Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution

Change Becomes More Widespread

The Dutch character Zwarte Piet has developed and changed over time. Here is a look at some of those changes and the current controversy—with both change and push back—over this figure.
Background and Development
Growing Controversy
Change Becomes More Widespread
Controversy Continues
More Sooty Piets

A Turning Point
The Tide Has Turned

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.

Waffle and Cheese Piets in Gouda, 2014 Photo: NUnl

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
Wit Piet
Wit Piet from NTR Sinterklaasjournaal

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 horses
Sinterklaasjournaal closing scene with Opa Sint & Sint
Sint and Piets
Sint and Piets without makeup from Nickelodeon

Resistance to the traditional stereotypical portrayal of Zwarte Piet continues to grow. Ninety protesters 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 protester said, "I'm here to show that we as descendants of slaves . . . 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 Piet protest
Photo: Telegraaf
Zwarte Piet protest
Photo: at5.nl
Zwarte Piet protest
Photo: nltimes
Zwarte Piet protest
Photo: at5.nl
Zwarte Piet protest
Photo: at5.nl
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.

Zwarte Sint
Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam
Photo: Tropenmuseum
Zwarte Sint
Kiel, Antwerp, Belgium
Photo: GVA
Zwarte Sint
Bijlmer, Amsterdam
Photo: NUwij

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 defense
Photo: Nieuws.nl

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.

Bijenkorf Golden Piet
Golden Piet at de Bijenkorf, 2015
Photo: at5.nl
Bijenkorf Golden Pieten
Golden Pieten at de Bijenkorf, 2015
Photo: MetroNieuws
Zwarte Pieten at de Bijenkorf, 2014
Photo: Studio Koning

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

Soot Piet
Soot Piet (Roet Piet) from Brussels
Photos: Nos.nl
Soot Piet
Soot Piet (Roet Piet) from Amsterdam
Photo: MetroNieuws

The national 2015 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 community, 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.

Ms Blok
Dieuwertje Blok, Sinterklaasjournaal

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 Party for Freedom (PVV), early in 2016, wanted to make blackface mandatory in all Dutch public Sinteklaas parades. MP Martin Bosma proposed a law making it mandatory to have black or brown face Pieten., saying, "annihilation of our children's friend" should stop. The Dutch Council of State did not forward the motion for parliamentary debate, ruling that such decisions were not matters for the central government. This decision was in line with previous actions by Amsterdam City 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 caricature 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 child 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 protesters gathered in Rotterdam, where about 180 people were arrested, Protests had been banned for the day.

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 misogynistic, 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 frizzy wigs will be next to go?

Happy selfies!
Photos: Tammy van Nerum nrc.nl
Friendly atmosphere with smiling demonstrators

Change is coming more slowly in Belgium. Some municipalities have agreed that Piet will no longer wear black facepaint beginning in 2017.

In 2017 the Amsterdam Sinterklaas Committee (SSIA— Stitching Sinterklaas Intocht Amsterdam) has made further changes to eliminate negative racial characteristics. "You cannot get rid of Piet all together. Sinterklaas and Piet go together like the Sun and Earth," said spokesperson Pam Evenhuis. The SSIA and the mayor listened to the activists and have changed the character into Schoorsteen (Chimney) Piet, substituting "soot" smears for blackface.

Evenhuis continued, "Last summer we decided to buy new wigs which have curly brown hair and new costumes which are based on 17th century European nobility. As Sint is from Spain, we thought we could say they are inspired by Spanish noblemen."

Package Piet
Package Piet, Amsterdam, 2017
Photo: Romy Fernandez, Sint in Amsterdam
Chimney Piets with children
Chimney Piets, Amsterdam, 2017
Photo: Romy Fernandez, Sint in Amsterdam
Skate Piet, Amsterdam, 2017
Photo: Romy Fernandez, Sint in Amsterdam

Amsterdam and the Hague are the only cities to have taken official action to change Zwarte Piet into Schoorsteen Piet. So, the controversy continues. As one activist says, "I am going to protest because the image of Zwarte Piet is very offensive and even harmful to people of colour in general, but to Afro-Dutch people especially. I think it hurts the Netherlands in general, too, because it stagnates the dialogue about racism in the country. It is an old tradition, but outdated and it needs to move with the times, like a lot of traditions do and have done in the past."

RTL that broadcasts the Club van Sinterklaas has announced already in 2016 that it will only have Schoorsteen Piet, saying, "Chimney Piet, which we just call 'Piet" now, has black marks on his face because he comes down the chimney. Most of us have grown up with the idea that Piet comes down the chimney. We keep that story, only changing his appearance. This follows the Amsterdam SSIA decision.

NTR, who broadcasts the widely popular Sinterklaas Journal, has introduced alternative Piets while still keeping some Zwarte Pieten. Over one hundred celebrities have signed a letter asking NTR to discontinue Zwarte Piet. The managing director, Paul Römer, says it is just a matter of time until Zwarte Piet is completely gone.

2017 saw strong push back from the extreme right. Around 35 people, believed to belong to extreme-right nationalist organizations, blocked the motorway, preventing about 120 anti-Zwarte Piet activists from coming to Dokkum for a legal demonstration. Their convoy was unable to continue. The Dutch home affairs minister called on pro-Zwarte Piet protestors to abide by the law, saying "I understand the emotions on this subject, but I cannot approve of people stopping everything on a highway. Everyone must abide by the law, including these people."

UPDATE: On November 9, 2018, the court sentenced 34 of these pro-Zwarte Piet supporters to 80 to 240 hours of community service, saying, "The court seriously condemns all the accused," adding that "to demonstrate is a fundamental right . . . the accused took the law into their own hands." Compensation was also given to an anti-racism activist who suffered a concussion when the buses were stopped.

Another incident saw ten members of an "action group for the preservation of Zwarte Piet" invade a primary school in Utrecht. They were dressed as traditional black-face Zwarte Piets and distributed flyers and stickers. The school has celebrated without Zwarte Piet since 2015 and planned to file trespass charges against the intruders.

Another man from Lelystad was sentenced for inciting racial hatred on the internet. He had posted on social media that protesters at the 2015 Sinterklaas Intocht should "be put to work again as slaves."

The number of Dutch people insisting that Zwarte Piet is not racist is slowly inching down, from 93% in 2014 to 85% in 2017. A survey of 272 Dutch municipalities indicated that 33 wouldn't be staying with the traditional stereotypical black-face Zwarte Piet.

In March 2018 Gini Wijnaldum, professional footballer for Premier League club Liverpool and the Netherlands national team, gave an example showing how the Zwarte Piet tradition allows or encourages overt racism. He reported, "A few years ago I was away with the Dutch national team and we have quite a lot of black players. One day after training we went back to the hotel and when we were in the elevator, Memphis Depay took out his phone and said ‘let’s take a selfie’. He posted it on Instagram. The reaction we got under that picture was disgusting. There were people calling us the ‘n’ word. At that time it was November and in early December in Holland we have a traditional thing called Sinterklaas. It’s basically a party for children who get presents. A big old white man is on a horse and then black people help him. In those comments they said we were like slaves and called us *******. It wasn’t nice to see. Based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas has become increasingly controversial in recent years as Santa’s helper is known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). In Holland they discuss it now because the black people aren’t happy about it.” Wijnaldum added, “It’s something from back in the days when black people were slaves and worked for white men. Everyone under the picture said we were like Black Pete and we had to work for white men. The government dealt with the people who said these things on Instagram and they had to pay a fine but I think they can do more to solve this problem. Every year it continues in Holland. It’s supposed to be a good thing for the children but it’s really messy because of the racism around that time. People don’t realise how big racism still is. We play for all the people in Holland. We want support, not racism.”

Change does not come easily and without reaction. The international nationalistic movement is evident in the Zwarte Piet controversy.

However, in October 2018, NTR—the Dutch public broadcaster—announced that this year the character of Zwarte PIet would only have soot smudges on his face for the official arrival in November. "The NTR respects both tradition and change, but it is our public duty as an independent public broadcaster to reflect these changes in society. Therefore the Black Petes this year will have soot on their hands and faces because they came through the chimney. They will have different types of hair and will not be wearing golden earrings."

NTR broadcasts the widely viewed Sinterklaas Journal and has retained some Zwarte Pieten along with "chimney" Pieten. 2018 marks the first year that all the Sinterklaas Journal Pieten will be makred with soot, "chimney" Pieten. 

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

On Location: The Netherlands' holiday blackface problem from GlobalPost on Vimeo.

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?

Chimney Piet
Club van Sinterklaas Piet, RTL, 2017
Photo: RTL
Question mark
Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution
Background and Development
Growing Controversy
Change Becomes More Widespread
Controversy Continues
More Sooty Piets

In another section

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

Video Links

Dordrecht Arrest Video
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
Let's face it: Blackface won't be a priority in Belgium
by Heleen Debeuckelaere, Africa is a Country, November 17, 2014
Raising Racists? Rediscovering my Dutch childhood tradition
blog by Fauve Amelie Vertegaal, December 2016–
This Sinterklaas Season Too, Black Pete Stays (Mainly) Black)
by Frank Jacobs, Big Think, November 19, 2017
‘Only American Neurotics Think We're Racist': Debating Discrimination in the Netherlands 
by Tracy Brown Hamilton, World Politics Review, April 3, 2018


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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!

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