Zwarte Piet: The debate rages on

04 December 2012, by

Are you familiar with the old children’s tune "The Song That Never Ends?" It goes a little something like this:

This is the song that never ends..
It goes on and on my friends..
Some people started singing it not knowing what it was..
And they'll continue singing it forever just because..
This is the song that never ends..
It goes on and on my friends..

The debates and controversies surrounding Sinterklaas are a lot like that old ditty. It drags on and on with no end in sight. Every November like clockwork newspapers, websites and Twitter accounts suddenly fill with vitriolic chatter about the holiday and its traditions.

On one side, there’s the "Zwarte Piet is racist!" crowd who are convinced that the character is archaic at best and deeply offensive at worst. They think he should be substantially revised or tossed onto the same cultural compost heap as outdated ethnic caricatures like Fu Manchu and Amos & Andy.

They’re also unwilling to accept the typical explanations why the holiday isn’t racist (many locals argue that Piet isn’t actually black, merely that his skin is covered with soot from climbing up and down so many chimneys). Piet’s opponents often ask questions like, "Well, then why does he have curly hair?" and "why are his clothes so clean?"

On the other side of the debate, there’s the "Pro Piet" contingency that considers the character a beloved bit of local folklore and part of a Dutch tradition that’s as innocent and wonderful as clogs and windmills. They argue that opponents are overreacting or that they’re too influenced by political correctness. After all, this holiday is for children, right? How could a children’s holiday possibly be racist?

And so it goes.

There’s obviously much more to this than meets the eye. The bickering over Zwarte Piet invokes concerns about everything from xenophobia to integration to nostalgia to tradition to racial politics. Is this annual debate really about the colour of Piet’s skin? Or does it serve as a catalyst for much larger issues ranging from expats feeling marginalised in Dutch society to locals fearing that their culture is being eradicated by immigrants and unwanted influence from other nations?

"The Dutch are a former global power whose influence has waned. In addition, their culture is vanishing at a rapid rate," said Chad, an American expat who writes a blog titled Chad in Amsterdam. He hosted a "30 Days of Zwarte Piet" debate on his Twitter account last month. "They feel Sinterklaas is one of their last remaining vestiges of culture," he said.

Like many, Chad argues that the entire holiday shouldn’t be entirely discontinued, only that Zwarte Piet should be revised. One theory is that Piet may be slowly phased-out or altered as he becomes increasingly controversial and as the Netherlands becomes more culturally and racially diverse in the years to come.

There’s already signs that his days may be numbered. The character has definitely been toned-down since the ‘60s, when actors portraying Piet often adopted offensive Surinamese accents and behaved more like court jesters than devoted assistants in charge of everything from navigating the Atlantic to delivering presents to millions of Dutch kids.

zwarte piet
Photo by Flickr user FaceMePLS

Take a stroll through a V&D department store this holiday season and you’ll encounter Sinterklaas displays featuring photos of children in Piet hats but without their faces covered in black makeup.

"The Dutch are known for being culturally open but they’re behind the times on this one," Chad said. "They actually have no choice in the matter. Sinterklaas can stay but the archaic, racist icon that is Zwarte Piet will inevitably vanish."

The tradition is already undergoing changes outside of the Netherlands. A Sinterklass celebration in western Canada was cancelled last year following a debate over whether or not it should include Zwarte Piet. Lawmakers in the former Dutch colony of Suriname have removed the character from government-sponsored celebrations. Sinterklaas festivals in the island nation of Curacao now feature multi-coloured Piets.

So why not drop the "Zwarte" and make Zwarte Piet just Piet? Many argue that this is the obvious solution that will effectively end the controversy. If actors playing Piet put on fluorescent makeup instead of black facepaint or smear fake soot on themselves everybody wins, right? Not quite.

"The only people who are offended by Zwarte Piet are foreigners," said one Leiden resident, who asked to remain anonymous. "I don’t really care what they think and neither do most actual Dutch people. Piet has always been black and that’s that."

Negative reactions from many locals to Piet-opponents have been fierce over the past few years. Three protesters at a 2011 Sinterklaas event in Dordrecht were dealt with harshly by police.

In 2008, two artists organising an anti-Piet march in Eindhoven received death threats. In November, an anti-Piet critic named Quinsy Gario was harassed by Dutch writer Tom Staal. After Gario refused to participate in an interview, Staal showed up at his apartment dressed as Zwarte Piet and pretended to be a postman in order to gain access into the building.

When Gario didn’t answer his door, Staal was filmed throwing cookies at it before departing. It’s people like Staal that may help ensure that the road to a less-offensive Piet could be a long one.

Welcome to the Debate That Never Ends...

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Is Zwarte Piet an outdated and offensive character, or a beloved part of an innocent Dutch tradition?

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Comments arranged by date (Total 24 comments)  
December 04 2012, 10:42AM

Hi all, I'm getting tired of this discussion. I'm not an expat but part of the Hagues international community. I LIKE SINTERKLAAS! Why? Children have fun, it's tradition and it shares love and happiness. Why? Because Sinterklaas is about giving, sharing, values, and zwarte piet is zwart because he has climbed the chimney. So nothing discriminating at please...don't emphasize this and please don't give room to people who don't know the details of this holiday. Join December 5th with a familiy or friends and see that it is about love, joy and happiness and not about racism. Oh and one more thing...please let us judge traditions from where we come from instead of judging the tradition from the country where we live and work! Peace and joy for all ***

December 04 2012, 04:57PM

you say their faces are black because they climb down a chimney, then this is the first brown soot ever, we all know soot is black grey not brown.

December 04 2012, 11:03AM

"Is this annual debate really about the colour of Piet’s skin? Or does it serve as a catalyst for much larger issues ranging from expats feeling marginalised in Dutch society to locals fearing that their culture is being eradicated by immigrants and unwanted influence from other nations?" Intelligent questions, well worth exploring.

December 04 2012, 09:35PM

About right cybergabi!!

December 04 2012, 11:14AM


What you're saying here isn't true. Not in the slightest. Zwarte Piet, going all the way back to his first depiction in a 19th century kid's book penned by a Dutch school teacher, was portrayed as a bumbling black stereotype. He's been shown as Moorish or African in the years that followed. The "chimney" explanation is a cover story, as the author of this article points out. If you doubt it, please explain why Piet's clothing is clean and why he has large lips and curly, black hair. I'm sorry, but it sounds like you don't know much about Sinkterlaas' traditions or the origins of the myth.

If you really think Zwarte Piet is "not about racism," then why not drop the "zwarte" and let Piet just be Piet? Why is there the need for the black makeup and the curly hair?

December 04 2012, 03:45PM

It is written down by that guy. But did you know Sinterklaas is from Turkey and really lived? Thats where the story is based on. And in those days the Turks had a lot of slaves, including black slaves. But the bisshop is not treating them as slaves, in the contrary, he's treating them as comrades!
But again to say it's racism, OMG before we know it white people have to feel bad again about slavery...and since you are good in history you must know that about every race and peoples in the past used slaves. Including Dutch white slaves by the Arabs! So please.

December 05 2012, 09:56AM

Dutchexpat: So, what you're saying here is that, since Turks once kept slaves, it's totally cool to let Dutch kids pretend to be slave masters and slaves every year? Here's another fun game you may want to proliferate: Nazi Death Camps. Every year, Dutch children can dress up as Jews and Nazi soldiers. Get to work on designing and patenting a gas chamber play set! You'll make a mint!

December 04 2012, 12:37PM

There was an interesting bit on RTL4 news last night showing Dutch people celebrating Sinterklaas in NY and Holland, Michigan, but with un-blackfaced Piets because "you can't do that in the US." They then went into a bit of the minstrel show history and spoke with Sam Pollard (film editor who's worked with Spike Lee) about how offensive a Zwarte Piet looks. But I could imagine the average Dutch person watching the report thinking they're just a bunch of overly-PC Americans and, fine, don't have the black makeup over there, but that doesn't mean it should change in the Netherlands.

December 04 2012, 02:47PM

Another sign that things are slowly but surely changing: an Amsterdam council member came out against Zwarte Piet yesterday, making him the first government official in the Netherlands to do so:

December 04 2012, 03:41PM

Why is Zwarte Piet offensive??
I am Dutch and when I was a kid we where afraid of Sinterklaas, but Zwarte Piet was your friend! He or she was the one handing out candy and gifts. Sinterklaas was the strict one, not Zwarte Piet! I think gansta rap including the videos give a way more negative view of 'black' people than Sinterklaas does. A lot of people commenting on it may find it offensive when they are suddenly confronted with this Dutch tradition but never lived it as a little kid.
Soposedly it is just offensive because it comes out of a 'white' peoples tradition. One of the protesters against Zwarte Piet has Crips tattoos. And of course the Crips are known of being very postive in society...

December 28 2012, 06:45PM

Dutchexpat, two wrongs do not make one right. Casting light on something that is obviously offensive does not address the issue of racist characterization no matter the reason for its existence. It is fair to say that the people who invented Zwarte Piet were from a different time and came with a particular cultural perspective. However, in a modern globally connected and culturally integrated world, in our time, this portraiture has no place. Seriously, every year I am offended by it because it maintains a exacerbating image of me or people like me in the minds of Dutch youth, who eventually become Dutch adults. I am forever like Zwarte Piet. More importantly my Caribbean Dutch friends are forever Zwarte Piet and separate from "normal" society. Can you get how that feels? I would suggest not. It is like asking a man to understand how a woman feels always being a sexual object. It is inescapable. The racial indifference in this world sets us up, we know this. We bear it. What I cannot support is non-thinking that attempts to justify what is viscerally wrong. It is your choice to support negative stereotyping, but you can never claim that Zwate Piet is not a representation of racist thinking. It was created in that vain (although not with that intention). It still is w-r-o-n-g. You are welcome to that opinion, just do not hide behind "tradition." No one in any of the EU countries would begin this tradition today which should be the litmus. If it is not good to start today, why defend it because it was founded years ago. It should stand to test. After all, human beings evolve and traditions evolve. I prefer to support traditions that foster harmony, rather than ones who leave a chunk of my society perplexed and feeling marginalized.

December 04 2012, 04:50PM

I feel it is outdated either have multi coloured faces like in Curacao or not at all so just be piet the helper.

December 05 2012, 10:42AM

I don't celebrate this holiday, so i couldn't care less about this. Most of the expats, of any color, do not celebrate this holiday so why even discuss it here?

December 05 2012, 01:31PM

If you're an expat and you have a child in a Dutch school, you definitely celebrate this holiday, whether you want to or not. ;) Furthermore, it's a topic that has been widely discussed in the national media over the past several weeks. If you live in Netherlands, the holiday (along with the debate) are unavoidable.

December 05 2012, 01:46PM

Very true Brandon. It's tradition - like it or not.

December 05 2012, 05:47PM

There are many traditions in many countries and as the years go by some traditions need to be changed or discontinued we all have to move the the times, elements in this tradition are just out of date.

December 05 2012, 07:20PM

@JamesBondJr. Since you call yourself James Bond, you surely have a problem with reading well. Since when were nazi's and Jews comrades??
This comparison is totally outregeous, and shows of no historical sense at all. If you want to explain things involving history, at least know history. If people talk about cultural traditions it is of most importance to know the origin and see it also in a historical perspective. That is what I was trying to do.
But of course it is so easy if something merely reeks of so called racism to bring out nazi's....But luckily a lot of people have outgrown those kind of childish reactions.

December 06 2012, 11:35AM

With all due respect, Dutchexpat, what you don't know about the slave trade could fill the Grand Canyon and what you *do* know couldn't fill a thimble. Based on your comments, I can only assume that your knowledge on the subject was derived entirely from a viewing of Disney's Song of the South when you were a kid and the naive depictions of Sinterklaas and his enslaved Piets.

Do you honestly think that slaves and their masters were all buddy-buddy back in the day? If you are suggesting this, then, honestly, you probably shouldn't throw around accusations that I, or anyone else, lacks "historical perspective." I would encourage you to express your viewpoint on this topic to an African American at your earliest convenience. I'm sure they would be more than happy to educate you on the matter. Might I suggest contacting Mike Tyson?

December 06 2012, 07:23PM

First of all let me teach you on slavery. Slavery was already going on for thousands of years in Africa and all the rest of the world. Africans enslaved other Africans. When the Europeans came to Africa they found a thriving slave market, I am not saying it was good, but just to blame the white man for slavery is so convenient and in denial.
Only Americans believe in Disney, don't make me laugh! You think I am that superficial? But I agree we also should have a coca cola based culture with a commercially made up man depicted on Sinterklaas. Actually I am very little and very offended by that coca cola Santa Claus and his little elfs! What about that?
But I think Tyson is a great example of giving a positive view of African Americans. And yes Zwarte Piet is not, Zwarte Piet is so violent, he is so mean, he beats up his Zwarte Piet wife. So yeah to hell with Zwarte Piet and hooray for Tyson! BTW just read my other comment about positive views and rap videos. And yes Americans are only worried about our Zwarte Piet, not about the one drop rule, registery of race, KKK, etc, etc, etc. So come on, if you don't like our culture which like I said before does not at all give a negative views on black people, just don't bother and go live with Mike Tyson in the Ole South. Have fun!

December 07 2012, 10:54AM

The longer you run your mouth, Dutchexpat, the more you embarrass yourself and flaunt your own ignorance. Go do some reading, for God's sake...

December 07 2012, 05:14PM

Well thank you for understanding deeper meanings JamesBondJr! It is not ignorance where my view derives from, it is of understanding the world and it's past. Don't get me wrong, I am sincerely not wiping out mistakes made in the past I am just understanding them. And for your information I have relatives who are of African Dutch origin and they don't find anything offensive in Zwarte Piet at all, on the contrary my stepsister even participated in the event by giving the little children a great day by being a Zwarte Piet herself. So don't give the Dutch any nonsense of things you can't understand from your English or Amercan point of view.
And convenient too not to talk about your redicilous comparison with nazi who is embarrarissing him/herself?
And for your information the Guardian is obviously biased, the writer never experienced this celbration while being a kid. BTW the song they are talking about exists, was written in the 19th century when there were hardly black people in society, and like you know people in general are affraid of the unknown. The song actally took away that prejudice in those days, and for present days: this song is not sung anymore, even not when i was a kid! So please respect some of our culture and try to see it in a positive way before complaining again about racism! Zwarte Piet never ever made a kid develop racist ideas, simply because he or she is a child;s friend!

December 18 2012, 12:56PM

This is how I think the situation can be improved:

1) Add a Witte Piet. Then it's more like several helpers, some can be white, some black, etc. Zwarte Piet may have existed, but nowadays anyone can be a helper. It should be irrespective of color.

2) Stop/Avoid painting white people black. It just looks weird and creepy. If you have a Witte Piet he can be played by a white man and the Zwarte Piet can be played by the black man.

Doesn't that make sense?

December 18 2012, 01:18PM

I like the 2nd idea but they do not need to be called witte or zwarte just piet or Helpers . but hay season is over for that now lets hope it is different next year.

December 28 2012, 07:01PM

Here, here h_pindakaas. This is where it needs to go. Growing up in the states there was only white Santa Claus. Now they come in all colours. Why not! Why shouldn´t the bringer of gifts, love, magic and above all toys look like me. The notion is about the magic of giving. It should not be limited by the imagination of a few stuck in the past. This tradition of gift giving should be about creating an inclusive society not positions of dominance for some and submission for others. Dutch people are amazing and it is time to fix this disparity. Holland is not monolithic and neither are its people. It is just wrong! Change is good!

About the Author
Brandon H.

I'm a freelance journalist currently residing in the Netherlands.



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