Zwarte Piet Updated

It’s that time of year again: Sinterklaas is approaching, along with Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). I wrote about this two years ago and then again last year, so I thought I’d add a short update today.

Zwarte Piet as depicted on a chocolate letter.
Zwarte Piet as depicted on a chocolate letter.

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.

Zwarte Piet as portrayed on wrapping paper.
Zwarte Piet as portrayed on wrapping paper.

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.]


  • Paul Lalonde

    December 3, 2015 at 1:16 am

    I really dislike the ZP issue; I just wish they could drop it.

    And to add to another reason — it just looks creepy.

    Around Christmas time we usually go to the Dutch store here in Canada and they have a ZP walking around the store and talking to the shoppers. It’s creepy as hell — when the ZP comes up to me and smiles, the person just looks bizarre. I’m mid-40s and I’m like a child scared by a clown …

  • budget jan

    December 4, 2015 at 12:14 am

    Old traditions die hard, but small changes are happening and eventually ZP will most likely morph into something a changing society will deem appropriate! 🙂 This is the first time I’ve ever heard of it!

  • Marcia

    December 4, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    This is shocking, offensive and makes me feel very uncomfortable. A few insignificant adjustments won’t diminish the fact that this tradition is insulting and insensitive but clearly, it isn’t to the Dutch, who seem to be blithely naive. How stunningly disappointing.

    • Rachel

      December 4, 2015 at 5:32 pm

      Yep. I agree. Everyone, white or black, who comes here and looks at it from the outsider’s point of view, immediately sees that. The Dutch are only gradually seeing it.

  • Ruth - Tanama Tales

    December 4, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    Sometimes people follow traditions or do things without knowing the meaning of them. In this case, it is obvious why there is a controversy but I bet some people would say they do not see anything wrong with it since it is a tradition with I do not know how much history. Maybe a little bit more of awareness and thinking is needed.

    • Rachel

      December 4, 2015 at 7:57 pm

      That’s exactly what they say: it’s a tradition and not meant to be racist. My argument has always been that it doesn’t matter what was meant. What matters is how it makes people feel. And it makes blacks in Holland feel excluded.

  • Shobha

    December 4, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    OMG, I can’t believe they have a put forth a list of cities and how they address the pete issue. I’ve never heard of Meppel and had to look it up. It looks like it is near Gietthorn which is supposed to be an incredibly photogenic city (on my bucket list to see).

    • Rachel

      December 5, 2015 at 7:48 am

      The article showed more cities; I just picked some out. The article was about how cities are moving toward change while towns are sticking with the traditional Zwarte Piet.

  • nancie

    December 6, 2015 at 2:16 am

    Hi Rachel. This is my first introduction to this tradition! I agree with Jan. I think over time changes will be made to make it more accepting to all involved (or at least let’s hope so!) #TPThursday


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