Outgrowing Zwarte Piet – Turning a racist past into an inclusive future

By Martine Mussies

In the mirror, I hardly recognize myself. The yellow sponge is black from the makeup, it looks like shoe polish, so dark and dense. I’ve put it on thickly, a layer of blackness now covers my pale skin. Carefully I apply it around my eyes and extra close to my hairline, which is now covered by a wig of plastic afro hair, to which a beret with feather was already glued. My lips are painted bright red and in my ears I wear golden “Moor” / Creole style earrings. A page outfit – puff pants over thick black tights – with a white lace ruff finishes it all off. I grab my rod and my jute burlap bag, ready to party!

Twenty years ago, I dressed up as Zwarte Piet – aka Black Pete – for a Sinterklaas party at a primary school. I had done so, every December, for many years. And I had absolutely no clue that this was a racist thing to do. When talking to my international friends, they are often horrified when hearing about Zwarte Piet and stunned that “even someone like you” (their words) took part in this tradition. I understand that. And I don’t really get why I did it either. 

As a child, you just accept the world as presented to you, I think? And as a Dutch girl, I grew up with the folklore of these Zwarte Pieten. Every November and December, they were everywhere: in the city and on TV, in the songs I sang and in the books I read. My memories fit in what Patricia Schor (2020) describes as “Zwarte Piet’s belongingness to children’s world” . My father played Zwarte Piet at a school as well. As he was white and I did not know any black people, I did not associate Zwarte Piet with persons of colour. Also, I knew that Zwarte Piet was not real; he was a fictional character in a play. Like the smurfs were blue and my LEGO mini figures were yellow, Zwarte Piet was black. So, I painted myself black.

For decades I contributed to racism, in ways that were unconscious, but flagrantly racist. I have learned this now, through harm and shame. Now I have to own this dark page of my personal history – and make amends. Therefore, after some background information on this Dutch tradition and why I now think that it is racist, I will explain some more about the emotional debate and dismantle the often heard arguments of people who had similar cultural upbringings as me, but who would like to keep the tradition of Zwarte Piet unaltered. Overseeing these historical roots and noting the changes that the traditions already underwent, I think it would be wise to put the ideas about this phenomenon in Dutch culture in perspective. I would like to plead for a new interpretation of Sinterklaas’ helper – Regenboogpiet – and new lyrics for our traditional Sinterklaas songs, thus keeping  the beautiful 19th century melodies (by composers like Henri Viotta and Robert Schumann), while respecting our long tradition of contrafacta.

The yearly feast of Sinterklaas is on the foreeve of the 6th of December, the birthday of this white and very old Saint Nicholas. Often explained as our form of Santa Claus, in this massive form of play, Sinterklaas visits us from his hometown in Spain, on a steam boat filled with gifts and candy.  Sinterklaas has many “helpers”, jolly black servants who are all called Zwarte Piet. At night, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet will be on the rooftops of the houses, in order to bring us gifts and sweets through our chimney, to be put in the shoes that are prepared near the fireplace, with letters and drawings for the Sint and carrots  for his horse. If you wish for Sinterklaas to bring you presents, you should sing traditional songs while preparing your shoe.

“Hoor de wind waait” – A traditional Dutch melody for Sinterklaas,
first notated in the 1920’s by Hendrik Anthonie Almoes (1883-1965)

Sinterklaas is based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas (270–343), a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. As a Christianised version of Odin, the Sint is depicted as an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard, riding a white horse. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and a sometimes-red stole, dons a red mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top. The character of Sinterklaas has evolved over the centuries – from a patron saint of children, via a bogeyman and a hard-handed pedagogue, to a folkloric children’s friend. As a bogeyman, Sinterklaas was dressed up as a terrifying black man with chains on his feet or with fool bells. This Sinterklaas figure, sometimes also called Black Klaas, gave candy to good children and intimidated disobedient children in order to induce them to obedience. As such he was a forerunner of his helper/servant/slave Zwarte Piet.

Zwarte Piet
Until the 19th century, Sinterklaas probably did not have a regular helper in the Netherlands. However, he was sometimes depicted with black devils accompanying him. In the Luxembourg tradition of Kleeschen he is accompanied by a figure with a rod in long robes under the name of Knecht Ruprecht. Other cultures know a similar trickster figure, like Krampus, Schmutzli, Houzeker, and Hans Trapp. In various late 19th and early 20th century depictions, we can already see more than one Zwarte Piet. After the Second World War, Canadian soldiers organized a Sinterklaas celebration in the Netherlands with a mass of Zwarte Pieten. Since that moment, Sinterklaas has been accompanied by many servants, often with their own task, but never to be taken seriously. While Sinterklaas has always remained stately and distinguished, the Zwarte Pieten often behave like clowns, acrobats and jokers. Next to that, they often played the bogeyman, as they were the ones punishing the naughty kids (by spanking them with a rod or a paddle, and by abducting them to Spain), if Sinterklaas ordered them to do so.

Listening to black voices, I learnt that what my younger self assumed to be a comical character in a play, is actually a painful manifestation of Blackface. This form of theatrical make-up is used predominantly by non-black actors to create or represent the caricature of a black person. The performance has been castigated as racially insensitive, particularly because of the history tied to it (Harris, 2014). The origin of Blackface can be traced back to the early minstrel shows and vaudeville, mid nineteenth century, when white actors routinely used grease and black paint on their faces for black characters, like slaves. Such representations existed against the backdrop of a society that systematically undermined, exploited and tortured black people. Blackface is not a flattering representation because it serves to reinforce the notion of inferiority associated with black people (Harbord, 2015). Conclusively, Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, denied citizenship and efforts to excuse and justify state violence. As such, it beats logic to consider arguments that describe such offensive representations as pranks, innocent tradition, ignorance or youthful indiscretions (but more about that below).

Therefore, the storm of controversy concerning Zwarte Piet as part of the Dutch culture increased around the Netherlands. It is proposed to shed off the blackface because it sparks controversy (Ward & Rocha, 2018), which led to the so-called Roetveegpiet (“Sooty Piet”, a Piet with soot marks). Which is not practical, because children might recognize people whose faces are not covered in make-up. Moreover, critics say that the costume of the Roetveegpiet still includes many identity markers of an era when the Netherlands systematically exploited black people (Raboteau, 2014). For example, the clothing of Piet highly resembles the “attire that enslaved African children wore while working as personal servants in wealthy white homes” (Morris, 2017:6). Additionally, the traits assigned to Piet – subservience, clownishness and unintelligence – reaffirm the stereotype that non-white people are inferior and unintelligent. A lot of activism has been channeled towards stopping Zwarte Piet, because of the dehumanization of black people.

More and more objections arose against the traditional black appearance of Zwarte Piet, at first mainly from other countries and in the name of the UN. These objections were prompted by the associations with the history of slavery. In 2013, a working group was set up in the Netherlands to investigate whether the Sinterklaas tradition did indeed contain racist elements. Note that this debate has been going on for much longer than just the last decade. A nice anecdotal piece of history is this Sesamstraat segment from 1987, with Gerda Havertong describing the harmful effects of Zwarte Piet for black children.

The more I listened to black voices, like this one from Sesamstraat, the more I realized that it is about time for a new sidekick for Sinterklaas, such as Regenboogpiet (Rainbow Piet), the Piet with his face painted in the colours of diversity. But that is easier said than done. Out of nostalgia, this is a difficult and emotional debate. This discussion is also present in Flanders, Belgium, where Sinterklaas is also celebrated, but less militant, aggressive and less on the streets, as is the case in the Netherlands. The number of people in favour of a traditional black Zwarte Piet is significantly lower this year than it was a year ago  – 55% of the Dutch think that the appearance of Zwarte Piet should not be changed, which was 71% last year – but the debate continues. Halfway November, there were various demonstrations pro and con Zwarte Piet, for example in Eindhoven, Breda, Venlo and Maastricht. The discussion around Zwarte Piet remains an emotionally loaded one, with many objections that might sound persuasive in common use, but are in fact fallacious arguments – rooted in feelings instead of in logic.

Social Media
Twenty years after I saw myself in the mirror as Zwarte Piet, I now use my computer screen as a mirror for reflection – to sharpen my mind in the clash of emotions. As professor Peter Jan Schellens noticed in his farewell lecture (2013), in the online debate, fallacies are used more than elsewhere. He introduced the term “interactional fallacies” for the fallacious arguments that raise the tone in a discussion. And the online debate surrounding Zwarte Piet is full of them – the traditional Dutch concepts of “poldermodel” and “bespreekbaarheid” (“discussability”, see Mussies & Steenbeek 2020) are hard to find. Zwarte Piet has become an object that defines group boundaries, as it is so clearly about one’s own, the home, as well as being accepted as part of society. And as emotions act as a binding agent between the individual and the community (Ahmed, 2004:119), Zwarte Piet polarises between people who see tradition as unchanging and people who see culture as flexible. As such, the debate is about emotions and not about logic. To illustrate how Dutch people who are pro Zwarte Piet try to negotiate in order not to have to reject their own history and personal childhood memories, some of the most common flaws in thinking about Zwarte Piet will be outlined below, with examples I encountered on my social media. 

Number one in the ‘red herring’ group of interactional fallacies about Zwarte Piet is the argument “you want to destroy our national traditions”, a so-called ‘straw man’, that is constructed by misrepresenting (often exaggerating) the other person’s argument. This fallacy is often combined with an appeal to emotion and the slippery slope argument – “if we allow this, in 10 years time, no feasts will be there and all children will be crying”. The ad antiquitatem (appeal to tradition) is often implicitly present, as by labelling this racism as “national Dutch tradition”, it is implied that it is good and should not change, a “reification” in Marxist terminology. And as my friend Jelka once eloquently put it “well, the ritual burning of single women who owned tree cats and a broomstick was once a tradition…” and in many other countries, female circumcision is still a tradition as well. 

A related argument is blaming the media. “Nobody had any problems with Zwarte Piet until the media interviewed immigrants who started to call it racist!”. A classical cum hoc ergo propter hoc aka false cause. Often combined with an ad populum or bandwagon of popular belief, as the suggestion that everybody has always liked Zwarte Piet, which might derive from a personal incredulity, the pro-Zwarte Piet person making these claims sometimes explicitly adds that they cannot believe that anybody would not like Zwarte Piet. This is the core of privilege, when you think that something is not a problem, because it’s not a problem to you personally. As this discussion is very visible on Dutch TV, with politicians and presenters openly talking about it, the appeal to authority is another frequently used fallacy in online discussions (“So-and-so also said that Zwarte Piet is not racist”). Often, it is used to stress the supposed validness of a circular argument “Zwarte Piet is nice because he is a children’s friend” and/or a non sequitur as “I like Zwarte Piet and I am not a racist, so Zwarte Piet is not racist”.

Another trick is to make a false statistical claim. For example, “my black friend likes Zwarte Piet, so it is no problem for black people”. Yet, the other way around – “my black friend hates Zwarte Piet” – could never be an argument for the pro-Zwarte Piet movement. The well-known ad hominem fallacy – attacking the person – can be traced in many social media discussions about this phenomenon. With statements like “Go back to your own country / immigrants have no saying about our Dutch traditions” as  the most explicit arguments in the denial of agency for ethnic minorities in Dutch public space. Many Dutch people do not agree with these statements, but are silent witnesses. Not speaking out is also a privilege and I think that it is very important to stand up for minorities. 

Confronted with these flaws in their argument, pro-Zwarte Piet people often reply with a false dilemma: “Do you hate Zwarte Piet because you are black or do you just want to ruin a children’s feast?” Again we see what the examples above already have shown, that these logical fallacies are often used intertwined, to create one big fuzzy emotional and personal appeal. Of course, one cannot assume that if an argument contains a logical fallacy, then its conclusion must necessarily be wrong. Perhaps the original and archetypical Zwarte Piet is a continuation of a much older custom, in which people with a black face played a role as ghosts in Midwinter rituals, and as such is not racist in origin. But if we look at our present-day depictions of Zwarte Piet with an explanation of what Blackface is, it is easy to see the similarities in identity markers. Moreover, if we close-read the arguments of the pro-Zwarte Piet people, we clearly see the interactional fallacies in their objections. But by undermining these pro-Zwarte Piet arguments, we can renegotiate agency in public space for people of colour. 

The only argument I cannot put my finger on is, “it’s a children’s party”. Euh..? It is adults who determine the shape of this feast for children, but more importantly, it is also a children’s party with a Regenboogpiet – and even with no Piet at all, as long as there are gifts and candy and stuff. Comedian Arjen Lubach joked that it would only stop being a children’s party when we would include SM-piet and/or Nazi-piet …“then it is more something for mom and dad”. Moreover, the figure of Zwarte Piet can contribute to bullying, exclusion or discrimination and is therefore in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. If it is a children’s party, then the magic of the fairy tale should be there for all children, regardless of skin colour, origin or religion.

What? So what? Now what?
As demonstrated above, the debate on Black Pete is a difficult, heated and emotional one. The two parties are diametrically opposed to each other and there is little room for discussion. The pro-Zwarte Piet movement argues that  if something is not being “meant” as racist, it can therefore not be racist. And although I do not think that my younger self (in full blackface Zwarte Piet) was consciously and intentionally racist, I do have to acknowledge that the character I played definitely was. After all these years of debate and an opportunity to listen to black voices, I would consider it a lack of empathy and a failure to understand racist issues if I did not.  And when you know better, you should do better. Why would a proclaimed enlightened, tolerant country like the Netherlands indulge in a ceremony that’s so insulting to black people? I do not want to take part in something that hurts my fellow man in such a way. Being black is not a costume and black people are not around to entertain white people.

Anno 2020, we as Dutch people should recognize that inaccurate representations are marginalizing and infantilizing great cultures, but the change is difficult and every small step forward feels like a Pyrrhic victory. This year, most Dutch libraries have taken away books with stereotypes about Zwarte Piet (which led to furious reactions from the pro-Black Pete people, who wrote furiously about this “censorship” and “modern book burnings”), but in shopping malls songs with lyrics like “the servant as black as soot”, “although I am black, I mean well” and “stupid stupid Zwarte Piet” still resound. The country is torn apart and a solution seems a long way off.

In the middle of the storm we have the Sinterklaasjournaal (St. Nicholas newsreel), a TV program from the Dutch public network NTR. The Sinterklaasjournaal plays a very significant role in the debate, as it is seen by many as an authority. Moreover, it serves as a mirror of the Dutch Zeitgeist. Whereas in the past the people behind the Sinterklaasjournaal did not want to adapt the blackface character because it would “clash” with the Sinterklaasjournaal narrative, since two years, there are no Zwarte Pieten anymore in the program, only Roetveegpieten. Many people would argue that this is a good solution, for it is a compromise, but I still worry that Roetveegpiet bears too many identity markers of Zwarte Piet as a piece of popular culture that legitimises the social differences between people of different origins (read: between “black” and “white”). As such, Roetveegpiet does not solve the underlying problem of structural racism. Even apart from the argument that it might be important that Piet is unrecognizable, I would rather see a new and cheerful character, than a chaste version of a racist caricature. Therefore, I would like to see the tradition further developed, for example through the inclusion of Regenboogpiet.

Considering all the above, I think it is about time for a new sidekick for Sinterklaas, such as Regenboogpiet (Rainbow Piet), the Piet with his face painted in the colours of diversity. We should let go of the harmful tradition of the Blackface representations of Zwarte Piet. Focus on his “Piet-ness” rather than his “Zwart-ness,” as the NOS once put it, by incorporating the painful Zwarte Piet songs in an even longer tradition: the one of contrafacta – aka new lyrics for existing songs. The Sinterklaasjournaal already started with this, by just displaying the “new” lyrics as sing-along lyrics on screen, and we can follow their example. On birthdays, weddings and parties we often write  a nice text on existing songs to put someone in the spotlight. Let’s do that for Regenboogpiet, only then they can be a friend in a children’s party that is fun for everyone. Because Piet deserves to come out of the shadows of his awful past, so that he can look at himself in the mirror and smile.

Ahmed, S. (2004). Affective Economies. Social Text   22 (2): 117  –  39.
Harbord, J. (2015). Representations of Blackface and Minstrelsy in Twenty First Century Popular Culture. Retrieved from; https://usir.salford.ac.uk/36899/3/Representations%2520of%2520Blackface%2520and%2520Minstrelsy%2520in%2520Twenty%2520First%2520Century%2520Popular%2520Culture%2520%28Final%2520with%2520corrections%29%5B2%5D.pdf 
Harris, J.D. (2014). Don’t get what’s wrong with blackface? Here’s why it’s so offensive. Vox. Retrieved from; https://www.vox.com/2014/10/29/7089591/why-is-blackface-offensive-halloween-costume  
Mussies, M. & Steenbeek, W. (2020). ‘Wakker Met Een Wijsje’ – How Kinderen Voor Kinderen Gave Voice to the Changing Dutch Zeitgeist. Dutch Crossing. DOI: 10.1080/03096564.2020.1755173
Morris, S. (2017). Zwarte Piet. Academia. Retrieved from; https://www.academia.edu/41204799/Zwarte_Piet 
Raboteau, E. (2014). Who Is Zwarte Piet?: A holiday tradition in the Netherlands involving blackface has sparked a debate about race, the legacy of slavery, and the vestiges of colonialism. Virginia Quarterly Review 90(1): 142-155. Retrieved from; https://muse.jhu.edu/article/543233/pdf 
Schellens, P.J. (2013). De toon van het debat. Afscheidsrede. Retrieved from: http://cls.ruhosting.nl/de-toon-van-het-debat-uitgave/ 
Schor, P. (2020). Fencing the Black body within: The Blackface debate in the Netherlands. Academia. Retrieved from; https://www.academia.edu/43635568/Fencing_the_Black_body_within_The_Blackface_debate_in_the_Netherlands 
Ward, J., & Rocha, R. (2018). “No more blackface!” How can we get people to change their minds about Zwarte Piet? Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 7 (1).https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.31274/jctp-180810-94

Martine Mussies is a PhD student at the University of Utrecht. She has a web site at martinemussies.nl.

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