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The Netherlands: A Holiday Season of Festivities, Costumes… and Racism?

Categories: Western Europe, Netherlands, Arts & Culture, Ethnicity & Race, History, Protest
Zwarte Piets in The Hague, The Netherlands, November 2010, by Flickr user Gerard Stolk (CC-BY-NC) [1]

Zwarte Piets in The Hague, The Netherlands, November 2010, by Flickr user Gerard Stolk (CC-BY-NC)

In the winter season in The Netherlands a character named Zwarte Piet [2] (Black Pete) accompanies Sinterklaas [3] (Saint Nicholas, the original inspiration for Santa Claus [4]) for a yearly feast that is celebrated on the evening of December 5 or morning of December 6 with sweets and presents for all good children. This traditional holiday rivals Christmas in importance.

In recent years the role of Zwarte Piet has become part of a recurring debate in The Netherlands as some citizens take offense at holiday costumes with black painted faces. The story goes that the companions of Saint Nicholas are Moors who help carry the presents brought to children when he arrives by boat from Spain.

The tradition continues to be popular, though some have been moved to protest against what they see as racist imagery. On November 12, 2011 a protester wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme’ (Black Pete is racism) was arrested [5] in Dordrecht amidst accusations of police brutality [6]. The t-shirt campaign has its own Tumblr blog [7] with photos and a Facebook page [8] with more than 800 followers.

The blogger at Stuff Dutch People Like [9] wrote in 2010 about the tradition of Zwarte Piet [10]:

You know it’s that time of the year again in Holland, when you are greeted by some Dutch person on the street, whose face is painted completely black and is sporting an afro wig, bright red lips and a ridiculous clown-like costume.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet [11]

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, The Hague, The Netherlands, November 2008, by Zemistor (CC-BY-ND)

Dutch graffiti artist and blogger BNE posts some photos of Zwarte Piet, and asks: Is The Dutch Holiday Of Sinterklaas’s Tradition Of “Black Pete” Racist? [12]:


This “tradition” has evolved throughout the years, partially due to increasing protests from groups that find these depictions offensive. Nowadays, it is claimed that the Black face is due to the fact that the helpers have gone through chimneys and as a result, their faces are covered in soot. What again, nobody can clearly explain, is what kind of soot leaves such a uniform and evenly spread residue. Or worse, why these “chimney dwellers” speak in a fake accent that parodies the Black population of the Dutch former colony of Suriname.

Anthropologist and blogger Martijn de Koning of CLOSER [13] explains in Jolly Black Servant – Tradition and Racism in the Netherlands: [14]

I dont expect a change in this tradition very soon. It should be clear however that Black Pete is a construction, and invention that has already changed in history. The current tradition has lost many of negative connotations which is partly positive but the negative side is that this makes the racism more hidden. Nevertheless, I think this Dutch tradition lends itself perfectly for teaching young children about racism, colonialism and religion throughout history. Maybe that would be a starting point for some change in the future?

On travel website Off Track Planet [15], Anna Starostinetskaya gives this answer to the question, What the F*ck is Zwarte Piet? [16]:

So is Pete a children’s tale or a racist figure? We promise no definitive answer exists. We’re not saying this tradition is not objectifying black people in a racist way and it is understandable that Americans have the strongest feelings on the topic because Zwarte Piet is visually too close to what our racist roots look like. But Americans must also realize that our own history drives us to apply what we know about our own racist past on traditions that may not have anything in common but black face paint. Although it may be racist in some way, we cannot just superimpose our own racist history atop another country’s tradition and say it’s the same. Either way, we hope a happy medium exists that doesn’t involve smurfs, midgets or complete Americanization of world traditions.

Sinterklaas arrives by boat in Arnhem [17]

Sinterklaas arrives by boat in Arnhem, November 2011, by Bas Boerman (CC-BY-NC)

On the blog Tiger Beatdown [18], beneath Flavia’s post “If you protest racism during Black Face season in The Netherlands, you will be beaten up and arrested [19]” a comment by Elfe [20] echoes the above:

I read your post because I needed to understand why I do not find this tradition racist …The “slaves” or “helpers” are you refer to them are not ridicule: these are pages not clowns and they are wearing nice clothes, they are not parading around half naked with a bone across their nostrils like some savages (or like Josephine Baker [21] and her banana skirt). … Like “Tintin in the Congo [22]” the Zwarte Piets are a reminder of the past. … I know it is very insulting for Blacks in America to see White people with their face painted in black (but it took me to live in the US to understand why: a period when black were not even allowed to play their own role in theater). …Like the rappers who have decided to own the N word we can just ignore this tradition if it annoys us, personally I could not care less. Being African I don’t see the Zwarte Piets as Blacks (they don’t look like me or like any African I know) … To feel insulted by them you really need to have a really poor self-esteem. Sorry for being politically incorrect…