Who Is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution

The Tide Has Turned

Background and Development
Growing Controversy
Change Becomes More Widespread
Controversy Continues
More Sooty Piets
A Turning Point
The Tide Has Turned

2021

Activists have campaigned for ten years against the traditional blackface Zwarte Piet figure, saying it is racist. 2021 is seeing significant change as more and more local Sinterklaas arrivals are now featuring “sooty” Piets instead of blackface. A majority of larger arrivals are now entirely “sooty”, while some have a combination of “sooty” and other colors, and others have some blackface.

Sooty Piets gain widespread acceptance
Photo: AD.nl

Change began in the largest cities where public Sinterklaas events, schools, and major retailers have led the switch to different kinds of Pieten. During the pandemic, when all public arrivals were cancelled, Sinterklaas committees have thought about Piet’s appearance.

Dutch newspaper AD surveyed more than 210 local authorities, asking what their plans were for their 2021 Sinterklaas event. 123 are having just sooty Piets, 32 will have a combination of both sooty and blackface, and just 10 will have just blackface Piets. The rest (45) hadn’t yet decided, are doing something else, or didn’t want to say.

Change has greatly accelerated since 2019 when AD asked the same question and 239 towns and villages were having blackface Piets and just 19 had changed to sooty. The pandemic 2020 year, with cancelled in-person arrivals, may have made it a bit easier to make the switch. As spokesman for the Wadden island of Terschelling, said, “Last year the parade was digital and we had a couple of sooty Piets to let people get used to the idea. This year we are switching completely.”

Shifting attitudes are shown in surveys by current affairs program EenVandaag’s 29,000 member opinion panel. In 2013, 89% did not want any change to traditional blackface Piet. The 2019 results showed support had dropped to 71% and last year, 2020, it had fallen to 55%, with 34% in favor of change and 11% with no opinion.

Orange=Sooty; Tan=Combination; Blue=Another color; Black=Blackface
Map: OpenStreetMap, AD

Even though change has come, it’s somewhat reluctant. As the Sinterklaascentrale Friesland said, “To maintain the party, the adjustment is inevitable. I think the discussion is now over. It’s done, we just want to party again.” A spokesman from Sneek, “I always said: we will be the last to switch, but at some point you have to come along. You can no longer do otherwise. That was caused by people who started shouting loudly.” And from Groningen Stadskanaal, “Our gut prefers dark, but that is no longer possible.” Others are more positive, such as those in Wijdemeren, “Every Piet can fill it in his own way, as long as they are not black. We hope for imaginative helpers.”

AD surveyed municipalities largest core. In some that are “sooty” the smaller centers are still using blackface. For example, Altena, North Brabant, with 19 large to very small centers, has the largest Werkendam with a combination of black and sooty, while the smaller Wijk, Aalburg, Veen, and Genderen are all blackface. However, Nieuwendijk, also small, is just sooty. So survey results represent the larger centers, not the smaller ones.

Some smaller towns and villages are concerned that children well recognize a Piet as a neighbor or relative. Borculo is having their arrival at dusk to make such recognition more difficult.

Yet, the campaign continues. 

This year 100 Kick Out Zwarte Piet activists went to Breda. Breda had “Gray Piets”, said to make it harder to recognize or them. The demonstrators see this as still racist and a fake solution to the blackface problem. Seven counter-protesters were arrested when they refused to move away from the demonstrators.

Reflecting on the movement ten years in, founder Jerry Afriyie said, “What we have achieved is that 10 years later no one can deny that there is racism in the Netherlands. Just like every movement, slowly but surely we are making progress, but we are not there yet. I’m optimistic because I’ve seen this country be fully asleep, waking up bit by bit. So I think that it is a matter of time that all these people we’re seeing now in black faces that they make the change.”


SOURCES

  • “Uit enquête blijkt: draagvlak voor Zwarte Piet steeds kleiner” (Survey shows: support for Zwarte Piet is shrinking) by Cyril Rosman, AD, November 11, 2020
  • “Onderzoek onder 210 gemeenten: Zwarte Piet in meeste plaatsen vervangen door roetveegpiet” (Research among 210 municipalities: Zwarte Piet replaced in most places by soot wipes) by Juriaan Nolles & Cyril Rosman, AD, November 9, 2021
  • “Sooty Piets take over, blackface out of favour in most towns and cities,” DutchNews.nl, November 9, 2021
  • “Ten years of the ‘Kick Out Zwarte Piet’ campaign: what has changed?” by Senay Bozlas, DutchNews.nl, November 13, 2021
  • “Anti-racism activists stage demo against Dutch ‘Black Pete’,” ABCNews, Associated Press, November 13, 2021

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