Zwarte Piet

Beloved Zwarte Piet: A Dutch perspective

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Hedwig van Driel reflects on her beloved Dutch holiday traditions and the controversy that surrounds Zwarte Piet – in international circles, at least.

I remember going to Sinterklaas’ arrival when I was four, maybe five. I was excited: Sinterklaas was, and is, my favourite holiday. However, when a Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) came toward me, hand extended, I panicked.

It's not that I disliked Zwarte Piet: while Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) was a stern authority figure who kept all your misdeeds in a big red book, his helpers were funny and generously handed out the coveted pepernoten. Still, for some reason, I didn’t want to shake his hand. If my hazy recollections are correct, it was because I was afraid my hand would get stained.

This memory intrigues me. Did it mean that I on some level realised the artificiality of Piet’s blackness? As much as I’d like to believe that, it’s unlikely: when my parents told me a few years later that Sinterklaas didn’t exist, I refused to believe them.

Did it mean I had no idea what to make of black people? Unfortunately, that seems more plausible. I am white, and I grew up in an exceedingly white environment.

Zwarte Piet debate: pepernoten
Pepernoten, handed out by Zwarte Pieten.

Black soot or slave?

As I said: I love Sinterklaas. I love the pepernoten and speculaas, I love the little kids in those cute Zwarte Pieten hats, and I will belt along to any Sinterklaas song. Zwarte Piet is a recurring character in my elaborate Sinterklaas poems.

It’s my favourite holiday – but also the one I most dread explaining to foreign friends.

I’ll admit, for a long time I tried to ignore the offensive parts of this tradition. After all, the Netherlands has no history of minstrelry and the context of this blackface was completely different; Zwarte Piet’s face is just black from the soot of the chimneys he goes down to deliver presents – right?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with believing the above explanation when you’re a kid: I wholeheartedly did. There is a tendency among Dutch people, however, to cling to that explanation even when it’s pointed out to them that the soot doesn’t explain the big red lips and kinky hair.

I clinged for a while, too, until I realised my response was emotional, not rational, and that dismissing the racial connotations of the masquerade was naive at best, racist at worst.

Sinterklaas arrives to the Netherlands from Spain with his funny helpers, Zwarte Pieten.

Destroy Zwarte Piet?

The next question is, of course, what to do? Cries for the abolition of Zwarte Piet are heard every so often.

It’s probably my nostalgia but I think that’s a step too far, gutting the entire ritual and leaving only an overly serious shadow of the impostor Santa Claus behind, throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

Another suggestion has been to simply change the problematic half of Piet’s name (zwarte = black), and introduce Pieten in all colours of the rainbow. It seems silly, but it might not be a bad idea.

People have protested it by saying it’d confuse children. I don’t know. I understood, when I was little, that my half-British friend got presents from Santa Claus instead of Sinterklaas because they’d worked it out between them.

All Dutch children rationalise somehow that the Sinterklaas they encounter doesn’t look like the one they see on TV, and that he enters the country in dozens of cities at once. I don’t think purple Piet would be such a stretch.

I’m too much of a Sinterklaas-lover to lead the charge on the above. However, it’s good to keep in mind that 'but it’s tradition' has seldom been used to justify something that was defensible otherwise.  


Hedwig van Driel / Expatica

Hedwig van Driel completed a PhD in theoretical physics but what she really wanted was to be a film critic. She lives in Utrecht, and her favourite pepernoten are the small, crunchy ones. Photo credit: Heiloo Online (thumbnail), Sander van der Wel (Sinterklaas and Pieten). / Updated 2016.

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3 Comments To This Article

  • Caterina posted:

    on 27th November 2012, 21:09:33 - Reply

    I happen to like the whole Sinterklaas festivities, and not try to tear everything apart and try to make it politically correct. But, then, again, I'm white, so I cannot regard things from a black person's point of view.
    However, I find very amusing the story that a friend of mine told me, who had visited Bonaire before Christmas time, just a few years ago. What she said was that, while in the Netherlands children were sometimes afraid of the black Pieten (I guess mostly in the past, with all the stories about what the Pieten and naughty kids) over there they were familiar with the Pieten's black faces, and were afraid of white Sinterklaas! I don't know whether this could be regarded as racism against Sint, but most probably the good old guy didn't mind...
  • kaf posted:

    on 27th November 2012, 18:02:41 - Reply

    These are my 2 cents. I am black and i find zwarte piet plain offensive. Traditions are good. but some of them have to be abolished at some point. Slavery was abolished all over the world at some point because it was inhuman. For me, what angers me is that those called zwarte piet were slaves, whenever i see it, it reminds me of those days of slavery. plan simple. Get rid of that black paint, let them just be white. and remove those curly hair. The kids will still enjoy themselves even if they saw a white piet.

    Its really funny, when i give my opinion abt this to my dutch friends. everyone of them panicks and become defensive. They even dare to say, but even black people like it too. OMG. for me, its like those people who are caught on tv saying something racist, and the 1st thing from their mouth is, BUT i have black friends too, so i am not racist.
  • Petra posted:

    on 27th November 2012, 13:12:18 - Reply

    It's easy - many Dutch people explain Zwarte Piet's blackness as being because he came down the chimney, so all you need is realistic black-soot makeup. Then your Piet is still 'black' but is not a white person dressing up as a black one.

    It's also really nice to hear an article about the problematic aspects of Zwarte Piet written by a Dutch person that isn't just defensiveness and refusing to engage with the issues.