Home About the Netherlands Culture & History Africanah Girl: Is Sinterklaas and ‘Zwarte Piet’ racist or tradition?
Last update on November 14, 2019
Written by  Travelogues of an African Girl

Much controversy has surrounded the blackface Zwarte Piet helpers who arrive with Sinterklaas in Europe each year. Africanah Girl shares her side of the Zwarte Piet debate.

The door bell rang just as I rolled out of bed.

As soon as I opened the door to my apartment, some blackened-up Zwarte Piets (Black Petes) in costume tossed some candy on the floor and smiled brightly, flashing sets of colgatey-white teeth. My daughter, for whom the candy was meant to be a pleasant surprise, jumped into my arms, cowered and let out a loud cry. She was having none of it.

That was three years ago. She’s older now and when she spots them in the streets during the season, she sometimes runs up to them and strikes up conversation. When they come to her school and begin to dance, she sings at the top of her voice along with other kids. What difference a few years can make.

I’m not so sure how she’ll feel about the whole concept a few years on, given that some kid in another class teased her by calling her ‘Black Pete’, and when she reported it to a teacher the nonchalant response was that the other kid needed glasses to ‘see properly’.

A tolerant society

Living in the Netherlands has by far been a great experience. Apart from my paltry Dutch, occasioned by the willingness of the nationals to slide into English when they notice difficulties in speech, Dutch medical-care is top-notch, the offer of beverages upon entry into any office is grand and the tolerance exercised within the country is out of this world – literally.

So tolerant is the Kingdom of the Netherlands that foreigners cross borders and continents with the sole intent of doing what they ordinarily wouldn’t do on their home turf: visit to the Red Light district, openly puff on marijuana or even stroll about semi-nude in the hot summers without so much as anyone batting an eyelid. However, the longheld tradition of Sinterklass is ruffling many in a not so pleasant way, so much so that the United Nations deemed it discriminatory.

Traces of past slavery

The UN’s High Commission for Human Rights wrote to the Dutch government stating that Black Pete perpetuated the image of people of African descent as second-class citizens and constituted a ‘living trace of past slavery’.

While few people would take issue with the benevolent Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas), it’s the Petes that scamper around him, clowning about in their colorful costumes, that most take issue with: mostly because of their blackface colouring and their status.

The Petes under all that goo are white, but the heavy slather of black body paint coupled with thick red smudges around their lips, the adorning of kinky afro wigs and huge gold earrings are reminiscent of a painful era past gone. The fact that the white St Nicholas represents an overbearing authoritative figure and the black helpers a position of servitude has many calling for the revamping of this festive children’s tradition in the Netherlands.

Saint Nicholas arrives by ship to the Netherlands accompanied by dancing black Petes who hand out cookies and candy.

Of course, there are stories of the black colour being from soot as Pete goes up and down chimneys delivering presents to good kids, but Black Pete in its own canny way represents a kind of racism that is uninformed by any meaningful dialogue with African descendants.

A question of tradition

Dutch Prime Minister Rutte confronted with a question about the tradition of Zwarte Piet once responded that, “I said Black Pete is black and I cannot change that. Sinterklaas is an old children’s tradition; it’s not green Pete or brown Pete and I cannot change that.”

I get the importance of the tradition. By all means let it stay but let the black face go, let them be the white jokers that they really are, with dark streaks on their face and hands from climbing down chimneys and not someone covered by tar with thickened lips. Let them have their own hair and not afro wigs.

Maybe then we won’t have other kids referring to our own as Black Petes. Maybe then everyone will be happy.

Do you think Sinterklass is a racist tradition?