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Is Black Pete racist?

I fear this post will lose me Dutch followers because what I’m about to write is not a popular opinion in Holland. Nevertheless, the news here in the Netherlands is all about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and I feel compelled to comment, especially since, judging by the comments flooding my Facebook page from Dutch friends, I disagree with the vast majority of Dutch people.

For my non-Dutch readers, I first have to explain the current tradition. Sinterklaas is a tall, thin, elderly man who wears a long robe and a miter like a bishop’s. He has the same historical roots as the American Santa Claus or the British Father Christmas; all are based on Saint Nicholas. Sinterklaas, however, lives in Spain instead of the North Pole and rides a white horse instead of a sleigh. He has his own holiday on December 5th, so he is not associated with Christmas, which has remained a more purely religious holiday in Holland.

Rather than elves, Sinterklaas travels accompanied by Zwarte Piet, which translates as “Black Pete.” Or, rather, he’s joined by a group of Zwarte Pieten – Black Petes – who help him by carrying his bags of gifts and sweets for him and generally clown around, entertaining children at parties and other Sinterklaas-related events.

5174274282_c65e57a8e2_oHere’s where the controversy comes in. Black Petes are exactly that: black. They are almost always played by white people dressed in blackface, and they wear colorful “Moorish costumes” with puffy sleeves. Their lips are painted bright red, and they wear black long-sleeved shirts and black leggings or tights to complete the illusion of being black. On their heads they wear a curly black-haired wig, and they often have big gold hoops in their ears.

Any of you, dear readers, who comes from any country other than the Netherlands will understand the problem with this. To state the patently obvious, it’s terribly racist in this day and age for a white person to dress up in blackface and play a comic character.

A group of Amsterdam residents recently filed a complaint about this tradition, arguing that it is offensive to them and must be stopped. They argue that it could easily be replaced with a new tradition of “kleuren Pieten” or “regenboog (rainbow) Pieten”: in other words, multicolored Petes, so there would be a Yellow Pete, a Purple Pete, and so on.

Most Dutch, however, refuse to accept this. And they seem to be refusing to even see why anyone could be offended by it. The range of reasons they give to preserve the tradition is truly impressive:

  • Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas as portrayed on candy wrappers

    Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas as portrayed on candy wrappers

    It’s tradition. Yes, it is traditional. So was slavery. So was teaching boys to read and not girls. That doesn’t make it acceptable.

  • It’s harmless; it didn’t turn me into a racist. Perhaps, though you could certainly argue that the fact that you’re defending Zwarte Piet is racist in itself, at least in that you aren’t aware that it’s racist.
  • It’s not meant to be racist or to put anybody down. It’s just a fun way to distribute gifts to children. Just because you don’t mean it to be racist doesn’t mean it isn’t perceived that way.
  • Everybody knows Black Petes aren’t really black. Does that matter? Whether you knew they were white or not when you were little, you still laughed as they clowned around in blackface. You still accepted a white Sinterklaas with black servants as normal. I had a black student some years back who was pointed at by small children in the supermarket, “Look, Mama, it’s Zwarte Piet!” That indicates to me that children don’t see the difference. They don’t realize that Black Pete isn’t real until they’re older.
  • They’re not black; they’re just dirty from soot after going down chimneys. This is one of the most common and lamest arguments I’ve heard. Does getting sooty turn your hair black and curly too? I don’t think so! And how come their clothes are so clean? One of the possible modifications to the tradition would play on this story: instead of having multi-colored Petes, we could have white Petes (or whatever color the person actually is) with smears of soot on their faces and clothes. That would make a lot more sense!
  • And as portrayed on a package of "pepernoten," a spice cookie that's traditionally distributed by the Black Petes

    And as portrayed on a package of “pepernoten,” a spice cookie that’s traditionally distributed by the Black Petes

    It’s a lot less racist than the historical role of Zwarte Piet. This is true: the original Black Pete of a century or more ago was literally a slave, and he was stupid and spoke with a foreign accent in incorrect, choppy Dutch. He was also used to scare children into being good: “If you don’t behave, Black Pete will whip you and put you in his bag to take you back to Spain with him.” So Black Pete’s role has been toned down. He’s not a slave; he’s a servant. He’s silly and jolly and funny and throws candy. So what? He’s still in a subordinate position and is still an object of ridicule with his clownish behavior.

  • If we had Red Petes and Yellow Petes, then American Indians and Asians would be offended. I have to assume this is just a reductio ad absurdum argument: taking an argument further to the point of nonsense. And I have to assume it’s just tongue-in-cheek. At least I hope so. If not, then the people who make this argument are even more racist than I thought, given that classifying Native Americans as red or Asians as yellow is also racist. Of course, if you dressed Red Pete in red paint but then put an Indian headdress on his head, yes, that would be offensive!
  • And if we have to get rid of Black Pete, we’d have to get rid of Sinterklaas, since the fact that he’s always white is racist too. This strikes me as a false analogy. Sinterklaas is just one specific person, who is portrayed as white. Black Petes are a category: all Black Petes are Sinterklaas’s silly servants, and they’re all black. No one will be offended that Sinterklaas is white, but we could certainly think about at least sometimes portraying him as dark-skinned. Saint Nicholas was from Turkey, after all, where people tend to be darker-skinned and darker-haired than here in Holland.
  • The people who play Black Pete don’t want to be another color. They just didn’t like it when they tried it back in the 90’s in Amsterdam. That isn’t the point. Sinterklaas is a children’s holiday; the people playing Black Pete are doing it for the children’s entertainment. So what does it matter if they don’t enjoy it? It’s not about them. Children wouldn’t be bothered by seeing Rainbow Petes at all, and within a couple of years it would be absolutely normal.
  • The people complaining about Black Pete are being oversensitive. Perhaps. But in my view they’ve been over-accommodating not to complain earlier, or at least not to complain so loudly. Blacks in Holland have recently written and spoken about how they have always felt when confronted by Black Petes at this time of the year: insulted, excluded, different. To me, that’s enough reason to stop doing it. Holland cherishes its self-image as a tolerant and open society. This situation belies that description.

What amazes me is how many of my Dutch friends and acquaintances have been posting on Facebook in support of keeping the Zwarte Piet tradition. More than two million Dutch people (out of a population of 17 million) have “liked” a Facebook page in support of Zwarte Piet. Why does this matter so much to them? Why does it matter if Black Petes turn into multi-colored Petes? Why are they so defensive? The lady doth protest too much, methinks!


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4 comments on “Is Black Pete racist?

  1. Han van der Horst
    November 2, 2013

    Basically this argument is in line with the famous cliché ‘If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck and it eats like a duck, it probably is a duck”. In the week before easter in Sevilla Spain you see parades, that to American eyes are Klu Klux Klan marches, because people are dressed up like that. Howevr, they take part in an ancient public ritual to mourn the the death of Christ.

    There is no blackface tradition, not in the American sense. Black Pete is part of a very old tradition that goes back millennia and that has to do wit fertility rites. There are tons of scholarly evidence for that.

    Now you might argue that the modern Black Pete was modelled on slaves. It is true that a few hundred years ago European Courst and noble households boasted one of more black servants, who added a touch of miracle to the general setting. In most cases they were dressed up as oriental princes. In paintings they look at their employers in admiration. Why? There was no slavery in Europe and they were set free and now they rewarded their employer with a dog like loyalty. Napoleon kept such a liberated slave around him and he slept on the doorstep to his bedroom. Like a pet dog. If you think about this, this is worse than the story opponents of Black Pete tell you about him being a slave.

    One of the villains of the anti Black Pete faction is a 19th century Dutch schoolmaster, called Schenkman. Around 1950 he published a litte illustrated book in which we see Black Pete and he is dressed up exactly as those servants in the paintings I told you about. There are two editions of this book. And in the second edition Black Pete changed his attire. In that second edition he is dressed up as a sixteenth century nobleman. As a matter of fact his dress looks remarkably like that of William of Orange in his younger years.

    Why is that? Despite being a valet Black Pete is a person of authority. Certainly in the old days his job was to punish children. Now I can assure you that in the nineteenth century and in the heyday of colonialism, Dutch elites had very clear ideas about white superiority. They would never accept, that their children were punished by a black face or someone dressing up like that. You might say that they had racist reasons not to turn Black Pete into a slave. History, ethnoloy and life itself are complicated.

    You will have heard that most Dutchmen insist, that Black Pete has nothing to do with racism and that they make no connection between Black Pete and blacks in general. You do not believe them because now and then a kid confuses Black Pete with a black person on the bus. I know. I did it. Once. Then my mother took care of that. She thaught me that I should never remark on the way other people looked. And that was that.

    In the meantime thinking on race in Holland changed. One of the proofs of that is the fact that in our country there are many more interracial marriages than in for example the United States. There is an amount of racism in this country, for example on the workplace, but there is no reason to distrust people, if they tell you that their celebration is not racist and is not meant to be racist. Being labelled a racist in Holland is considered to be a major insult. If you tell that to a policeman for whatever reason, you will be fined. It really hurts people.

    The slogan of the anti black Pete movement is “Black Pete is racism”. Changing the black Pete tradition, means that you admit that you have been involved in a racist activity. You are not only expected to change your ways, but also to do penance for racism, which as a concept replaced mortal sin in the Netherlands.

    This is why in this nation of compromises and polder models there is no way why the opponents of Black Pete and his friends could meet each other half way. No way at all, for to work out a good compromise it is essential that nobody had to admit that he has been wrong and sinful and in fact deserves to wear the scarlet letter of racism.

    The vociferous opponents of Black Pete slammed the door into their own faces so to speak. They should follow a course of public relations and influencing people for beginners.

    • Rachel Heller
      November 2, 2013

      Very interesting comments! I see your point about it being hard to get anyone to change the tradition, since that would be admitting to being involved in a racist activity. I read the response published by the organizer in Amsterdam of the “intocht” of Sinterklaas, and he made a similar point: that it would be better to discuss this after Sinterklaas, when it feels less immediate, and we can come to some sort of consensus.

      Although I find all of the various historical views interesting, to me it doesn’t really matter whether Black Pete ever was a slave, or if it’s meant to be racist or ever was meant negatively. To me what matters is what it means now,intentional or not: it hurts and excludes people. I think that’s a good enough reason to change it. I don’t think the tradition should be eliminated, but just adjusted a bit: either by having multi-color Petes or Petes that have their normal skin color but are smeared with soot.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments!


  2. Dirk Bontes
    November 9, 2013

    I am Dutch. Black Pete is pitch black and an immortal. He is our national superhero. Centuries before he was called Black Pete, long before the USA blackface practice, he was called Black Claus. Black Pete does not have anything to do with the America’s, nor with equatorial Africa, nor with slavery in recent centuries, nor with racism. He is one of many expressions in Europe of the same millennia old archetype.
    At the moment Black Pete is being persecuted and discriminated against by some people for having a pitch black skin. These people are mostly foreigners who have been raised in a USA racist tradition and who confuse Black Pete with a negroid person from Africa and who are projecting their own racist world view onto the completely innocent character of Black Pete. In effect, Black Pete is made the victim of the straw man fallacy.

    • Rachel Heller
      November 10, 2013

      I’m not sure how to take this comment. Is it meant to be serious or sarcastic? In any case, without going into the objections to many of the statements you make, I’ll just repeat what I said in the post: it doesn’t matter what Black Pete was meant to be, and it doesn’t matter what the history is of this image. What matters is how it affects people NOW. Keep in mind that the people who filed the complaint are Dutch. Sure, expats like me have been pointing out our issues with the image of Black Pete for years, but we didn’t file the complaint. Locals did. Or do you think they don’t have that right because their ethnic background isn’t Dutch?

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!


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This entry was posted on October 31, 2013 by in Current events, Life in Holland and tagged , , , , .
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