Changes in Zwarte Piet
The Zwarte Piet debate continues. Or rather, a vocal minority condemns it as racist while a just-as-vocal majority defends it as, well, not racist.
I won’t get into the arguments on each side again; you can read my old posts about it.
What I will say is that things are very slowly changing. Zwarte Piet is still very present and visible as always—in wrapping paper and other images, as well as in most Sinterklaas events put on for children.
However, despite their general objections to the idea of changing the image of Zwarte Piet, many are accepting the inevitable and experimenting with different looks for Zwarte Piet, who is often just called “Pete” these days.
Every year in mid-November, Sinterklaas and his Petes arrive on a steamboat in a different city—Meppel this year—and then separate arrivals are staged in most cities and towns over the following weeks. In the days leading up to December 5, Sinterklaas and his Petes visit each individual primary school in the Netherlands as well. At the same time, the Sinterklaasjournaal, a daily 10-minute “news” program about Sinterklaas, is broadcast for children.
Sinterklaasjournal and Zwarte Piet
This year, some towns and schools made decisions in advance about whether or not to change the Petes’ appearance, while many waited until the Sinterklaasjournaal began, taking their cue from what the producers did with the Petes.
It turned out that the Petes on the Sinterklaasjournaal have only very slightly changed from past years: their skin is a bit less black and more brown. Their lips are not painted bright red and thick. And they’ve lost the traditional gold earrings. They still wear the “Moorish” costume and the black, curly wig.
(If you click on this link to the Sinterklaasjournaal you can see this year’s shows. Click on any of the dates below the short promo video. It’s in Dutch, but you’ll get the idea.)
Not much of a change and, in my view, nor any less racist. They remain white people in blackface, playing the clown. (Interestingly, when a Zwarte Piet is played by a woman, she is still referred to as “he.”)
A few of the Petes at the local events aren’t black. Instead, they are “roetpieten,” i.e. they have their natural skin color, but are smeared with soot, which is meant to show that they’ve gone down a chimney. The video below shows the arrival in Groningen, where I live. You’ll notice that some of the Petes on the boat are not in blackface. The ones that are in blackface, however, are painted much blacker than on the Sinterklaasjournaal. Oh well.
Basically these minor changes are a concession, and how minimal the changes are shows how reluctant Dutch society is to abandon this tradition.
[December 4 update to the update: A Volkskrant article today explains the different cities’ approaches to the Zwarte Piet controversy.
- Amsterdam: The Petes will get lighter each year until they are Roetpieten: sooty Petes.
- The Hague: Over three years, the Petes’ big lips, curly hair, gold earrings and black skin will gradually disappear.
- Rotterdam: Sooty Petes appeared for the first time this year, and schools have been asked to remove “discriminatory aspects.”
- Den Helder: The Petes will remain black, but without the big lips or earrings.
- Utrecht: Half the Petes were Sooty Petes this year. The public primary schools have banned Petes of any color.
- Groningen: In the public schools, Black Petes will still appear, but accompanied by color Petes.
- Businesses that supply Petes for business and association events report that only Black Petes are in demand.]
Added December 2020: Five years after this one, I added a new update. Go see what has changed and what has stayed the same!