Netherlands

Is Sinterklaas and ´Zwarte Piet´ a racist tradition?

Zwarte Piet

Black Petes dancing. (Picture courtesy of Yurls.net)

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

As soon as I opened the door to my apartment, some blackened-up 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 may run up to them and strike 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 two weeks ago some kid in another class teased her ‘Black Pete’ and when she reported her to a teacher, the nonchalant response was that the other kid needed glasses to ‘see properly.’

Zwarte Piet (Picture courtesy of Zwarte piet.nl)

Zwarte Piet

Living here 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; the 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; read -a visit to the Red Light district, openly puffing on marijuana or even strolling 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.

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

St Nicholas ( Sinterklaas) riding on a horse surrounded by his helpers (Picture courtesy of Phlegmish and Walloony)

St Nicholas ( Sinterklaas) riding on a horse surrounded by his helpers (Picture courtesy of Phlegmish and Walloony).

While few people would take issue with the benevolent Saint Nicholas, it’s the petes that scamper around him, clowning about in their colorful costumes, that most take issue with: mostly because of their color 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. Of course there are stories of the color 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.

The black Pete's handing out cookies and candy during a parade ( Picture courtesy if

The black Petes handing out cookies and candy during a parade.

Dutch Prime Minister Rutte confronted with a question about the tradition earlier on in the year 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?

12 replies »

  1. Interesting story; did not know about this tradition before. Totally agree that these ‘ Petes’ have to lose the wigs and ‘black skin’ and be sooty white helpers as they supposedly are meant to be. Date: Sat, 6 Dec 2014 13:48:16 +0000 To: brucedo1@hotmail.com

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  2. Sinterklaas is not as complicated as people are making it out to be. It’s tradition. And it’s racist. Most of the arguments I’m hearing use variations of, since it’s tradition, it isn’t racist. Of course it is. It can be both and when white people put on blackface, even if they don’t use racially charged language, it is a racist act of demeaning an entire people, and there’s no equivalent. White face isn’t a thing.

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  3. Ha tolerant!

    The Dutch aren’t tolerant, they’re simply pragmatic! This is coupled with the fact that they really can’t handle conflict, so generally let people do what they want until they can’t stand it any more and then call the Police.

    The Dutch are no more or less tolerant than any other Western nation, in fact they can be quite conservative in their outlook, they’re not particularly enamoured with change that’s for sure, they do not like the proverbial boat to be rocked.

    What the Dutch do like is making money and avoiding conflict, neither of these things should be confused with tolerance.

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    • I don’t know where are you living but but Dutch people ARE VERY tolerant!!! Regarding this tradition as much as I know story begins with two rich mans and one of them was Zwarte Piet and they brought together presents for poor kids. I don’t think it’s racists at all but I definitely think that children must know the hole story and not to allow anyone to call anyone any names. Honestly I believe that what that child said to her soon is absolutely taught by his parents and it is racist but not because of story but because of the way that he is raised.

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  4. If it were whites that danced around Sinterklass, how long would it take for whites to come out and say that is racist and that it promotes whites as being second class citizens?… oh thats right, never…. I find it absolute bullshit the never ending attempt to make everything racist!! Guess what, whites were enslaved, the Chinese and Japanese people were enslaved, literally all cultures of the world at some point were enslaved… Stop the race baiting and move on with your life!

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    • You really don get the point. They are “whites” that are dancing around Sinterklaas. “Whites” pretending to be black. That’s the racist thing. Get it?

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  5. Is the fat Santa Claus a racistic tradition? I mean he is certainly obese and he needs a diet. And he gets stucks at the chimney and cannot fit, but noone is paying attention and I don’t see obese people (who are very badly discriminated nowdays) feel offended. Food for thought.

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  6. I suppose the title of this article should be: “Is black Pete a racist tradition?”.

    I see it as follows: it does have an origin in the black people stereotypes that existed up to the early 20th century all over the western world. Does that make it racist? That depends on how you choose to define racist. More important, does this hamper the black colored people?

    Yes it does, but surprisingly in a positive way. Kids look up to black Pete, they want to be one when they are young. They are like a celebrity, the cool kids! They are smart, do fun things and run the entire show. At first, small kids (babies) are afraid of black Pete with his colored face and bright colors. But they learn that this is not at all something to be afraid of. Furthermore, in the portrayal Sinterklaas is an oblivious, gullible and forgetful old guy. The black Petes are the ones that are actually in charge.

    This tradition has been changing already and is still doing so. There is a lot of discussion here how the tradition should change to get rid of the blackface issue and things are changing.

    A Dutch saying goes: “you can’t break iron with your bare hands”. There is no instant-fix for it, traditions just change slowly. But I’m confident that this issue is going to be solved over the years. And until that time, take comfort in the fact that it currently helps teach kids that people of different skin colors are a positive element in society.

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