Dutch debate on Zwarte Piet: a recap of major developments

Dutch debate on Zwarte Piet: a recap of major developments

It’s that time of the year again: Sinterklaas’ arrival and the inevitable Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) discussion.

Sinterklaas arrival with Zwarte Piet

For those unfamiliar, Sinterklaas is the Dutch Saint Nicholas, a mythic elderly man with red robes and large white beard that sails into the Netherlands and travels the country from mid-November to December. He leaves candy, small gifts, chocolate letters and/or pepernoten for kids in their empty shoes.

Although the tales are similar, Sinterklaas is Dutch and he’s not Santa Claus. For children, his arrival during the Nationale Intocht (National Arrival) is an exciting event that signals the countdown to Pakjesavond (literally "Packages Evening") on December 5 when the Sint delivers a variety of gifts overnight.

After the gifts have mysteriously arrived, they are opened and charming poems are shared that lovingly poke fun at friends and loved ones.

Sounds like a pleasant holiday, right? It is. Until you mention the helper of Sinterklaas: Zwarte Piet.

Issues with Zwarte Piet's appearance

The discussion surrounding Zwarte Piet hinges on his portrayal. The traditional Zwarte Piet garb typically consists of Renaissance-era robes, jerkins, a feathered hat, a wig with tight black curls, red painted lips, big gold earrings and blackface makeup.

Meant to represent "the helper" of Sinterklaas, the character has instead come under fire as a manifestation of outdated racist stereotypes and a proxy for a wider debate on the role of Dutch traditions in an increasingly multicultural society. Gaining momentum with every passing arrival, the Zwarte Piet debate rages on with few signs of stopping.

Emerging as a type of cultural litmus test, there have been a number of significant events over the past few years that have transformed the debate from a side-discussion to a focal point of an international dialogue on contemporary race relations.

Therefore, this article is not meant to pass judgment on the tradition, but rather to offer a recap of the more high profile events and significant developments that have led to the existence of this year’s Stroopwafel- and Kaaspieten at the national Sinterklaas celebrations in Gouda.

2011: Beginning of Zwarte Piet is Racist 

The buzz around Zwarte Piet and the issue of blackface reached a media boiling point in June 2011 when artist/activist Quinsy Garrio began his Zwarte Piet Is Racisme (Black Pete is Racist) project at a poetry reading with the slogan stencilled on his shirt.

Appearing in November at the National Arrival of Sinterklaas in Dordrecht to protest, he and fellow activists were arrested for their actions.

As videos of the incident spread via Youtube and social media outlets, Gario’s cause was given the national spotlight and polarized Dutch society with one group maintaining that it’s an innocent character for a children’s holiday and the other demanding significant alterations to the representation of Zwarte Piet citing racist connotations of the costume and make-up.

2012: Zwarte Piet in mainstream media

The Zwarte Piet debate really caught fire in 2012. No longer a subject reserved for the Dutch news, international media outlets began picking up the story and analysing the traditions from an outsider’s perspective.

International opinion tended to empathise with Gario, finding the appearance of Zwarte Piet overtly reminiscent of 19th century blackface minstrels.

Amsterdam alderman: no more Piet

Andrée van Es, an alderman and well-respected journalist in Amsterdam, added fuel to the fire when she publicly denounced the tradition, stating "the Sinterklaas Celebration originally began without Zwarte Piet and now it’s time to continue without Zwarte Piet." 

Her comments were met with disapproval among supporters of the tradition who claimed that the Sinterklaas celebration with Zwarte Piet should more correctly be regarded as a valued part of Dutch cultural heritage and that racist meanings were not inherent to the event, but rather projected onto it by external parties drawing on disjointed racial histories.

Columnist for the NRC Handelsblad Steven de Jong exemplified this sentiment by simply stating "Who doesn’t believe in Zwarte Piet, also doesn’t believe in Sinterklaas. By getting rid of Zwarte Piet, we also maim Sinterklaas," implying a complete devaluation of the tradition.

2013: Turbulent year for Zwarte Piet

In January 2013, a committee was formed at the request of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations to investigate if Zwarte Piet is, at heart, a racist portrayal that alludes to the discriminatory framing of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens.

The Dutch government responded to the inquiry in July 2013, admitting that they were aware of the controversy, but still consider the event primarily a children’s celebration.

Sinterklaas & Amsterdam's colourful Piets 

After a high-profile legal hearing at the Stopera complex in October 2013, the decision was made to allow the Sinterklaas celebration to once again take place in Amsterdam, albeit with the suggestion from Mayor Eberhard Van der Laan that stereotypical elements be downplayed.

During Sinterklaas’ arrival in the neighbourhood of IJburg that year, there were a few multi-coloured Pete's with green, blue, pink and red face paint alongside the classic Zwarte Piets. Although not the first time, the idea of a multi-coloured Pete was again met with lacklustre enthusiasm and was regarded by Zwarte Piet supporters as the bastardisation of a cultural tradition.

› Dutch public responds with Pietitie

December of 2013 saw the creation of the Facebook page entitled "Pietitie."

A play on the word petition, the community page doesn’t advocate getting rid of the celebration entirely, but rather modifying the aspects considered most offensive. Gathering over 2 million 'Likes' in just weeks, it was a strong showing of the change in public opinion compared with just two years prior.

2014: Changes to Zwarte Piet…or not

In light of 21 official complaints filed during the 2013 Sinterklaas city arrival, the figure of Zwarte Piet was officially brought to the Amsterdam District Court.

Zwarte Piet in the Amsterdam courts

In July 2014, the court released their decision that held Zwarte Piet to be offensive to black Amsterdammers as it too heavily recalls associations stemming from times of slavery, provoking feelings of discrimination and therefore constituting an infringement on an individual’s private life.

On these grounds, Eberhard van Der Laan needs to reconsider the conditions under which the permits for the 2013 Sinterklaas celebration were granted.

› Dutch corporate responses to Zwarte Piet

Amid the increasing polemic discussions, Dutch retail icons were forced to decide how they would handle the hot button issue regarding advertising and packaging.

Based on an internal statement, it seemed that popular department store HEMA would no longer feature Zwarte Piet on their packaging. With purchasing already done for the year, however, it would only apply to subsequent celebrations. 

Yet HEMA’s official response maintains that they will abide with cultural trends and as of yet have made no official decision.

Albert Heijn was also pulled into the Zwarte Piet debate. In a diplomatic move, many Albert Heijn locations have removed images of Zwarte Piet from communication materials (advertising included), but products featuring Zwarte Piet are still widely available, thereby "leaving the choice to the client."

For comparison, supermarket chain Plus has chosen only to show silhouettes of Zwarte Piet, while Jumbo has stated the figure will remain. Representatives for both V&D and de Bijenkorf have confirmed that they will adjust the presence and representation of Zwarte Piet in their stores.

› A modern Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands?

With the uproar still in full swing and the national arrival celebrations in Gouda set for November 15, the organisers have chosen to side-step the debate with a bit of city promotion by developing two new characters: Stroopwafelpiet and Kaaspiet (Stroopwafel Pete and Cheese Pete).

The new variants will walk alongside more traditional interpretations of Zwarte Piet, wear similar outfits, but instead be coloured yellow or golden brown.

Alternatively, many primary schools in Amsterdam have decided to their modern Pete a bit less kitsch and instead rely on the story that Zwarte Piet is only black due to the soot that accumulates by entering homes through the chimney when delivering gifts. Therefore, many of the schools will see the character in the same costume, but with soot smudges on uncoloured faces that also lack the controversial red lipstick, gold earrings and black curly hair.

Continuing the trend of integrating modern Pete's, the municipality of Haarlem will see Bloemenpieten (Flower Pete's) among the traditional Zwarte Piets. 

However, based on an investigation by the NOS and regional broadcasters in late October, it appeared that only 6 of the 211 municipalities surveyed would make any alterations at all.

From Kaaspiet to Roetpiet (Soot Pete) to the old fashioned Zwarte Piet, the country will see a variety of interpretations as towns and municipalities continue to negotiate how to best retain tradition in a changing society.

[Correction] The article previously stated that multi-coloured Pete's were first seen in Amsterdam's IJburg neighbourhood in 2013. This has been updated for accuracy. 

Benjamin Garstka


Benjamin Garstka

Raised in Massachusetts. University years in New York City. Graduate school in Utrecht. Amsterdammer by choice. Cultuurliefhebber. Urbanist. Affinity for sarcasm, craft beers, art criticism, stand-up comedy and the Dutch...

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