Sinterklaas: Now I’m Getting to the Point



In yesterday’s post I described the way Sinterklaas is celebrated in the Netherlands. Except I left something out. It’s kind of a biggie.

Sinterklaas has helpers. Originally there was just one helper, but soon there were at least two of them, and when Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands or in a town, there are lots of them. They are called Zwarte Piet–Black Pete or Black Peter.

These Zwarte Pieten are white people with black  faces, bright red lips, afro wigs and big gold earrings, who wear Renaissance-style clown costumes.



People of African descent compare this to the American blackface of the blatantly racist times before the Civil Rights Movement. They claim that Zwarte Piet is racist and that he should either be taken out of the celebration, or changed.



They brought the matter to the attention of the human rights body of the United Nations. The UN looked into it, concluded that the Dutch government was failing to respond to complaints of discrimination, and told the Dutch prime minister that Sinterklaas should no longer be celebrated, because it’s a return to slavery.

Many white Dutch people claim that this is nonsense–this is our tradition; we’ve always had Zwarte Piet, it has nothing to do with racism or slavery and it’s not at all like the American blackface.

I became aware of the whole controversy because my Dutch friends have been sharing all kinds of pro-Zwarte Piet memes.

So here’s what I think.



I grew up with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. When I was sixteen I was even one of the Pieten on Sinterklaas’s steamboat when it arrived in Amsterdam, because my best friend’s father was head of the Dutch children’s television. I loved Sinterklaas and everything about it.

When I emigrated, I began to realize exactly how politically incorrect the Dutch are compared to Americans. Well, normal Americans, anyway. And nothing is more politically incorrect than Zwarte Piet.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter where Zwarte Piet came from. It’s irrelevant if it originated in slavery or in Moorish sailors in Spanish ships who got paid like everyone else.

I don’t know how often Zwarte Pieten act foolishly; I don’t remember acting silly when I was a Piet. I was too busy throwing candy and collecting drawings from children to Sinterklaas and trying not to get too far behind the procession to think of acting one way or another.

When I google photos of Zwarte Piet, most of them look like people behaving normally, but dressed up and with make-up on. They don’t behave like white people in blackface in pre-Civil Rights America.

But that, too, is irrelevant.

Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’s knecht, which translates as a lowly aide, pretty much a servant or a stable boy. Black people have a problem with this stereotype also being a servant to the white bishop.



Most of the time Piet doesn’t act much like Sinterklaas is the boss; in fact, I always felt that the Pieten seemed in control. They often hold the reins of the Sint’s white steed. They steer Sinterklaas through the throng and onto his throne. When Sinterklaas has questions, the Pieten know the answer.

And guess what? Not relevant.

White people don’t get to determine what black people find racist. It’s that simple.

Racism isn’t only about intent. Zwarte Piet started when Holland was almost completely white, so sure, it was never meant to insult, because there simply weren’t any black people in the country who would have been insulted. Strictly an inside joke, as it were.

doorbraak.euNow the Netherlands is culturally quite diverse and there are enough people of African descent to have a voice. And they are telling their fellow citizens that they feel Zwarte Piet is demeaning.

I completely understand the knee-jerk reaction. Yes, it’s tradition. Yes, we grew up with Zwarte Piet. And we didn’t end up being racists. Etc.



But after the knees have jerked a bit it’s time for some calmer reflection.



Look at the drawings of Zwarte Piet and tell me they’re not racist.

If you don’t see it, then that’s the problem.



I grew up–once I returned to the Netherlands from Australia at age 10–with those drawings and worse than those in children’s books like Tin-Tin (Kuifje) and–closer to home–similar stereotypical drawings in my paternal grandfather’s comic books, and I never thought twice about them. I was never appalled.

oepoetieAnd that’s a pretty sad statement about my awareness of racial matters as a 10-year-old.

I showed my children the way my grandfather drew black people, and they flinched. And so they should. And so should we.

Think about it. The book below was removed from libraries long ago because of its racism.

But this image of Zwarte Piet is still okay?


The idea behind political correctness is that if you take away hurtful language, images and traditions, people stop thinking in those terms. And it works. It’s simple psychology: if you don’t use the words, you don’t think the thoughts. If you don’t have the racist images, you don’t see people in terms of stereotypes.

What I found particularly interesting about the knee-jerk reactions was this image I found on Google.


Translated, it says “Zwarte Piet isn’t racist. Don’t mess with our culture”.

We never had slavery and segregation in the Netherlands itself, at least not to speak of, and so we also didn’t have a civil rights movement. We felt that if we didn’t call black people niggers and we didn’t behave all awkward when a black person was in the room, then we weren’t racist. We were never schooled in the subtler aspects of racism by a vocal, empowered black citizenry.

We Dutch people–or at least my friends and I–pride ourselves on the diversity of the culture, but this quote tells quite a different story. Black people are only part of Dutch culture as long as they shut up and adapt. The moment they point out that Zwarte Piet is racist, it’s suddenly very clearly them against us, against our culture, which they have no say in.

For twenty-first century Netherlands, that’s unacceptable.

So let’s take a breather, shall we? In through the nose, out through the mouth…


what makes Zwarte Piet magical is the fact that he isn’t recognizable as any normal person.  An uncle can disguise himself as Zwarte Piet, change his voice a bit, and his little nieces and nephews never have a clue. I didn’t even recognize myself when I looked at my pitch-black face in the mirror.



Is it really the end of the world if Zwarte Piet isn’t black anymore?Would your 3-year-old cry his little heart out on Sinterklaas if Piet’s hair was a rainbow clown wig and if his face was green or purple instead of black?

The answer, of course, is no.

Your 3-year-old will have exactly the same experience minus the unspoken racism. Your child will either be scared shitless of that weird person or he will be thrilled to meet a real live Piet.

The only one with pangs of regret will be you, and you’ll get over it in time. Traditions change. Clearly it’s time for the Dutch to let Sinterklaas evolve and get serious about the Netherlands being an inclusive culture.

In the next post in this series I wonder if it’s really such a big deal to change Zwarte Piet.

27 responses to “Sinterklaas: Now I’m Getting to the Point

  1. Reblogged this on World Remix Blogs and commented:
    Nice Post


  2. Thanks for this intelligent and sensitive explanation. I’m sharing it!


  3. i don’t like gui


  4. Fantastic analysis. My husband is also an emigrated Dutch person, and so we’re having very similar conversations in my house right now.


  5. Here’s a link to the letter, written by the presumed UN rapporteur about this issue (presumed because the role of Mrs Verene Shepherd seems to be a bit shady at the moment)

    And the link to the Dutch Government’s answer to the UN letter


  6. Pressed this on


  7. visitingmissouri

    What I find interesting, besides agreeing with the good points you raise, is that a lot of ‘Cultuurpieten’ use strong, slightly (or, less subtle) nationalistic, symbols. Look at that crazy emblem at the ‘Nederland Tuigvrij’ poster, and I’ve seen quite a few other groups that I didn’t think people would freely want to be associated with. I too find it remarkable that everyone I see claiming it’s not racism has never experienced racism itself, but what scares me more is the zealous nature that people have when defending it, using the Dutch flag as a symbol. It puts the discussion on a level that I’m most uncomfortable with, and I am surprised how many people are willing to make that connection.


    • Me too. I’m flabbergasted. Apparently this has been ongoing for years, but this is the first I heard of it, and it’s disturbing. I thought we were better than that. Anyway, I’m not done about this. I’m going to work on episode 3 now.


  8. Thanks for the insightful lesson. My idea: as the dutch flag is red, white and blue, why not have a tri-color face… nobody could object to those colors.


  9. I am raising a multi-cultural family and try to get the kids to think globally, not as an ethnicity or nationality. (They were raised that way – it’s up to them to move forward with it or not.) They were not raised to believe in Santa (terrified of the bearded stranger in red), loved the Easter bunny (it was an animal, after all).
    IMO, since I will go a mile out of my way to avoid a mime, and that is starting to generalize to clowns, I say – put the shoes out, get the goodies, remove the offensive material EXCEPT from a historical perspective to educate. (I am one that does not believe our literature should be rewritten to edit out the bias of the time. It cannot be erased.)


    • I agree. You shouldn’t try to erase offensive attitudes from history. If you can’t learn from history, you are bound to make the same mistakes. What is so shocking to me is that the Dutch have had pretty thorough history lessons, especially regarding hatred toward ethnic minorities and where that can lead, and yet they seem to be repeating history. Bad economy, national identity not at its strongest, and then this comes up and the reactions are unreasonably vicious.


      • I am sooo tired of hate in this world. I might be sarcastic and bitchy in my attitude, but I will go to the nth degree to help someone – granted, I put myself at risk at times, but that is the way I am. I think providing an education is the best I (we) can do and to teach to think critically.
        I think, however, that humans are a “herd” species.


      • This whole affair certainly proves that humans are indeed a herd species. I thought that the Dutch were slightly less herdy than others, but I’m having to drastically revise my views. That is very upsetting; it’s hard to think of much else.


  10. Something to think about, and very well presented indeed. Great post! Should be FP’ed in my opinion.


  11. Marie-Jacqueline

    I noticed that the “Zwarte Pieten” issue dindn’t keep unnoticed on your blog!

    On points I have a different view!

    The whole issue was that the UN started on the wrong foot:
    The lady that takes part of the group that will bring out their vision on it had her judgment ready!
    She didn’t do any investigation on it yet, nothing!
    If she wants to pass judgment, certainly in her position, she has to do her research properly!
    That is what people got irritated about!

    As I view it, I heard this opinion on tv and I agree ,is that you can’t connect the American oversensitivity on racism to Sinterklaas.
    The cultural bagage of the US and the Netherlands is different on this!

    Another opinion is that Santaclaus (finds it’s origin in St. Nicolaas) has a staff of little people that help him. They accompany him also in public!
    Isn’t this not offensive to people that have stayed small?
    Sorry if the word choise itsn’t correct but I lack the proper English words for it!

    Another example I was just thinking of:
    Two groups, Pilgrims and native Americans (Indians) have their part in this!
    In the light of that what happened to the native Americans in the US; how cultural innocent is that than?

    The origin of Zwarte Piet could be considered questionable, but he has outgrown the stereotypes long ago!
    In many peoples opinion here, including those of different cultural backgrounds and continents, living in the Netherlands, don’t consider Zwarte Piet as offensive.

    I agree that some people in the Netherlands make everything something nationalistic; like you I don’t agree on that at all.
    They do more harm than good because they claiming the issue and make it into something that isn’t cultural but pure nationalism.

    Consider this:
    You can give Zwarte Piet different colours and yes, I could agree on that!
    But what in fact would change?

    If we make him yellow, red, white, black, purple, green etc.
    It is just a colour!

    It is us, human beings, that turn a colour into racism


    • First of all, Marie-Jacqueline, if you don’t understand what difference it makes if Zwarte Piet has a black face or a green face, but if you know that a black face is offensive to many people and a green face isn’t, then why not just change it already. Anything else is just stalling. As for Thanksgiving: excellent point. I’m making a mental note to write about that closer to Thanksgiving. Please remind me if I don’t.As for Americans being oversensitive to racism: sigh. It seems many of you are tone deaf to what I keep saying: it’s not up to you to decide what is oversensitive. You’re not black, so you have no idea. As for whether or not the UN got the facts straight and to what degree they did any research: that is entirely beside the point. The point is that it had to be brought to the attention of the UN in the first place, because the Dutch government wasn’t taking the complaints of racism seriously. As for Santa Claus and his elves: elves really and truly are fairytale figures. Santa doesn’t ever (not that I’ve ever seen or heard of in the 20 years that I’ve lived in the USA) have little people dressed up as elves. That would indeed be offensive. So it isn’t done. If it is and I missed it, please send me a link. As for Zwarte Piet moving past stereotypes long ago: try and understand this: white people put on blackface, paint their lips red and put on an afro, and hey presto, they’re Zwarte Piet. The notion of Zwarte Piet reduces an entire ethnicity to a black face, big red lips and frizzy hair. How is that not a stereotype? Now, I am well aware that most people dressed as Zwarte Piet don’t behave silly or stupid and that Zwarte Piet usually seems a lot more in charge than Sinterklaas does. I pointed that out in my second post. I totally agree. But the fact remains that visually, he’s a stereotype. And look at the way Zwarte Piet is still drawn so often (see also myt second post). You can’t seriously say that those pictures aren’t racist sterotyping.Look at the way black people are portrayed on the front of that children’s book that was banned from Dutch libraries so long ago because it was deemed racist (in my second post), and the picture I placed next to it of Zwarte Piet. THEY ARE IDENTICAL. If you don’t see that, you’re in some serious denial. I’m going to write one more post on the issue right now, in which I will also respond to some of the things you and others have brought up.


  12. Marie-Jacqueline

    I want to remind you on the following:
    “As for Thanksgiving: excellent point. I’m making a mental note to write about that closer to Thanksgiving.”

    Thanksgiving has passed!
    Maybe you did forget it; or you were to busy!
    Still I would like to know your opinion on that!


    • Hi Marie-Jacqueline, sorry for the delayed reply. I’ve been busy and off-line mostly since before Christmas. I’m sorry I didn’t get round to writing about Thanksgiving. All my posts about Zwarte Piet took everything I got for the holidays, I suppose. Also, writing about Thanksgiving will require more research than I had time for. Next year. I really promise. I’ll copy these links you’ve given and put a reminder in my calendar to give myself plenty of time.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: A Review Of Christmas | visitingmissouri

  14. Marie-Jacqueline

    Apology accepted!
    First of all a Happy and healthy 2014 for you and your family!

    I assumed that you were very busy.
    To write you need some peace and quiet; with all those holidays in that time of the year; peace and quite will be hard to find then.

    Good research is better than a quick answer!
    Take your time .



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