Dutch embassy in Canberra and a restaurant in Birkenhead is becoming more outspoken. A priest, originally from Belgium, brought the Sintekrlaas tradition to Harwich, England, eleven hears ago, with a public arrival on the quay. Now, for the first time, Sinterklaas will arrive without a black helper. "We have stopped it this year as we can't get anybody who is black to do it. It's a little controversial and we won't black anyone up, it's about time we called it off."
Wilder's Freedom Party (PVV), early in 2016, wanted to make blackface mandatory in all Dutch public Sinteklaas parades. The Dutch Council of State did not forward the motion for parliamentary debate, ruling that such decisions were not matters for the central governemnt. This decision was in line with previous actions by Amsterdam Citiy Council. The report states that 'living folk traditions' are not static, as society changes, they change.
Groenlinks, a left-leaning green party, proposed that no Dutch embassies include blackface Piets in their Sinterklaas celebrations, suggesting the embassies should lead by example. The figure is no longer welcome in Sweden, Germany, and the US; it is also protested in other locations. Parliament did not take a position.
The Dutch Department of Justice announced it would not prosecute organizations for the use of the blackface carricature Zwarte Piet because they do not believe it is the organizations' intent to racially degrade people of color or incite discrimination.
The Dutch ombudswoman for children, Margrite Kalverboer, issued a report September 30, 2016, suggesting that Zwarte Pete be "stripped of discriminatory or stereotypical characteristics." Otherwise children's rights for fair treatment and protection from discrimination may be violated. "The figure of Zwarte Piet can contribute to bullying, exclusion or discrimination, and is therefore contrary to the [International Convention on the Rights of the Child]," the report continued. "Many [children of color] who experience discrimination in their daily lives say that it's worse around Sinterklaas time." And further, "Several Black children found the typical characteristics and buffoonish behavior of Black Pete to be 'negative and discriminatory against people with dark skin.'" These characteristics "must be changed so children of colour do not experience any adverse effects, and every dhild feels safe" during Sinterklaas season. Following the report Margrite Kalverboer received dozens of angry reactions and numerous threats. These were condemned by the minister of justice.
The largest Dutch food-retailer, Albert Heijn, announced they would continue their practice of offering Sinterklaas items, some with Zwarte Piet and some without. They say they regret that some may find these images hurtful, though others like them as part of the tradition. So customers have a choice, though neither side will be fully satisfied.
The 2016 official entry was in Maasluis, not far from Rotterdam. Black Peter protestors gathered in Rotterdam, where about 180 people were arrested, Protests had been banned for the day.
Juristen @univgroningen: "Burgemeesters misbruiken noodrecht en schenden demonstratierecht bij Sinterklaasintochten Mayors abuse emergency law and violate right of demonstration at Sinterklaas Arrival" https://t.co/US6ttq0fkf pic.twitter.com/Dha02QL4Ak— NJCM mensenrechten (@NJCM_nl) November 20, 2016
The protesters were asked to stop in three different places, it was reported, but they refused. Around twenty counterprotesters also came. One said, "We are demonstrating for the preservation of a children's party," and to protect Dutch tradition. Following arrest, the activists were soon released.
After criticizing Zwarte Piet, well-known broadcaster, Sylvana Simons received death-threats and shocking misognistic, racist abuse. Even as more urban areas and more schools and retailers are modifying the custom, the issue is far from settled.
The Dutch Prime Minister has appealed for both sides to be peaceful in the debate as it is the Sinterklaas/Christmas season.
The largest Sinterklaas entry takes place the next day, Sunday, in Amsterdam. There are over 400 Piet helpers in five groups: primary-Piets, skate-Piets, bike-Piets, nightwatch-Piets, and major-gift-Piets. The Amsterdam Sinterklaas committee called for the 2015 Piets to be 50/50 Chimney Piets, not blackface. The plan had been to have 75% Chimney Piets in 2016.
Chimney Piets on the way
Photos: Tammy van Nerum nrc.nl
The organizers, however, made a surprise announcement that ALL Amsterdam Piets would be Chimney Piets in 2016. And so they were. Amsterdam is a city with 180 nationalities and the committee believes Sinterklaas can and should be a festival for all children from all nationalities.
|Bike Piet is a squadron commander
Photo: Tammy van Nerum nrc.nl
The atmosphere was cozy and friendly, even with the small group of demonstrators. One asked why all the helpers had frizzy hair since they had come down the chimney. Perhaps the black curly wigs will be next to go?
Photos: Tammy van Nerum nrc.nl
Friendly atomosphere with smiling demonstrators
Change is coming in Belgium, as well. Most municipalities have agreed that Piet will no longer wear black facepaint beginning in 2017.
Why blackface is still part of Dutch Christmas *
Vox documentary, December 1, 2016
The Netherlands' Holiday Blackface Problem by Suzanna Koster
Documentary from GlobalPost, looking at Dutch attitudes, December 2014
Blackface: Dutch holiday tradition or racism? by Roger Ross Williams
Documentary from CNN, November 2015 (follows short advert)
Our Colonial Hangover by Sunny Bergman
The trailer for Our Colonial Hangover, a 2014 Dutch documentary about the use of blackface in annual celebrations of St. Nicholas, shows the filmmakers trying to explain the tradition to Londoners.
What will be next for this ever-evolving character?
Six to Eight Black Men by David Sedaris
An American humorist tries to understand Dutch Sinterklaas traditions
Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution
Background and Development
Change Becomes More Widespread
Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands
by John Helsloot, Quotidian: Dutch Journal for the Study of Everyday Life, Vol. 03 (2012)
Should the Dutch keep Santa's popular blackfaced pal, Black Pete?
by Peter Teffer, November 15, 3013, Christian Science Monitor
Where Dutch Racism Lurks: Why I Changed My Mind About Black Pete
by Harriet Duurvoort, December 5, 2104, The New York Times
(Access requires free registration and allows access to ten articles a month)
4 reasons to reject the racist Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet
by Ishaan Thoroor, December 5, 2014, The Washington Post
A New Holiday Tradition for the Dutch: Arguing About Blackface
by Robert Mackey, The New York times, November 14, 2014
The Dutch don't think it's racist for Santa to have black slaves
by Caitlin Hu, Quartz, December 10, 2014
Holland's Zwarte Piet Problem
by Timothy P. Schilling, Commonweal, December 1, 2014
Kick Out Zwarte Piet from Stop Blackface, anti-racism action group
Raising Racists? Rediscovering my Dutch childhood tradition
blog by Fauve Amelie Vertegaal, December 2016–
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• Corder, Mike, Associated Press, "With Saint Nick's entry comes racial controveersy in the Netherlands," Daily Chronicle, November 15, 2014
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• "Dutch city's schools opt for neutral 'Black Pete', Expatica, September 19, 2015.
• "Sinterklaas 'arrives' in Meppel, Piet protest muted after Paris attacks," DutchNews.nl, November 14, 2015.
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How SinterklaasJournal's 2015 storyline, ending with a black Sinterklaas developed
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* Dutch people regard Sinterklaas and Christmas as two distinct seasons. Sinterklaas time is from his arrival in mid-November through Sinterklaas Eve (Pakjesavond) December 5. Christmas comes after Sinterklaas, of course, and traditionally has been a religious observance on December 25th. More recently Kerstman (Santa Claus) has become a part of the later season and is a part of the holiday for some Dutch families, borrowing customs from abroad. It is a misunderstanding, though, to see Sinterklaas as a part of Dutch Christmas, as western media frequently report. The two seasons together form a significant festive time.
** St. Nicholas Center joins with the St. Nicholas Society, taking a position that does not condone nor wish to perpetuate in any way customs that include characters with a dark side, such as the horrific Austrian Krampus. We encourage the St Nicholas tradition and its revival in our time, while abhorring the imagery of these characters. We hope that St. Nicholas will be accompanied by necessary helpers needed for practical reasons, but suggest that these helpers have no real significance in the overall celebration. The Dutch Zwarte Piet has become over time a more benign figure, but he, too, still presents serious difficulties. It would be wise, in our thinking, to do away with the black-face and simply call them jesters, or just Piets, making it clear that all can be St. Nicholas' helpers. St Nicholas is a symbol of good and good alone. He does not need, and should not have, violent and frightening sidekicks for comparison. Support the good St. Nicholas!