Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution

More Sooty Piets

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
Growing Controversy
Change Becomes More Widespread
Controversy Continues
More Sooty Piets

‘Chimney’ or ‘Sooty’ Piets are showing up more and more in more and more places.

News flash! No blackface in 2019 National Arrival!

September 18, 2019, public broadcaster NTR, organizer of Sinterklaas’ official Netherlands arrival, announced that all Piets will have sooty makeup, no blackface this year. “This is a logical next step for us,” NTR said, as last year (2018) the Piets were a mixture of sooty and blackface. All Pieten taking part in Apeldoorn will be sooty.

“Today is a beautiful, historic day,” Jerry Afriyie, from Kick out Zwarte Piet, said. While happy to see progress in the main parade, activists will continue to push for smaller parades to follow suit, saying, “We will fight for change.”

Amsterdam—400 Sooty Piets

2017 saw all the Piets in Amsterdam with sooty faces—no more blackface in Amsterdam. 

Sinterklaas arrival, Amsterdam, 2018
Photo: Michael Graste Sint in Amsterdam

2018 brought an entirely new look with the introduction of newly designed suits. The Sint in Amsterdam Foundation (SSIA) is working to keep the Pieten with a look as neutral as possible. The new suits, designed by Ineke van Berge, a retired head of fashion designer, were developed after she studied dozens of paintings, etchings and drawings to develop a new look for the Piets.

Photo: Michael Graste Sint in Amsterdam
Photo: Michael Graste Sint in Amsterdam

The new look is modeled after 16th century Spanish noblemen. Besides the brightly-colored suits, the look features medium length, wavy dark brown wigs.

Photo: Michael Graste Sint in Amsterdam
Photo: Michael Graste Sint in Amsterdam

The new pietenpak is “a means,” said the SSIA, “to celebrate the Sinterklaas celebration, the most beautiful children’s party in the world, in a way acceptable to everyone.”

Not just the roughly 400 “official” Piets were sporting the new look. Others along the route also were clearly “sooty” Piets, too.

Photo: Michael Graste Sint in Amsterdam
Photo: Michael Graste Sint in Amsterdam
Photo: Michael Graste Sint in Amsterdam

Utrecht

The fourth largest city in the Netherlands, Utrecht, has also shifted to having all Piets with new suits and sooty faces.

Photo: Intocht Utrecht
Photo: Intocht Utrecht
Photo: Intocht Utrecht

Rotterdam

Rotterdam, the Netherlands second largest city, is moving toward having just sooty Piets. Following the unrest in 2017, a “Pieten Agreement” was worked out between the Sint Nicolaas Intocht Comité and the Platform Rutu, representing a network of young black people. The agreement would have Piets be 75% sooty in 2018 and 90% in 2019.

Photo: indebuurt Rotterdam
Photo: AD.nl

However, following the 2018 arrival, it was announced that ALL 200 Rotterdam Piets will be sooty in 2019. Thus moving quickly to ban black piets from the Rotterdam Sinterklaas arrival. Van der Kloot Meijburg, representing the Intocht committee, commented, “We are an organization that listens to the voice of Rotterdam. We want to be an example for the other cities where there are still black Pieten. Rotterdam is not the first city to completely change. Amsterdam and Utrecht have only sooty piets.”

The 2019 look for Piets in Rotterdam
Photo: ANP, AD.nl

Media Pieten—NTR

The Sinterklaasjournal, broadcast on NTR, has long set the standards for the Sinterklaas festival. However, NTR is following a process of gradual change, featuring both sooty and black pieten, but without black leotards and gloves, no earrings, and no red lipstick. An NTR spokesperson says, “Every year a small step, every year a little less black.” In 2017 there were four sooty Piets; 2018 brought eleven.

The expanded sooty Pieten on Sinterklaasjournaal
Photo: NTR, NRC.nl

This gradual process satisfies no one. Opponents of the traditional Piet still see Zwarte Piets. Proponents are annoyed to see sooty Piets. Sinterklaasjournaal is no longer the trendsetter and may be seen as indecisive or capricious. Cities and other media outlets are making their own decisions.

Media Pieten—Nickelodeon

Nickelodeon announced in 2018 that they would only have unpainted pieten in their Sinterklaas series. Nickelodeon’s spokesperson said, “We want to make Sinterklaas a party for all children on our channel. The Piets show their own skin color, whatever their ethnic origin. They look like many children who dress up as pietje for Sinterklaas’ arrival.
The completely unpainted Pieten on Nickelodeon’s Sinterklaas series
Photo: Nickelodeon, NRC.nl

SOURCES
• “Amsterdamse Piet krijgt roetvegen en Andreaskruisen,” Het Parool, November 6, 2018
Sint in Amsterdam, official site for the Stichting Sinterklaas Intocht Amsterdam, the organization responsible for Sinterklaas’ arrival in Amsterdam
Intocht Utrucht, the organization responsible for Sinterklaas’ arrival in Utrecht
• “En plots was er ‘n Pietenakkoord” by Nadia Berelder & Antti Liukku, AD.nl, November 18, 2017
• “Alleen maar roetveegpieten bij intocht Rotterdam in 2019” by Barbara de Jong, AD.nl, November 21, 2018
• “Elf roetpieten en één Zwarte Piet in eerste Sinterklaasjournaal” by Wilfred TAkken, nrc.nl, November 12, 2018
• “Nickelodeon presenteert ongesschminkte pieten,” by Wilfred Takken, nrc.nl, November 4, 2018
• “Geen Zwarte Piet meer bij RTL, wel schoorsteenpiet” by Wilfred Takken, nrc.nl, October 24, 2016