Dutch in New Zealand
Sinterklaas celebrations in New Zealand are changing, just as they are in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Questions about the tradition surfaced in 2015 when critics took to social media to protest the appearance of Black Petes in blackface, with red lips and black curly wigs in the North Shore urban Auckland area.
Some of the comments: “I realise this is tradition; but is it really something our kids need to be seeing up the street as they grow up, thinking it’s quite alright to be wearing blackface in the name of tradition?” “There are a lot of angry people talking about how it is racist!”
On the other side Dutch folks defended blackface Black Pete, saying it was just tradition, not racist.
A spokeswoman for the New Zealand Human Rights Commission said, “The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has urged the Dutch Government to show leadership but it is the Dutch people—including Dutch Kiwis—who have to ask themselves whether this is OK in 2015.”
The Dutch Delight restaurant in Birkenhead, where the controversy had started, announced in 2018 that they would no longer have blackface Petes. Instead their Petes would sport red, white and blue faces and hair, the three colors of the Dutch flag.
Dutch Delight’s owner Willem van der Velde, said that up until 2015, “We never had problems with Pete because, to us, he was nothing to do with racism—he was the funny guy of the party. I think for 11 years there was no problem at all.” That changed when the restaurant started to get one star ratings on Facebook; before the popular place had always gotten good ratings.
Van der velde invited one man who’d commented about racism to come in and talk. After their discussion, he told the man, “‘if it hurts you, I won’t do it anymore.”
Explaining why he made the change in 2017, van der Velde stated, “These Kiwis have nothing to do with my Dutch traditions, but of course if it hurts people then that’s a good enough reason to change it. For the kids, it doesn’t really matter anyway.” He continued, “We changed from Black Pete to different coloured Petes, using the three colours of the Dutch flag. When Sinterklaas arrives at the parade, he says to all the kids that they fell through a rainbow on the way to New Zealand, and that’s why the Petes faces are all different colours. Everyone was happy with that. It got some applause and it was a nice, great party. Nobody was upset, which was great. I just like everyone to be happy.”
The Dutch Club in Manawatu was one of the first New Zealand Dutch societies to change to non-blackface Petes. They made the switch to plain-face Petes in 2018, without even a smudge on their faces. The club president encouraged other clubs to celebrate Sinterklaas without Black Pete because non-Dutch see it as clearly racist.
Dutch societies in Auckland, Christchurch, and Rotorua are still committed to using the traditional, stereotyped depiction with black face Petes. The Rotorua club will no longer show Black Pete on social media.
However, Rotorua Netherlands Society member Douwe Visser said he could see the other point of view and that perhaps the tradition did need changing. He said traditions could be hard to change, “I think it has to change a little because for some people it’s looked at as insulting, but originally it wasn’t meant that way. I think it will change in the future but we’ll have to talk about it. It’s not easy. There are a lot of traditional St Nick songs that have Black Peter in them, we all sang those when we’re young so I can understand there’s a lot of resistance.”
Change will most likely continue to come to Dutch celebrations in New Zealand.
• Taonui, Dr Rawiri, “Racist ‘Black Pete’ has no place in New Zealand,” waatea news.com, March 8, 2020
Comprehensive review of Dutch slave-trading and development of the Zwarte Piet tradition
• Kitchin, Tom, “Christchurch Netherlands Society to keep blackface Black Pete as ‘it’s history’”, stuff, December 21, 2019
• Rankin, Janine, “Manawatu Dutch Sinterklaas party trades Black Petes for plain Petes,” stuff, December 5, 2018
• Benn Bathgate & Janine Rankin, “Dutch society says use of Black Pete is tradition, not racism,” stuff, December 1, 2018
• Casey, Alex, “‘If it hurts you8, I won’t do it’—North Shore Dutch parade does away with blackface tradition,” Spinoff, December 1, 2018
• Sparks, Zizi, “Controversial Dutch character to feature at Rotorua market,” nzherald.co.nz, December 1, 2018
• Yeoman, Scott, “Blackface at Christmas: New Zealanders slam Dutch tradition of ‘Black Pete’”, nzherald.co.nz, December 8, 2015