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.]

Added December 2020: Five years after this one, I added a new update. Go see what has changed and what has stayed the same!


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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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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 …

That dutch have no clue what black-face is or was. And the obsession with racism in America is also unheard of the Nederlands. So to act like they are a bunch of white supremacist Americans is very insulting. How was the slave trade abolished if they are that racist ?

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!

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.

What is also shocking is how easy to judge from the spectator seats as well as having the power of omniscience. It’s not your tradition and culture that is on the lie now is it ?

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.

So if I told you that zwarte piet used to teach people to accept those who look different than you, you would ignore it because a small group complained? That is by definition what being a whiner means. Someone who will cry over how evil something appears to be despite being corrected that it is not.

Apologies for the way I have acted. After seeing my posts, I can see they were not of a good manner. I didn’t intend to be insulting nor was term ‘whiner’ meant for you. Please forgive my rash behaviour.

My point though still stands. Even if proven that Zwarte Piet was not a racist or slave character in the beginning (ignoring human errors of later years), he must still be gone with because it upsets people. That by definition is whining. That’s not to say that we just leave as Zwarte piet as he is. I do believe the big red lips, only black frizzy hair, and making him only dumb in action are problematic and should be corrected. Nor have I a problem with changing his clothing to spanish upperclass (I believe that is more culturally accurate and more in the intention of the character). I myself have no problem with a white man wearing black face paint, no more than seeing a black person in white…(continued)

What do you consider blackface ? My definition and many pro-Piet supporters is the big red lips, black frizzy hair and black face paint as a whole pretending to represent what an dark-skinned African looks like. Your definition seems to be that white Europeans can’t have black paint on their bodies. Is that correct ? Don’t wish to misunderstand your position.
If you are against the correcting of his appearance, are you against having a native born dark-skinned still play him as well?

And if white Europeans can’t wear black or brown face paint, why are you fine with a rood piet from the previous article ? Is that not a stereotype made by white people of a red skinned person ? Why is it racist to call people of a particular color “red” and “yellow” and yet not “black” or “white” ( obvious no person skin is are any of the above colors, I am no more white than an dark-skinned is black but how else are you to describe someone’s skin color).

You still appear to be more upset with Zwarte Piet’s portrayal than the actual character.

But that is what it appears you are saying ! Here : “So you think it’s okay for Piet to stay a white person in blackface but you understand why the big red lips and black frizzy hair are problematic? “. It seems to me you don’t even want a black face (paint) than just the blackface. But if that is not what you meaning, please correct me. I too want to the issue dealt with as well, even if it means losing Zwarte Piet but I would like it done honestly as possible with both sides more or less happy. Please don’t accuse me of dishonesty. I may have made bad arguments (but have yet see any serious error pointed out) and have said them in an unkindly tone, but I have never intended to be be dishonest about my position or understanding. Have I not asked to clarify your position ?
“Why not have them just be multi-color piets, i.e. not representing (and offending) any nation or race or religion but just being fun, imaginary characters, like, for example, Teletubbies or Muppets?” I start with last one first. That is what Zwarte Piet are! Dutch have always viewed them as just fun, and imaginary characters that were never intended to represent or mock a certain group. That is why they are upset. If you are upset with his appearance then change it something less offensive. Stop saying Zwarte Piet is racist and start advocating for a better change in his look (this is for all anti-Pete supporters). The problem with the multicolor piet, is not the idea but that zwarte piet will still be there. If Zwarte Piet is racist than having a black person playing Piet still keeps Zwarte Piet, which is stated to be racist. Once again, I think the real problem is the appearance not Zwarte Piet the character. Do you agree ?

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).

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