Many in the Netherlands view Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) as an innocent, jovial 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.
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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 (plural).
Parades and festivities celebrate Sinterklaas’s entrance all over the country. In these celebrations, Sinterklaas is the stoic hero and Zwarte Piet is his clownish helper.
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 hoops earrings. However, in modern portrayals of the character, some accessories and makeup may be toned down.
Zwarte Piet’s history is cloudy. Fans and critics often disagree about just 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.
Most notably though, is that 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.
Since then, and up until the last decade or so (when public disapproval 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.
If this description of Zwarte Piet caused you to raise an eyebrow or two, you’re not alone. Zwarte Piet has been attracting criticism both nationally and internationally for years now.
Much of the world views blackface as insulting and dehumanising toward black people. Forget the questionable history and dimwitted portrayal of the character, the mere appearance of Zwarte Piet raises immediate alarm bells for many onlookers.
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 is only black from coming down the chimney. (An idea that leaves out explanation of the exaggerated lips, afro, and other accessories.)
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.
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 recognized. 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.
However, 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 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 the black makeup was anything separate from the popular and embarrassing blackface makeup of the time. Blackface was a device to mock and dehumanize black people, 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.
And even beyond the aim for broad societal change, Zwarte Piet opponents want an end to the everyday racism that the character encourages. 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 reactions 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 of this year. They wanted to see if the movement had influenced opinions of racism in the Netherlands — it had.
This year, 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 this year 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.”
Is Zwarte Piet discriminatory?
EenVandaag also asks survey participants whether they view Zwarte Piet as discriminatory: Zwarte Piet: wel of geen racisme? (Zwarte Piet: is it racist or not?). This question wasn’t posed in the June 2020 survey but it was in the regular yearly surveys from 2014-2020.
The answers to this question show an initial upward trend in the perception of Zwarte Piet as racism, which stagnated in 2018. There has, however, been a steadier decline in the belief that he is not racist.
As of 2020, the vast majority of Dutch people still do not view Zwarte Piet as discriminatory. So it’s not entirely surprising that when it was asked whether people agreed with the following statement: “Even though it may not be intended that way, I understand that Zwarte Piet comes across as discriminatory to people of colour,” the majority (52%) disagreed, while only 40% agreed, and the remaining 8% gave no opinion. It will be challenging “to keep the peace” while this, the core of the debate, is still disputed.
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 this year 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. 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.
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.
Feature Image: Shutterstock