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The Continuing Evolution of Zwarte Piet

The Dutch character Zwarte Piet has developed and changed over time. Here is a look at some of those changes and the current controversy over this figure.

Background and Development
Update 2014
Update 2016

Background and Development

Jan Schenkman's book, Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht [Saint Nicholas and his Servant], (1850), has been credited with establishing and bringing uniformity to Dutch Sinterklaas traditions that go back to the 15th century. The book reflected then-familiar elements, such as riding a horse, giving gifts through chimneys and coming from Spain. It introduced bringing Sinterklaas on a steamer and, perhaps most significantly, accompanied by one black-skinned servant, commonly interpreted to be a Moor. This servant did not have a name. Rhymes from the book are still sung as popular Sinterklaas songs, such as Zie ginds komt de stoomboot.

The book fit well into the times with its strongly didactic emphasis. Sint Nicolaas interrogated children about their behavior and religious catechism. Naughty children were punished with switches and even carried away by the servant in a large jute sack. Good children, of course, were rewarded with treats, sweets, and presents.

Here is zijn Knecht in early editions of Jan Schenkman's book:

There is some evidence that Sint Nicolaas was sometimes accompanied by a black servant even before Schenkman's book—though this may have been an actual servant, a person of color serving at the time in Amsterdam.

Into the 1900s Sint Nicolaas' servant was known by a variety of names: Trappadoeli, Assiepan, Sabbas, Sjaak Sjoor; or Hans Moef and Nicodemus as in Germany and Flanders; or by usual Dutch servant names Jan and Piet. These continued with Pieter-mijn-knecht being named in a book dedication by Jozef Alberdingk Thijm in 1850 and in the newspaper De Tijd in 1859.

Piet is a very Dutch-sounding name, as is Jan, of course. Piet, however, is linguistically stronger and in the early 20th century being "Dutch" was of high value. Zwarte Piet also had some historical precedence, having being used in a picture book in 1868. The first well-known picture book naming Piet was Van Sinterklaas en Pieterbaas that first came out in 1911.

In the first half of the 20th century Sinterklaas celebrations became standardized throughout the Netherlands. By the 1920s Piet had become Zwarte Piet and this was recognized everywhere as the name for Sinterklaas' servant. There was just one servant-helper, Zwarte Piet, singular. He was portrayed as dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.

Zwarte Piet, the servant or slave, began to get a softer image during the 1950s. His black-face began to be attributed to soot from coming down chimneys, thus attempting to make him more like Knecht Ruprecht in Germany or Schmutzli in Switzerland.

Sinterklaas usually had just one servant, though since the 1920s there were frequently several. until after World War II. Following the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers organizing the celebration wanted lots of help distributing presents; so, many soldiers got dressed up. Then many merry Zwarte Pieten swarmed Amsterdam on December 5, 1946, giving presents and treats to delighted chidren. Canadians have been credited with providing the impetus for the continuation of increasing numbers. Ever since Zwarte Pieten have multiplied and now the Amsterdam arrival has over 600, including many women!

These Zwarte Pieten all dress in 17th century colorful Moorish outfits with curly black Afro wigs, brightly-painted red lips, black gloves and solid blacked faces and other exposed skin.

Popular books illustrate the Pieten; books and illustrations remain in print over many years.

Postcards old and new:

In the late 1960s Zwarte Pieten began shifting away from being primarily about discipline and punishment to providing entertainment. Agile Pieten started performing acrobatic feats, carrying out silly pranks, and, most importantly, were the ones handing out candy and treats. During arrivals, while Sinterklaas rides sedately on his horse, the Pieten toss pepernoten and candy to watching children. This makes them popular, of course, especially with children. Zwarte Pieten were now described as "helpers" or "friends," not as "servants" or "slaves."

With these changes, people said Zwarte Piet's face was black because soot got on it going up and down chimneys delivering presents. However, this did not explain why his face was solid black, he had a curly black Afro-wig and exaggerated red lips. Amazingly, after going down chimneys, getting his face totally blacked, his clothes remained perfectly clean.

The Zwarte Pieten took on other roles, now less ignorant and more responsible: Hoofdpiet, navigation Piet, present-wrapping Piet, pepernoten Piet, etc. Large gold earrings were somewhat less common and wigs still curly, but less coarse.

The first recorded questioning about the role and portrayal of Zwarte Piet was in 1968. A woman named M. C. Grünbauer thought "it no longer appropriate to continue to celebrate our dear old Saint Nicholas feast in its actual form." While slavery had been abolished for over a century, she said, "we continue the tradition of presenting the black man as a slave. The powerful White Master sits on his horse or throne. Pete has to walk or carry the heavy sacks."

Succeeding decades have heard more voices questioning Zwarte Pieten, saying the portrayal is a negative racial stereotype. Each year there would be some such comment, disregarded by the majority and seeming to disappear after the season.

In 2006 Dutch national public broadcaster NTR had multi-colored, rainbow-hued Pieten on the children's program JeugdJournaal. Sinterklaas' steamboat had passed through a rainbow and rainbow hues came off on the Pieten making them pink, purple, green, blue, yellow, orange and so on. The Pieten did not have large red lips and their eyebrows were merely blackened with mascara, showing more natural face. The show also simply referred to Pieten with no Zwarte. Aje Boschhuizen, broadcast editor, said, "Pete is just Sinterklaas' merry helper. His color is unimportant." However, there was a widespread fierce outcry from adults and the rainbow Petes did not return the next year.

By 2006 safety concerns had caused the outdoor Sinterklaas festivities in the Hague's Transvaal section, which is around 85% immigrant, to be moved inside to a sports center. Organizer Joke van Boomen reported aggression threats from the community towards volunteers had increased so much that the consideration was given to ending the event.

In 2008 artists Petra Bauer and Annette Krauss organized a march as part of an exhibition exploring the meaning of Zwarte Piet at the Eindhoven Van Abbemuseum. Following media publicity the museum received hundreds of negative emails, including some serious threats to participants's safety. This led to cancelling the march. After cancellation, people who had never had said anything before about Zwarte Piet reached out to support the artists.

Playwright Mark Walraven, who used to play a black-faced Zwarte Piet, says, "I stopped after I began working with black people. Many people are offended by this symbol. In songs written before World War II, he was often called Sinterklaas' slave, and the texts of many songs and lyrics about him, especially from the 19th century, make it very clear that he was a racist symbol. In the end, Black Pete always comes across as a little stupid, clumsy and one who talks strangely and doesn't speak proper Dutch."

Black children and adults living in the Netherlands report difficult experiences during Sinterklaas season. A black Dutch friend of researcher and journalist Shantje Jagmohansingh was once at a large Sinterklaas party with hundreds of families. She reported that Sinterklaas asked each child what they wanted to be when they grew up. "When he came to me, Sint said he didn't need to ask because, 'You are going to be Zwarte Piet because you've got the color already.'"

"Probably every black person in the Netherlands has been called a “Black Piet” at least once in his or her life. Especially in the weeks prior to December 5. It hurts, it always has and always will," says Marthe van der Wolf. "I never really knew why it made me feel uncomfortable. I grew up as an adopted black child in a white liberal home where I was told colour doesn’t exist. And I believed that. But still, the comment was hurtful at the time. . . . Growing up celebrating Sinterklaas I felt excluded as my face didn’t need to be painted. And as a kid, that hurts. . . . After all these years I have finally figured out why it is distressing to me when referred to as Black Piet. And now that I know, I can’t express this, for I would upset white people’s feelings."

"It is an affront to people of the African Diaspora in the Netherlands, and it is not proper in this age," says Artwell Cain, director of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy.

"It was about six years ago when my mum came home from work and phoned me," says performance artist Quinsy Gario, who was born on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. "On the phone I could hear her trembling. She was upset, livid, and said someone at work, in front of customers, had said, 'We were wondering where our Zwarte Piet was and there you are.'"

After that Gario began including references to racism and Zwarte Piet in his poetry and performances, including making and wearing the Zwarte Piet is Racisme T-shirt. Reaction was strongly encouraging as others requested the T-shirts. Someone else even started a Facebook page for the project.

In 2011, Gario, together with Siri Venning (Danish researcher studying African, Afro-Surinamese and Dutch Caribbean experience of Sinterklaas), Steffe Weber (journalism student covering the entry), and Kno'Ledge Cesare, went to the national Sinterklaas arrival in Dordrecht. They took a banner with the words, "Zwarte Piet is racisme" and "the Netherands can do better." When police told them it could not be used due to a ban on demonstrations, they rolled it up and uncovered their T-shirts. They report that police told them that would be okay. Gario and Cesare stood there, wearing the T-shirts, hoping to start conversation about racial relations in the Netherlands. As they stood peacefully among the crowd, wearing their "Zwarte Piet is racisme" T-shirts, another policeman told Gario to leave. When he asked why, Gario was violently thrown to the ground, held there and repeatedly kneed in the back, dragged away and pepper-sprayed, even though he didn't resist. Police officers arrested him and his three companions. "I spent six and a half hours in a jail cell for freedom of expression," Gario said.

In studio
Photos: MindWhatYouWear
In studio
In studio

The very next day when Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam, a group of young black men and women were there, wearing T-shirts they had spray-painted with the same Zwarte Piet is racisme slogan. They, too, were arrested for disturbing the peace. Together these actions led to more people requesting the T-shirts.

"We began this project because we [sensed] a want of historical knowledge about the figure of Zwarte Piet," Quinsy Gario explained. It aimed at starting a 'sane dialogue, based on facts.' We don’t say: 'stop celebrating Sinterklaas.' We say: 'study the origin of the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet and ask yourself the question if that is still acceptable in today’s world.'"

Video from The Telegraph

The original video, posted to Facebook and YouTube went viral. The arrest was reported and shown in Italian, Indian, French, Norwegian, and US newspapers and web sites. It was not shown on Dutch television.

As Zwarte Piet protests have grown, Dutch defense of tradition and resistance to change has also increased. "The majority here in Holland refuse to talk about Black Pete," said playwright Walraven. "They are afraid that the people who discuss it want to take away Sinterklaas as a phenomenon." Daily newspaper De Telegraaf responded, "This [Sinterklaas] is nothing more than a simple and innocent children's festival that has been unjustly attacked and from which no one need feel excluded. It has never been proven that the "Black Peter" figure incites discrimination or racism or any kind of negative image of people with dark skins . . . . Black Peters are an integral part of a Dutch custom that has long been one of the country's most important traditions and vital to our national heritage. And these sourpusses can't change that." "These are very old traditions," said politician Jan Pronk, once U.N. envoy to Sudan, "I don't think it's so bad."

However, complaints about Zwarte Piet increased to more than 100 in 2011, the regional Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam reported. They used to receive just one or two a year. Director Jessica Silversmith says, "It's not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining," referring to people descended from the former Dutch colonies that once traded in slavery. "It's all kinds of Dutch people." She continued, "Nobody is against the Sinterklaas celebration or is calling people who celebrate it racist. But it is time to consider whether this is offensive, whether there actually are racist ideas underlying Zwarte Piet."

By 2012 the atmosphere was shifting. Zwarte Piet is Racisme, together with other voices, had brought the issue of racism and Zwarte Pieten to the media,. The widely-read GeenStijl (though later claimed to have been satire), Margriet Oostveen in NRC, Jan Postma on hard/hoofd, Bas Heijne and politician Andree van Es, all entered the discussion, calling for change. National television showed a documentary listing arguments against Zwarte Piet.

"I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface,” says Dimitri Tokmetzis, a journalist and the publisher of Dutch news site Sargasso. "On the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues."

Even though dissent is increasing, the tradition has strong support among the majority of Dutch people. So debate continues and changes won't come quickly.

However, some changes have already taken place. Since 2008 Sinterklaas (not just Zwarte Piet) has been unwelcome at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, recognizing that Zwarte Pieten would offend many international travelers. When HEMA brought Sinterklaas to London in 2010, there were no Black Petes. It has been reported that retail chain Albert Heijn and biscuit-baker Bolletje no longer include such images. Blokker and V&D retail chains are showing kids with ash-smudged cheeks in their catalogs, rather than black-face. Some schools and other places are using Regenboog Pieten (rainbow Petes) and other non-blackface helpers.

Over much of the world Sinterklaas is celebrated by Dutch ex-pats, former Dutch colonies, and communities of immigrant Dutch descent. In the United States Dutch heritage communities of Holland, Michigan; Pella and Orange City, Iowa; are counted among places that celebrate with Pieten, not Zwarte Pieten.

Dutch national news RTL asked Holland, Michigan's mayor Kurt Dykstra about the city's wit Pieten (white Petes). He responded, "Any time a tradition comes to a new place in a new time, you have to modify it a little bit to make it suit its context." The Holland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau director remarked, "I'm so glad we never went there. So glad. You just can't do that." The Dutch newscaster reported, "The children here [in America] have no problem with white Piet."

The Dutch Club in Chicago was the first ex-pat organization to take such action. In 2005 they decided to change. Club president Andrew Enschedé explains, "We ended up with a compromise that preserved the tradition with a twist. We did not abolish the Pieten altogether but instead to make the Pieten different colors—for example Green, Blue, Orange, Purple. We tell the story that our Piets are the rainbow Piets and that their vibrant colors are the result of sailing through a rainbow on the way to America. Sometimes we alter the story and tell the children that the Pieten made a big mess and covered themselves in paint while painting the boat." **read more

In Canada, an African-Canadian committee threatened to protest the New Westminster Sinterklaas events in Vancouver. Organizers cancelled public events on the Quay and at Holland Shopping Centre under pressure from the Dutch community that was unwilling to have the event without Petes. "We can’t celebrate Sinterklaas without Black Peter. You can't pull these two apart," organizer Tako Slump reported in an exclusive interview with Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

The former Dutch colony Suriname took reported unanimous parliamentary action in 2011 to ban Zwarte Piet from public squares and schools receiving government support. The Sinterklaas celebration had also been outlawed in Surinam during the 1980s, but had returned in recent years. "This celebration has a racist element and doesn’t belong in our community. It should be abolished," said politician Ronald Venetiaan.

Imro Rietveld, who grew up as the only black child in his class, reported in 2013 that every year he was subjected to a month of taunts, such as "Your whole family is coming over in the [stoomboot]: and "Can you do tricks." He said some people are afraid to speak out against Black Peter because they are worried about being ridiculed or even losing their jobs.

Sinterklaas traditions have changed over the years, and certainly his servant/helper has changed. In 150 years this character's gone from being Knecht to Piet to Zwarte Piet and, in some places, now just Piet. He began as a slave or servant and has become helper and friend. He was a scary, threatening presence with switches and a large kidnapping sack and now a merry, laughing trickster with treats and presents. He's losing his earrings and his hair has become softer.

Are there alternatives that would preserve the most beloved parts of Sinterklaas tradition and not cause offense? Traditions always evolve and this one has done so and will surely continue to do so. Alternatives and adjustments that have been suggested in the Netherlands range from most unlikely to possible: Smurfs, Wit Pieten, Rainbow-hued Pieten, make-up changes to black smudges without blackface, red lipstick nor Afro black wigs, perhaps other hair, or none, as Piet already wears a feathered cap. Ineke Strouken, director of the Dutch Centre of Popular Culture & Immaterial Heritage, has repeatedly stressed that traditions like Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet will continually change and adapt to changing circumstances.

What will be next for this ever-evolving character?

Question mark

Update, 2014 

The public debate around Zwarte Piet greatly intensified in 2013. It was particularly pronounced in Amsterdam, home to the most people of color in the Netherlands. Twenty-one people filed a complaint with the Amsterdam event licensing committee asking that the intocht permit be revoked because the event is discriminatory in its present form. A public hearing was held in October with many Dutch citizens of Surinamese and Antillean backgrounds present. Quinsy Gario warned the council of the impact the character could have on the city's international reputation.

The mayor, Eberhard van de Laan, said the licensing council would rule as quickly as possible, by early November.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission took up the question with committee chair, Jamaican Verene Shepherd, saying, even before the committee deliberated, "that this is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop."

The international press picked up the issue with stories on wire services and editorial comment in many countries. French news site France24 argued that the Dutch were in denial of the festival's racist nature. The British Daily Mail saw the majority Dutch defense of Zwarte Piet as an outrage. Donald Clarke, writing in the Irish Times, stated that "casual racism demeans insidiously," concluding that "the important question (in both cases [the Orange Order's marching through Catholic areas in Northern Ireland and Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands]) is not: are you allowed to do this? The important question is: why would you want to do this? Why would you want to annoy your nationalist neighbors? Why would you want to make black people feel uncomfortable? In short, the story is (or should be) all about good manners. . . . It would be nice if Dutch people found another way of celebrating Christmas. It is, after all, the season of goodwill."

All of this led to pushback from a large majority of Dutch people. Up to 500 demonstrated to keep Zwarte Piet for two-and-one-half-hours in the Hague, Saturday October 26. A Facebook page supporting Zwarte Piet, Piet-itie (Piet petition) garnered nearly two million "likes" in just two days, becoming the fastest growing Dutch-language page ever. The outpouring of support was quite a feat in a country with just 17 million people.

The Sint Nicolaasgenootschap Nederland (Saint Nicholas Society Netherlands) had submitted an application for Sinterklaas to be included in UNESCO's list of intangible heritage. The request was returned, saying that "something would have to be done about the "black problem first." Chair of the SNG, Jan van Wijk, stated, "It's not up to us to change Zwarte Piet."

As the controversy swirled, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that Zwarte Piet wasn't a matter for the government to regulate, rather, as a folk tradition, for society itself.

Hoofdpiet (Head Pete), comedian Erik van Muiswinkel, believes that Zwarte Piet is evolving and will continue to do so. He said, "while Pete once was Saint Nick’s silly sidekick and enforcer—beating kids who were naughty, not nice, and stuffing them into a sack to be hauled off to Spain—he’s becoming a clever right-hand man. 'It’s perfectly possible to make Pete gradually less black and less of a servant,' van Muiswinkel wrote to Dutch newspaper NRC on Oct. 22, adding that some Petes are now women and that most no longer fake an exaggerated accent. Some people have advocated a dusting of paint on the Petes' faces rather than full-on paint with the explanation that he got dirty going down the chimney."

The City of Amsterdam announced on October 30th that the traditional Sinterklaas Intocht with Zwarte Piets could proceed on November 17th as scheduled, despite the complaints. Mayor van der Laan said the tradition was contiinually evolving and that Zwarte Piet "has already changed from a stereotypical black servant to a playful clown who no longer has to have 'curly hair, thick lips and doesn't necessarily need to be black.'" The mayor has also suggested changing Zwarte Piet gradually, in the same way it has changed over time. This year, in Amsterdam, the Piets are to have no earrings, softer hair, and smaller lips. The mayor continued, "If it appears that Amsterdammers feel pain as a result of this tradition, that's a good reason for new development." The chair of the Amsterdam Intocht suggested that a different look could begin with 100 of the 500 Piets.

Action group Zwarte Piet Niet held a peaceful demonstration Saturday, November 16—the day of Sinterklaas offical entry into the Netherlands. It was held at Beursplein, Dam Square, in Amsterdam, the day before Sinterklaas' Amsterdam arrival. The group stands for Sinterklaas for all children, equality and dignity for all, respect for all, freedom of expression, empathy and acceptance, a multicultural Netherlands, and a ban on Zwarte Piet.

Photo:KPN vandaag

Photo: source unknown

Observers have commented that after 2013's public discussion, it is impossible not to detect a racist element surfacing from time to time—sometimes more overtly than others. Those who took part in the demonstrations, or showed their support in other ways, received insulting comments and even death threats. Newscaster Humberto Tan, singer Anouk and model Doutzen Kroes, all received death threats and the women ugly sexual insults. This discussion is raising the larger question of racism in Dutch society.

"I totally understand why Dutch people can't see the problem with Black Pete: 'He is a nice guy, and of course I'm not racist,' people would say," said John Helsloot of the Meertens Institute. But, he added, "People will have to be taught with empathy that he's part of a certain part of our history, in order to change their perceptions." Patrica Schor, who studies Portuguese colonialism at the University of Utrecht, says the character is sending the wrong message to Dutch children. "[It says] that a black person cannot be an adult, that it is infantile, childlike. And that a black person is always on a relationship of dependency to a white master, which is the holy, white, elderly Saint Nicholas." Rhoda Woets, a University of Amsterdam anthropologist, says, "if [Black Pete] was an anti-Semitic figure it would have been changed a long time ago . . . that’s something very sensitive here, because of the history of the Second World War. But Dutch people don’t have that sensitivity when it comes to their own colonial past." She says the Dutch Sinterklaas celebration is 'a precious memory of their childhood.' That makes the debate very emotional. "Of course, people don’t like to think of themselves as racists. So they find it very hard tocopewith something they feel as criticism." The Economist summed it up this way, "But while the symbolism of a children’s holiday may be of limited consequence, the contemptible racial attitudes it has exposed are not. This month’s conflict has changed Zwarte Piet. For many, even if a year ago he was not a symbol of Dutch racism, he is now."

Dutch stamps
2013 Dutch Stamp

Quiet changes continue as commercial interests are increasingly cautious. Retailer Hema is "closely monitoring" the debate to see how to proceed. The Sinterklaas stamp brought out by the Dutch Postal Service shows Piet in silhouette only. Fewer Piets are showing up in shops, and coming later, too.

Boom Chicago, Amsterdam's largest comedy show, presented Delete Zwarte Piet Niet from November 11th through December 5th. The comedy supports this proposal from Nederland Wordt Beter: "Color Pieten with ash, since they are supposed to be dirty from the chimney. Wear the same costumes, but keep your own hair and no red lips. Explain that Sinterklaas chooses helper Pieten from the neighborhood to help with their activities. That is why a child might recognize Uncle Kees. Voila, the children’s tradition continues exactly the same as today. Sint and Piet survived "Hulp Sinterklazen" and the disappearance of chimneys in modern houses (somehow children didn’t mind moving their shoes to the door). We can certainly survive a slightly different form of makeup. To those that say no changes are needed and it’s just a children’s party, we say: If it’s just a children’s party, why not make these few, slight changes? The children obviously won’t care. Obviously it is something deeper than just a children’s party. It’s Dutch eigenwijs-ness, the desire to be against something just because someone tells you you should do it. Eigenwijs-ness: that is the true Dutch tradition. And this whole Zwarte Piet issue could use less eigenwijs-ness and American shouting, and a little more Dutch compromise."

A lawsuit was filed in administrative court to answer the question whether Zwarte Piet was racist and whether a permit for the Intocht should be denied. The hearing was held in May with dozens supporting those filing the suit. The mayor again reiterated the point that it was not a matter of law, rather for the culture at-large to decide, "the society makes traditions and traditions can also change." The ruling was to come on July 3, 2014.

July 2014 the Amsterdam District Court ruled that Zwarte Piet is a negative stereotype, noting that he has a history of being portrayed as unintelligent and servile. The mayor had six weeks to consider his response. The city and the Pietengilde (Guild of Piets representing 500 Pieten) are appealing the ruling to the State Council. Mayor van der Laan believes the discussion belongs in the community, not the court.

The mayor also stated the transformation that began in 2013 (no golden earrings, softer hair and less prominent lips) will continue over the next four years. This will transform Zwarte Piet into someone who looks like he's climbed through a chimney instead of an exaggerated African caricature.

"You can’t make it a decree and tell all the Dutch, 'This is the way Black Pete should be and this is how you celebrate these feasts,'" says the Dutch Center for Folk Culture’s Albert van der Zeiljden. "It takes time to change."

Update 2016

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."

Soot Piet
Photo: NUnl
Soot Piet
Photo: Telegraaf
Soot Piet
Photo: rtl nieuws

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.

Sints on horsesSinterklaasjournaal closing scene with Opa Sint & Sint
Sint and PietsSint 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.

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.

Pro-Piet defensePhoto:

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. 

Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Maastricht, Brussels, and Antwerp all announced they would have alternative Black Petes with soot rather than blackface in 2015.

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 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. 

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.

The protestors 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

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

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?

Happy selfies!

Photos: Tammy van Nerum

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.

This illustration helps explain why those working for change wanted Zwarte Piet's appearance to change.

Piet costumeImage:Zwarte Piet is Racisme,translated by Christine Fischer

Why blackface is still part of Dutch Christmas Updated!
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.

Six to Eight Black Men by David Sedaris
An American humorist tries to understand Dutch Sinterklaas traditions

Dordrecht Arrest Video, November 14, 2011
Amsterdam Arrest Video YouTube, November 15, 2012
Zwarte Piet niet welkom in Amerika RTL, December 2012

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– 

**From the "President's Pen" by Andres Enschedé,DutchChicago Link, December 2011:
Over the past couple of days, an article popped up on the internet concerning the arrival of Sinterklaas in Vancouver, Canada. A number of people in Vancouver objected to the presence of Zwarte Piet. A number of you may recall that we discussed the same issue several years ago within our organization and changed our celebration of Sinterklaas somewhat in response to concerns about Zwarte Piet. At the time, it was a contentious decision but we ended up with a compromise that preserved the tradition with a twist. We did not abolish the Pieten altogether but instead to make the Pieten different colors—for example Green, Blue, Orange, Purple. We tell the story that our Piets are the rainbow Piets and that their vibrant colors are the result of sailing through a rainbow on the way to America. Sometimes we alter the story and tell the children that the Pieten made a big mess and covered themselves in paint while painting the boat.

While Piet is currently more viewed as a friend and an equal, many among us appreciate the fact that the traditional caricature of Zwarte Piet is offensive, particularly to Americans. One of the goals of our Club is the promotion of relations between the United States and The Netherlands - promoting those relations is near impossible when saddled with explaining the tradition of Zwarte Piet. Our American hosts, neighbors and spouses usually find the tradition strange, fascinating, and unimaginably offensive and our Zwarte Piet brings to mind images of minstrel shows and stereotypical representations of black people in 1950s American popular culture.

On the other hand, we also acknowledge that many people feel that Zwarte Piet is an innocent caricature. He works with Sinterklaas and is now a friend to all children helping to hand out presents. His blackness derives only from having to go up and down chimneys. He is simply a fun character who is a traditional part of Dutch culture. Many people argue that he isn't meant to be offensive and should not be viewed as such.

The history of Zwarte Piet has been studied by many scholars and likely goes beyond the "black like soot" from the chimney analysis. My personal belief is that we are ambassadors for our country and its traditions. This also means that we need to be fully prepared to explain our traditions to our American neighbors, friends and Americans in general. The question arises therefore whether you are prepared to do that with Zwarte Piet. As a member of the Club, it is not impossible for me to explain in a satisfactory fashion to Americans the tradition of Zwarte Piet nor do I think it possible given the history of Zwarte Piet. I have to confess that I have been asked on many occasions in my 25 years in the United States to explain the tradition but have failed in every single instance.

When we took the decision several years ago to celebrate Sinterklaas differently, we knew that we were among the first Clubs in the United States and around the world to take this decision. Although we have been tracking developments on this front for several years now, the article about Vancouver is the first time that we have seen this issue raised by another Dutch Club in North America. We felt quite progressive back in 2005 when we made the change. I am proud that we are not the Second City in this respect—we were leading the pack in an area that was and is very emotionally loaded for many people. Permission pending.

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*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, as we encourages the St Nicholas tradition and its revival in our time. We abhor the imagery of these characters and hope that St. Nicholas will be accompanied by necessary helpers needed for practical reasons, but that the helpers have no significance in the overall celebration. The Dutch Zwarte Piet has become over time a more benign figure, but he, too, 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 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!

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