I fear this post will lose me Dutch followers because what I’m about to write is not a popular opinion in Holland. Nevertheless, the news here in the Netherlands is all about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and I feel compelled to comment, especially since, judging by the comments flooding my Facebook page from Dutch friends, I disagree with the vast majorityof Dutch people.
Note: I wrote this article in 2013, but updated it in 2018. It all still applies. I wrote about this topic again in Black Pete redux (2014), Zwarte Piet Updated (2015) and, quite recently, in Zwarte Piet (Black Piet) updated (2020).
For my non-Dutch readers, I first have to explain the current tradition. Sinterklaas is a tall, thin, elderly man who wears a long robe and a miter like a bishop’s. He has the same historical roots as the American Santa Claus or the British Father Christmas; all are based on Saint Nicholas. Sinterklaas, however, lives in Spain instead of the North Pole and rides a white horse instead of a sleigh. He has his own holiday on December 5th, so he is not associated with Christmas, which has remained a more purely religious holiday in Holland.
Rather than elves, Sinterklaas travels accompanied by Zwarte Piet, which translates as “Black Pete.” Or, rather, he’s joined by a group of Zwarte Pieten – Black Petes – who help him by carrying his bags of gifts and sweets for him and generally clown around, entertaining children at parties and other Sinterklaas-related events.
Here’s where the controversy comes in. Black Petes are exactly that: black. They are almost always played by white people dressed in blackface, and they wear colorful “Moorish costumes” with puffy sleeves. Their lips are painted bright red, and they wear black long-sleeved shirts and black leggings or tights to complete the illusion of being black. On their heads they wear a curly black-haired wig, and they often have big gold hoops in their ears.
Any of you, dear readers, who comes from any country other than the Netherlands will understand the problem with this. To state the patently obvious, it’s terribly racist in this day and age for a white person to dress up in blackface and play a comic character.
The Black Pete debate
A group of Amsterdam residents filed a complaint about this tradition in 2013, arguing that it is offensive to them and must be stopped. They argued that it could easily be replaced with a new tradition of “kleuren Pieten” or “regenboog (rainbow) Pieten”: in other words, multicolored Petes, so there would be a Yellow Pete, a Purple Pete, and so on. The tradition was not stopped, and the debate revives every year.
In 2017, the argument reached such a height that a group of Black Pete defenders stopped traffic on a highway coming into the province of Friesland. They wanted to prevent anti-Pete protesters from reaching the place where the intocht (the arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands) was scheduled to happen.
In November 2018, an anti-Pete group took their argument to court again, demanding that the Black Petes at this year’s intocht should not include any racist stereotyping. They demanded that no blackface should be allowed, and also no “sooty Petes” (Petes with smears of soot on their faces, which I’ll explain more later), earrings, curly black wigs, stupid or servile behavior.
They lost. It was mostly a procedural decision, and the judge added a statement. He basically agreed with them that Black Pete is a racist caricature. However, he also said that forbidding the intocht would violate freedom of expression. They would have had to prove – which, he said, they didn’t – that the intocht violated people’s protection against discrimination. In his view, it doesn’t, because the image of Black Pete is already changing gradually in the right direction.
Meanwhile, the debate rages on.
Many Dutch, however, refuse to accept the argument that Black Pete is a racist image. And they seem to be refusing to even see why anyone could be offended by it. The range of reasons they give to preserve the tradition is truly impressive:
Yes, it is traditional. So was slavery. So was teaching boys to read and not girls. That doesn’t make it acceptable.
It’s harmless; it didn’t turn me into a racist.
Perhaps, though you could certainly argue that the fact that you’re defending Zwarte Piet is racist in itself, at least in that you aren’t aware that it’s racist.
It’s not meant to be racist or to put anybody down. It’s just a fun way to distribute gifts to children.
Just because you don’t mean it to be racist doesn’t mean it isn’t perceived that way.
Everybody knows Black Petes aren’t really black.
Does that matter? Whether you knew they were white or not when you were little, you still laughed as they clowned around in blackface. You still accepted a white Sinterklaas with black servants as normal. I had a black student some years back who was pointed at by small children in the supermarket, “Look, Mama, it’s Zwarte Piet!” That indicates to me that children don’t see the difference. They don’t realize that Black Pete isn’t real until they’re older.
They’re not black; they’re just dirty from soot after going down chimneys.
This is one of the most common and lamest arguments I’ve heard. Does getting sooty turn your hair black and curly too? I don’t think so! And how come their clothes are so clean? One of the recent modifications to the tradition plays on this story: lately, we sometimes see white Petes (or whatever color the person actually is) with smears of soot on their faces: Sooty Petes. It still doesn’t solve the black curly hair, bright red lips, and clean clothing conundrum, but at least the soot smears match the story a bit better.
It’s a lot less racist than the historical role of Zwarte Piet.
This is true: the original Black Pete of a century or more ago was literally a slave, and he was stupid and spoke with a foreign accent in incorrect, choppy Dutch. He was also used to scare children into being good: “If you don’t behave, Black Pete will whip you and put you in his bag to take you back to Spain with him.” So Black Pete’s role has been toned down. He’s not a slave; he’s a servant. He’s silly and jolly and funny and throws candy. So what? He’s still in a subordinate position and is still an object of ridicule with his clownish behavior.
If we had Red Petes and Yellow Petes, then American Indians and Asians would be offended.
I have to assume this is just a reductio ad absurdum argument: taking an argument further to the point of nonsense. And I have to assume it’s just tongue-in-cheek. At least I hope so. If not, then the people who make this argument are even more racist than I thought, given that classifying Native Americans as red or Asians as yellow is also racist. Of course, if you dressed Red Pete in red paint but then put an Indian headdress on his head, yes, that would be offensive!
If we have to get rid of Black Pete, we’d have to get rid of Sinterklaas, since the fact that he’s always white is racist too.
This strikes me as a false analogy. Sinterklaas is just one specific person, who is portrayed as white. Black Petes are a category: all Black Petes are Sinterklaas’s silly servants, and they’re all black. No one will be offended that Sinterklaas is white, but we could certainly think about at least sometimes portraying him as dark-skinned. Saint Nicholas was from Turkey, after all, where people tend to be darker-skinned and darker-haired than here in Holland.
The people who play Black Pete don’t want to be another color. They just didn’t like it when they tried it back in the 90s in Amsterdam.
That isn’t the point. Sinterklaas is a children’s holiday; the people playing Black Pete are doing it for the children’s entertainment. So what does it matter if they don’t enjoy it? It’s not about them. Children wouldn’t be bothered by seeing Rainbow Petes at all, and within a couple of years it would be absolutely normal.
The people complaining about Black Pete are being oversensitive.
Perhaps. But in my view they’ve been over-accommodating not to complain earlier, or at least not to complain so loudly. Blacks in Holland have recently written and spoken about how they have always felt when confronted by Black Petes at this time of the year: insulted, excluded, different. To me, that’s enough reason to stop doing it. Holland cherishes its self-image as a tolerant and open society. This situation belies that description.
What amazes me is how many of my Dutch friends and acquaintances have posted on Facebook in support of keeping the Zwarte Piet tradition. Why does this matter so much to them? Why does it matter if Black Petes turn into multi-colored Petes or sooty Petes? Why are they so defensive? The lady doth protest too much, methinks!
To see my most recent update on this issue, go to Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) updated.
Please feel free to leave a comment below, if you’d like, but keep it civil! And I would certainly appreciate shares on social media!