Zwarte Piet: the full guide to the Netherlands’ most controversial tradition

Many in the Netherlands view Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) as an innocent addition to the Dutch holiday season. But for others, the figure is deeply offensive and represents a system of inherent racism that parades under “tradition.”

Every year debates circle around the contentious topic, regarding whether the blackface Zwarte Piet should be allowed in public festivities.

These emotionally charged arguments have led to protests, riots, threats, and even violence — but they’ve also led to some gradual change. 

Expats and tourists in the Netherlands are often mystified by the ordeal. If you’ve just walked into the conversation you may be wondering why everyone is shouting.

So here’s some background on the Zwarte Piet tradition, what both sides have to say about it, and how public opinion is changing over time. 

Got an opinion on Zwarte Piet? Make sure to vote in our poll at the end!

Who is Zwarte Piet?

Zwarte Piet plays an integral part in a beloved Dutch celebration. Every November, the Sinterklaas holiday marks the arrival of the Sint (Saint) in the Netherlands.

He comes by boat, supposedly from Spain, accompanied by his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten.

Parades and festivities celebrate Sinterklaas’s entrance all over the country. In these celebrations, Sinterklaas is the stoic hero, and Zwarte Piet is his (controversial) helper.

zwarte Piet and sinterklaas
A traditional Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas. Image: Pixabay

Traditionally, Dutch people portray the character in full blackface makeup, tossing candy and gifts to children.

The character’s original costume comes complete with an afro wig, red lips, and hoop earrings. However, in modern portrayals of the character, some accessories and makeup may be toned down. 

History of Zwarte Piet and the blackface tradition

Zwarte Piet’s history is cloudy. People often disagree about when and how the character originated, disputing even historically sound evidence. Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, has clearer roots that can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages. 

Throughout the years, tales of Sinterklaas have always included a helper of some kind — be it a chained demon of yesteryear, or Zwarte Piet, the prancing page of modern-day. 

The earliest written evidence of Zwarte Piet is found in an 1850s children’s book written by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman. In the book, Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’s dark-skinned helper, referred to only as “the servant”.

In the illustrations, he appears in colourful clothing reminiscent of a page. Historians tend to agree that the character is linked to slavery, as the page boys of this era did not work by choice or receive wages. 

Changes to Zwarte Piet over time

The character has changed quite a bit since 1850. Originally seen as an assistant to the stern and punishing Sinterklaas, around 1890, the roles reversed.

Sinterklaas softened, and Zwarte Piet became the scary character who would rattle his chains and threaten children with his roe (a switch made of bundled sticks). 

Zwarte Piet’s role in the Sinterklaas celebrations has evolved over time as well. Once the sole punisher, by the late 1960s, the character had become more of a friend to children, and the number of Pieten at holiday events had multiplied. 

Sinterklaas-Zwarte-Piet-parade-1967
Sinterklaas with his Zwarte Pieten at a 1967 entry parade. Image: Anefo/Wikimedia Commons/CC1.0

Since then, and up until the last decade or so (when public disapproval was amplified), the Zwarte Pieten have been the highlight of the annual parades.

They bring gifts and treats for good children, while naughty kids are only playfully warned they’ll be whipped and taken away to Spain in one of Zwarte Piet’s burlap sacks.


The Zwarte Piet debate

If this description of Zwarte Piet has you raising an eyebrow or two, you’re not alone. Zwarte Piet has attracted criticism nationally and internationally for years now. 

Blackface, even as a form of theatrical makeup, is insulting and dehumanising toward people of colour. Forget the questionable history and dimwitted portrayal of the character; the mere appearance of Zwarte Piet raises alarm bells for many onlookers. 

Pro-Zwarte Piet: the traditionalists’ argument

Many traditionalists argue that the character’s appearance is part of a harmless tradition and is not tied to racism in any way. They believe in a different version of history wherein Zwarte Piet was more of a noble servant, and they view the black makeup as simply an old Dutch tradition.

Other Zwarte Piet supporters are convinced the character gets a black face from coming down the chimney. (An idea that leaves out an explanation for the exaggerated lips, afro, and other accessories, however.)

Die-hard Zwarte Piet proponents fight for their right to uphold the character’s full costume as an important part of Dutch culture. They fear that outsiders will strip them of their cultural identity because they don’t understand it. 

Zwarte_Pieten_celebrate_in_the_Netherlands_in_black_paint
White people portraying themselves as black people isn’t really a sight for sore eyes. Image: Depositphotos

Some Dutch disagree with allegations of racism because, for generations, they’ve viewed the festivities as something entirely wholesome to bring joy to children. How can others accuse them of racism when they’ve never knowingly had racist intentions?

The Sint en Pietengilde, an organisation fighting to preserve the traditional Zwarte Piet, says that supporters are “generally surprised” when they notice that people see Zwarte Piet as a racist figure.

From the guild’s perspective, “This is still often not recognised. As a result, acceptable ways of depicting Zwarte Piet from history are incorrectly interpreted as racist.”

The majority of these blackface supporters are in disbelief that Zwarte Piet is discriminatory, and they feel misunderstood. 

The main arguments that the Zwarte Piet traditionalists make are that the character has been misinterpreted and others have overreacted, while they simply want to continue with their traditions in peace. 

Anti-Zwarte Piet: the no-blackface argument

People opposed to Zwarte Piet emphasise that the character’s cartoonish, historically unsavoury portrayal reinforces negative stereotypes, contributing to an inherent bias against people of colour. They see some issues that need resolving before the holiday can be a peaceful one.

For Zwarte Piet’s opponents, historical evidence proves the character arose out of colonial times when slavery was the accepted norm.

They say that this bias against black people has been carried with Zwarte Piet over the years, whether consciously or not. They see the blackface character as a racist and harmful relic from the past.

The anti-Zwarte Piet camp also doesn’t generally buy into the idea that black paint was separate from the popular and embarrassing blackface makeup of the time.

Blackface was used by white people as a device to mock and dehumanize black people in their portrayal, not only in the US but also throughout Europe. 

But aside from addressing Zwarte Piet’s problematic history, opponents want to shift the focus toward a future of equality. They argue that continuing to reinforce negative racial stereotypes creates an unconscious bias in society, keeping people of colour at a disadvantage.

Even beyond the aim for broad societal change, Zwarte Piet’s opponents want an end to the everyday racism that the character encourages.

READ MORE | Child calls another child “Zwarte Piet” because of his skin colour

Many black people in the Netherlands have had experiences where they’ve been referred to as Zwarte Piet in a derogatory way, often as children. Some have also encountered more aggression and other racial slurs, particularly around Sinterklaas. 

As Jerry Afriye, leader of the action group Kick Out Zwarte Piet says, “By the same adults who now shout from the rooftops that Zwarte Piet is not racist, you can be called Zwarte Piet.

For example, in the workplace, ‘There you have our Zwarte Piet’. Or on social media, as a caption to a photo of Mandela: ‘[The Head Piet] is dead’.”

Lost in translation?

Where the conversation often gets stuck is on the very words “racist” and “racism”. Racism is thought to be exclusive to more overt racial aggressions.

Everyday bias and systemic racism are still relatively foreign ideas in the Netherlands. Getting on the same page about what is and isn’t racism is a hurdle in itself.

What’s more, racism has not been largely discussed in the Netherlands until recently and is a bit of a taboo topic. It doesn’t fit with the Dutch cultural identity, so the jarring word “racism” stirs immediate discomfort and defensiveness.

There’s a big disconnect in the discussion when it comes to behaviour that many do not recognize as discriminatory because it’s based on tradition, while others experience that behaviour as hurtful or insulting. 

Momentous rections to Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet has had many big moments in the media over the past century or so. This timeline covers some of the most influential:

In recent years

Over the last several years, Zwarte Piet has had too many spotlight moments for this humble timeline. In 2018, the action group Kick Out Zwarte Piet organised protests that made big waves in 17 Dutch cities.

Because of all of the commotion in recent years, several cities have banned the Sinterklaas entry altogether, while others will allow only it with modified Pieten. In 2020, coronavirus took care of cancelling them all

An ever-growing number of stores in the Netherlands have stopped selling merchandise with the Zwarte Piet image. The popular HEMA, Jumbo, and Bol.com have all said goodbye to blackface.

On social media, Facebook and Instagram have also banned images of Zwarte Piet from their platforms. Even Amazon and Google have recently taken a stand. Libraries, too, have removed books depicting Zwarte Piet’s image.

But most notably this year, the Black Lives Matter protests and international antiracism movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd called attention to systemic racism in the Netherlands.

Now, the voices standing up to racism are louder than ever, and conversations about it are becoming more normalised. 

Black Lives Matter protest
June 13, 2020: Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Leeuwarden. Image: Arnold Bartels/Wikimedia Commons/CC4.0

But the voices of white supremacy are also increasing. Some anti-Piet activists have been the targets of hate crimes, threats, and violence. Jerry Afriye of Kick Out Zwarte Piet received a letter earlier this year that read, “…we will have fun slaughtering you, your family, and extended family…and won’t wait for Sinterklaas.”

Acknowledging systemic racism

This new focus on race sparked Prime Minister Mark Rutte to acknowledge in 2020 for the first time that there is institutional racism in the country.

He also said that he had changed his opinion of Zwarte Piet after realising that children were feeling discriminated against during the holiday festivities. “That’s the last thing we want during Sinterklaas,” he said during a press conference.

Rutte didn’t feel the government should step in. He predicted that in a few years, “you will hardly see any more Zwarte Pieten.”

This was particularly big news because, in the past, even Mark Rutte has worn blackface in Sinterklaas celebrations. So have many of the lovely, good-hearted Dutch people you may know.

This is perhaps why the shift toward seeing the character as a racist symbol has been met with such resistance — how could this whole culture that is widely thought to stand for tolerance and inclusion be racist?

Well, it’s a bit more nuanced than that, and people are starting to recognise it.

A shifting paradigm

Over the years, we can mark a clear shift in the Netherlands’ perception of the holiday character. It was slow and steady at first and then exponential over the past year.

More and more, the Dutch are opening up to the idea of eliminating or modifying the character to be more sensitive to racial stereotyping.

Sooty Piet & Chimney Piet

To find some middle ground, some municipalities have suggested different colours of Pieten as an alternative to the blackface character. Red, blue, rainbow, and even the contentious grey, but none as promising as the Sooty Piet (Roetveegpiet) or Chimney Piet (Schoorsteen Piet).

This rendition of the character has soot smudged on his cheeks to support the newer adaptation of the story, which claims that Piet’s face is only black from the chimney. 

photo-of-soot-pete- netherlands-alternative-to-zwarte-piet-black-pete
Soot Piet is often viewed as an acceptable alternative to Zwarte Piet. Image: Ziko van Dijk/Wikimedia Commons/CC4.0

This new narrative is, of course, a modern workaround to the blackface issue. While many still do not approve, others, including the Zwarte Piet action groups, are more comfortable with it than the original. 

Public opinion about Zwarte Piet

Since 2013, Dutch news outlet EenVandaag has been hosting an annual “Opinion Panel” regarding Zwarte Piet. The survey shows whether people view the character as discriminatory and whether or not his traditional appearance should change.

It’s clear that a growing number of Dutch people are coming to the conclusion that traditional Zwarte Piet is problematic.

graphic-of-opinion-poll-zwarte-piet
Image: DutchReview/Suplied

EenVandaag conducts its annual survey in November. Because of the unprecedented amount of attention brought by the 2020 antiracism movement, the news outlet conducted a similar survey in June 2020.

They wanted to see if the movement had influenced opinions of racism in the Netherlands — it had. 

In 2020, far more Dutch people say that Zwarte Piet should change, and fewer people say the character should stay the same.

The November 2020 survey shows many of the opinions from June have been upheld, while a smaller percentage was likely a temporary product of the social movement.

It should be noted, however, that most people who changed their minds in 2020 indicated on the survey that they are in favour of adjusting Zwarte Piet “to keep the peace” rather than because of a changed perception of the character. They want to “get rid of the social unrest and demonstrations.”

In 2021, survey results are similar to those of 2020, with 56% saying they do not want to change the appearance of the character and 32% saying it should change. However, 46% of people see Sooty Piets as a reasonable alternative.

Talking about racism

While the data shows signs of change in Zwarte Piet’s future, the debate will likely be around for years to come there is still much to be discussed. EenVandaag’s survey in 2020 also asked, “Do you have the feeling that you can say in public in the Netherlands what you think of the appearance of Zwarte Piet?” Only 45% of the Dutch (known for their directness) replied yes.

Whether or not people are willing to talk about their views openly, the whispers behind closed doors show there is still convincing to be done.

@evrythingchann3l

Ever heard of "ZWARTE PIET" 😱

♬ original sound – EveryThing Channel

Action group Nederland Wordt Beter says a future that is more inclusive and without racism “can only be achieved by recognizing the influence that the colonial and slavery past has on today’s society and on all Dutch people.”

It’s fair to say that Zwarte Piet is a big part of that conversation, but he’s certainly not the end of it

That’s why one of the guidelines Nederland Wordt Beter is pushing for, along with the changing of Zwarte Piet’s appearance, is education about why it needs to change — “to turn anger into understanding and solidarity.” Because, of course, to keep the peace, you first have to find it.

Have your say

Is Zwarte Piet racist?

Yes, for sure! 😱
No, the character is not offensive 👌
Maybe, but tradition is more important 🤔
I’m undecided 🤷‍♂️
 
 
 
 
 
 

How do you find the Zwarte Piet debate? Do you think the character’s appearance should change? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2020, and was fully updated in November 2023 for your reading pleasure.

Feature Image:DutchReview/Supplied
Brin Andrews
Brin Andrewshttp://brinandrews.com
Brin is an avid ice cream eater from the US, calling Amsterdam home since early 2019. As a lover of mountains, life below sea level has been a bit of an adjustment, but she manages to stay afloat with long runs, wine, and frequent travel. Incidentally, these are a few of her favourite topics to write about.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. When the tradition started there was barely a black person to be found in the Netherlands. Times gave changed. Time to move on.

    • The tradition isn’t meant to be racist, but i can see how it’s problematical for some people. Changing it isn’t such a problem, and it has allready changed. Which is fine.
      In the former colonies piet was until recently also played by black actors in black facepaint.
      I know several black Dutch people in the Netherlands that also used played piet in darker facepaint in the 90s and 00s. They didn’t see it as racist. And some of them still don’t.

      The problem is people viewing traditions of other cultures through the eyes of their own (problematic) cultural background.
      In both ways.

      And that’s where the backlash comes from.
      The Dutch have a historical problem of other cultures pushing their opinions and views on them and telling them what to believe.

      Just ask the French and the Spanish.

      Changing sinterklaas traditions is also part of Dutch tradition. In 1965 Sinterklaas allready threw the sack and rod overboard on national television, because he thought they were outdated. He loves children and gives them gifts. He doesn’t punish them was what he said. (Adri van Oorschot)
      In the film ‘Bennie stout’ sinterklaas (bram van der vlught( made a similar statement.

      It took most Dutch parents some years to confirm that.
      They’ll get used to sooth pete…

      And them someone from a different culture will find something else that offends them.

      And we will eventually change.

  2. Zwarte Piet isn’t the American blackface. He has it’s roots going back to ancient pan-European pagan traditions. So please stop Americanizing, and thereby racializing European traditions, because those are absolutely not the same.

  3. I like to see it changed yesterday but ‘blackface’ is an English word that has no Dutch translation because mocking blacks by painting faces is an American and English tradition, yes, England is in Europe too but anglo culture and it’s racism isn’t universal.

    Slavery wasn’t the norm in 1850 when the abolitionist Schenkman introduced the character of Zwarte Piet. The Kingdom of the Netherlands had abolished the slavetrade in it’s first year of existence, 1815, and politicians were bickering about how to end slavery for the remaining 6000 slaves.

    It’s the Americans and English that put the racial hatred into facepainting, and what has been seen can’t be unseen so that’s forcing the Dutch to change an innocent tradition many blacks have participated in in the Netherlands since the 70’s but also in the former Dutch colonies. Because it’s fun and it makes for an effective disguise which is required. So the Americans should apologize to the Dutch for spoiling facepainting for the rest of the world.

    Instead we have Americans not even 2 years in the country and probably not capable of reading Dutch yet explaining how it is and projecting American racism onto the Dutch and subsequently lecturing them on it. Imperialism anyone? We’ve been discussing American racism for ages and you were always the most backward one of the West togehter with South-Africa, and are still very much behind. Maybe someone from Saudi-Arabia can come live here for a year and lecture us on women’s rights?

    • It truly is a pervasive mindset here in the U.S. where politics and media view, report, and interpret everything in terms of race and discrimination. From weddings, scientist’s achievements, celebrity successes, deaths, retirements, candidates for positions, political appointments, corporate executives, and so on, if a famous person has a speck of minority ancestry, that minority is emphasized and all others are excluded. They think perhaps they are being complimentary to the minorities, perhaps they feel righteous, but to me it smacks of condescension.

  4. Zwarte Piet can be considered racist, but only if he’s portrayed as dumb, exhibits clownesk behaviour, and has a speech impediment. Or when it’s a Surinam caricature; brown face, Surinam accent. Golden earrings are also not ok and not needed.
    A 2021 Zwarte Piet however, a person wearing colourful clothes and with a face painted black, handing out gifts and candy to childeren, not acting dumb, is not racist.
    In fact, the opposite is true. Whitewashing Zwarte Piet is racist, and gives children the signal that there is something wrong with black skin colour.

  5. My first encounter with Zwarte Piet was in the fall/winter of 2010 when I was studying abroad in Groningen. Whenever I was told Zwarte Piet’s face was black due to coming in the chimney, I would always ask why his clothes remained clean then? I never received an answer to that question. Sure why the afro, big red lips, etc is also a legitimate question, but what kind of magic soot clings to skin but not clothes?

    • The tradition was meant for very young kids. They never came with those questions and most important they never even thought it had to do with racism.

  6. Zwarte Piet is the coolest Persona in The Netherlands. He neither racist or offensive.I Love Zwarte Piet.

  7. This is not a ‘full guide’. You don’t know anything about the folklore behind Sint & Piet. Try to inform yourself before you write such a pretentious piece. And by the way in Ghana, the country of origin of the Dutch anti-Piet activists, people use white-face during their own folklore. So it’s the pot calling the kettle …

  8. OMG At least check your statistics before presenting a graph. The image shows that more and more people want Zwarte Piet to stay the same and less and less people want him to change. Obviously you got things mixed up. I am surprised the editors or reader for that matter did not even see this…🙈
    For the rest, I think it is a great article showing both sides without trying to be judgemental / taking a stance.

  9. So many racist apologists here. Wow. It’s more than about the blackface… the crude representation of Black African facial features, the afro wig… inorm yourselves instead of being defensive.

    • “DeNa”you refer to African facial features and Afro hair as if those are bad in some way. I guess that makes yours a racist comment. It is a slippery slope is it not? Can’t we all just be nice to each other?

  10. Really DeNa, you call people racist apologists? Defenisve? Just because they don’t agree with your opinion? So cheap and ignorant.

  11. If painting one’s face black pains people who are naturally black, then common courtesy dictates not to do it. Just as simple and uncomplicated as common decency.
    I read the article hoping for deeper insight into the custom but I’m still wondering how it all evolved. Is there any historical basis for the evil Bishop depicted in the movie “Sint” ? Truth or fiction, the movie presents explanations consistent with a time when the church had the power of government and people could be, and were, burned for heresy, heresy being whatever offended church officials.

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