Who Is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution

A Turning Point

Background and Development
Growing Controversy
Change Becomes More Widespread
Controversy Continues
More Sooty Piets
A Turning Point
Protesters in The Hague, 2019

Following the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Black Lives Matter movement became vastly more energized and prominent. Demonstrations spread far beyond the United States, into other parts of the world, shining light on often long-ignored injustice in other societies, too.

The Netherlands was not exempt and the BLM movement brought increased focus to what, as in other countries, had been the long downplayed legacy of slave trading and slave holding during the colonization era. The Dutch Prime Minister has admitted there was “systematic racism” and that Zwarte Piet was part of the issue. Leiden University researcher Judi Mesman said the persistence of the tradition shows that Dutch education needs to be overhauled, “Our history books are selective.”

Public Attitudes Shift

Dutch opinion polls have measured support for the traditional blackfaced Zwarte Piet. In 2013 Dutch support for the character was 89%. That number dropped to 71% in November 2019. Since the Black Lives Matter protests, the percentage supporting Black Peter declined to 47% in June 2020.

Cities that have changed to Roetpieten (Sooty or Chimney Piets) include Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Groningen, Arnhem, Nijmegen. Hilversum, The Hague, Haarlem, Utrecht, and Drachten.

Social Media

The first major 2020 change came in Facebook’s August 2020 announcement. Following a nine-month process, they stated that blackface characters would no longer be allowed on Facebook and Instagram’s social media platforms. Sooty Piets, with “soot” streaks on their faces, will still be allowed.

Facebook further said that blackface has a “continuous history of dehumanization and denied civil rights. By blackface, we mean that a person has a distinct black or darker face paint, combined with stereotyping elements such as large earrings, an afro wig or large lips.” A FB spokesman said, “Experts say that blackface is racist. That’s how this policy came about. As a result, Zwarte Piet is also prohibited.” The policy on Piets applies to both the Netherlands and Belgium.

The retroactive policy will remove such images posted before the policy announcement. Exceptions will include postings from anti-Zwarte Piet advocates, neutral news reports about the debate, and such discussions.

Facebook was unconcerned about losing some of its Dutch users, saying, “This could be a setback, but it is the right choice for us.” They also said their policy change was independent of the Black Lives Matter movement and the advertising boycott, as it had been in process long before.

From their Dutch blog post, “Facebook does not consider it acceptable for people to feel discriminated against or feel unsafe because of certain messages. Sinterklaas is a party for everyone.”

Retail Changes

Increasingly since 2015, retailers have been moving from products depicting a blackface Piet. Bol.com, the largest Benelux online store for books, toys, and electronics, announced all products showing Zwarte Piet in a discriminatory way would be removed.

“Following recently received feedback and insights we have concluded that ‘Black Piet’ can be seen as hurtful,” the company said. In making the decision advice was sought from the Dutch ministry of justice and the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights. The reason given for the change was “progressive insight, in keeping with current events in the Netherlands and Belgium.” All text will change “Zwarte Piet” to just “Piet.” Continuing, “Bol.com is a shop for everyone. That means that everyone has to be able to have access to us and feel welcome. Feeling welcome doesn’t match with products that incite discrimination or hate.”

Customers who fled from Bol.com to Coolblue found that Coolblue has the same policy as Bol.com. Coolblue told a customer who said she was switching to them for that reason, “Nice that you are ordering from us, but we would like to add that we more than agree with our competitors.” 

Amazon, a recent addition to the Netherlands, reported removing Zwarte Piet items. The other major online retailer Wehkamp carries books, music, videos and DVDs, but not other Zwarte Piet items.

These online merchants join others that have been removing or changing blackface images since 2015. These include department store de Bejenkorf. grocers Albert Heijn, Jumbo, Vroom & Dreesman, and Hema.

“The Netherlands is getting better!” 

tweeted Jerry Afriyie, the Dutch-based human rights activist who started the Kick Out Zwarte Piet movement.

  • “Facebook, Instagram ban images of Blackface Zwarte Piet, Jewish Stereotypes,” by Zack Newmark, NLTimes, August 11, 2020
  • “Blackface photos banned from Facebook and Instagram,” by Laurence Dodds, The Telegraph, August 11, 2020
  • “Facebook and Instagram ban images of Zwarte Piet,” by Maïthé Chini, The Brussels Times, August 11, 2020
  • “Zwarte Piet: Dutch people finally turning against their bizarre racist Christmas character ‘Black Piet” by Leo Cendrowicz, iNews, August 29, 2020
  • “Dutch online store bans ‘Black Pete’ merchandise as ‘hurtful’”, by Karolin Schaps, Reuters, August 20, 2020
  • “Zwarte Piet-voorvechters vluchten van Bol.com naar Coolblue, maar tevergeefs,” adformatie.nl, August 20, 2020
  • “Over en uit voor Zwarte Piet bij grote webshops, Amazon sluit zich in de rij aan,” by Sebastiaan Quekel, AD.nl, August 25, 2020
  • Bol.com weert boeken en spullen waar Zwarte Piet op staat,” NOS.nl, August 19, 2020

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