Zwarte Piet: Confronting History and Racism in Memories of a Dutch Childhood

800px Sinterklaas zwarte piet

European Desk

Nathalie Bussemaker, Morse College ’21

A few weeks ago, the arrival of a brightly colored train in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn heralded in the start of the annual three weeks of sweets, festivities, and fierce debate about the country’s racist past.

The train carried Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, the third-century Turkish bishop, Dutch patron saint of children, and inspiration for Santa Claus. Every year, he travels from his home base in Madrid to the Netherlands, where he spends a few weeks leaving presents in Dutch children’s shoes until he returns home on his birthday, December 6. 

But he doesn’t come alone. Accompanying him every year are a couple hundred Zwarte Pieten, or “Black Petes,” who help distribute candy and presents dressed in blackface, colorful Renaissance clothing, curly wigs, and red lipstick. 

This character — supposedly a Spanish Moor — first appeared in a Dutch children’s book in 1850 and has since come under heavy fire. 

Every year, many Sinterklaas parades are met with large street protests, sometimes resulting in arrests. In 2015, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a report declaring that “the character of Black Pete is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery.” As a result, it urged the Dutch to “actively promote the elimination” of the racial stereotyping evident in the character.

The Dutch backlash against this criticism has been equally strident. According to a 2018 study, 80 and 88 percent of the Dutch public do not perceive Zwarte Piet as racist. Meanwhile, a Facebook page against changes to the character urging users “not to let Dutch tradition disappear” has garnered more than one million likes in a country of 17 million. 

The zeal with which many Dutch people have opposed any changes to the Zwarte Piet character has confused many in other countries given the Dutch reputation for liberalism and tolerance. 

When I first heard about the Zwarte Piet protests at age 11 or 12, my initial reaction was one of annoyance at the foreigners who “didn’t get it.” Zwarte Piet was a hero of my childhood. How could that be racist?

But in the following weeks and months, I reflected upon the aspects of his character that I had taken for granted. Like millions of Dutch children, I spent my elementary school years watching Het Sinterklaasjournaal, a nightly TV show that begins every year a few days before Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands and ends on December 5. It chronicles the behind-the-scenes struggles of Sinterklaas’ present-delivering operation, as the Pieten do everything from losing Sinterklaas’ famous white stallion to getting stuck in too-narrow chimneys. 

In the TV show, the Zwarte Pieten are comic characters, lovable but nevertheless clownlike and childish. The show always culminates in a major crisis on December 5 that jeopardizes the delivery of presents to every child in the country. As the Pieten agonize over what to do, Sinterklaas — an old white man — swoops in at the eleventh hour and easily saves the day. 

The racist nature of the character asserts itself in other Sinterklaas traditions as well. Many of the Sinterklaas songs that Dutch children sing to the chimney when they put out their shoes include references to Sinterklaas’ knecht, meaning servant. One song even includes the lyric, “Wees maar gerust mijn kind. Ik ben een goede vrind. Want al ben ik zwart als roet, ik meen het wel goed,” meaning “Don’t worry, my child. I am a good friend. Even though I am as black as soot, I mean well.” 

This lyric is a remnant of Zwarte Piet’s historic role as the strict enforcer complementing Sinterklaas’ kindly nature. Although these facet of Zwarte Piet’s character has faded over the past twenty or so years, he used to be charged with kidnapping naughty children and bringing them back to Spain in Sinterklaas’ big burlap sack. 

Zwarte Pieten also regularly visit Dutch elementary schools, leaving presents and error-ridded notes on the board that students then correct as a grammar lessons. 

These facets — immaturity, brutality, illiteracy — of Zwarte Piet’s character, past and present, are typical of other harmful and racist European and American depictions of black people. To ignore these similarities is to ignore history. 

Acknowledging history is hard. Many of my most cherished childhood memories now in a way feel icky, tainted. I cannot look back on them fondly without feeling guilty. 

Many Dutch people — including those who write history books — prefer instead to gloss over the ugly parts of the nation’s history and instead focus on the highlights. We celebrate the Netherlands’ status as a safe haven for religious minorities in an age when most countries were brutally suppressing them. We tout the fact that the Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. We are a country of historic economic, social, and gender equality.

At the same time, there is hardly a whisper about the much less pleasant underbelly of this history. For example, Dutch merchants were responsible for transporting between 550,000 and 600,000 Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold into slavery in South America. During the four-year war for Indonesian independence from the Netherlands, Dutch troops killed between 45,000 and 100,000 Indonesian soldiers, and the war also resulted in around 100,000 civilian casualties. 

Many communities and schools in the Netherlands have taken steps to amend Zwarte Piet’s portrayal, such as having actors without gold earrings or with soot smears or green or purple paint on their faces instead of the traditional blackface. Making such changes without having a larger and more uncomfortable conversation, however, is not enough. 

If the Netherlands truly wants to respect its former colonies and the millions of immigrants who live within its borders, it must stop hiding behind half-hearted excuses. Instead, we as Dutch citizens must acknowledge the full extent of our painful history and address its still-visible legacies.