Dealing with the colonial past in the Netherlands: the Zwarte Piet Phenomenon

Barbora Novakova Utrecht 2021

The significance of evaluating controversial remnants of the past and an accompanying greater emphasis on political correctness are resonating through contemporary society. There are different forms of dealing with the dark side of the past – in many countries, the focus stands on their colonial legacy and their connection to slavery and the slave trade. For example, the results of modern debates often lead to some of the statues of significant historical figures being removed, replaced, or relocated, and their deeds being labeled controversial and often downplayed. As a consequence of globalization and the increasing power of social media, it is easier to address minority struggles in the 21st century, as they are more apparent and discussed. The questions concerning colonial past and political correctness are in ferment also in the Netherlands, especially when related to the children’s feast of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and the figure of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) associated with it. 

The tradition of Sinterklaas 

The celebrations of Sinterklaas can be considered to be the most important children’s holiday in the Netherlands. The tradition of Sinterklaas has a long history, dating back to the Middle Ages. Historically, Saint Nicholas has always been accompanied by various helpers, commencing with the chained demon, and ending with Zwarte Piets.[1] According to the tradition, Sinterklaas arrives to a Dutch port on a steamboat in mid-November, escorted by his helpers – Piets. During the following days, they travel through the whole country, appearing in various parades, schools, shopping centers or children’s clubs. The celebrations continue until December 5th, when Sinterklaas and Piet visit houses and give presents to children.[2]  

The history of the character of Zwarte Piet is blurry. The first mention of his personality is found in a children’s book dating back to 1850s: Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht (Saint Nicholas and his valet) by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman. At the time, the book increased popularity of the Sinterklaas festival since it referred to traditional family values and patriarchal social perceptions. The story is partially responsible for the contemporary conservated form of the Sinterklaas tradition, which includes the figure of Zwarte Piet as he accompanies Sinterklaas on his journey from Spain to the Netherlands. In Schenkman’s story, the character of Zwarte Piet receives a certain image. The book’s illustrations depict him as a dark-skinned boy with colorful clothing, emulating a Moorish page. Piet’s personality has changed with time. Until 1950s, his role was to intimidate and punish naughty children with a rod or a sack in which he would carry them back to Spain. During 1960s, his character adjusted to the global social changes, and Zwarte Piet became a silly, witty, and clumsy helper of Sinterklaas and a friend to all children.[3] The numbers of Piets at the festival multiplied during that period.[4]  

The debate over Zwarte Piet

The figure of Zwarte Piet is a subject of contention in the Netherlands, dividing Dutch people into two camps: the defenders of an old and joyful tradition for children and those who consider it racist, regarding it as a legacy of the colonial past, inextricably intertwined with slavery. Until recently, a person dressed traditionally as Zwarte Piet used to wear blackface with red lips, a curly black wig, colorful clothes and hoop earrings, which could remind one of the mocking minstrel shows dominating in 19th century America.[5] Opponents of the tradition have mostly criticized the traditional Piet’s appearance and considered it inappropriate and racist. 

The character of ‘Black Pete’ sparks disagreement internationally, deemed to be insulting and dehumanizing towards people of color. Arguments against his visual appearance often stress the conserved stereotype and the blackface which was used historically as a means to mock and humiliate people. They also tend to claim that the color of Piet creates bias in the society which sometimes leads to everyday racism, even though mostly unintentionally. There are cases when people of color, including children, face discrimination and bullying, being called Zwarte Piets.[6]  

On the other hand, the defenders believe it to be an innocent tradition for children and an integral part of Dutch culture. As the tradition is often called racist, those in favor of it try to find different explanations for the appearance of Piet. One of the possible reasons for his black face appears to be his journey through the chimney to bring presents for children. However, this statement does not cover other Piet’s attributes, such as an Afro and red lips. There are many arguments refuting the racism label: some people reason that Zwarte Piet brings joy to children and has no racist intentions, they consider his character misinterpreted and misunderstood.[7] For many Dutch people, it is still hard to imagine the Sinterklaas celebrations without Zwarte Piet.[8]

The discussion on Zwarte Piet began in the 1960s but intensified in the 2010s with the campaign Kick Out Zwarte Pietled by two artists and activists, Quinsy Gario and Jerry Afriyie, who initiated regular demonstrations against the tradition. After ten years of the campaign, the debate is still not settled. However, many fundamental changes have taken place concerning the essential part of the Sinterklaas celebrations: the character of Piet.[9]

Changing the tradition 

During the past ten years, mainly due to the constant pressure and commotion from the opponents of the tradition, large cities in the Netherlands started to officially forbid Zwarte Piets during the public celebrations. There has been a shift towards a different portrayal of Piets – the blackface Piet has been replaced by yellow, rainbow, grey versions or, probably the most popular so far, ‘Sooty Piet’. Since 2019, Sooty Piets have been adopted in the famous Dutch TV program Sinterklaasjournaal and in Amsterdam, and the blackface has begun to disappear from other cities and platforms.[10] Recently, several shops and companies, such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon decided to ban content representing and promoting the character of Zwarte Piet.[11]

The support of traditional Zwarte Piets has partially been diminished as a consequence of the expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement in connection with the events in the USA during 2020. The percentage of advocates of traditional Zwarte Piet dropped from 65 percent to 39 percent in 2020, according to the I&O Research.[12] Even the stand of the current prime minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte has shifted. In 2014, he publicly announced that ‘Black Pete’ is black, not green nor brown, and that he could not change it. Then, in 2020, he admitted that some dark-skinned people might feel discriminated because of this tradition, especially children, which is the last thing he wanted to promote during the Sinterklaas celebrations. He also confirmed that there are certain people who are viewed and judged rather as a group than as individuals. According to his words, Zwarte Piet could almost completely vanish in the nearest future.[13]  

Nevertheless, there are still some people that do not agree with the adjustments and prefer the old tradition with Zwarte Piet. The right-wing, anti-immigration, and anti-Islamist group Pegida is one of the advocates for maintaining the traditional appearance of Piet, organizing pro-Zwarte Piet counter-protests. It means that although some fundamental changes were made, the debate on Zwarte Piet is still not over. Jerry Afriyie, the current leader of the Kick Out Zwarte Piet movement, appreciates the shift to Sooty Piets but claims that even this image might be improper. According to him, “the problem is [that] white people are deciding what is racist, and it is not up to them to decide, it is up to Black people to say what is racist.”[14]

In my opinion, the adjustments to the tradition are significant and show that many people care about equality and solidarity. However, there is still a certain restraint in recognizing the colonial past and connections to slavery, and their subsequent influence on Zwarte Piet.[15] Dutch people should open the discussion on this rather painful topic to be able to keep pace with the contemporary progressive world. After all, most children do not care about the skin color of Piet. Perhaps, Sooty Piet could turn into just ‘Piet’ in several years. As long as the most important thing remains – that the character of Piet brings joy to all children regardless of their origin and race – it is likely that the tradition will survive.  


[1] Brin Andrews, “Zwarte Piet: the full guide to the Netherlands’ most controversial tradition,” Dutch Review, November 12, 2021,    

[2] Koen Lemmens, “The dark side of ‘Zwarte Piet’: A misunderstood tradition or racism in disguise? A legal analysis,” The International Journal of Human Rights 21, no. 2 (January 2017),, pp. 121.

[3] Lemmens, “The dark side of ‘Zwarte Piet’, pp. 123–124. 

[4] Andrews, “Zwarte Piet: the full guide.”

[5] Emily Raboteau, “Who Is Zwarte Piet? A holiday tradition in the Netherlands involving blackface has sparked a debate about race, the legacy of slavery, and the vestiges of colonialism,” The Virginia Quarterly Review 90, no. 1 (Winter 2014),, 146.  

[6] Andrews, “Zwarte Piet: the full guide.”

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Raboteau, “Who Is Zwarte Piet?”, 153.  

[9] Andrews, “Zwarte Piet: the full guide.”

[10] “Sooty Piets take over, blackface out of favour in most towns and cities,” Dutch News, published on November 9, 2021, accessed on November 21, 2021,   

[11] Andrews, “Zwarte Piet: the full guide.”

[12] Sarah O’Leary, “Support for Zwarte Piet drops significantly, new survey finds,” Dutch Review, December 2, 2020,

[13] “Dutch prime minister tells MPs he has ‘changed his views’ on Zwarte Piet,” Dutch News, published on June 5, 2020, accessed on November 21, 2021,   

[14] Micah Garen, Marie-Helene Carleton, and Justine Swaab, “Black Pete: Is time up for the Netherlands’ blackface tradition?” Aljazeera, December 4, 2020,   

[15] Andrews, “Zwarte Piet: the full guide.”

Works Cited:

  1. Andrews, Brin. “Zwarte Piet: the full guide to the Netherlands’ most controversial tradition.” Dutch Review, November 12, 2021.   
  2. Dutch News. “Dutch prime minister tells MPs he has ‘changed his views’ on Zwarte Piet.” Published on June 5, 2020. Accessed on November 21, 2021.  
  3. Dutch News. “Sooty Piets take over, blackface out of favour in most towns and cities.” Published on November 9, 2021. Accessed on November 21, 2021.  
  4. Garen, Micah; Marie-Helene Carleton and Justine Swaab. “Black Pete: Is time up for the Netherlands’ blackface tradition?” Aljazeera, December 4, 2020.
  5. Lemmens, Koen. “The dark side of ‘Zwarte Piet’: A misunderstood tradition or racism in disguise? A legal analysis.” The International Journal of Human Rights 21, no. 2 (January 2017),
  6. O’Leary, Sarah. “Support for Zwarte Piet drops significantly, new survey finds.” Dutch Review, December 2, 2020.
  7. Raboteau, Emily. “Who Is Zwarte Piet? A holiday tradition in the Netherlands involving blackface has sparked a debate about race, the legacy of slavery, and the vestiges of colonialism.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 90, no. 1 (Winter 2014), pp. 142-155.