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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 majority of 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.

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16 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
  • 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
  • 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

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