Black Pete: A Dutch Culture War

When I first moved to the Netherlands I imagined myself being welcomed into a tolerant society, albeit with a slight cycling addiction. I did, to a large extent, find this to be true. But as Christmas approached, my fellow international students and I were shocked by what we saw in the otherwise picturesque town of Leiden. 

As part of Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas arrives in towns and cities every holiday season to hand out sweets and gifts, similar to Christmas events in other Christian countries. To anyone not familiar with Dutch culture however, one element of the Sinterklaas parades would certainly stick out. 

Sinterklaas’s helper goes by the name of ‘Zwarte Piet’ – ‘Black Pete’ in English. Black Pete is almost always played by a white person. That white person is painted a black, and typically dons a curly wig, large gold earrings and has painted, exaggerated lips. Think your typical 1920s/30s American Minstrel show, and this is essentially what you’ll find at these Dutch parades. 

Outside of the holiday parades, Sinterklaas and Pete will visit children’s homes and schools. Stores will sell Black Pete costumes and merchandise. 

Sint Nicholas is fine, but without Black Pete'
Black Pete characters at a typical Dutch Sinterklaas parade

Defenders of the character will argue that Pete is an iconic part of Dutch culture. Many of the other arguments in favour of the character are far flimsier. In response to protests against the character back in 2014, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: “Black Pete is black, and I can not change that because his name is Black Pete”. Not the most compelling argument. 

Illustration from Jan Schenkman’s
book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht

The origins of Black Pete are debated. The common story of Sinterklaas is that he travels from Spain on a steamship with an African helper. Once his gifts were handed out to the good kids, Sinterklaas and Pete would proceed to fill their sack with naughty children to take back to Spain. 

Black Pete ostensibly originated within the 1850 children’s’ book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (Saint Nicholas and his servant). He is depicted wearing Moorish clothes. It is also important to bear in mind that the Netherlands did not ban slavery within its colonies until 1863. 

The battle between those trying to preserve this ‘tradition’ and those who want it banned has played out in the Dutch courts. The Dutch Lower Court ruled that the character “forms a negative stereotyping of black people”, and breached international agreements forbidding racism and discrimination.

However, this decision was overruled by the Council of State in the Hague in 2014. The Council did not address the racial element of the argument, and instead drily stated that rejecting permits for celebrations involving Black Pete is illegal. 

Many supporters of the character consider efforts to remove him part of a broader effort to wipe out Dutch culture, history, and tradition. Supporters have even argued that the characters are not dressed in blackface at all, and that the darkened skin is ‘soot’ resulting from the character having to squeeze down chimneys. 

Wil Eikelboom, a human rights lawyer in the Netherlands who represents many in the anti-Zwarte Pete movement, says he grew up with a “Chimney Piet” myth. Eikelboom said that he believed Pete: “was black because he came through the chimney and was a harmless helper. It was embarrassingly late when I realised that if he came through the chimney you don’t have thick red lips or black curly hair, this is probably a stereotype of a black man, and this had to be pointed out to me by protesters.” 

The blackface Christmas tradition popular in the Netherlands | SBS
Protesters against the use of Black Pete

Organisations that ‘ban’ Black Pete usually change the character’s image instead of removing him entirely. Many Sinterklaas parades use a version of ‘Chimney Piet’, typically in a different outfit and with a far less overt blackening of the face. This change has not pleased all anti-Piet activists, but many are just happy to get see some change in the right direction.

The debate around Black Pete forms part of a wider divide within Dutch society. The country is coming to grips with its colonial past, and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement has started to face the divisions within its diverse, multicultural communities. PM Mark Rutte has stated that he believes that eventually there will be “no more Zwarte Piets”. But with popular right wingers such as Geert Wilders turning the character into the symbol of a wider Dutch culture war, this process may not be as smooth as Rutte predicts. 

The Dutch would probably like to see themselves as a far more liberal people than the average American. Well, problematic symbols like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were removed from stores across the pond earlier this year. Overt blackface has been largely taboo since the turn of the century. Meanwhile, the Dutch continue to parade characters that wouldn’t look out of place The Birth of a Nation through their towns and cities every December. The Dutch are proud of their tolerant international image, its time they lived up to it. 


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