'Black Pete,' Netherlands Holiday Tradition, Criticized As Racist
By TOBY STERLING
12/04/12 11:41 AM ET EST
AMSTERDAM -- Foreigners visiting the Netherlands in winter
are often surprised to see that the Dutch version of St. Nicholas'
helpers have their faces painted black, wear Afro wigs and have thick
red lips – in short, a racist caricature of a black person.
The overwhelming majority of Dutch are fiercely devoted to the
holiday tradition of "Zwarte Piet" – whose name means "Black Pete" – and
insist he's a harmless fictional figure who doesn't represent any race.
But a growing number are questioning whether "Zwarte Piet" should be
given a makeover or banished from the holiday scene, seeing him as a
blight on the nation's image as a bulwark of tolerance.
"There is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might
think," says Jessica Silversmith, director of the regional
Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam. She said that historically her
office received only one or two complaints per year, but the number
jumped to more than 100 last year, and will escalate much further this
"It's not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining," she
said, referring to people descended from the former Dutch colonies that
once traded in slavery. "It's all kinds of Dutch people."
There are various versions of the history of St. Nicholas –
"Sinterklaas" in Dutch – and of Zwarte Piet, who made his debut as an
African servant in an 1850 book.
"Nobody is against the Sinterklaas celebration or is calling people
who celebrate it racist," said Silversmith. "But it is time to consider
whether this is offensive, whether there actually are racist ideas
underlying Zwarte Piet."
The debate comes after a decade in which the Dutch have rolled back
many aspects of their famed tolerance policies, and in which
anti-immigrant sentiment has risen sharply. Zwarte Piet is frequently
defended as part of Dutch cultural heritage, and those who don't like it
are often bluntly invited to leave the country. Many Dutch say Pete's
black face derives from the soot he picked up climbing down chimneys to
deliver presents – although that hardly explains the frizzy hair and big
In the U.S., stereotypical black makeup – called blackface – was
phased out in the civil-rights era. But in Britain, a TV show featuring
blackface lasted until the late 1970s before the practice became taboo.
Blackface crops up in other European countries from time to time, such
as in a theater performance in Germany this year, but it's only in the
Netherlands that it's institutionalized in the form of Black Pete.
A sea-change may have occurred here during last year's festivities,
when four men were arrested for wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan
"Zwarte Piet is Racism" outside a store during an appearance of
Sinterklaas – and charged with protesting without a permit.
threw one, Quinsy Gario, to the ground, and kneed him in the back
repeatedly as they dragged him away, though he offered no resistance. A
video of the incident was placed on YouTube, and the slogan began
Although police were later found to have acted wrongly, many parents
still felt that it was inappropriate to protest during the holiday or
when children were present. Gario responds that Dutch people won't
discuss the matter the rest of the year, so his protest was the only way
to broach the subject.
This year the debate has clearly escalated.
For the first time, a white politician has openly challenged the
tradition: "The Sinterklaas celebration once began without Zwarte Piet,"
Amsterdam councilwoman Andree van Es said in an interview with
newspaper Het Parool this week. "It's time it continues without Zwarte
Two major chains of stores, Blokker and V&D, now use images of
kids with ash-smudged cheeks in their sales catalogues, rather than
Petes with black faces. And in a first this weekend, a documentary
laying out arguments against Zwarte Piet aired on national television.
The county's most widely read news blog, "GeenStijl" launched a
blistering campaign against Black Pete_ surprising because GeenStijl
prides itself on being tasteless and politically incorrect, and had
mocked Gario after the 2011 incident.
"Zwarte Piet is nothing more than a repulsive parody of a slave,
fine-tuned to indoctrinate schoolchildren into the finer points of
racism," it wrote in its first posting in a series. "The sooner we get
rid of Zwarte Piet, the sooner we won't look like idiots to the rest of
While the author, who uses the pen name Johnny Quid, uses the
satirical blog also to skewer Black Pete opponents, he has deeply
antagonized the blog's mostly conservative-leaning reader base.
Despite the growing anti-Pete movement, the tradition finds a strong
bedrock of support in mainstream Dutch society, meaning it's unlikely to
disappear any time soon.
In 2008, a Museum in Eindhoven called off an anti-Pete exhibition
after protests. The foreign artists received death threats. And when
Victoria's Secret model Doutzen Kroes said on national television in
2009 that Zwarte Piet is the one thing that has ever made her feel
ashamed of being Dutch, the studio audience laughed at her.
Jan Pronk, a leftist politician who once served as the U.N. envoy to
Sudan, dismissed her viewpoint on the show. "These are very old
traditions," he said, "I don't think it's so bad."
A Facebook page with the slogan "Zwarte Piet is Racism" has become a
major platform for debate this year, though moderators have begun
removing hate speech and personal threats.
One organization reinforcing the Zwarte Piet image is educational
broadcaster NTR, which also airs "Sesame Street" in the Netherlands. It
has developed a popular fake news program for kids, devoted to the
doings of the wise white Sinterklaas and his many bumbling Petes, all
with the traditional blackface look.
The program starts in early November and airs nightly until kids open
their presents on Dec. 5. (Although the Dutch Sinterklaas is the source
of the American Santa Claus, Christmas is a separate holiday in the
Netherlands, where the present-opening tradition happens three weeks
earlier.) The show draws more than a million viewers in a country of 16
million, and its spokeswoman, Helen Albada, said she was unaware of any
complaints about its depiction of Zwarte Piet.
Several years ago, the broadcaster experimented with a story line in
which the Petes were turned different colors after sailing through a
magical rainbow. That drew thousands of complaints, in part because the
backlash against immigration was cresting at the time: Fans said
changing Pete was sacrificing Dutch cultural heritage to the forces of
"We didn't intend that either," Albada said. "Kids don't see Pete as black, it's the adults that give it a racial meaning."
In a recent editorial, one columnist for the NRC Handelsblad
newspaper questioned whether the country really is as tolerant as it
likes to style itself. He deplored the fact that even as the U.S. has
re-elected a black president, not a single member of the Netherlands'
new Cabinet is of non-Dutch ancestry.
"That's because we, unlike other countries, have become completely
colorblind," Bas Heijne wrote ironically. "We don't need a black
minister, let alone a black prime minister: We have Zwarte Piet."