“Black Pete” and the Legacy of Racism in the Netherlands

People in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop.
Verene Shepherd

On November 16, hundreds of thousands of Dutch children will take to the streets for what should be the jolliest feast of the year: the annual arrival of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas makes his entry accompanied by black-faced helpers: “Black Petes,” or “Zwarte Pieten.”

While the tradition’s racist undertones have been discussed for decades in predominantly progressive urban circles, this year, for the first time, the debate opened up to a broader public. Sinterklaas is often perceived as core to Dutch national folklore. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, national pandemonium broke out when the chairperson of the United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent, Verene Shepherd, stated in an interview with a Dutch public broadcaster that “the working group cannot understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop.”

Shepherd’s statement was met with widespread hostility for its perceived interference with, and failure to understand, a purely national cultural issue. Advocating to keep “the Netherlands’ most beautiful tradition as it is” and to push back against critics who say Black Pete is racist, two young Dutch advertisers set up a Facebook “Pete-ition” page. The Pete-ition gained over two million supporters in a just few days, which is a fairly substantial number in a country of almost 17 million.

The Pete-ition has polarized Dutch society. The majority, mainly Dutch white citizens, for whom the Sinterklaas celebrations are primarily associated with positive emotions, refuse to acknowledge any racist connection. But the minority, mainly Dutch citizens of Caribbean descent, is asking for a transformation of Black Pete’s physical characteristics. The positions of these groups have become entrenched, paralyzing further constructive discussion.

At the extreme end of the debate, those advocating for change have been subjected to racist comments. Some of the typical responses from those in favor of the tradition were summarized by a Dutch journalist. He quotes a supporter of the Pete-ition page, saying: “If you, as a ‘black’ figure, have problems with a feast that has been held here for years, you should get the hell out of here!”

Unfortunately, questions worthy of deeper consideration raised by advocates for change have been trivialized by prominent public figures. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, supported by his governing partner from the Social Democrats, Diederik Samsom, stated that “Black Pete is black, and there’s little we can do about that.”

A prominent progressive commentator argued that the “Black Pete Is Racism” movement is attempting to point out racism to a population that “after years of enlightenment” is largely blind to the existence of the phenomenon. Ian Buruma observed a similar reaction of denial in his analysis of the equally polarized debate that followed the murder of Theo van Gogh.

Perhaps for outsiders, it does not take much to recognize that the figure of Black Pete—with his black face, big red lips, curly hair, and inherently subordinate position next to Sinterklaas—is a caricature borne out of the Netherlands’ colonial past. The Netherlands, however, is ill-equipped to deal with the colonial past or recognize its present day legacy.

School curricula do little to educate the population about the country’s “Golden Age”; the appalling exploits of the Dutch East and West India Company and the Dutch slave trade fill very few pages in the history books of primary and high schools. Ninsee, the one institution that has worked to raise awareness about the history and legacy of slavery outside of formal education, recently saw its state subsidies cut so drastically that it had to close.

Because Dutch society is (willfully) blind to its past, Black Pete’s opponents have been ridiculed, subjected to racist slurs, and their arguments trivialized in their fight for equality. The faultlines that have emerged in society over this debate should alert the public that Black Pete is merely a symbol of much deeper problems.

Although the Netherlands perceives itself (and is typically seen by others) as a tolerant, progressive and fair society, in reality there are deep problems with racial inequality and discrimination, as was recently highlighted in a report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. Until it can acknowledge the harm caused during its colonial history, and the continuing legacy of past injustices such as slavery, the Netherlands will remain unable to engage in a constructive national conversation over inequality, or create a truly fair and tolerant society.

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It is a failure of Dutch society and its adherents to brace the future and get mixed with an Open World (that is far from bias) by sticking to its old Colonial gun - the Zwarte Piet myth.

Ofcourse everbody has freedom of speech, but it's probably not a good idea to deem an entire population as 'racist' on the basis of a few articles you seem to have chosen carefully to underline your opinion. And some 'wikipedia research' and some 'Googling', am I right?

There are some pretty big assumptions in your article, that are simply not true, or at the very least not very nuanced:
-History classes in The Netherlands do teach about the dark Dutch past in slave trade. We are all very much aware of the suffering our ancestors caused.
-The anger directed at Verene Shepherd was mostly because she was supposed to conduct a open investigation into the festivities, but appeared to have her mind already made up before the investigation even started.
-Many black people in The Netherlands take part in the festivities with their children and have no issue with 'Black Pete'. The Sinterklaas fest is also celebrated in the former colonies of The Netherlands, with a 'white face' St. Nic. At the same time many white Dutch people recognize that Pete's appearance could do with an modern update (although the history of the Pete character is not a tale of slavery. Unlike in the USA, not all black history in Europe is about slavery and supression!).

This is by no means an excuse for some of my fellow countryman, who tell Dutch people who do take issue with Black Pete, to 'get the hell out of here'. There are complete idiots like that in any country.

But the sad thing about these kinds of polarizing articles from 'outsiders' who really don't get what the Sinterklaas fest is about, is that it actually deepens divisions between Dutch of various decent. Ill-informed opinions don't help the discussion, but make it even harder to turn the Sinterklaas fest into a celebration that every Dutch person can enjoy.

White privileged comment.

Yes, indeed, thanks for pointing that out. It's like people who start a sentence with "I'm not racist, but .." and then proceed to spew forth all sort of racist rhetoric. Ingrid, open your eyes and your mind. If you were the self-assured person you pretend to be, you would not be so defensive about this.

You made a point that the authors opinion is based on googling and wikipedia research. And your opinion on 'many black people in The Netherlands …have no issue with 'Black Pete' is based on what research? Your child has never been called Black Pete or someone saying to her 'je hoeft niet te smeren, je bent echt pete'.
I am guessing your 'many black people…' opinion is based on couple of articles you read on newspapers.

Amaka, am I wrong? Aren't there a lot of black Dutch people who celebrate the Sinterklaas fest in The Netherlands? And isn't there a large crowd on the docks when they arrive in the Carribean?

The Dutch tv-program Eén Vandaag did a survey recently, among people of various backgrounds including people of Surinam and Carribean descent. None of the respondents wanted to abolish the Sinterklaas fest. There is a desire among the people of Surinam and Carribean descent though, to change the appearance of Black Pete. And every year more white Dutch people also see the need for change. Something I totally agree with and is very logical in light of the recent discussion.

I just pointed this out to illustrate that there is more common ground among the Dutch than this article suggests. It wasn't meant to disqualify people who do take issue with Black Pete.

And I am sincerely sorry that some ignoramus adressed you as a Black Pete when you were a child. Bullying is always terrible, no matter what the colour of your skin is.

it's a common mistake that abolishing black pete means abolishing the Sinterklaas fest. So before you call anybody ignoramus I suggest you first get your facts straight.

Those black people who like the Sinterklaas fest have been brainwashed into liking it from an early age. They are dealing with what is called internalized racism. For many years Sinterklaas fest was celebrated by Dutch people living on the Island and then the black people started doing it. However in the Carribean we stopped using blackface for a while but then it came back because of the Dutch people living there.

Yes, Ingrid, I find your arguments weak. What exactly are you defending here? Do you mean to tell the world that there is no racism (or that it is not problematic) in Dutch society? Make that the cat but wise, I'd say.

Nobody is deeming an entire population as racist. But you don't need to tell me that all those votes for LN / PVV came out of nothing. Simple and unreflective people just experienced the eureka effect upon realising that they are finally allowed to be free, as they heard politicians tell them that their deeply surpressed natural feelings of hostility or surperiority toward people different from themselves were actually permissible, and maybe even a noble pursuit! Why shouldn't we be proud of our country? Especially now that those dangerous muslims are coming who want to take over the world and destroy our culture.. It's one big conspiracy against our Western Values - I've heard many fellow dutchmen say it.

And I agree, ill-informed opinions don't help the discussion - no, indeed, they don't, and that's why I suggest you try to broaden your view. Because those who shout 'get the hell out of here' are not just a few 'complete idiots' anymore like 20 years ago. Stop trying to fool yourself

This comment brings me hope for humanity. I'm an African American who was trying to learn more about this tradition, but it seems impossible to get a unbiased view of it. Its good to see a comment that is level headed and informative. Thank you.

The establishment see this as a "debate" when it is actually a matter of law. The Dutch government and all public bodies are supposed to proactively prevent discrimination in, amongst other things, cultural life. The establishment (government and judges) have made no attempt to quantify if Zwarte Piet is actually racist: instead they pass the buck and trivialise the complaint by belittling the complainers. The government are afraid of the response of begruntled voters and don't want to upset the majority.

This article is clearly written from an ideological perspective and has little to nothing to do with the facts. Ingrid's reaction is much better and it baffles me that she's not being addressed by the writers of this piece.

A white privileged/internalized support the whiteys comment supporting another comment made from white privilege. lol bye. Why should Ingrid's coded "not racist but actually racist" comment be addressed?

Well 'Daves', I attempted to provide some nuance for this article, which is pretty one-sided and written with a particular narrative in mind. Debate is good. I embrace it, because I do feel the Sinterklaas fest should be a positive experience for ALL Dutch people. If black Dutch people take issue with the Black Pete character (even if it's just a small minority in The Netherlands right now), the rest of the Dutch should take note and work out how to change this for the better.

But I don't like actual facts being distorted to make a point. I feel the authors should have been more accurate, specially on a subject as sensitive as racism. That was what I tried to make clear. The lightning speed at which you've now deemed me a 'closet racist' and 'white privileged' may say more about your open-mindedness than it does about mine. And ironically it proves my second point: that divisive and distorted articles on this subject only drive reasonable people apart.

Btw: I would like to take back my earlier "some 'wikipedia research' and some 'Googling'" comment. It was only after my first post that I noticed the authors were Dutch (or Belgian?). This makes me very curious about why they have such a different experience with the Sinterklaas fest than most Dutch people. And why they chose to present this skewed view of what's happening in The Netherlands. I do applaud them for allowing critical views on this website, though.

@Jennifer: this is hardly something that can be changed by law. How would that work? The police raiding people's homes on the 5th of December looking for Black Petes, while lots of children are present? The tradition will only really evolve by debate and growing awareness.

@Dennis: thanks, my fellow 'closet racist' ;-)

Dear Ingrid and others,

Thanks for your comments. A respectful debate is exactly what we wanted to stir. Let me reply to some of your remarks.

I am white woman, born and raised in a town in the Netherlands. When I was young I used to dress up like Black Pete. It was the best time of the year. Until a few years ago I did not see any connection with racism, which I believe has to do with our collective blindness to our colonial past. I still think Sinterklaas makes for a fantastic tradition. However, I have come to see the problematic origin and appearance of Black Pete and support the idea that we should adapt his appearance, and that as a society we should become aware of what this figure represents.

I disagree with your point that we are 'all very much aware' of the negative impact of slavery in the Netherlands. I believe we have not even sincerely started looking at the impact of this history on contemporary racism. This was demonstrated this week by our Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, Lodewijk Asscher when he stated that there is no structural racism or discrimination in The Netherlands. Having researched and contributed to various grass roots reports on racism in the Netherlands over the past few years, I unfortunately have to conclude otherwise. Those who look into the question will find many examples of racial discrimination. This is most easily visible in the employment sector, for which evidence is abundant (see, for example, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research’s report ‘Op Achterstand’).

I have also found that victims often do not realise when they have suffered discrimination. I believe this is partially due to a certain culture in the Netherlands in which people, and minorities in particular, are not supposed to be offended or complain - or, by the same token, criticize an ‘innocent’ children’s festival such as Sinterklaas.

Aspects of my own personal background that I have included here seem, in your opinion, to give me more right to speak about these matters. I believe this is exactly one of the problematic positions often taken in the debate, as it excludes everyone who is not white and Dutch from the discussion. And this discounts the potential legitimacy of arguments that question the current form of the Black Pete tradition. Similarly, by pointing out that some people from ethnic minorities have no problem with the appearance of Black Pete (which is indeed true) you also seem to try to disqualify the arguments made by those questioning the tradition. Differences of opinion exist across Dutch society and need to be debated.

I believe that Sinterklaas should be a cheerful event for all children, and adults. I am happy that you agree that we should have a debate about this, and that nobody should be excluded from the debate simply because we don’t like hearing what they have to say.

Hello Eefje,

Thanks for your reply. And yes, for me it does make a difference that you’re Dutch. Because you’ve grown up with the tradition and have experienced that the intention of the Sinterklaas fest is a joyful and positive one. I think a lot of the outrage among Dutch people is caused by non-Dutch media writing ill-informed pieces along the lines of ‘Holland has to completely abolish their weird Father Christmas and his slave boy’(

Despite the good intentions of the Sinterklaas fest, there are indeed grounds for some criticism. I do agree with you that Pete's appearance could really do with an update to modern times. And I’m definitely not claiming there’s no racism in Holland. But tying it together, as if all racism in The Netherlands is the result of the Dutch history in slave trade, is a bridge too far for me. Sadly, xenophobia is an inherent part of many members of the human race. It happens all over the world, was around before the slave trade and will be there in the future. The only remedy is to talk to each other and build mutual understanding; a strategy I expect you'll agree with.

That still leaves me somewhat puzzled about the editorial decisions you guys made in this article. You say you wanted to spark a respectful debate. Yet the narrative was quite hostile and mostly highlighted extremes on the side of ‘Pete supporters’. Surely you know there’s also a lot of middle ground on this issue. There have been many respectful and reasonable discussions in Dutch papers/ on Dutch tv as well. Why didn't you include those in the article? And I did not point out that black Dutch people participate in the festivities, to disqualify those who question the tradition. I pointed it out to illustrate that this is not a crystal clear pro/con issue and that there’s a lot of middle ground to work with.

I think skewed and one-sided articles like this one will not do much to help the discussion along. It makes people dig in their heels and get angry at each other (as you can see by the ‘lovely’ comments some people here gave me instantly, for having a critical view). So I still disagree with some of your arguments. But fortunately we do reach the same conclusion in the end!

Reading this debate, I cannot help but notice how it echoes some of the responses to our recent report on discrimination in German schools against children of a migration background - and the resulting debate among Germans and foreigners.

(There's another blog about it here: http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/german-schools-quiet-deep-d...)

The responses included a non-German teacher recalling seeing 8-10 year old kids playing "Schwarzer Mann" - a traditional game of tag where the 'bad guy' is the "black man". And elementary school children singing "Three Chinese Men with a Double Bass," a traditional song that involves pulling their eyes back.

There were plenty of similar inherently insensitive, effectively racist, cultural aspects of growing up in the UK in the 1960s and 70s (just consider the Black and White Minstrel Show, a light entertainment show that featured singers in black face that only ended in 1978). But attitudes did change in the UK; it's inconceivable that kids in an English school would be playing anything like Schwarzer Mann today.

How does that kind of cultural change come about (and Zwarte Piet is going to be a tough one for the Dutch)? Respectful debate and speaking out for change certainly moves things forward.


@jbirchall I think 'racially insensitive' is the correct term in this Black Pete debate. The characters of St. Nicolas and Pete are basically archetypes dating back to pagan European times. With light/day/white representing 'good' and darkness/night/black representing 'bad' or 'scary'. A narrative that's still here in modern times (e.g.'The Dark Side' in Star Wars).

That darkness/black narrative originally didn't have anything to do with skin colour. But ofcourse there were periods in time when this narrative was abused to horribly portray black people as bogeyman and to justify treating them as inferior or slaves. As a modern society we should all be vigilant to prevent this kind of behaviour.

But it does make for some interesting conversations when it comes to old traditions. Although the minstrel shows were obvious derogatory depictions of actual black people, the Black Pete archetype has ancient roots that far predate colonialism and slave trade. There are many variations of this character in Europe (e.g. Ruprecht, Pere Fouettard). And also in the Middle East (Hadji Firoez). They are not meant to depict or belittle actual black people, but are more like mythical figures.

Can our portrayals of those figures be racially insensitive? Yes, our Pete character certainly did pick up some colonial aspects in his appearance along the way. Because the festivities have very positive intentions, the Dutch have somewhat closed their eyes for the questionable aspects of the tradition. And that should change. But that doesn't make the whole St. Nic and Pete tradition racist. It's not like we're having some kind of weird annual 'hooray for slavery' party!

It is easy for foreigners to draw the wrong conclusions about Zwarte Piet. That is because they do not partake in the Dutch collective subconsciousness, i.e. the indigenous culture.

Even the common Dutch people do not consciously know all that much about Zwarte Piet. Nor do they need to know anything consciously about him. What they do is as important, though: they preserve - by maintaining the Zwarte Piet tradition - truths about the character and attributes of this archetype that otherwise would have been lost - and the Dutch expression of the archetype already, unfortunately, has lost some of his attributes.

Other expressions of the - thousands of years old - archetype are present all over Europe, as for example Sweden's Fettisdagengubbar.

Der Schwarzer Mann likely refers to a character in a German fairy tale. To me he also is clearly recognizable as being identical with Zwarte Piet. (In fact we a card game that is identical to the Schwarzer Mann game of tag in The Netherlands which is called Zwartepieten.)

There are many subtle clues in Dutch and European culture about the character of Zwarte Piet, which nobody consciously connects to Zwarte Piet; it is only in the subconsciousness that these connections are made. Foreigners neither consciously nor subconsciously can make these connections, because they are ignorant of those clues.

Unfortunately even those suble clues are the subject of deterioration. Now and again some smart-ass thinks he ought to right an obvious - to him - wrong and improve on truths that have been passed of for thousands of years from generation to generation, and in this way, with the best of intentions, information is destroyed.

Next Saturday I will attempt to retrieve such a bit of destroyed information. It is one word in a song in an old song book, which I hope to buy in a second hand bookshop, if they still have it. In the modern version of this song, the obviously wrong one word has been changed into a word that the modern smart-ass mistakenly thought that it ought to be. And yes, this one word in the old version refers to Zwarte Piet; in the "improved' modern version it has been erased and the song thereby has lost its meaning as an information carrier. It is still a pleasant song, but it has lost its inherent value. And that is very sad.

There is no "Fettisdagengubbar" in Sweden.

@ Nadja & Eefje
Thanks for this article that finally seems to spark some sensible debate. However it saddens me that this requires the english language instead of the dutch one.

I do have to agree with you on the part that the article can serve as polarizing, even though most of the statements are true from what I have found looking into this subject. For example, to my experience, I wasn't properly educated about our colonial history.

My own comments on Zwarte Piet in 2013:
When I was in the believing age (88-94), I didn't experience the festivities as racist. But having actually watched both the Dutch and Belgian arrivals of Sinterklaas (intocht) I do notice a shift in the Dutch version. Looking back to intochten from my childhood years I found that Zwarte Piet was actually black, and this has since then gradually shifted to brown (especially noticable in decorations in stores). This is cause for concern in my opinion. Also their suits have become cheaper, and for some reason they decided to add some fake white similarly dressed people (spanish people?) on horses this year. Watching the Belgian version I saw the intocht I remembered from my childhood, where Piet is black, and his costume is elaborate.

On the topic of changing the appearance:
I would not be against changing the appearance of Zwarte Piet gradually. However, due to the pagan roots (as every Christian holiday seems to have) I would appreciate a black figure (and apparantly over 2 million people share this opinion). Black, not brown. Adhering to the chimney soot story, they could be gray-black. The adjustments that were made in Amsterdam could just increase the problem (adjustments which I don't really see looking at pictures of the event). By removing the earrings and provide alternatives in lipstick and hairstyle they could worsen the problem in my opinion. Since brown facial make-up is used, the resemblance to people of african descent increases. This could result in increased confusion in small children in predominantly 'white' regions of the Netherlands. Which causes people of African descent to feel offended and start the -in most cases- degenerative cycle all over again.

About people against Piet:
I am somewhat disturbed by the reference to 'blackface'. I cannot deny the resemblance, but I also can't find evidence that the Netherlands actually participated in this practice in the past in movies and plays. It feels a bit like they deem it racist because blackface is considered racist in other countries.

Piet as a slave:
As for the slave role of Piet, this is nowhere to be found in the origins of the celebration. The closest thing I found was that Piet could actually be a freed slave. And it is not like slavery is inherently dutch colonial. It was happening millenia before, and is still happening to this day. A focus on a freed slave could actually be a good thing for that matter. Especially since Sinterklaas is centered around chocolateletters, which are often not fair-trade!

On 'Dutch are racist':
The Piet-discussion (if you can call the mainstream version that), Geert Wilders and Gordon's mishap on national tv seems to have increased the feeling of the outside world that we are a small bunch of racists. I found a good article from 2008 giving explanations for the increase in racist incidents in the Netherlands. I find this very offending, but it could be true at the same time. I must say that in my circles a lot of racist remarks are made. But then again, they are also directed at 'Kaaskoppen'. I think the main problem is that Dutch people tend to have rude humor.

I hope you will not perceive this comment as polarizing as I find I take a pretty pro-Piet stance. As I hope to have written my post in a "my two cents" setting I have omitted specific references, I can add them if so requested.

Ingrid please.. it's not properly teached in schools. History on slavery is minor if even adressed. How on earth can you make a statement as such when barely non of the common participants in any of the discussions adressed, recognised nor explain the specific design of Piet in the original books as being a decorotive page. Nor do I know barely anyone aware of the fact we had slaves set up in the Zoo to watch and laugh at them as part of the propaganda, nor does barely anyone comment or know the fact that the grand introducer of Piet was politically tied to a group with the mission to propaganda in favor of the common good being: slaves needed to stay underclass citizens. So don't make random statements claiming it is well included in our educational system. That's just ridiculous

In Death and the King's Horseman, by the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka, black actors, "white up" to play stereotypical British colonials. The National Theatre presented the show in 2009 in London. I went and was really surprised at the effect, both on white and black audiences, it absolutely split them. Some white audience members walked out, and black audiences laughed with astonishment. When people identify with a character that is being laughed at they tend to feel uncomfortable, guess no one likes ridicule.

By the way, if Santa really goes down so many chimneys - wouldn't he be black by now?

It's made up people, you don't need to stick with worn out imagination (however traditional it might be) or is that just so much easier than waking up and creating a new way.

First, if some Dutchpeople feel unhappy when seeing a black Zwarte Piet, why not change the color and have green Zwarte Pieten? Moreover, Zwarte Piet originally and mythologically was the devil, whom Saint Nicolas tamed, according to legends. Konrad Lorenz refers to these legends when, in chapter 5 of his King Solomon's Ring, he tells about putting on a devil's costume used in the Austrian St. Nicolas festivities so that he could ring young jackdaws incognito. And although I admit that most people think the devil is black, (s)he may possibly be green. So I propose we paint all Zwarte Pieten green. Any seconds?

Do not see their errors. Everyone has some pain they want to keep. Ignore that. Look only for the light in our brothers.

I was taken aback by the ridiculous and ferocious comments of the 'pro black pete' people."they want to take our traditions away, why don't they f*** off to their own country" was one of the mildest remarks. When a Dutch white singer, Anouk, placed a remark against black Pete on her FB page, she received hundreds of responses with death threats, calling her a n***** slut and a whore (she has mixed race children) and so on. When people scream they don't listen. This was no discussion that got out of hand, a large part of the white Dutch part of the population just showed the racist feelings that live under a thin layer of veneer. To get back to the black pete tradition, watch the arrival of sinterklaas in 1935 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65ERQNg_Fcc at most 1 black pete and for the rest white men, supposedly Spanish nobility. So the 'tradition' isn't so traditional at all. The Netherlands likes to portrait themselves as very tolerant. That's right, they tolerate people that are different from them but they don't appreciate nor do they accept them.
I recommend an article written by Arnon Grunberg in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/05/opinion/why-the-dutch-love-black-pete....

I am both proudly Dutch and Canadian. I understand the importance of the Sinterklaas in the Dutch culture, as Santa Claus is important in the Canadian one. However, I do understand the challenges surrounding the character of Piet from the Dutch people (both ethnically Dutch and otherwise). There is not equality in the Dutch society if one looks at the various socioeconomic metrics. Non-ethnic Dutch score lower on many aspects, including education outcomes and income. Given this current situation, it is understandable that people would become uncomfortable seeing a character such as Piet beside Sinterklaas. The optics seem off: Piet walking, Sinterklaas on a horse; Sinterklaas as the boss, while Pieten is the 'executive assistant'. It puts Piet into a subordinate position, and that mirrors the subordinate position of the Dutch who look similar to Piet in the Netherlands. Regardless of the history of the origins of Piet, it is bringing up uncomfortable feelings into today's Nederland and that is valid. I do not think many want to cancel Sinterklaas festivities altogether (not sure how that has come into the dialogue), as so many Dutch treasure it (both ethnically Dutch and those Dutch from other ethnic backgrounds; both those born in Netherlands and not born in Netherlands). However, maybe it is time to rethink how Piet looks, or at least consider that it does make Dutch people uncomfortable and seek to understand why. Or if we are slightly more ambitious, think about tackling (as a culture) the inequalities that exist within our country. However, that is only possible if we, as Dutch people, seek to remain open to other ideas. Defensive reactions that throw people back behind ethnic lines does not help.

why have an event that offends a section of humanity?

Have St Nicholas be Black. Or have his colleague/helper be St Simon of Cyrene and his equal. Sometimes cultural changing can be embedded in liturgy and culture, from the roots of religion, from Gospel inclusion - instead of negating tradition By all means, however, negate exclusion and prejudice which lead to injustice and poverty.

It is not so much whether it is "The Netherlands' most beautiful tradition" or a "racist tradition going back to The Netherlands' colonial past" but rather about the reaction of a considerable part of Dutch society to the concerns raised by a part of the population. The concerns raised have not been taken seriously; they are ridiculed, trivialised, even by the Prime Minister of the country. That is what worries me.
As long as there is no willingness to communicate about it, willingness to understand what some fears or concerns are based on, it will remain denial. Denial of the existing sentiments (be they "well-founded" in this regard or not) of a part of the population. This denial and lack of willingness to look into the the reasons of the sentiments do show that something is not right and that a part of the population does rightfully feel discriminated.
This is sad, especially in relation to a tradition that is supposed to bring happiness to children.

I was curious to understand the merits in the arguments of those in support of the tradition-the excuse that "he is black & there is nothing we can do about it" and then lo & behold, I come across an image posted by an Italian Facebook friend (he had attended the huge opening event and taken a picture. Below the image, he included this caption "The Mayor of Leiden, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet Or Vladimir Putin's long lost brother, the Pope and his black slave." (direct quote) Looking at that update made me realise the one thing that the Dutch society is missing-they have ignored the power of perception. Anybody who sees the image of the apparent "black man" dwarfing Sinterklaas immediately relates it to the era of slavery hence the racist connotation. Perceptions too need to be addressed-at least that is what a progressive society would do-for the Dutch to hide their heads in the sand is unfortunate.

OK, if we paint "Zwarte Piet" white, why don't we also make Santa Clause a woman, or a gay? Why seniors do not complain that it is offensive to depict SC as an old and overweight? Zwarte Piet is highly revered in NL, and this is partially THE reason behind Dutch famouse tolerance. They can accept people of other color because from early childhood they become presents from a black guy!!! Instead of claiming Zwarte Piet irrelevant black people should start supporting the tradition.

It is a nice tradition, very appreciated by children. It seems crazy to make it a problem. The capacity to accept diversity of opinions/traditions is fundamental in an Open Society.

If in today's world, one's forefathers were slaves and were subject to an overt institutional racism we know almost uniformly condemn, it would be weird to call the existence of that person racist. Whether a part of his/her heritage lies in such tradition seems irrelevant. However, and many of you might disagree with my analogy, when we change this actual person into a character, people call it's existence racist. Based on what? The 19th century roots of the character? Consulting the history books one discovers that Black Pete has developed over the years, after 1945 he became on equal footing with St. Nicholas, in light of the period of decolonization. The gold earrings were changed and so were the red lips, as they were the most stereotyping traits of Pete. What is Black Pete today? The companion of St Nicholas in the Dutch children's holiday tradition. They stand on equal footing these days, despite the fact that Pete was once the product of colonial literature. Calling the tradition racist does not do justice to the societal changes that have affected it. Does this mean racism is not a problem? Of course not, it is one of the biggest problems in the world but the Dutch St Nicholas tradition is not where it is often found. The handful pro-Pete supporters are lone exceptions, that ought to be condemned and as far as I am concerned brought to justice. Freedom of expression in Europe is broad but very stringent towards hate speech.

Black Pete is black because of chimney soot. That's what Dutch children always have been told. Pete goes through the chimney to bring the presents to the children. You can see in the film of 1935 that the Petes were still white, when Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam. That's logic. At arrival in Amsterdam they still didn't pass through the chimney to bring the presents to the children. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65ERQNg_Fcc
Now that chimneys have been replaced by central heating systems, we can rewrite the story and find another way for Pete to bring the presents to the children. He can be white as is shown in the 1935 film, or any other color in an open society.
The problem is that at some point in recent history, a racist stereotype has been sticked to Black Pete. This happened in the same period (1950s and 60s) when the comic books of Sjors and Jimmy were popular. Jimmy was also such a stereotyped black boy. It would not surprise me if the new feature of Black Pete would have been inspired by Jimmy. Jimmy however was indeed very rooted in the colonial history.
It is worth while to investigate the origin of Black Pete, because it is very doubtful that it has anything to do with slavery.
Nevertheless, we must also combat all kinds of racist stereotyping, which has been sticked to the figure of Black Pete. This hurts black people, and each year their feelings are triggered again. We have to pay due attention to this problem and find out how to deal with this by organising a serious public debate on this issue in the Netherlands. In this debate we have to acknowledge all the harm caused during the Dutch colonial history, and also the traumatic legacy of slavery and other injustices that have occurred.
Black is beautiful and let's combat all racist stereotypes, whether it is Black Pete or any other figure or measure, or expression.
However, we should not make war about a tradition that brings happiness to children of all colors since hundreds of years. By attacking this old tradition with accusations based upon unverified suppositions, you feed racism in stead of combating it.

Chimney soot? really? If that is the best defence they can come up with then we may as well just cancel the fest now...at the risk of stating the obvious, if a white man came down from a chimney, the soot would be unevenly spread across his skin rather than perfectly smoothed on like zwarte piet's...I may not know much about chimneys and soots, but I doubt very much that you get perfectly afro'd hair by going down one.
I am happy that the children are happy, but I think they would be a lot happier if the characters came in all colours of the rainbow...we could easily excuse that by saying that Pete came down from a magical chimney with colourful soot or something...after all, they are children and colour is good for their development.


Dear all,

Many thanks for your comments, it is great to see this piece stirred such lively conversation. Now we’ve arrived at ‘Sinterklaas eve’, this seems like a good moment to jot down some observations from the past two months of debate.

Firstly, I think it is safe to say that it seems to require a great deal of empathy and willingness from the ‘white majority’ to understand why the representation of inequality and subordination (Black Pete) in what is ‘just’ a cultural tradition (Sinterklaas) matters. Secondly, I believe the Black Pete controversy has opened doors to much bigger questions about Dutch identity and the place of racial equality in the Netherlands.

Questions about what it means to be Dutch were raised by, as Rahela described, by “the reaction of a considerable part of Dutch society to the concerns raised by a part of the population”. The aggressive tone in the Black Pete discussion symbolizes the absence of a national identity in which ‘we’ (white majority) and ‘they’ (Dutch citizens of Caribbean descent) are part of the same continuum. Here, I think historical awareness about the legacy of slavery and colonialism is of crucial importance. (Deliberate) ignorance about the past enabled a climate in which the majority’s moral outrage could largely centre around the question of whether black people are ‘entitled’ to feel hurt or offended by the figure of Black Pete.

Better education about (the legacy of) past injustices such as slavery and colonialism is also crucial to understand contemporary features of structural inequality, such as discrimination on the labour market or institutionalised segregation in education. But somehow, in the Netherlands, it is much harder to have a constructive debate about these bigger issues, without a controversy that appeals to people’s emotions first. The Black Pete debate serves as a lightning rod. It is the most overt target, because – as Steph concludes – the optics of the relationship between Sinterklaas and Black Pete are just off.

This discussion reminds me somewhat of our Geert Wilders who distrusts people from eastern Europe, but makes an exception for Hungarians because his wife is Hungarian (somewhat like Archie Bunker in "all in the family"). I think we have to deal with as serious difference in perception here. As a west Frisian (and of course white) Dutch I was raised wtih "sinterklaas en zwarte piet" and as achild I never had any remote sense of discrimination with black Pete. I have many broad/open minded friends who share this experience, despite their colour of skin. One of them is an Indonesian friend of mine. In 1999 I paid a visit to Indonesia with him (it was a unique opportunity) . During that visit we have been en route for a few days without meeting mirrors. When I saw myself back in the mirror, I saw a real paleface ( despite my ruddy texture) because I got used to the fact that people (apart from albino's) use to be brown. Perhaps the inborn character dimension "openness to experience" plays a part here as well (it's one of the Big Five, 5 proven character dimensions in personality psychology). There is lot's of coloured people in Suriname or the Dutch Antillen who don't mind about black Pete and who like the sinterklaasviering for instance. In the mean time it's also quite understandable that people who don't have a Dutch background or experience feel black pete as discriminating and derogative. I think that intentions are basic here however and you cannot deny that for most people in the Netherlands who were celebrating Sinterklaas with a visit of "Sinterklas en zwarte Piet" discriminating black people was one of the last thinks they had in their minds (right now this innocence is gone however and perhaps things will never be the same).

Black Peters (plural) is supposed to represent the 'swarthy' Spaniards coming to the City of Amsterdam to trade Inquisition victims with the Bishop Sinterclaas. Sinterclaas was the patron saint of children,maidens,seamen and City of Amsterdam. The Spanish Moors- the costumes are from from that age- but the 'black painted faces are not'. The Dutch brought this tradition of Sinterclaas to the Hudson Valley over 300 years ago. In today's Netherlands the Grampuses (Black Peters) are really more than racist- unacceptable in today's (or yesterday's)world. See for yourself and decide http://members.ziggo.nl/raymsfotosite/sinterclaas.htmland the Hudson Valley Dutch festival in Rhinebeck,NY http://www.sinterclaasrhinebeck.com/ The Sinterclaas came to Holland (Oranien) from Asia Minor (Myra,Turkey)through Spain,- anyone having read Brueder Grimm fairytales -add that to the mixture. The Aesopian conclusion- Grumpuses were made racist Black Petes.

Interesting an article, unfortunately if goal of this article is to persuade the supporters of the black pete to look at the issue differently and consider feelings of their citizens of African decent it is not helping with that.

I grew up with St. Nicholas tradition in Switzerland. It is a wonderful tradition for children. The guy who accompanies St. Nicholas has a black face because he carries a big bag of coal and distributes coal to children who have misbehaved. It has nothing to do with racism.

To be quite honest - I'm getting pretty fed up with this discussion (not here, on this page, but in general). I am used to discussions solving problems, bringing people closer together through sharing opinions and thus creating mutual ground for understanding. In this case, this doesn't seem to be happening (yet). Closing the gap seems to be hard on this one. This is due to several reasons as far as I am concerned:
First, but not most importantly, I think that a (rudimentary) form of racism (or better defined: negative opinion about people because of prejudice about race) is present in a much broader audience in the Netherlands than we all like to accept. Negative images based upon prejudice not coming to the surface are way harder to recognize and tackle, but can influence generally accepted expressions of culture, behavior. Because of this, I think that if zwarte piet is to be prohibited, Dutch society will become a little more explicit and racism within it will be uncovered a little more.
Secondly, negative prejudice and emotions in this perspective trigger the 'targets / receivers' of offenses to be more receptive for insults than others may be able to comprehend. Therefore, it is hard to imagine how offended someone may be by a remark if you have not felt it yourself. If someone is insulted a lot, he or she may even experience insults where possibly no insult is being made. (Best example is something I recently experienced, short description: me and a friend (just the two of us) waiting for bus. Early in the morning, dark, rainy cold. Bus approaches, slows down, looks at me, and drives on without ever stopping. I got angry thinking 'stupid racist' when my friend said 'he probably didn't drink his coffee yet so he is in a bad mood'. He perceived the busdrivers behavior in a different way than I did.)
Thirdly, Black Pete is not racist. I never see him insulting anybody as a matter of fact. All children get equal shares of candy, no matter their color of skin. Of course this is not what is meant in the discussion, but I think it is true. Archetypes like Zwarte Piet are not people. They cannot 'be' racist. It is people that make Zwarte Piet racist by yelling 'zwarte piet' at others. And, more importantly, some people make Zwarte Piet a subject of discussion about racism just because racism exists. What exactly do I mean by this? If people didn't discriminate, and approach eachother without prejudice, there would be no such thing as racism. Zwarte Piet in that situation could not be racist (nor be perceived as such), because racism itself wouldn't exist. As long as people discriminate, have prejudice, there will always be people that are offended by Zwarte Piet with his current looks. My opinion on this is, that Zwarte Piet does not look like a chimney guy from italy or spain, nor like a devil tamed by St Nicolaas, nor like the two black ravens owned by Odin/Wodan. He looks like an african guy dressed in a costume dating back several centuries. So we can expect people to be offended by his looks. And thus, we can fix this. But through changing Zwarte Piet's looks, we will never abolish racism.
Fourthly, Zwarte Piet really is an expression of an ancient archetype to my opinion. This is why he is so well-defended. This archetype that he represents is really embedded in our culture and has been around since pre-catholic times. The archetype can still be found throughout the northern european countries (amongst others). Other archetypes that have similarities to Zwarte Piet are: Knecht Rupprecht, Wodan's ravens (that sit on the chimney and hear everything inside), the demon that captured 3 children and was defeated by St Nicolaas, etc etc...

But what do we do to fix it?
Only solution in my opinion is: let's stop being racist. Let's accept everybody for who they are, and do not demand others to accept you for who you are, because you cannot force them to.
This is the only solution. Only problem with this is that prejudice is a side-effect of one of our most important evolutional skills: our learning process.
This is why small children never perceive Zwarte Piet as being racist, and only see him as kind and gentle. They haven't learned prejudice yet.

I read the comments and wondered: Did "Black Pete" originate from the years when the Dutch were under Spanish domination - effectively a colony of Spain? The elaborate costumes of "Black Pete" goe back to that period. In Spain, there are still festivals of "Moors and Christians", ending of course in the defeat of the Moors. Did anyone look into whether the Spanish inquisition bequeathed this hidden legacy? If this was the case, it is time for the Netherland, who fought so hard for its independence, to make their children's festival their own, with rainbow faces. Please abandon the Spanish inquisition's legacy. If Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, a man who showed generosity and tolerance, if he was to return, would he approve of your festival as it stands? His bones were stolen from his tomb in Myra (Turkey) by some Italien sailors, who not satisfied by the desecration, made Saint Nicholas their "own" Saint. There might be a lesson there.

Having lived several years in the Netherlands and worked in the UK and Germany, I was disappointed, as a black person, by the attitudes I encountered as a working person in the Netherlands. What a lot of people do not realise is that the tradition of black Pete as a subservient person to Sinterklaas does foster an underlying idea that black people should fit this stereotype and are in some way inferior and is implanted in the minds of the young at an early age. Although I made several Dutch acquaintances in the Netherlands I found working here in a professional position very difficult and sometimes overheard racist comments which I had never experienced in the workplace in the UK nor in Germany. My impression is that the Netherlands is in general not so tolerant as it would like to think. Dutch people often have a tendency to see their point of view only and not to integrate very easily. The issue with Black Pete and the discussion around it seems to suggest that the Netherlands, although seeming to be a modern forward looking society, is in fact at a stage where the US and some countries in Europe including the UK were around the 1960s and 1970s. In the UK the term Golliwog was deemed to be offensive and was phased out by the early 70s. By the way - many of my earlier colleagues I noticed with very good degrees from other countries found it difficult to find well paid work here. The excuse being that their Dutch was not good enough or that they had an accent when they spoke it. Racism is to be encountered everywhere but you do have a greater problem than you seem to think here, and the problem is growing.

I'm mistrustful of both sides of the debate. Saying that Black Pete in its current form has nothing to do with racial stereotypes seems to me to be a preposterous denial of the obvious.
I don't want to delve too deep in the arguments pro or contra, as these have all been heard before. Still, I reckon that I should make my position on this matter clear, so that readers will be able to make up their minds about the validity of what I'd like say. I'm a white Dutch male, and these properties may all be held against me.
I'm sure that the many people of Dutch origin who are in favor of Zwartepiet don't mean to be racist. On the other hand, I don't see why it would hurt to adapt the figure of Black Pete to a less offensive figure. Given The Netherlands' painful history with African American slavery, I guess we owe our fellow human beings the decency of taking their feelings into account.

The two main points I'd like to make are mainly geared towards those who oppose Black Pete.
Firstly, please understand the delicate position Black Pete champions who think of themselves as non-racists, are in. If they give in, it is as if they admit that they have been racist all along. That hurts. The louder we shout that Black Pete is racist, the more they will see the need to prove they are not racist, and therefore that the figure of Black Pete is not racist. Please note that I don't want to deny anyone the right to fight against societal injustice in whatever (legal) way they see fit.

Secondly, what bothers me is the smugness with which so many US journalists and intellectuals condemn a foreign tradition. This smugness is not exclusive to Americans, as many Dutch people who have been in contact with the US suffer from it as well. They tend to emphasize how wonderfully progressive the US is with regard to hyphenated names (like African American) and political correctness in general.
But isn't the US the same country where the prisons are filled to the brim with those same African Americans? Where they are shot or killed otherwise routinely by police officials?
I think that it's excellent that we are criticized from outside. One is always more or less blind to one's own faults, and an outside perspective is always helpful. For that, I thank the United States and the United Nations. But I think they should now leave the debate to the Dutch people themselves. And by Dutch people I mean all citizens of the Netherlands, regardless their descent.
The Netherlands is a relatively peaceful country, where people of all colors coexist more or less happily. Yes, there are problems with regard to racism and inequality which we shouldn't overlook.
But if the history of the wonderful US teaches us one thing it is that getting rid of cultural symbols and language does not help getting rid of the root cause of racism and equality.
The world is complicated, you see. Maybe we used the N-word longer than the US has, and maybe we still have some racist symbols. But that doesn't mean WE are racist.

So let's make a deal here: if the US stops shooting or imprisoning black (or African American, if you will) people, we will convert Black Pete to something else. Deal?

This whole racism debat is not only about black face.
The debate is also about the toxic and dangerous racist climate that is increasing more and more in Holland.
For example a famous black women joins an political Turkish party and receives 40.000 racist abusive comments on her social media account. Lets have a greater look at the whole situation. What did this women exactly do? She joined a legal party which she has the right too. So she is against black face? She has a right to say that if that is her opinion. Just as other people have a right to say that they don't agree. Meanwhile real criminals are being viewed as hero's an invited in programs as College tour. They Dutch media didn't know how fast to jump on the whole case and create more hate. They acted like abusing a human being regardless off there color as normal and keep hyping it up. Really repulsive. The racist climate is increasing in a fast en dangerous rate and many lines are being crossed. It's disturbing that people are acting like its normal and only shows that the past isnt that far away.

We must ask ourselves why Zwarte Piet is Spanish. Why does he wear Spanish clothes and a Spanish Collar?
He must be seen as a symbol of resistance against Spanish rule over the Low Lands. The Dutch should be proud that this figure ridiculed the Spaniards, their occupiers.

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