Criticism of Dutch “Black Pete” Tradition Grows

Toby Sterling, My Way, December 4, 2012

Foreigners visiting the Netherlands in winter are often surprised to see that the Dutch version of St. Nicholas’ helpers have their faces painted black, wear Afro wigs and have thick red lips—in short, a racist caricature of a black person.

The overwhelming majority of Dutch are fiercely devoted to the holiday tradition of “Zwarte Piet”—whose name means “Black Pete”—and insist he’s a harmless fictional figure who doesn’t represent any race. But a growing number are questioning whether “Zwarte Piet” should be given a makeover or banished from the holiday scene, seeing him as a blight on the nation’s image as a bulwark of tolerance.

“There is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might think,” says Jessica Silversmith, director of the regional Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam. She said that historically her office received only one or two complaints per year, but the number jumped to more than 100 last year, and will escalate much further this year.

“It’s not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining,” she said, referring to people descended from the former Dutch colonies that once traded in slavery. “It’s all kinds of Dutch people.”

There are various versions of the history of St. Nicholas—“Sinterklaas” in Dutch—and of Zwarte Piet, who made his debut as an African servant in an 1850 book.

“Nobody is against the Sinterklaas celebration or is calling people who celebrate it racist,” said Silversmith. “But it is time to consider whether this is offensive, whether there actually are racist ideas underlying Zwarte Piet.”

{snip} Zwarte Piet is frequently defended as part of Dutch cultural heritage, and those who don’t like it are often bluntly invited to leave the country. Many Dutch say Pete’s black face derives from the soot he picked up climbing down chimneys to deliver presents—although that hardly explains the frizzy hair and big lips.

In the U.S., stereotypical black makeup—called blackface—was phased out in the civil-rights era. But in Britain, a TV show featuring blackface lasted until the late 1970s before the practice became taboo. Blackface crops up in other European countries from time to time, such as in a theater performance in Germany this year, but it’s only in the Netherlands that it’s institutionalized in the form of Black Pete.

A sea-change may have occurred here during last year’s festivities, when four men were arrested for wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “Zwarte Piet is Racism” outside a store during an appearance of Sinterklaas—and charged with protesting without a permit.


For the first time, a white politician has openly challenged the tradition: “The Sinterklaas celebration once began without Zwarte Piet,” Amsterdam councilwoman Andree van Es said in an interview with newspaper Het Parool this week. “It’s time it continues without Zwarte Piet.”

Two major chains of stores, Blokker and V&D, now use images of kids with ash-smudged cheeks in their sales catalogues, rather than Petes with black faces. And in a first this weekend, a documentary laying out arguments against Zwarte Piet aired on national television.


Despite the growing anti-Pete movement, the tradition finds a strong bedrock of support in mainstream Dutch society, meaning it’s unlikely to disappear any time soon.

In 2008, a Museum in Eindhoven called off an anti-Pete exhibition after protests. The foreign artists received death threats. And when Victoria’s Secret model Doutzen Kroes said on national television in 2009 that Zwarte Piet is the one thing that has ever made her feel ashamed of being Dutch, the studio audience laughed at her.

Jan Pronk, a leftist politician who once served as the U.N. envoy to Sudan, dismissed her viewpoint on the show. “These are very old traditions,” he said, “I don’t think it’s so bad.”


One organization reinforcing the Zwarte Piet image is educational broadcaster NTR, which also airs “Sesame Street” in the Netherlands. It has developed a popular fake news program for kids, devoted to the doings of the wise white Sinterklaas and his many bumbling Petes, all with the traditional blackface look.

The program starts in early November and airs nightly until kids open their presents on Dec. 5. (Although the Dutch Sinterklaas is the source of the American Santa Claus, Christmas is a separate holiday in the Netherlands, where the present-opening tradition happens three weeks earlier.) The show draws more than a million viewers in a country of 16 million, and its spokeswoman, Helen Albada, said she was unaware of any complaints about its depiction of Zwarte Piet.

Several years ago, the broadcaster experimented with a story line in which the Petes were turned different colors after sailing through a magical rainbow. That drew thousands of complaints, in part because the backlash against immigration was cresting at the time: Fans said changing Pete was sacrificing Dutch cultural heritage to the forces of multiculturalism.


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  • David Ashton

    What’s wrong with big lips and frizzy hair anyway?

    • So CAL Snowman

      or black skin? Me thinks they doth protest too much!

      • David Ashton

        A friend remarked to me: “Al Jolson was the best President America never had”.

    • Oil Can Harry

      Yeah, the opening paragraph is a real head-scratcher. They describe black skin, nappy hair and thick lips as “a racist caricature of a black person”.

      So does this mean blacks have pale skin, thin lips and naturally straight hair?

  • pcmustgo

    It is a bit extreme…

  • Pelagian

    Also from the article:

    “We didn’t intend that either,” Albada said. “Kids don’t see Pete as black, it’s the adults that give it a racial meaning.”

    Pelagian: That’s so true.

    In a recent editorial, one columnist for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper questioned whether the country really is as tolerant as it likes to style itself. He deplored the fact that even as the U.S. has re-elected a black president, not a single member of the Netherlands’ new Cabinet is of non-Dutch ancestry.

    Pelagian: Sounds like a good Cabinet to me. Didn’t know the Dutch were so spunky. They sound better off than the rest of Europe on the PC front.

  • You Are Now Enriched

    Right. We need costumed Whites to give us racist stereotypes of blacks. BET is out of business.

    • Yorkshireman.

      So how come many African counties ‘White-Up’ when conducting their bizarre voodoo ceremonies and this is perfectly acceptable, After all, we mustn’t criticize their ‘religion’.

      • Katherine McChesney

        I noticed that but didn’t think about it possibly being racist against us. I just looked at them like painting the skin was typical for savages. Isn’t is amazing how thoroughly we’ve been indoctrinated not to judge it when it involves our whiteness.

  • Meanwhile, the Dutch soccer team that represented the country in the World Cup in 2010 was heavily black, and while I know nothing about soccer, it was obvious to me they played and behaved like thugs and goons.

    • So CAL Snowman

      It was so sweet to watch that Dutch team get thumped by ALL WHITE SPAIN, the best athletic team in the history of the world!

    • The Ice Queen

      There was a volunteer soccer coach that was beaten to death by three “Dutch” teens recently. The amateur team was from Amsterdam. There was no mention of race, but I have to wonder.

      • “There was no mention of race…” — So that’s how you know they were black. Borrowing the O.B.R. theory advanced by someone else, if Dutch TV put a black reporter on the story, that’s further proof.

        • Fredrik_H

          They weren’t black, they were moroccans.

      • Token Finn

        I heard the thugs were muslims. So they must be non-white.

    • Tromp

      Sorry, but this is nonsense.
      The dutch team wasn’t heavily black. It featured 8 white guys, one part Indonesian guy and two mullatos.

  • NorthernWind

    Personally I would have done away with it a long time ago because it’s… kinda unappealing. That being said, now that the left opposes it on the basis of “racism” I want it to stay.

  • The__Bobster

    In the U.S., stereotypical black makeup—called blackface—was phased out in the civil-rights era. But in Britain, a TV show featuring blackface lasted until the late 1970s before the practice became taboo.

    The Mummers had to eliminate blackface during this era, too. Fortunately, they have a new tradition: drag queens.

  • Skincognito

    Black Pete, like the Southern German and Austrian Krampus represents the dark side of winter, especially as it relates to infant mortality. He steals children as opposed to giving them a lump of coal. It’s old man winter, a threatening phenomenon for pre-modern Europeans. Ascribing an ethnic flavor to this fact of rural European existence was naturally influenced by the 19th century experience of overseas colonialism. Hence the equation of black with danger, see Alex Haley’s intro to the autobiography of Malcom X. Obviously I support the Dutch people and their traditions, but this sort of PC hooplah comes as no surprise. Hopefully there is a traditionalist backlash.

    • Bill

      Evil has ALWAYS been depicted as black or dark in nature. With afrovoodoo behavior being exhibited world wide, we can surmise how it came to be that light and white was good and black and dark boded evil. If evil, and the black gibsme whiners don’t like it tough. Change the stereotype by behaving and maybe it might some day lose meaning. Keep behaving like typical blacks world wide, and you reinforce the FACT of black denoting EVIL. But, given thousands of years and NO change in character or approach to civilization, it’s doubtful blacks CAN change in any meaningful way. Which is why they try to change narratives rather than behavior. Of course, blacks would NOT have come to that logical conclusion on their own without treasonous WHITES teaching them how it’s done.

      • Skincognito

        Agreed. Colonialism merely reinforced our instinctive metaphorical association between darkness and evil. I cite radicals because they are canonical for our enemies, not to suggest that they are somehow enlightened. You are correct, Fanon, Cleaver, Haley, Means, and their fellow travelers could never have published their treasonous tracts without White libs.

    • Katherine McChesney

      My brother-in-law is Dutch, loves blacks, is a socialist and a bona fide atheist. My sister married a man who nearly the complete opposite of our father. I think she married him in revenge against my father who was a moral man, a race-realist and a minister.

  • Unperson

    One organization reinforcing the Zwarte Piet image is educational broadcaster NTR, which also airs “Sesame Street” in the Netherlands. It has developed a popular fake news program for kids, devoted to the doings of the wise white Sinterklaas and his many bumbling Petes, all with the traditional blackface look.

    A wise white boss with bumbling black employees? Actually, that does sound pretty educational; teaching children how the grown-up world really works, but in entertaining ways youngsters could understand. Could somebody maybe make a US version of this show?

  • stewardofthemystery

    Kinda looks like Eazy-E if you ask me.

  • Schwarzer Peter was also part of Saint Nickolas Day in many parts of Germany. Also it was common in medieval times to portray one of the three Kings on Epiphany (January 6) as a comic figure in blackface.

  • IstvanIN

    As I always say, one God, one King, one culture, one nation. The Dutch will eventually lose all four, actually the Dutch will cease to be Dutch one day if this continues.

  • If they’re worried about a “blight on the nation’s image”, perhaps they should look at the black men and boys who treat their native girls as chattel on the streets of Amsterdam. I’ve seen it and it’s disgusting.

    • Anders

      Head-scratching about ‘Black Pete’ and yet pornography and drugs (aka ‘freedom’) are cool. Funny stuff.

  • Yup- and in Europe, White/European opera singers can do Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” in blackface, and it’s legal. In America, it’s against the composer’s wishes. but WHY?

    Opera is a WHITE MAN’S ART FORM. Every time a ‘person of color’ appears as the ‘next great hope’ for ‘breaking down stereotypes,’ their incomplete technical foundations of a White Art Form, cause them to burn out, and disappear as failures. Why? Because they con’t have WHITE VOCAL CORDS- Yet, Gershwin wrote this opera with Bel Canto in mind.

    Another form of “catch-22.” You have to ACKNOWLEDGE WHITE RACIAL UNIQUENESS, in order to defend it.

    • Fredrik_H

      In what alternate universe of Europe can you do blackface and get away with it?

  • MarcusTrajanus

    “And when Victoria’s Secret model Doutzen Kroes said on national
    television in 2009 that Zwarte Piet is the one thing that has ever made
    her feel ashamed of being Dutch”
    She should be ashamed of being a race traitor.

    • Katherine McChesney

      She should be ashamed for exposing her body like a whore. She could be a mudshark.

  • Tromp

    I will never understand America’s ultra racist double standards.

    Blacks wearing white make-up and mocking whites is fine. But if a white person dresses like a black man it’s someting terrible and racist. Even when their portayal is positive. Like dressing like MLK, people from the Cosby show or, in this case, giving presents to children.

    And don’t get me started about the fact that whites aren’t allowed to say certain words, while others can. That has to be one of the most bizarre and extreme forms of racism in the history of humanity.

    • Katherine McChesney

      I’ve never considered dressing black. I don’t want to demean myself.

  • Fresh Hope

    Liberalism and the multicult scociety: No traditions and no FUN!

  • ageofknowledge

    For once, I agree with these detractors. Certainly Black Pete should go. In fact, just to be safe, all non-white faces should probably be deported in the interests of public safety and to settle this very controversial issue… lol.