The False Innocence of Black Pete


Arts & Culture

Writing a weekly column for a Dutch newspaper is a good way to lose heart. Not because whatever topic you choose, you’re bound to receive slews of emails from readers who disagree with you, or because of the amount of hatred people tend to offload in those letters. What gets you down is that some people seem to think that when you contradict them, you lose your right not only to freedom of speech but to your nationality. “That’s not the Dutch way of doing things.”

When I hear this, I often find myself coming back to the James Baldwin passage from the Autobiographical Notes that begin Notes of a Native Son: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Although I have lived here for almost five years now, the country that I love most is not the United States of America. I was born in the Netherlands, and most of my family and friends live there. Still, the notion stays the same: precisely because I love the Netherlands so much, I insist on my right to continuously criticize her.

The aim of that criticism is to better the principles by which that country functions, and because I know no single person—and certainly not me—can be the moral center of a country, my hope is that other Dutch people will do the same. I suggest we start by taking a closer look at our family holidays.

Every year, on the December 5, the Dutch celebrate the feast of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). The concept of Sinterklaas is different from that of Santa Claus. For starters, Sinterklaas is not a Christmas character; Sinterklaas’s name day is December 6. Furthermore, Sinterklaas does not live on the North Pole but, rather, in Madrid. He comes to the Netherlands a few weeks before his birthday by boat and he rides a horse. He does look like Santa Claus, in the sense that he, too, is an old, white, and bearded man. Sartorially, however, Sinterklaas looks more like the pope: he wears red robes and a red miter with a big cross on it, and carries a golden staff.

Every night of his Dutch sojourn, Sinterklaas makes a round on his horse to hand out small presents to the Dutch children. I write “small” because they have to fit inside the shoes the children have put out at night (near the radiator or in front of the fireplace). Sinterklaas has helpers, called Zwarte Pieten (the Dutch plural for Black Pete), who travel alongside him on foot across the rooftops and slide down chimneys to deliver the gifts. The night before his birthday, Sinterklaas goes to visit all the children in the Netherlands one final time to bring them a few more presents. This time, most of them are too big to fit in their shoes, so he knocks on their front door and leaves a big bag of gifts. This night is called Pakjesavond—a contraction of the Dutch diminutive for gifts and the word for evening. Since the early fifties, Sinterklaas’s gifts come with letters addressed to the children, composed of carefully constructed rhymes, that are both funny and didactic and that reveal Sinterklaas has his eyes—or rather, Pete’s eyes—on you all year round.

The celebration of Sinterklaas has a long tradition: as far back as the middle of the sixteenth century, children have been putting their shoes out at night. Since the middle of the nineteenth, though, Sinterklaas (portrayed by an older, white man) arrives by steamboat, and usually sometime in the middle of November. He is accompanied by Zwarte Piet, his helper. The number of Sinterklaas’s helpers has grown steadily over the years; at the end of World War II Canadian soldiers in the Netherlands organized a Sinterklaas celebration with a mass of Zwarte Pieten. Ever since, Sinterklaas has been accompanied by many Pieten. These are portrayed in the streets by white people playing dress up. Piet has a black face and big red lips and wears golden hoops in his ears. When I was a kid, this version of Zwarte Piet was prominently featured in advertisements and on wrapping paper and confectionary packaging. This media and print incarnation of Zwarte Piet has mostly been phased out, but close to ninety percent of Dutch schools still use live actors (amateurs) during their celebrations: white people in blackface portraying black people as acrobatic, slightly dim-witted, kindhearted, gullible “manservants” (the word Dutch children use to describe Piet in their Sinterklaas songs).

As I child, I loved Sinterklaas: I loved the gifts he left in my shoe and Pakjesavond (of course), but I also loved sitting around the fireplace, drinking tea, eating chocolate snacks, and listening to my parents reading his poems. I loved singing for him on the evenings before December 5 and I put a carrot in my shoe for his horse. Once, I staked out the front door all evening until, finally, I had to pee. It was in just that minute that Sinterklaas knocked on our door. When I opened it, he was gone. Still, I loved it when he came to our school and invited you to sit on his lap and how he talked to you in his low voice. He had read in his big book that I should work harder on my long division and my handwriting.

And I loved his Pieten, too.

It wasn’t considered problematic that I thought of them as “his” Pieten, either. I grew up in a predominantly white world: white parents, white teachers, white doctors. There was one black boy in my high school, and he came in by train. The only other black people I knew were soccer players and Gerda Havertong, one of the characters on the Dutch version of Sesame Street (who first raised this issue more than thirty years ago).

Twenty years later, despite the shifting demographics (nowadays, nearly twenty percent of the population has a non-Dutch background, and slightly more than half of them of non-Western origin), the Netherlands is still a very white country, especially outside the big cities. Those white people will argue that Zwarte Piet is a children’s friend, a funny, boisterous trickster who hands out candy (before Sinterklaas comes to visit your school, the Zwarte Pieten come running into the classroom, throwing around candy, sprinkling the floor with pepernoten and other sweets).

I don’t think I should have to elaborate too much on how problematic this is in a modern, multicultural society.

Last week, a short video of a thirty-year-old white man in plain clothing and blackface broke the Dutch internet. In it, the man, clearly upset, says: “What, in heaven’s name, are we all doing?” The man looked lost, sounded lost, and, as far as I can tell, felt lost. He was also, and I want to repeat this, saying this in blackface in front of a camera.

What the man was referring to, though, was not his own makeup but a recent string of demonstrations by a Dutch action group named Kick Out Zwarte Piet.

Kick Out Zwarte Piet is a poorly chosen name, since the group does not want to abolish Zwarte Piet but merely change his appearance to one that does not include blackface. Their goal is not to abolish Sinterklaas but to make the celebration more inclusive. The organization was founded by Mitchell Esajas, Kunta Rincho and Jerry Afriyie. It is not to be confused with the art project Zwarte Piet Is Racisme (Black Pete Is Racism) which was created by artist Quinsy Gario in 2011. Gario was arrested with then journalism student Steffi Weber, anthropology student Sirri Venning and Afriyie, an early fan of the art project, in 2011. Since 2015, the year that Esajas, Rincho and Afriyie later founded KOZP these peaceful protesters have had, on the less violent side of the spectrum, eggs and beer cans thrown at them and their buses blocked on a highway, and on the more violent end they have been molested and attacked by police and populace alike. The most liked comment underneath the video of state violence against the protesters was “Good riddance.”

Many Dutch people seem to believe that by wanting to change the appearance of Zwarte Piet, KOZP is trying to destroy a tradition as Dutch as, say, cheese and clogs. But modifying traditions isn’t the same thing as destroying them. In fact, it is the polar opposite: it’s about trying to keep them alive.

Six years ago, I wrote a column for Het Parool stating that the prevailing incarnation of Zwarte Piet was both cruel and offensive. For years, I kept a printout of the vitriol that I received taped to the inside of my wardrobe door—it was my own personal anthology of the poetry of aggressive ignorance. It reminded me: This is what people are like.

But not all of them, of course. It would be wrong to equate YouTube comments and hate mail with the opinion of the moral leaders of a country.

Two years ago, when confronted with a camera and microphone and asked about his views on Zwarte Piet, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, started his answer from the child’s perspective. It’s a nice tradition, he said, a holiday for children, protesters should leave those children alone. “Let’s all just act normal.”

Sinterklaas as a family holiday—it’s a powerful frame, and a highly misleading one. The common misconception is that Sinterklaas, because it is a holiday for children, is a children’s affair. But Sinterklaas is organized and overseen by adults. And there is nothing innocent or normal about the way we go about it. No wonder, then, that some people are protesting this racial stereotype however they can.

This is another misconception: Zwarte Piet isn’t a sensitivity issue for black people to get over, nor is it a moral conundrum for them to solve; it’s a social problem started and upheld by white people. Recently, the Dutch prime minister welcomed two white people in yellow vests, very unsuccessful copycats of the French gilets jaunes, into his office in The Hague for the second time. The online joke went: now they’ve all had their turn.

But when Rutte was asked why he hadn’t spoken to Kick Out Zwarte Piet, his initial response was that “politicians don’t get to decide on Sinterklaas,” and after that that he “first had to assess what that group wants.” Politicians are our elected representatives; they do get to decide; they are there to discuss and debate our legislation, shape our policies and our nation, on the basis of their principles and beliefs.

And it seems the Dutch prime minister knowingly and willingly supports blackface.

To the outsider, this complete lack of moral leadership might be baffling. But the Dutch don’t expect much more from a man who made a career as a human resources manager at Unilever, the Dutch multinational stuck in environmental and sexual harassment controversies, and who has had surprisingly little to say about Dutch colonial history or the country’s heritage of transatlantic slave trading or a critical report from a United Nations committee from a few years back that urged the Netherlands to actively promote the elimination of the racial stereotyping. Responding to this report, our prime minister stated, “Black Pete is black, and I cannot change that, because the name is Black Pete, so I cannot change it … It’s an old children’s tradition … I can only say that my friends in the Dutch Antilles, they are very happy when they have Sinterklaas, because they don’t have to paint their faces, and when I’m playing Black Pete, for days, I’m trying to get the stuff off my face.”

As a teenager in the Netherlands, I was taught to believe we live in a progressive country, a country where we respected the individual rights of the members of any minority. There’s even a Dutch phrase for this, Nederland, gidsland. And I know that on paper and in practice the Netherlands is still a model political country: a lot of Americans, upon finding out that I’m Dutch, talk to me about our liberal drug policies, our same-sex-marriage laws, and our enlightened stance toward euthanasia, reproductive rights, and abortion.

Yet my mother would talk to me of other things when I was young. Once, when I was listening to Van Morrison, she said, “Could you please turn off that black music?” I asked her what she’d like to hear. “I don’t know. Something … calmer? More melodic?” And my father, like most liberals of his time, simply thought that integration meant a prayer room in the factories, instead of equal chances for your offspring in the labor market.

The way we feel about things is affected by what we are taught to feel and believe. The philosopher Richard Rorty pointed out that only descriptions of the world are true or not, and humans decide which descriptions hold truth. Truth is not an innate quality of the world but of language and thought. If we believe that black music is noise, that Zwarte Piet is black, that the Netherlands is a model country, then these are only things we have chosen to believe.

The UN wasn’t the only institution to write a report on Sinterklaas. The Dutch children’s ombudsman, Margrite Kalverboer, spoke to children and young people in the country. Nonwhite children reported experiencing discrimination on a daily basis that worsened around Sinterklaas. Kalverboer’s position was very clear: the racial stereotype of Zwarte Piet contributes to bullying, exclusion, and discrimination and is therefore contrary to the international Convention on the Rights of the Child. The children’s ombudsman states that “by stripping Zwarte Piet of discriminatory and stereotyping characteristics, he can be made into a figure that does justice to the pleasure that so many experience in the Sinterklaas tradition.” It is up to adults, she writes, to ensure all children feel safe and enjoy the holiday.

Starting this year, the daily television show Sinterklaasjournaal will feature only Pieten with smudges of soot across their faces (remember, Piet comes down your chimney). Some urban Dutch municipalities have followed suit. It looks like the beginning of change. But instead, many Dutch people are digging in their heels: De Telegraaf, the country’s biggest newspaper, reported that close to seventy percent of the Dutch population is unhappy with the continuous discussion about Zwarte Piet’s appearance. More than half of the primary schools in the country still have blackface Zwarte Piet visit their classrooms.

A lot of things about Sinterklaas have changed over the past few years. This year, for the first time since 1952, he arrived by steam train (the city of Apeldoorn does not have a port). His horse, once gray and called Amerigo, is now black and goes by the name of Ozosnel. Sinterklaas is a constant reinvention, but Zwarte Piet is still black.

Why can’t the Dutch “act normal” and change Piet’s appearance? It could be their anxiety about the “new” makeup of the Dutch population. The cultural expressions of any period, and this includes folklore, tend to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class. Said more coarsely, white people “need” Zwarte Piet because they need to put black people down. They react to increased diversity by slinging disparaging stereotypes and humiliating their fellow countrymen. This would mean that the Dutch, consciously or unconsciously, are fundamentally racist. This could be the case.

At the same time, when I look at that man in blackface on camera asking, “What, in heaven’s name, are we all doing?” I feel there’s something else going on. Those Dutch people who think Zwarte Piet should stay black believe that they are not racist. They are unwilling to change his appearance because that would mean acknowledging that what others are saying is true. Ironically, for a lot of white Dutch people, the preservation of the racial stereotype of Zwarte Piet perpetuates their myth of the good of their society, of how non-racist it is.

This is the third misconception regarding Zwarte Piet’s current incarnation: that there is something intrinsically good and innocent about it just because it’s Dutch.

Last week, after a string of racist incidents, a Dutch soccer match was halted because of Zwarte Piet chants. Famous Dutch pundit René van der Gijp, not a man known for his progressive viewpoints, finally realized that racism and Zwarte Piet are intrinsically linked. Van der Gijp said he had come to this insight after listening to two black Dutch soccer players tell their stories on television. “They have two bad months a year,” he said. Another commentator replied, “What about the seventy-one percent of the Dutch population that wants to keep the celebration the way it is? You let the stories of those people make you crazy.” Van der Gijp replied: “Well, they hate it, it hurts them … Do you really think a four-year-old cares if Piet is green, black, or blue?” On national television, the pundit was questioning his—and every other white person’s— privilege. He was asking: “This isn’t who we are, is it?”

Why does Zwarte Piet endure? Because our prejudices are forever tied up in our sense of self. Most white people in the Netherlands cannot bear to acknowledge that they are responsible for perpetuating a society in which the feelings of black children matter less than those of white adults. Most white people in the Netherlands do not want to have to ask themselves: What, in heaven’s name, are we all doing?


Philip Huff is an award-winning author of three critically acclaimed novels, a short story collection, and a collection of essays on literature. He lives in New York City.