Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution
Background and Development
Change Becomes More Widespread
More Sooty Piets
A Turning Point
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 continually 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 official 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.
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 to cope with 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.”
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.”
What will be next for this ever-evolving character?
Background and Development
Change Becomes More Widespread
More Sooty Piets
In another section
Six to Eight Black Men by David Sedaris
An American humorist tries to understand Dutch Sinterklaas traditions
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–
- AD.nl, Emoties lopen hoog op bij rechtszaak Zwarte Piet,” May 22, 2014.
- AD.nl, Zwarte Piet niet welkom op ambassade in VS,” November 23, 2013.
- Agence France-Presse (AFP), “Are the open-minded Dutch in denial over Black Pete?” October 24, 2013.
- Agence France-Presse (AFP), “Hundreds march in Netherlands to support ‘racist Black Pete,’” October 26, 2013, story carried by many news carriers: Business Insider, GlobalPress, Bangkok Post, among others.
- Associated Press, “Amsterdam says ‘Black Pete’ can visit the city,” October 30, 2013.
- Associated Press, “Dutch push back against ‘Black Pete’ criticism,” October 27, 2013, carried by many news sources: Yahoo News, Times Dispatch, Boston Herald, Samachar, among others.
- Associated Press, “Protest against Dutch black face holiday tradition,” November 16, 2013.
- Clarke, Donald, “Why would anyone think that blackingup is a suitable way to mark Christmas?” Irish Times, November 1, 2013
- The Economist, “Is Zwarte Piet racism? Race relations in the Netherlands,” November 2, 2013.
- Knipselkrant Curaçao, “Sinterklaasfeest niet op Unesco-lijst om Zwarte Piet,” October 26, 2013.
- NOS, “Pietenprotest op Malieveld,” October 26, 2013.
- nrc.nl, “Maak mij minder zwart en minder knecht,” October 22, 2013.
- NU.nl, Zwarte Piet niet welkom op ambassade in VS,” May 22, 2014.
- NU.nl, “VN-onderzoeker pleit voor afschaffen Sinterklaasfeest,” October 22, 2013.
- Perri, Celeste, Maud van Gaal and Corina Ruhe, “St. Nick’s Blackface Helpers Ignite Dutch Racism Debate,” Bloomberg, November 7, 2013.
- Raboteau, Emily, “Who is Zwarte Piet?” VQR Online, Summer 2014.
- ReInform, “Zwarte Piet Niet: Vreedzame demonstratie,” November 15, 2013.
- Reuters, “Protest against Zwarte Piet in Amsterdam,” KPN vandaag, November 17, 2013.
- Rosen, Daniel Edward, “Dutch Call for Makeover of Racist Holiday Character” vocativ, June 16, 2014.
- Schuetze, Christopher F., “Amsterdam to Refashion ‘Black Pete’ Character” New York Times, August 14, 2014.
- Thomas, Emma, “Zwarte Piet abolished? Outrage in Netherlands where ‘Black Pete’ is Christmas Tradition,” Daily Mail Online, October 24, 2013.
- UNRIC, “UN experts encourage respectful debate on Dutch tradition,” November 21, 2013.
- The Wire, “Dutch Court Finally Admits ‘Black Pete’ Is A Racist Christmas Tradition,” July 3, 2014.
- “UWI professor still receives Dutch hate mail, four years after criticizing Dutch tradition,” Jamaica Observer, Deceber 15, 2017.
* 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!