Black Pete and Sinterklaas

Why Black Pete should no longer be black

On the offensive nature of Sinterklaas' helper and the discussion surrounding him.

5 minutes to read
Roeline Machiels

Every year, and every time a bit earlier, the discussion surrounding ‘Black Pete’ [red. Zwarte Piet] heats up again. Does he get to keep his looks or is it time for a make-over? These days it's not just a discussion among the Dutch population, it even reached far beyond our borders. In 2014, Verene Sheperd, human rights researcher of the United Nations, had a look at the issue. Back then, she advocated to abolish the Sinterklaas [Saint Nicholas] festivities altogether. As expected, many Dutch citizens did not agree with her meddling and her solution to the problem. However, something still needs to be done.

In 2016, many organisations made a step into the direction of change. The television channel RTL decided not to include the traditional Black Pete in their Sinterklaas specials, but to incorporate the Chimney Pete instead, who just has some soot on his face. This was a 180-degree turn, as they still used only traditional Black Petes the year before. At the end of 2016, politician Lodewijk Asscher facilitated a Pete debate, where media companies signed a statement claiming that they renounced "any kind of threat, violence, polarization and aggression around the Sinterklaas festivities.”

During the ceremony of the arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam last year, three quarters of the Petes were not traditional, so everyone would be able to enjoy the event. However, at many of the other arrival ceremonies of Sinterklaas Black Pete was present in most of his usual attire. The majority of the committees did change the traditional character a bit by leaving out the afro hair, gold earrings and red lips, but they still wanted to hold on to the black face.

This year the discussion goes on and even more fervently than before. Besides the usual arguments, there are protestgroups who take actions that are way out of line. A pro-Black Pete group blocked the highway, another pro-Black Pete group invaded a primary school dressed up as the character and an anti-black pete group glued the doors of a 'Sinterklaashuis' shut and plastered it with stickers saying 'Black Pete is racism'. These kind of actions are bringing the discussion between adults into the world of the children, for whom Sinterklaas should be an exciting experience. It is clear that the emotions are running high, so a decision must be made before things get out of hand. In this article I will explain my opinion on why Black Pete should not keep the traditional black face.

Even when something is not meant to be offensive, that does not necessarily mean it isn’t.

A majority of the Dutch wants to preserve the traditional look of Black Pete, whereas another group of citizens is impartial, mostly due to disinterest, and lastly, there is a minority of protesters against Black Pete. Lodewijk Asscher stated that the government should exert effort to make sure Sinterklaas is enjoyable for everyone, even if it means changing an old tradition.

The pro-Black Pete group argues that the character is not meant to be offensive and is not associated with racism in our contemporary time. Black Pete is not seen as a slave, but as a happy helper who just happens to be black. However, even when something is not meant to be offensive, that does not necessarily mean it isn’t.

Also they claim that Black Pete is black because of all the soot from the chimneys. Though, in the song 'Daar Wordt Aan de Deur Geklopt' they sing: "Wees maar gerust mijn kind, ik ben een goede vrind. Want al ben ik zwart als roet, ik meen het toch goed." Which basically means 'Don't be scared, I'm your friend. Even though I am black as soot, I mean well.' Firstly, the word 'as' indicates that Black Pete is not black because of the soot, but an actual black person. Secondly, it contains signs of race inequality, as the word 'even though' implies a contrast between 'being black' and 'meaning well'. This shows that the idea of black people was not positive when this song was written. 

Furthermore, it cannot be denied that Black Pete looks an awful lot like blackface. Blackface is a form of theatrical make-up, which was used to have non-black performers represent a darker skinned person as a racial stereotype from the 1830s until halfway through the 20th century. These stereotypes played a role in cementing and the spreading of racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. The Dutch can play their 'we're a tolerant nation'-card all they want, but let’s face it, all around the world Black Pete is deemed racist. Anti-Pete campaigners try to make a point that Dutch people who are fighting to preserve the traditional look of the character, do not understand why blackface is offensive. Many Dutch citizens claim to be aware of The Netherlands’ slavery history, yet fail to see the connection with Black Pete.

Supporters of Black Pete state that the character's looks have never been a problem before. This is only logical. Our society has changed from a merely white society to a multicultural society, resulting in more variety in skin tones of the people who live here. Not only did our society change, but the way caucasians look at darker skinned persons changed. From a past full of slavery, we evolved into a more equal society for people of all skin colours, even though we still have a long way to go.

Change is long overdue

Moreover, it is not quite true that Black Pete has only become a problem in more recent years. In fact, the discussion has been going on for quite some time. In 1987, the Dutch variant of Sesame Street addressed the problem with the black-faced character, stating that it is not as much fun for black citizens as Caucasians.

Some Dutch citizens also claim it's happening all too fast. They believe the protesters want to rob them of their traditions. However, black people have been fighting for equality since day one. Even today, there are still imbalances between races. The Netherlands have been a multicultural society for decades, and as Sinterklaas is mostly seen as a national tradition, rather than a religious tradition, the festivity should be enjoyable for all Dutch citizens. With that in mind, change is long overdue.

The colour of Pete is no addition to the message that we want to give children with this holiday

Traditions are supposed to have an added value for society, bringing citizens closer to each other. The traditional look of Black Pete does not contribute to this. Moreover, what does it say about Dutch culture if we already feel threatened when there's talk of changing Sinterklaas' helper's skin colour?

Stating that Black Pete is a tradition is meaningless. Traditions are not per definition good and correct. Traditions change over time due to moral growth and changes in society. It is time to reassess and accept that Black Pete does not have an ethical look and name. It is not something worth holding onto so strongly; the core of the festivities will remain the same nonetheless. The colour of Pete is no addition to the message that we want to give children with this holiday.

To end this column on a positive note, I am pleased to see that there is a discussion about Black Pete. For me this is a step forward to the integration of multiple cultures and ethnicities sharing one nationality, who all want to be able to enjoy the national festivities. Though, the discussion must be settled soon, as it is heating up more and more, increasing polarisation.