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Is Black Pete racist?

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 several years ago, but updated it this year (2018). It all still applies, but I’ve replaced some of the pictures for some provided by a friend.

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.

Sinterklaas on the left, Black Pete on the right.
Sinterklaas on the left, Black Pete on the right.

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.

To state the patently obvious, it’s terribly racist for a white person to dress up in blackface and play a comic character. Click To Tweet

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:

Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas as portrayed on candy wrappers
Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas as portrayed on candy wrappers

It’s tradition.

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.

And as portrayed on a package of "pepernoten," a spice cookie that's traditionally distributed by the Black Petes
And as portrayed on a package of pepernoten, a spice cookie that’s traditionally distributed by the Black Petes

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 an update on this issue, please click here.

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!

Many Dutch people still insist that the tradition of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) isn't racist. In this updated article, I go through and answer all of their arguments.

37 Comments

  • Han van der Horst

    November 2, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Basically this argument is in line with the famous cliché ‘If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck and it eats like a duck, it probably is a duck”. In the week before easter in Sevilla Spain you see parades, that to American eyes are Klu Klux Klan marches, because people are dressed up like that. Howevr, they take part in an ancient public ritual to mourn the the death of Christ.

    There is no blackface tradition, not in the American sense. Black Pete is part of a very old tradition that goes back millennia and that has to do wit fertility rites. There are tons of scholarly evidence for that.

    Now you might argue that the modern Black Pete was modelled on slaves. It is true that a few hundred years ago European Courst and noble households boasted one of more black servants, who added a touch of miracle to the general setting. In most cases they were dressed up as oriental princes. In paintings they look at their employers in admiration. Why? There was no slavery in Europe and they were set free and now they rewarded their employer with a dog like loyalty. Napoleon kept such a liberated slave around him and he slept on the doorstep to his bedroom. Like a pet dog. If you think about this, this is worse than the story opponents of Black Pete tell you about him being a slave.

    One of the villains of the anti Black Pete faction is a 19th century Dutch schoolmaster, called Schenkman. Around 1950 he published a litte illustrated book in which we see Black Pete and he is dressed up exactly as those servants in the paintings I told you about. There are two editions of this book. And in the second edition Black Pete changed his attire. In that second edition he is dressed up as a sixteenth century nobleman. As a matter of fact his dress looks remarkably like that of William of Orange in his younger years.

    Why is that? Despite being a valet Black Pete is a person of authority. Certainly in the old days his job was to punish children. Now I can assure you that in the nineteenth century and in the heyday of colonialism, Dutch elites had very clear ideas about white superiority. They would never accept, that their children were punished by a black face or someone dressing up like that. You might say that they had racist reasons not to turn Black Pete into a slave. History, ethnoloy and life itself are complicated.

    You will have heard that most Dutchmen insist, that Black Pete has nothing to do with racism and that they make no connection between Black Pete and blacks in general. You do not believe them because now and then a kid confuses Black Pete with a black person on the bus. I know. I did it. Once. Then my mother took care of that. She thaught me that I should never remark on the way other people looked. And that was that.

    In the meantime thinking on race in Holland changed. One of the proofs of that is the fact that in our country there are many more interracial marriages than in for example the United States. There is an amount of racism in this country, for example on the workplace, but there is no reason to distrust people, if they tell you that their celebration is not racist and is not meant to be racist. Being labelled a racist in Holland is considered to be a major insult. If you tell that to a policeman for whatever reason, you will be fined. It really hurts people.

    The slogan of the anti black Pete movement is “Black Pete is racism”. Changing the black Pete tradition, means that you admit that you have been involved in a racist activity. You are not only expected to change your ways, but also to do penance for racism, which as a concept replaced mortal sin in the Netherlands.

    This is why in this nation of compromises and polder models there is no way why the opponents of Black Pete and his friends could meet each other half way. No way at all, for to work out a good compromise it is essential that nobody had to admit that he has been wrong and sinful and in fact deserves to wear the scarlet letter of racism.

    The vociferous opponents of Black Pete slammed the door into their own faces so to speak. They should follow a course of public relations and influencing people for beginners.

    Reply
    • Rachel Heller

      November 2, 2013 at 3:57 pm

      Very interesting comments! I see your point about it being hard to get anyone to change the tradition, since that would be admitting to being involved in a racist activity. I read the response published by the organizer in Amsterdam of the “intocht” of Sinterklaas, and he made a similar point: that it would be better to discuss this after Sinterklaas, when it feels less immediate, and we can come to some sort of consensus.

      Although I find all of the various historical views interesting, to me it doesn’t really matter whether Black Pete ever was a slave, or if it’s meant to be racist or ever was meant negatively. To me what matters is what it means now,intentional or not: it hurts and excludes people. I think that’s a good enough reason to change it. I don’t think the tradition should be eliminated, but just adjusted a bit: either by having multi-color Petes or Petes that have their normal skin color but are smeared with soot.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments!

      Rachel

      Reply
      • Dutchmanonwork

        November 15, 2018 at 12:08 pm

        ”me what matters is what it means now”
        …what it means to citizens of the empire of the United states.
        Here, I fixed that for you. Your morals aren’t universal. The fact that the US has a shameful history on how it treated blacks only 1 generation ago doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to see things the same way you do. Your identity politics aren’t ours, don’t bring this to our doorstep.

        Having said that: Who gives a shit about what colour black pete is. Make it coloured so the whining can stop.

        Reply
        • Rachel

          November 15, 2018 at 6:41 pm

          I think to some extent you missed my point, and that’s partly because I don’t think you realize that I’m not American; I gave up my US nationality a few years ago and I’m looking at this as a long-term immigrant to the Netherlands. I’m not talking about Americans taking offense (although they do) or the UN taking offense (although it does). I’m talking about blacks in the Netherlands who are offended. I also don’t think pointing at the US’s shameful history of racism exonerates the Dutch and their own shameful history, particularly their long history of profiting from the slave trade! I agree, though, with your last comment: let’s just change it! It’d be so easy to put this whole thing to rest!

          Reply
          • Mart Kelner

            August 9, 2020 at 11:14 am

            The fact that you migrated doesn’t make you Dutch in my opinion? Maybe officially yes, but it’s not like the horrible American racist history is wiped away from you. You do know that right? Please respect other people’s opinion, just like we respect yours. Let everyone have the Pete they want… For some it will be the traditional national hero black Pete, others will take a green Pete I suppose.

          • Rachel Heller

            August 9, 2020 at 11:44 am

            Interesting comment. Does that mean that you don’t consider any immigrants to the Netherlands to be Dutch? Even if they’ve taken Dutch citizenship, as I have? So the feelings of people who have Dutch nationality but perhaps came originally from elsewhere (or their parents or grandparents did) don’t count as much as the “real” Dutch people, who want their traditions respected? That seems to be what you’re saying. Saying that everyone should be able to have the Pete they want is the same as saying, for example, that if people want to hang up a swastika on their how, that should be okay, just because it’s what they want, or because it’s their tradition. And somehow that shouldn’t bother other people.
            As for America’s racist history, I certainly am not denying it in any way. I fully acknowledge the level of privilege I grew up with in the US as a white person. But I also acknowledge that that same level of privilege is something that white Dutch people have grown up with too, and now that I live in NL I continue to benefit from white privilege here.

      • Müller

        December 6, 2020 at 1:15 pm

        Hi, I’m sure black pete is the leading Problem in racism. Finish black pete ans from one moment to another all problems of The World will disappear. I wish to habe such a problem ans my life would ne very easy. Maybe its time for some people to think about the racism included in the slogan “black lives matter”
        All the best
        juley

        Reply
        • Rachel Heller

          December 6, 2020 at 7:53 pm

          It is racist to claim that “Black Lives Matter” is racist. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has never claimed that white lives don’t matter. What it does claim is that black lives have not mattered and it’s time that they do. Black lives matter as much as white lives do. Just like if someone were, for example, raising money to help people with brain cancer, it is not necessary to say “But what about renal cancer, doesn’t that count too?”

          Obviously Black Pete is not the leading problem in racism. I never said it was. There are many bigger problems, including what “Black Lives Matter” is aimed at improving: how blacks are treated in society, especially by law enforcement and the legal system. But Black Pete is still racist. You’re implying that it doesn’t matter, and clearly it does.

          Reply
  • Dirk Bontes

    November 9, 2013 at 5:38 am

    I am Dutch. Black Pete is pitch black and an immortal. He is our national superhero. Centuries before he was called Black Pete, long before the USA blackface practice, he was called Black Claus. Black Pete does not have anything to do with the America’s, nor with equatorial Africa, nor with slavery in recent centuries, nor with racism. He is one of many expressions in Europe of the same millennia old archetype.
    At the moment Black Pete is being persecuted and discriminated against by some people for having a pitch black skin. These people are mostly foreigners who have been raised in a USA racist tradition and who confuse Black Pete with a negroid person from Africa and who are projecting their own racist world view onto the completely innocent character of Black Pete. In effect, Black Pete is made the victim of the straw man fallacy.

    Reply
    • Rachel Heller

      November 10, 2013 at 9:15 am

      I’m not sure how to take this comment. Is it meant to be serious or sarcastic? In any case, without going into the objections to many of the statements you make, I’ll just repeat what I said in the post: it doesn’t matter what Black Pete was meant to be, and it doesn’t matter what the history is of this image. What matters is how it affects people NOW. Keep in mind that the people who filed the complaint are Dutch. Sure, expats like me have been pointing out our issues with the image of Black Pete for years, but we didn’t file the complaint. Locals did. Or do you think they don’t have that right because their ethnic background isn’t Dutch?

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!

      Regards,
      Rachel

      Reply
      • Wobstra

        November 18, 2018 at 1:45 pm

        “What matters is how it affects people NOW”

        Does it though? Does it really? The thing is, people will always find a way to be offended. Maybe we should also ban abortion, selling alcohol or short skirts because it hurts and offends some people. It is a small, really small, minority who claim to feel offended by Black Pete, but being offended does not make you right. On the lovely caribbean island of Curaçao, which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the (black) people also celebrate Sinterklaas. Whoever plays Sinterklaas paints his face white and people who play Black Pete paint their face.. black.

        Can’t we take an example to a part of the Kingdom where people, if being affected by feelings of hurt because of our colonial history and slavery when Sinterklaas arrives, have a lot more right to complain than the professional complainers like we have over here.

        Reply
        • Rachel

          November 21, 2018 at 4:47 pm

          I don’t get what you mean by “professional complainers.” Anyone with black skin (go on, ask anyone with black skin) in a predominantly white country has experienced racism, whether explicit or implicit. They’ve also likely felt the aftereffects of their history; trauma from the past (in this case, the slave trade) has effects for generations. Then there’s the more immediate memories many of those “professional complainers” have of feeling like an outsider at Sinterklaas, or of being called Zwarte Piet by other children, etc. This isn’t about random people offended by short skirts or alcohol — those are self-chosen groupings. This is about people systematically excluded historically and, less obviously but still present, today, purely for the color of their skin. As an analogy, think of the ban on football supporters shouting “Gas the Jews.” They may not mean it as racist, or in this example anti-Semitic, but it’s still tremendously hurtful to Jews who hear it because of their shared history. Besides, I still don’t understand why it’s become such a sore point. Changing it would take little effort and the children wouldn’t be affected at all.

          Reply
    • Rachel

      November 18, 2018 at 1:32 pm

      Calling us all “snowflakes” or telling us to “grow a pair” hardly furthers the argument, does it? It shows that you simply dismiss our concerns as unimportant, which implies that yours are more important. Clearly this issue is important or there wouldn’t be such a controversy. Since it’s “only” a children’s party, why not change the Piets so as not to exclude black children? Children are remarkably adaptable and would not miss blackface. And the idea that we’re trying to change history is plain wrong: it’s because of an attention to history that this is an issue at all.

      Reply
  • Seppe Van den Berghe

    December 6, 2018 at 9:40 pm

    Thank you for this article. I enjoyed reading it a lot and it gave a lot of insight on how newcomers look at this fest. I am Flemish (we speak Dutch) and we always celebrated Sinterklaas. As new Dutch-person you know what part of Belgium I am talking about.

    My point here: There was ‘zwarte-piet’ (black-piet) when I was young, and now we gave him lots of friends from other countries (there is a white-piet, an asian-piet, even a waffle-Piet, all helping Sinterklaas since he is old (we ARE still belgian, what can we do)). But black-piet is still part of the club (we took away the objects that remind to slavery: the golden earring and spanish-collar). Do you consider this still racism? Or is showing a black-man simply not possible?

    If we continue to break down every fest that has roots in a dark (and incredibly sad) past we also need to take down christmas, easter and all the others because – lets face it – women can not become priests, gay people are not welcome there and there is a more than dark history there as well. Are you ready to do be consequent and do that as well? Because, after all, by celebrating christmas, you celebrate the church (where women and gay people have less rights than men).

    Banning Sinterklaas would feel like banning christmas (just imagine). It goes further. Celebrating Sinterklaas makes me (us) racists in the eyes of a lot of people (I sense this judgement in what you write on your blog). Why doesn’t celebrating christmas make you a racist?

    It’s not all black and white Mrs. Heller. Please always keep the nuance when you talk about Sinterklaas and Zwarte piet. Racism is an easy word to use. We are simply not letting go of Sinterklaas.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      December 7, 2018 at 2:50 pm

      I think your comparison to Christmas, Easter, etc. is a false analogy. No white people on these holidays dress up as black people and play the clown. The problem isn’t their dark histories; the problem is what’s still being played out now. Christians, celebrating Christmas, in some places now accept homosexuality and many denominations now accept women becoming clergy. I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. But, yes, they should reject homophobia, sexism and racism and adjust their religious practices to acknowledge that shift in thinking. And many are doing just that. I’m asking the same for Sinterklaas.

      I never suggested that Sinterklaas should be banned. I don’t think many people would suggest that. I said that white men dressing up as black men should be banned. I am also not saying that black men shouldn’t play Piets. Just 1) that not ALL Piets should be black, given their subservient position and what that implies and 2) that Piets should be lots of different colors. Why not let whoever plays a Piet just use his own skin color, whether that’s white, brown or black? Or, alternatively, use other bright colors that have no connection to reality: red, purple, green, whatever. I actually like that idea best, because kids like bright colors and it would increase that sense of magic.

      Another difference between Sinterklaas and the other holidays you mention is the voluntary nature of celebrating Christmas, Easter, etc. People don’t HAVE to go to church or celebrate at home, though admittedly they’ll see the hype on the street. Sinterklaas is celebrated IN SCHOOLS every year. Children with dark skin are confronted with this every year, whether they like it or not.

      Nevertheless, things are clearly changing. I saw far fewer Zwarte Piet images this year in packaging, commercials, etc. Yet the holiday was still celebrated with as much gusto by children as always. Sinterklaas without Zwarte Piet is really no different, and less damaging to that segment of society.

      Reply
      • Seppe Van den Berghe

        December 16, 2018 at 8:45 pm

        Hey Rachel, thank you for your response. Here my thoughts (I try to be as honest as possible, not hateful). The problems I still have:

        1/ Christmas is celebrated at schools as well and their history is as dark as western-colonialism. My point was that Sinterklaas is becoming a neutral-fest as well (but I have a feeling you agree with that in what you write at the end of you answer).

        2/ American people telling us what to do will always be annoying I’m afraid. We don’t need Thanksgiving, Halloween or whatever. We want to celebrate as our grandparents celebrated (and as their parents did it). Zwarte Piet will have new friends in all the colors because that is how it should be. Zwarte-piet, witte-piet, gele-piet, whatever. But banning him will not happen (his references to colonialism – earring/collar – will go, and they should- and will go). If you call us racists, please, take a closer look at your own american president before judging us.

        Reply
        • Rachel

          December 19, 2018 at 11:39 am

          1. Yes, the fact that Sinterklaas is neutral is why I like it. Everyone can celebrate it, no matter what their religion is.
          2. I’m not actually American anymore, but I realize that’s just a technicality. And I’d be the first to argue that American influences are leaking into Dutch celebrations too much, e.g. Halloween and Santa Claus. Nevertheless, globalization is inevitable, and often outside eyes give us the clearest view. While I completely agree about the US president, it’s just not effective to say our racism isn’t so bad because your racism is bad too. The fact that the US President is a racist doesn’t make the Zwarte Piet image any less racist.

          Reply
          • Lianne

            November 18, 2019 at 6:24 pm

            Not all statements you made are true. Zwarte Piet is not played only by white people, also black people play black pete. In fact in Curaçao, predominantly black, they also celebrate Sinterklaas and Black Pete, and black people paint their face black as well. And black pete doesn’t act silly, their are different petes smart ones, athletes, so you picked out one to create a wrong context.

            But the thing i’m most curious about, what do you think about santa’s elfs? They portray little and/or disabled people. What is different?

          • Rachel

            November 18, 2019 at 6:51 pm

            In my experience when my son was little, they all acted pretty silly. A lot of people like to point out the Curacao example, but there was a story in the Volkskrant just today about how they’re turning against it too. Santa’s elves are mythical creatures with pointy ears. They don’t resemble any real people and aren’t derived from a history of colonialism and oppression.

  • Anonymous

    December 9, 2018 at 10:27 pm

    “American Indians” is also racist. So if you’re trying to lecture anyone in racism, at least don’t be a racist yourself. They’re called “Native Americans in the United States”.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      December 12, 2018 at 1:24 pm

      Actually, I’ve asked Native Americans about that, and they’re fine with either name. “American Indians” is technically wrong, of course; this isn’t India. But the two I spoke to used the two names interchangeably. I do tend to use the term “Native Americans” more. A textbook I’ve used goes with the term “Amerindians.” I’ve heard that some of the right-wing object to them using the term “Native Americans” because, in their view, they are also native to the US, i.e. they were born there. But in any case, whether I use the term “American Indians” or not doesn’t address the point of this article.

      Reply
  • Merlijn

    February 3, 2019 at 12:51 pm

    Just wanted to correct you on the following statement: “This is true: the original Black Pete of a century or more ago was literally a slave”. This is not true: Black Pete was depicted as a Moorish slaver (that is, a slave trader), considering the story about being taken to Spain, and that the clothing is based on clothing of the same period was when the Spanish Moors kidnapped and traded Christian slaves.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      February 8, 2019 at 12:46 pm

      I stand partially corrected. In the original 1850 book, he was a servant, not a slave. In that story he is black because he is a Moor. That doesn’t mean that he was a slaver, and he’s a servant in the story. The image is probably derived from a much earlier figure: the black devil Krampus. In any case, in this day and age it’s simply racist, and there’s no good reason to keep it.

      Reply
  • Anona

    December 23, 2019 at 4:47 pm

    Dear Rachel,
    Thank you for presenting your view and the argument for examining and reconsidering this tradition. Traditions can be nourishing roots – and unfortunately choking vines too. I admire you responding to everyone in a courteous and productive way.

    Reply
  • De Tinker

    October 2, 2020 at 3:16 am

    First thank you for your essay. Not easy to write I can definitely understand, and you certainly don’t need to celebrate Sinterklaas with Zwarte piet. None the less I do have some problems with this essay and hope either to change your mind or at least consider that Zwarte Piet is racism is not the one and only option to take.

    “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.”

    I don’t know your position on the views of the anti-pete crowd so I won’t judge you on this, but this tidbit of information has in sense proved an argument of mine which I hope to write about. My argument is that the debate of Zwarte Piet generally falls into two categories, and that opponents can’t reasonable use both arguments and claim to either keep Piet or say he is a slave character. The two arguments are A. Zwarte Piet= black face, and B. Zwarte Piet=slavery. In arguing for a. my argument is that the opponent is not against zwarte piet per se but more on his apperance aka he is a white man in black face, he has too big red lips, has big curly hair, acts dumb, wears gold earrings, etc. If the opponent argues a. he/she is not against zwarte piet and needs focus on the appearance. The anti-pete, however, is not arguing for a. and is arguing for b. wich is that he is a slave character. That they reject soot-piet(an option I’m not against, even if it is proven that zwarte piet is not racism) shows no changing of the appearance is going to statisfy them. Having a oranjie piet ain’t going to make this folks happy, and are what most dutch are actually afraid about. As is their name, they are against Pete.

    “Many Dutch, however, refuse to accept the argument that Black Pete is a racist image.” I’m not dutch and I didn’t know what blackface was until this debate. Once again, is his look racist or is the character racist. If we just state he is a racist icon with no clarity or respectful and reasonable solutions, we get nowhere in this debate and deserve contempt.

    “Yes, it is traditional. So was slavery. So was teaching boys to read and not girls. That doesn’t make it acceptable.”
    Slavery is bad, because of how it went not merely because dark skinned got involved. Technically, work can be considered a form of slavery but with no whips :). Not sure how precise that only boys were taught to read and not girls, not that there is no examples but I don’t think it was as hideous as it appears with this statement.

    “Just because you don’t mean it to be racist doesn’t mean it isn’t perceived that way.”
    I can perceive a lot of things as offensive, and make any excuse to justify them. The question is asked, is Zwarte Piet ‘objectively’ racist ? So far it is answered as a assertion with little research and argument.

    “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.”
    How is a saint (by the power of the Holy Spirit I persume ;)) capable of living over a thousand years and still as act as man with out hip surgery? How is a horse capable to go across all roofs of Holland with out a beat or injury? How does Zwarte Piet capable of entering a chimney less house? Who pays Sinterklaas ? Endless problems with this tradition yet no complains about these ones.

    Some people are born with curly black hair, carbon monoxide from soot causes red lips, and Zwarte Piet is a clean freak with his clothes. Problem solved! Black face paint is often used as well to disguise your face. Not the best response, I agree but certain not the lamest. And it is far older than !9th century too.

    “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. ”

    This is probably the most historically inaccurate statement you have made in this entire post, and very misleading. He was a never a slave under Sinterklaas. Have you checked the original 1850 images ? He may have acted very foolishly but no more foolish than any other funny character. And the mock surimanes dutch, like his more black face look was in the 60-70s. That is hardly a century and has been criticized by many pro-Zwarte piet supporters, and has much changed from that look and portrayal from that time.

    “Of course, if you dressed Red Pete in red paint but then put an Indian headdress on his head, yes, that would be offensive!”
    Why the sudden difference ? It is still a white guy portraying a minority ( or “person of color” whatever that means) in a servant-slave position under white guy according to the experts in the hate-Pete crowd. And why is wearing an American headdress and red paint suddenly a mortal sin ?

    “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.”
    All Sinterklaases are traditionally white and owned a black slave (apparently). We must get rid of him, like the statues in America. Not against your suggestion, but I don’t see how St.Nikolaus is able to avoid the guillotine.

    “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.” Still have not seen yet how Zwarte Piet is racsime. So far assertions, straw mans, and more assertions. How does Zwarte Piet exclude blacks ? No one has answered this question. What about Sinterklaas who is a bigoted Roman Catholic bishop ? Shall we have a Muslim or Hindu Sinterklaas as well just make offended religious minorities happy ?

    “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!”

    Because they were raised with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and is a most cherished dutch tradition !!! What if someone said because rabbits was a term for black people in America you must get rid off them in Easter celebrations ? How bad it is for you, the dutch find at least 10 times worse. It’s not sooty piet or even multicolor piet that is the problem, its that you are excluding a person of color in the celebrations. Namely zwarte piet. And yet this article has not proven to me that Zwarte Piet is racist.

    Sorry for the lengthy writing. I apologies if I make it seem like an attack on you. I only attack arguments and people who are worthy of it, and so far you have not demonstrate it and seem very reasonable, open about your thoughts, and are honest. I apologies for any true offense I might have cause, to you and the readers of this post. Thank you for reading.

    Reply
    • Rachel Heller

      October 3, 2020 at 2:02 pm

      Okay, wow. That’s a whole essay in itself. None of your arguments have changed my mind. You say that I can’t argue both arguments – that BP represents slavery and that BP represents blackface. I sure can! BP evolved from servile (slave-like, if not actually enslaved) who couldn’t speak correct Dutch, to a comic character. Blackface is an expression of racism in and of itself: it’s a way for whites to express their stereotypes about blacks. That’s not to say that the individuals who portray BP these days are necessarily expressing stereotypes. Black Piet has existed for so long now that they are just portraying their image of him without necessarily being openly racist themselves. Nevertheless, the fact of putting on blackface and acting a comic character in blackface is racist.

      It’s true that it’s a cherished Dutch tradition (though changing since when I wrote this article), but in today’s world of globalization, you can’t separate it from black populations in other parts of the world, including the US, and including immigrants to the Netherlands and their descendants. And in any case, if black people in the Netherlands object to it, I see no reason not to change it. No one wants to eliminate the tradition entirely, just change it from resting on racist stereotypes.

      No one is saying to eliminate the tradition. Include Piet, but change Piet into a comical PERSON, not a comical BLACK person. That just means no blackface, no thick red lips and no curly black hair (unless the person has natural curly black hair). Why is that such a problem?

      Blacks feel insulted and excluded from the celebration. You say that that doesn’t prove racism. Really? Of course it does. Why isn’t that enough?

      You misunderstood my example about painting in red and wearing a headdress. That is racist in the same way that blackface is racist.

      I’ll say it again: the fact that Sinterklaas is portrayed as white is not offensive. He’s one individual person. Your argument, taken to its full extent, would eliminate any portrayal of anyone at all ever. Every portrayal of a person in theater, film, whatever is going to have a particular skin color. That’s not usually offensive (There are cases where it is, but I won’t get into that.) It’s offensive that pretty much ALL Black Piets are white people in blackface acting out a stereotyped image.

      I will also add that, despite some people’s insistence on resisting change or admitting their own latent racism, more and more Dutch people are realizing the racist implications of the BP character and accepting that it can change, and that this does not threaten the whole Sinterklaas tradition.

      Reply
      • Peter

        October 25, 2020 at 8:00 am

        The chimney story is nice for the children, but the real story differs. Black Pete was indeed a slave, but not as you see it. He was a slave bought free on the market of Myra where he was bishop. Out of gratitude black pete decided to help Sinterklaas as a friend. This is not racism, but a statement against racism. What if there was only 1 black pete ? Is it then still racist for you as one of your arguments is that Sinterklaas is an individual person ?

        Reply
        • Rachel Heller

          October 25, 2020 at 12:05 pm

          I think there are two problems here. If Pete was an individual being acted out in the same way as Sinterklaas is, that would be better, but should be played by a black man, not a white person dressed in blackface. A white dressed in blackface is always going to be racist because it implies generalized characteristics of blacks being ridiculed or exaggerated by whites. And anyway, the trope of blacks being grateful to and continuing to work for their white masters even after being freed, perpetuates an image of slavery as being something that wasn’t really so bad. What comes to mind is the portrayal of blacks in Gone with the Wind.
          And whatever the “real” story is, the Black Pete character is almost always played as a comic character, subservient to Sinterklaas. When all the Piets are black by definition, that is racist.

          Reply
  • De Tinker

    October 13, 2020 at 1:49 am

    Sorry to hear that the above couldn’t persuade you. I didn’t expect them to change your position but hoped that it gave you something to think about.

    Now for the responses 🙂 :
    “You say that I can’t argue both arguments – that BP represents slavery and that BP represents blackface. I sure can! BP evolved from servile (slave-like, if not actually enslaved) who couldn’t speak correct Dutch, to a comic character. ”
    Actually you can’t. If slavery=racism=evil, then having any depiction of a slave of any color is going to offend everyone and must then be removed. Can’t change his position either. If the problem is his portrayal, then corrections can be made to make zwarte piet either less offensive or more favorable (if he is too much the clown and some dark-skinned people take offense at that, then give him some noble attributes and let Sinterklaas make some mistakes from time to time). You can still add other types of piet’s but keep zwarte piet.

    “Include Piet, but change Piet into a comical PERSON, not a comical BLACK person. That just means no blackface, no thick red lips and no curly black hair (unless the person has natural curly black hair). Why is that such a problem?”
    What is the problem of having a comical black person. Cant dark-skinned people not be jolly or make people laugh ? I agree with balancing out his character and avoid making zwarte piet a delinquent and a moron, but what is the problem with having a black comical person ?

    “Blacks feel insulted and excluded from the celebration. You say that that doesn’t prove racism. Really? Of course it does. Why isn’t that enough?” But are they excluded ? Just because I may feel that way doesn’t mean it is so. Then any thing can be insulting to some self-established minority class because their feelings are hurt. Who claims that zwarte piet is what black people are ? Do all Roman Catholics cry out because Sinterklaas is a supposed stereotype of a Roman Catholic. Of course not, because he is not and was never one in the beginning. Yes, he is one guy but his look has not changed. Zwarte piet was originally one guy. He may be a black person with supposed stereotypical features but he does not represent the black community nor is he a stereotype of black people. He is simply a character with black or dark skin.

    “Your argument, taken to its full extent, would eliminate any portrayal of anyone at all ever. Every portrayal of a person in theater, film, whatever is going to have a particular skin color. That’s not usually offensive (There are cases where it is, but I won’t get into that.) It’s offensive that pretty much ALL Black Piets are white people in blackface acting out a stereotyped image.” Hey, I thought I was the one trying to keep the tradition of zwarte piet ! I’m simply following your argument, not mine.
    Doesn’t matter if there is only one Sinterklaas. He is always portrayed as an old white rich guy who is a saint (and in later periods a Roman Catholic). He makes black people feel that they can neither be rich, grow old, be a saint or a Roman Catholic, wise, or good. Yes, if we must follow the path of PC then we must get rid of all stereotypical characters. Why is that so hard to do ? No one gets offend or upset, except those white supremacist minorities. Or is Sinterklaas just a character, who like Zwarte Piet, is neither intended to be discriminatory nor is a stereotype of any culture or “race”.

    “It’s offensive that pretty much ALL Black Piets are white people in blackface acting out a stereotyped image.” Nothing prevents dark-skinned people to play the part. You living in Europe, where at least 75% are pale in skin colour. You are either a racist for not having people of “color” (whatever that means) in the celebrations or a racist for having people of “color” in the celebrations. But once again you have wonderfully demonstrated my point that the real problem is the portrayal of zwarte piet, and not that he is a racist character.

    Reply
    • Rachel Heller

      October 13, 2020 at 3:46 pm

      Okay, I disagree on many of your arguments, but clearly neither of us is going to convince the other. Blackface is blackface. Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype. Sinterklaas is an individual. I’m tired of arguing about it, to be honest, so I’m out.

      Reply
  • De Tinker

    October 14, 2020 at 4:42 am

    Fine, then I will argue no more. I agree we have come to the point where we are talking past each other. I will respect your judgement (though not happy with your position) and will leave it at that. Sorry to have disturbed you and hope for the best.

    Thank you for considering my comments and taking the time to respond.

    De Tinker

    Reply
  • De Tinker

    October 14, 2020 at 4:55 am

    Here is my final response (on this page anyway). This from different site (not mine) but hope it may be able for you to understand the other position. Here is the link: https://www.sinterklaasmijnhobby.nl/zwarte-piet-is-geen-racisme.
    It is in dutch (I suggest using google translate if you are not too fluent, that feature is awesome when coming to foreign languages). Not sure about all the arguments but it will give you something to think about.

    Reply
    • Rachel Heller

      October 14, 2020 at 3:05 pm

      Pretty much all the same arguments I’ve heard before. A very good point in the first paragraph though: that when people call Zwarte Piet racist, the people who defend Zwarte Piet feel that they are being called racist. That’s true, and I think that explains a lot of your and their defensiveness.

      Reply
  • Tom

    December 9, 2020 at 10:00 pm

    I think the issue we are facing is that the western world is largely influenced by the American culture, where racism is a very recent and even a still largely present issue. A lot of the people who are against black Pete have not grown up celebrating Sinterklaas, and I think have also not taken the effort to learn something about the history or meaning of it either. Instead, they depict their own colonial / racist world views on other cultures, looking for racism where there is none, and looking for a reason to play the victim of society.

    That does not mean there are no racist people in the Netherlands. Of course there are, as there are in every country or culture (and certainly not limited to European cultures). The Netherlands have obviously played a role in the slave trade of the 17th and 18th century. Although this might or might not have had some influence on the appearance, it has nothing to do with the origin of black Pete, nor with the meaning of it.

    Black Pete does not portray an African person, but is a mythical character of which the history extends back to even before the Romans brought Christianity to Northern Europe. When Christianity arrived to Europe, old Pagan rituals were kept but linked to Christian events or saints (Sol Invictus was celebrated on December 25th for example).

    This is when the predecessor of black Pete became the demonic counterpart of the holy saint Nicholas. His role for the last centuries has been scaring the children and kidnapping the bad ones during Sinterklaas. As the good ones get gifts this has a great pedagogic value.

    There have been multiple (regional) variations in the appearance over the last centuries, some of which had black masks rather than painted faces, and others, mostly further back in history, had more demonic features such as a chain or horns. If you look at Père Fouettard in France, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany and Krampus in Austria you’ll see the shared origin and meaning. Father Christmas was depicted with the same items including a chain in the past as well.

    Painting ones face black has been done in the entire world for centuries before the African American slave trade began. Using charcoal was simply the easiest way to conceal a persons face. It is also done at other festivals such as Border Morris in Wales, São Vicente in Cape Verde or Hajji Firuz in Iran for example.

    The simple fact that a fictional character is black does not make it racist. Calling black Pete racist is the same as calling the existence of Christmas elves racist towards short people. If black Pete was truly racist it would not be celebrated on Curacao, where the colored people actually paint their faces white to play Sinterklaas. Would this then be racist towards white people?

    Reply
    • Rachel Heller

      December 11, 2020 at 4:07 pm

      Again, as I’ve said before, it doesn’t really matter what the origins were or what people’s intentions are. What matters is the effect it has on other people. The Dutch population is no longer all white and needs to truly accept that black and brown people live here too and are part of this society. This practice of blackface has become a racist representation of a servile, comical black person. Therefore it has to stop. End of story.

      In any case, if it does derive from this mythical character (and, yes, I do see that Krampus, etc. may have similar origins), the fact that it morphed over time into a parody of an African just demonstrates the racism inherent in the current Black Pete image. All the more reason to abandon it. The current image was only invented in the mid-19th century. I still struggle to understand why it’s such a problem to give it up and move to Sooty or Rainbow Petes.

      The frequently-stated comparison to elves is a false equivalence. Elves are imaginary. Black Petes are humans. No child sees a short person in the supermarket and says “Look Mommy! An elf!” That does happen to black people in supermarkets in the Netherlands.

      Reply

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