Thursday, November 22, 2007

Zwarte Piet is a racist caracature part II -- Thanksgiving edition

(photo: emmaline)

(This essay is a work in progress)

To the good people of the Netherlands, who believe that they are not racist, wrongly, and believe that Zwarte Piet is a harmless, innocent tradition, wrongly, I want to say:

Thank you! I'm American, and I recognize that we owe Santa Claus, the main figure in our primary children's fantasy holiday, directly to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Santa turned Nordic in America, he got fat in America (like so many Americans), and we gave him elves as "helpers" ourselves. But credit for the basic idea goes to the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam.

In return, we have given you one of our smash-hit cultural exports to use during Sinterklaas: "blackface" and "darky iconography," a racist genre of theater and art that portrays black people as idiots, with exaggerated big lips, woolly hair, and of course, pitch black faces.

You use it on Sint's friend, "Black Pete."

Happy Thanksgiving!

No, Zwarte Piet wasn't always part of your Dec. 5 Sinterklaas tradition, which itself has changed dramatically over the years. Store that fact for later reference.

Zwarte Piet is a mishmash of ideas, but the red lips, woolly hair and blackface part of his "look" was copied directly and indirectly from artistic traditions from the U.S. in the century before World War II.

It was a time when few white people anywhere took black people's feelings very seriously, when colonialism and racial superiority were still credible ideas, and most Dutch people had never even seen a black person.

In the past 50 years, however, thanks to the civil rights movement in the United States and anti-colonial movements everywhere, blackface and darky iconography have become taboo, the visual equivalent of screaming the word "nigger." That's known from San Francisco to Tokyo. But not in poor Holland.

I say poor Holland, because in some ways, it really is too bad for you. You didn't create the problem of racism against black people (though you played your role), and now you've been left holding the bag: black racist iconography caught up right at the heart of one of your most beloved holiday traditions.

But racist it is, racist on its face and racist in its derivation.

On its face: a white man serves as overlord to a group of stupid servants with big lips, woolly hair, and black skin.
The derivation question is more complicated, and I'll return to it.

Simply put, because millions of black people were killed or enslaved by white people in the past four centuries, and millions more continue to suffer discrimination (in the United States AND the Netherlands), putting on blackface, wearing woolly wigs and red lipstick is about as funny as wearing a swastika.

Maybe you wouldn't blame a remote tribe somewhere in the Amazon forest for using the swastika unwittingly.

But the Netherlands is an industrialized, trading nation, not so isolated as to be able to plead mere ignorance.

(kyle horner)

Don't believe it that the rest of the world feels this way? Ask anybody not Dutch. Read up a bit.

It's the same as portraying Asian people as giggling with slanty eyes, or Native Americans as having buck teeth and wearing feathers.

(popular when I was young, no longer in U.S. stores)
(The Cleveland Indians baseball team is still fighting lawsuits about their racist caricature mascot "Chief Wahoo")

Actually, the reality is that you do know Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature, but you're experiencing a psychological phenomenon known as "cognitive dissonance" : the brain filters out new information (Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature) that conflicts with what one already believes (I love Zwarte Piet and I am not a racist).

In other words, even though you accept intellectually that racism is wrong, when you are confronted with evidence that Zwarte Piet is a racist tradition, your brain automatically starts looking for ways to reconcile the conflict.

Because it's socially impossible to let go of the belief that racism is wrong, the brain instead attempts to undermine or avoid the idea that Zwarte Piet is a racist tradition.

Here's some examples of how this kind of rationalizing works:

1) Zwarte Piet may be a little bit racist, but it doesn't matter much. After all, comedians make racist jokes sometimes, and that's okay.
2) I'm not racist, and I prove it in cases where it really matters. But Zwarte Piet is harmless fun.
3) Just because Zwarte Piet happens to be black, that doesn't make him a racist caricature.

That last one is correct. If Zwarte Piet were just black, he wouldn't be a racist caricature. It's that he's black, stupid, with woolly hair and big red lips _ that makes him a caricature.

The hardest rationalizations for me to answer are the first two, of the "So What?" variety, which assume that Zwarte Piet is mostly harmless. These often include a counterattack, saying "lighten up" and "stop being so politically correct."

I admit it's impossible to measure how much exposure to a negative stereotype will influence kids. Some exposure is inevitable and probably acceptable, like background radiation, I suppose. Zwarte Piet seems pretty bad, since it comes back every year and you can't avoid it. But maybe racist caricatures like Zwarte Piet are like video game violence _ kids look at them, but they're immune to the message.


Maybe. I say, why take the chance? Are we really so lazy when it comes to an ethical question like this? Are the Dutch tolerant, or just indifferent?

When in defensive mode, Dutch people often say, it's only adults who have a problem with Zwarte Piet. That always makes me laugh. That's right, it's the adults who don't want to change. The kids don't care, and would never notice the difference.

To me, the "So What?" argument is a lot weaker in the face of people who say they feel real emotional pain due to the lingering aftereffects of the slave trade. I'm not one of them, but I believe them, and it seems needlessly mean, in my opinion, to throw "So What?" in their faces, in the name of a tradition that's not so old or so strong as some people seem to believe (below). But again, I suppose that's a matter of taste.

You often hear Dutch people argue that foreigners just don't 'get' Zwarte Piet, as if there were mysterious depths to the tradition that we're missing. After nine years here, I think it's the Dutch who don't get it.

Typical foreigner question: Why would an enlightened, tolerant country like the Netherlands indulge in a ceremony that's so insulting to black people?

Typical Dutch Answer: Zwarte Piet isn't even from "black" (sub-Saharan) Africa, he's from Morocco. Or Spain.

Q: Then why is his skin so black, just like in all the "darky" figurines, rather than olive-colored?

A: Because he went down a chimney.

Q: Then why aren't there just smudges on his cheeks to show that he's been down a chimney?

(no answer)

Q: Why are his lips so big and red?

(no answer).

Q: Why is his hair so nappy?

A: Because he's black (after all) and that's how black people really look! (!!) or, Because he's a clown!

(Britain 1895)

Then the Dutch get defensive, attack the foreign questioner on his own national disgraces (Americans are an easy target) and will point out some other irrelevant detail, such as that Piet is actually rich, as evidenced by his clothes, so he can't be a slave or a servant.

What a lot of excuses there are for Zwarte Piet's racist appearance!

It's true there are a lot of traditions mixed together in Zwarte Piet _ just as there are a lot of traditions mixed together in Sinterklaas. The fact that they have changed so much over time should give us hope that Zwarte Piet will gradually be given the makeover he needs.

Sinterklaas wasn't always on Dec. 5 (see: The Reformation) nor is it wholly based on the the Greek Orthodox Άγιος Νικόλαος, but also other, less Christian tales, in which the white horse the Saint rides wasn't called "Amerigo"...

The legend of St. Nicholas (from Lycia, then-Greek, now Turkey) has merged with heathen ceremonies around Europe in countless variations.

But the general picture is: nice rich guy gives presents to kids, accompanied by one of two types of sidekicks: a poor servant (the clown), or a sinister figure (the devil).

The Dutch tradition happens to mix the good cop/bad cop elements, but the Sint either had no servant or a white servant until Jan Schenkman published a book called "Saint Nicholas and his Servant" in 1850. Schenkman dreamed up the idea that Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat (invented 1801) from Spain with a black servant (who isn't even called 'Piet' yet, the name first appears in a book in 1891).

Here are some Dutch images before and after Schenkman.



(Schenkman book illustrations circa 1885 _ see the servant walking behind him?)

(1928 _ a full fledged 'darky' Piet)

As the end of World War II, the one Zwarte Piet was multiplied to become many Piets _ I've heard varying explanations, but the basic idea appears to be that the Canadian soldiers who liberated the Netherlands wanted more manpower to give out all the gifts, and you could hardly multiply a saint.

So much for the ancient, immutable tradition of Zwarte Piet.

Now, thinking toward a resolution:

What should the Dutch do about Zwarte Piet? After all, the apologists argue, it's part of our history now. We can't whitewash "Black Pete."

I think the answer should be obvious from all that I've written above. You don't need to purge all mention of Zwarte Piet. What you need to do is, unwind the things about him that are most objectionable, the same way that Sinterklaas dropped his stick over the years as beating children became unacceptable.

Focus on his "Piet-ness" rather than his "Zwart-ness," as the NOS once put it.

No red lipstick. What does it add?
Use black smudges on the face (for the 'chimney ashes') instead of blackface "schmink."
Replace nappy black wigs with any other kind of hair you like. Dare I ask why does he even need the hair when he's got a feathered cap?

The multiplicity of Piets makes your job that much easier. Rainbow Piets? Why not. Throw in crafty Piets instead of dumb Piets. The cunning servant and jester characters have as long if not longer a tradition in Sinterklaas than that of the dumb slave.



"Teach your children well."


Anonymous said...

I am sorry but I really love zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas. I understand the arguments against zwarte Piet, but what about 'jeugdsentiment'?

Toby Sterling said...

Hi Esther. You don't have to be sorry for loving Zwarte Piet. You just have to ask that he take off the blackface, red lipstick and woolly hair. For the rest, no problem.
"Jeugdsentiment" _ yes, I'm sure many an aging southern belle in the United States remembers fondly the days when black people said "yes ma'am" whenever they called for a mint julep.
Things were so civilized then!

In seriousness, I think you can go home again. Just not all the way. The tradition should change, not die.

Norma said...

You're right of course but unfortunately I, and I think 90% of the native Dutch population have been brainwashed since birth and a zwarte Piet without a curly whig and a few black smudges on his face, no matter how politically correct, is just not the real thing. Poor you by the way, 5/12 must be sheer torture with your child being exposed constantly to this awful stereotype.....

Toby Sterling said...

Hi Norma.

Well, we're going to have to have a debate in my household about what to do with our kid(s) and Zwarte Piet!

My wife hasn't really made it clear to me where she stands on this, but I think she's in the "slightly racist but harmless" camp.

And she's a formidable debater. We'll see what happens. For now the kid(s) are too young anyhow.

Kara 5K said...

well, I was looking forward to this post and think you did a great job of laying it out simply - this is racist and must change. That's it, end of story. And as it DOES change I hope that people can start to explain to their kids why it had to change.

Perhaps DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation should be mandatory viewing in Dutch schools. But would the Dutch look at it and say "yeah, but that's the US, so it doesn't count here?" Wrong. That film is taught in history classes, it's touted as a classic piece of cinema - but it's racist, plain and simple. In fact, that's all the more reason to watch it - so we don't forget how serious of a problem racism was and still is.

Keep Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, but like you said - do away with the blackface, lipstick, and wooly hair - and just be honest about it. just because something is tradition doesn't make it right.

has been deleted said...

racism in the u.s. was institutionalized by slavery, and the legacy of that still plagues black americans today, but it's bad and embarrassing and doesn't justify racism anywhere else.
plus, in the states, it's seriously frowned upon to be in the same room as a painting of someone in black-face , much less dress up in it oneself.
it'd be like the germans dressing up like little "funny" skull-capped, big-nosed Jewish kids. not ok.

dutch may be liberal and adventurous and have really good licorice (and cheese and pancakes), but they are every bit as capable of racism as anyone else, and not just with zwarte piet.

not trying to be anti-dutch. i love holland - so much better than the u.s. in so many ways beyond pancakes - and i understand it must be scary to have change to that great little country. but having heard the educated dutch casually say things like they want to yell at a (turkish) mother who talks to her child in her mother-tongue instead of dutch in the park? wow. not so open-armed, i think.

oh yeah, happy thanksgiving though there's a whole racist bag of wasps that could be opened with that

Black Women in Europe said...

Excellent post Toby. Thanks for the thorough examination. I touched on this subject today

I don't know if you caught wind of the UNICEF Germany's blackface campaign during the G8 meeting:

I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving.

Toby Sterling said...

"Another Americn Expat", "A. Deb", and "Black Women in Europe":

Thanks muchly for your comments. Another Expat: Yes, the Dutch are very good at saying this is a problem that exists only in the minds of Americans, though I don't think I would sentence them to DW Griffiths. BTW if I had to summarize my whole article in one sentence, it would be what you wrote: "just because something is tradition doesn't make it right."

A. Deb (hmm, I suspect I know who you are _ someone in a somewhat unique situation to judge!) _ the Dutch self-image is based on being tolerant and non-racist, so they can delude themselves that because they love Zwarte Piet, therefore it can't be racist. But you are right there are many other examples of Dutch intolerance, and the arrogant dismissal of people speaking Turkish or Arabic (Berber) in the park is a good one. It's really a blind spot for people who otherwise *mean* well.

Black Women in Europe: Thanks for the link! I think I'm going to continue this discussion by interviewing some Dutch people on what they think of Zwarte Piet. Maybe I'll even interview some Zwarte Piets.

It's such a serious topic, but maybe if I can get some people to laugh about it, and not feel threatened that I'm labeling them irretrievably "racist," then I can actually change some minds about Zwarte Piet.

I didn't say this in the post, but I believe: everybody makes mistakes and says or thinks racist things sometimes, just like saying or doing anything stupid.

I put my foot in my mouth all the time, and in the right context, I think that even terrible things can be funny. So maybe if I can make people laugh about Zwarte Piet, and don't come in with a "holier than thou" attitude, I can actually change some minds...

If you don't try, you never know, right?

Black Women in Europe said...

Toby, I know that it is not Americans who find the Black Peter character strange. When I was in Amsterdam on the 16th of this mo nth I met with 5 ladies from my Black Women in Europe social network who are black Dutch women. I got to talk to one about it and she finds it strange. I asked her why, at the very least, don't black people play the role. She did tell me that she's seen a (one)black person in a Black Peter costume.
I'd appreciate it if you could post a short comment at my blog that sums up your feelings because sometimes I just don't think that people get it.

Laura K. said...

I'm so happy I found your blog! I'm also an American living in NL! I'm in Heerlen, Limburg... I found your blog looking for a way to explain what is WRONG with this holiday to people and you did an incredible job. My son is 4 and in basisschool now and they are doing everything with this holiday and I don't know how to get him away from it... any tips? I explained it's not real and that some people are just stupid to believe it. Can't wait to be called in to explain why my son calls his friends stupid hehe!

Toby Sterling said...

Hi Laura. You're asking the really difficult question _ and maybe you should be the one giving me tips! I don't know myself what to tell my son (he's not two yet, so it hasn't really been an issue).
It's certainly impossible for them to avoid seeing Piet...
You've made what I would consider a big (admirable) decision by denying Piet's existence, which is really the first step in explaining what racism is all about.

I think most Dutch parents will want to (have to, really) maintain the illusion that Sint and Piet both exist, in which case they face the equally daunting proposition of claiming that Piet is real but doesn't look like *that* (!).

I guess then you point out that Piet is wearing shoe polish on his face to make himself black as tar, ridiculously black, and *that's* stupid of Piet.

Anyhow. I need to think about this some more.

In the meanwhile I've been meaning to remark, and you reminded me (indirectly): racism is due to ignorance, not stupidity. Always.

I heard those words a few times before I appreciated their significance, but it was a big revelation when it finally came home to me.

Norma said...

A clip of a very politically incorrect nature. Erg fout!

Have a nice sinterklaasavond anyway ;-).

Laura K. said...

Thought I'd pop in and leave an update. I was just at Bart Smit and picked up a sinterklaas present for our son. As much as the whole thing bothers me, he is TRULY excited about the holiday which is hard not to notice. I thought that since he's too young to really understand the explaination, I would just plop the present wrapped up on his bed before he wakes up and if he asks who gave it I'll just say I have no idea. I'd feel bad sending him to school with the other kids talking about what they got that morning.

We had a conference with the juffvrouw yesterday and I mentioned my issues. She doesn't agree but sympathizes. She said she knew from the other day (when the kids came in to unwrapped candy in their GYM SHOES) that I was upset (umm because.. EW?). I said I want my son to know what Christmas is about and she assured me that the next topic will be Jesus, etc and that makes me feel better about it.

So I suppose my only tip is to not introduce it but if your kids hear about it and believe it on their own, you should take their lead.

I'm not encouraging it, but I'm not 100% squashing it either. Maybe if I don't give much attention to it, he will come to our side easier. You know how kids are.. if you tell them not to do something, they do it!!!

Derek said...

Suffice it to say that I fully agree with Toby's feelings about the Zwarte Piet tradition, although I doubt if it will mean anything to the Dutch since I'm not only an American but one who still lives in America.

Toby, Laura, et al: assuming you haven't read or heard this piece before I think you'll be interested by David Sedaris's disturbingly hilarious essay "Six to Eight Black Men," which contrasts the American Santa Claus story with the Dutch Sinterklaas. He doesn't mention Zwarte Piet or the blackface iconography, but he certainly doesn't ignore the racial and misanthropic elements.

In my opinion, Sedaris's work is best appreciated in audio format - his high, curious voice and subtle timing match the skewed humor of his writing perfectly. The audio of Sedaris reading the piece can be heard here. The file is in three pieces, so at when one ends, just click by the pink box on the right where it says "next." Oh, and in case you start wondering when he's going to get to the part about Sinterklaas, it's at about the last quarter of the first file. The whole essay is probably about 15 minutes long.

Enjoy, and I'd be curious to hear any reactions.

Anonymous said...

I am very, very sorry to say this, but shouldn't you be looking for another (busier) job or maybe a hobby, in stead of making such a big thing out of something so incredibly small?

355 days a year nobody in this country talks about this tradition that goes back to the Dark Ages (Between 1200 and 1500 more than a hundred churches were built in Holland and Belgium to honour Saint Nicholas).

Although it is in the middle of summer, I feel the need to respond to the image of racism you created in relation to this long lasting tradition in my country, in which you are a welcome guest like so many foreigners, black or white.

The core of your plea is that something that is possibly offensive to other people, even if it is rooted in centuries of tradition of a country and is part of its cultural heritage, should be banned or transformed in such a way, that it is acceptable to all those possibly offended.

In the USA, Santa has so called ‘Elves’ as helpers. Religious people could be rudely offended by this ‘supernatural phenomenon’ as they already get upset by the image of Harry Potter flying a broomstick ( and dozens of other websites).

Furthermore, according to the media, Muslims in increasing numbers become very upset when they discover a Christmas tree in a US (or Canadian) airport lobby or shopping mall. (

Wouldn’t this, according to your analysis on Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet, be enough reason for a complete ban on Christmas in the USA and Canada, or possibly: Worldwide?

Or maybe a complete ban on Christianity? All these offensive images like the crosses. With all these offended poor souls, considering themselves victims of Christianity. Shouldn’t Christianity be banned?

The image of a Christian cross could offend many people that have been victimized by or are descendants of victims of Christianity. From descendants of exterminated witches by the Roman Catholic Church during the Dark Ages, to descendants of victims of the Spanish Inquisition. Indirect victims of the Crusades or of sexual abuse in RC-churches. From Muslims in Bosnia, Muslims in Saudi Arabia, actually Muslims everywhere around the globe, that feel offended by the symbols and heritage of Christianity.

According to your judgment on Sinterklaas, we should therefore also put a ban on Christianity and its symbols. Or does your opinion exclude religion?

Toby Sterling said...

@Anonymous _ Zwarte Piet.

Funny, I was just thinking about what I'll be writing about Zwarte Piet next year.

Your remarks:

>shouldn't you be looking for another (busier) job or maybe a hobby

I agree. My wife agrees. Blogging: too much for a hobby, not enough for a job. Still, I'll keep my own counsel on what I write and how I blog, as long as that's okay with you. And also if it's not okay with you, actually.

>I feel the need to respond to the image of racism you created in relation to this long lasting tradition in my country

You are most welcome to vent.

I didn't create an image of racism. I called it racist. And of course, I agree it is a long-lasting tradition, but old traditions can be bad ones. Female circumcision, for example.

>you are a welcome guest like so many foreigners, black or white.

That's debatable in the individual or group.

>The core of your plea is that something that is possibly offensive to other people, even if it is rooted in centuries of tradition of a country and is part of its cultural heritage, should be banned or transformed in such a way, that it is acceptable to all those possibly offended.

Ah, there I disagree, and I think you are distorting my argument (more below).

You are no doubt influenced by the current debate in Holland on the extent to which being offensive and insulting is part of a person's right to freedom of speech.

My guess is that you and I will actually hold very similar views on that. While I don't like being offensive or insulting, because I think it's poor manners, I would support a persons' right to do so _ within certain limits. I've posted quite a bit about that in the past, especially in re: Geert Wilders.

>In the USA, Santa has so called ‘Elves’ as helpers. Religious people could be rudely offended by this ‘supernatural phenomenon’ ...etc....Muslims in increasing numbers become very upset when they discover a Christmas tree...Wouldn’t this, according to your analysis on Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet, be enough reason for a complete ban on Christmas in the USA and Canada, or possibly: Worldwide?

I think I understand your argument _ which continues into reductio ad absurdum _ but the reason I oppose Zwarte Piet not to avoid mere offense.

Consider the following example: if a parent shouts at a child every day and tells him he's stupid, it's not offensive, it's abusive.

It might cause him to have self-esteem problem and other emotional problems later on.

In my opinion, Zwarte Piet is the equivalent of shouting at young black people and telling them they are stupid, and shouting at young white people that black people are stupid.

As I wrote, it's debatable how much damage is done by Zwarte Piet, who is usually only seen for a few weeks a year (though he is seen everywhere during that period).

In my opinion this is one of the weakest parts of my arguments, because I don't think that most children who see violent video games are negatively affected (so why should being exposed to racist imagery turn them racist?).

Still, the tradition, while old, has always been in flux (not much emphasis on Sinterklaas beating the crap out of kids these days, is there?) so a little more change is not so much to ask, in my opinion.

It's the 21st century, anonymous, time to let go of those colonial attitudes.

And I promise, if you think the U.S. elves are underpaid and overworked like seamstresses in a third-world sweatshop, I'll do my part to get rid of that imagery too.



Quest said...

Here we go again on Expatica...

Zwarte Piet Is A Racist Disgrace

Toby Sterling said...

@Zwarte Piet

Thanks _ thinking about what I'll post this year. Looks like Expatica is already lively ...

Interesting to see I was trying to reinvent the wheel last year; lots of good research links on Expatica.

I like this one:

Quest said...

Hi Toby,

I just posted the comment below on Expatica. I'm trying to make a catalog of good links to places like your blog.

You might find it funny, but the blog actually started when I commented on your blog. I accidently created it while logging and, and decided I might as well use it to try to give some international focus to this. Over the years I have spent a lot of time researching it, and things are scattered all over the place. I'll leave the good editorial up to you.

-- Quest
In case anyone is interested, I have made a blog for links about the racial aspects of the Zwarte Piet/Black Peter tradition:

Zwarte Piet / Black Peter and Racism

This blog provides links about the Zwarte Piet/Black Peter tradition in The Netherlands from a racial perspective. It was created so that non-Dutch speakers can more easily find information, and possibly bring it into the mainstream of international discussion. This blog will be limited to links and references about the tradition from a perspective on racism. You are welcome to provide links, but if they are not limited to the aforementioned, they will be deleted.

If people are not interested in the racial aspect, it is not the place for them. There are plenty of links in Dutch or they can start their own blog.

Feel free to add links. I'm especially interested in finding Activist groups for this on an international level.

Anonymous said...

You can find posts about this on my Black Women in Europe blog as well:

Toby Sterling said...

@Black women _ I remember your posts from last year, but now I can't find the discussion on your blog. Where to look?

Catherine Maia Podulke said...

Thanks so much for this well argued piece. Did you know about the protest they were going to have in Eindhoven about this? (Got cancelled due to "right wing pressures")

Agatha said...

Dear Tony,

I found your blog as I was looking for ways that other people explain to their (Dutch) family and friends why the Zwarte Piet get-up is so offensive. Thank you very much for articulating the position so well.

I hope that you enjoy pakjes avond and that you are still here and well in the NL.



Toby Sterling said...

@Virgina _ well thanks for the kinds words and glad to be of help. I really should boil this essay down to a shorter summary someday...

Unknown said...

In the past 50 years, however, thanks to the civil rights movement in the United States and anti-colonial movements everywhere, blackface and darky iconography have become taboo, the visual equivalent of screaming the word "nigger." That's known from San Francisco to Tokyo. But not in poor Holland.

Actually not in poor Britain either.

Here is Papa Larazou, a regular character from The League Of Gentlemen.

Here is The Spirit Of Jazz, one "black face" character from The Mighty Boosh.

It's poor Spain too apparently.

And poor Australia.

Not defending "black face" routines, but I suspect it's actually just Americans who get hot under the collar about this particular variety of lameness.

As for Dutch people getting defensive, given that you are lecturing these people about their own traditions, I think that not hurling abuse at you shows remarkable politeness and restraint on their part.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Toby Sterling said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Toby Sterling said...

@Net Vegetable

Your examples don't actually support your point for Britain.

(Appalingly lame videos regardless of the racist content btw _ is this what you watch?)

In Spain and Australia, yes, they are racist in addition to being awful.

I'm not surprised to learn there are some ignorant people everywhere. The fact that you had to work hard to find these lame examples shows that these are exceptions that prove the rule.

>I suspect it's actually just Americans who get hot under the collar about this

There you're very wrong. Ask around.

>As for Dutch people getting defensive, given that you are lecturing these people about their own traditions, I think that not hurling abuse at you shows remarkable politeness and restraint on their part.

Ha! That's the funniest thing you've said yet. Not even Dutch think Dutch are polite. At any rate, if you're ever in this country, try bringing the Zwarte Piet topic up.

All in all, I get the feeling you're kind of new to thinking about this, so great that you're taking the time to expose yourself to different viewpoints.

Hopefully at some point you'll change your mind, or at least learn to appreciate the other side of the argument.

Unknown said...

Your examples don't actually support your point for Britain.

So it's ok to dress up in black face, and parody African people's appearance for the sake your amusement? Interesting.

I think a number of African-American people would disagree with, you however.

Ha! That's the funniest thing you've said yet. Not even Dutch think Dutch are polite.

I don't see what that has to do with the conversation, but, racist characterisation noted. If you don't like these people, why don't you just leave them alone?

Unknown said...

@ Netvegetable

Great use of the ad hominem attack and 'strawman' argument here.

So it's ok to dress up in black face, and parody African people's appearance for the sake your amusement? Interesting.

I think a number of African-American people would disagree with, you however.

I don't see what that has to do with the conversation, but, racist characterisation noted. If you don't like these people, why don't you just leave them alone?

How about actually trying to address the real issue - i.e. the use of 'blackface' and 'darky iconography' is inherently racist (notwithstanding the other disturbing aspects e.g. stupid or surinamese accent, mischievous nature, "slave/master" and "good/evil" theme). This is sick stuff. At the very least, it suggests that it is ok to stererotype black people. Come on Netvegetable (Anonymous too)! You know you're on a losing argument. This is the most racist public celebration in the Western world. You can't compare it to a few 'controversial' comedians making some videos in Blackface (Jee I never heard of comedians being controversial to get more exposure....) When I get into actual rational discussions with people from Flanders (I live here) and Dutch people they can't keep up the denial for long.

I think there’s some pretty interesting (but kind of obvious) stuff happening psychologically too, I’m surprised no-one’s done a thesis on it, maybe they have. Black Pete is obviously a repressed figment of the Dutch-speaking collective unconscious when confronted with the past slave trading and exploitation which built the economies of Holland and Belgium from the 1600s onwards. It’s a form of rationalization i.e. by dehumanizing (and mocking) the black man you can justify all the nasty stuff, similar to what the Nazis did to the Jews in their propaganda to the Germans. It’s a given that the kids will go along with whatever mum and dad or the state brainwashes into them up to about the age of 7.

The only problem is lack of international awareness. Any unwillingness to interfere with Flemish and Dutch ‘tradition’ should be balanced against the need to prevent dangerous reinforcement of racial stereotypes, particularly in children. I liken it to having a “Ching Chong Chinaman” celebration where everyone wears buckteeth and tapes their eyes “slanty” or performing the satirical “Running of the Jew” celebration as in the movie “Borat”. In my view, the Zwarte Piet celebration also serves to trivialize the significant problems of modern human trafficking and slavery.

Lets publicise this issue so it can be debated properly. You can't hide behind 'tradition' for very long - particularly if the tradition is colonialism and slavery.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a very interesting discussion, especially as I am currently working on a thesis about South African au pairs in the Netherlands. The dutch were the first European power to colonize South AFRICA, the British occupied the cape for a while, the dutch boers set off on the great trek, established two new colonies further inland, the british controlled the cape and natal, and the dutch controlled the orange free state and the transvaal. The discovery of diamonds in the new dutch colonies sparked the boer war between the two european powers, that ended with an uneasy power sharing agreement between the two sides and the creation of the republic of S.A. Then in 1948 dutch led Afrikaaner National Party won power, and apartheid was instituted to maintain white minority control in South Africa. Apartheid lasted until 1994.
Given that long and sad history, I wonder if it makes much sense to defend zwart piet on the grounds of "tradition." Interestingly, the concept of 'tradition' was used by the colonizers to justify their conquest, because they claimed the natives adherance to tradition prevented them from embracing first God, then science, two of the ideological features that supposedly distinguished the Dutch from the Africans and thus gave them the right to enslave them, later free them with limited rights, and then later subject them to an institutionalized policy of racism through apartheid.
I think before any Western country (especially those from the good old days of empire and imperialism) wants to make claims about being tolerant or free of racism, it needs to examine its global connections. I'm not sure it makes sense to claim to be past racism or above it or beyond it. That sort of logic has the familiar ring of the western discourse which asserts a monoploy of truth, and that has excused the domination and exploitation of the 3rd world it helped create. African philosopher Antony Appiah has argued that at best, 'objectivity' should be conceptualized as an ideal, not as some state of perfection that can be achieved and finalized. Striving against racism represents an ideological commitment, where as stating one is past racism displays only a calculating, instrumental reason, AND IN THE FACE OF ALL THE HISTORICAL EVIDENCE, when dutch people claim to be beyond racism, it rings a little hollow, sounds a little too uneasy. Just as 'modernity' functioned to secure for the West its supposed right to exploit and ravage in the colonial era, so too, in our contemporary era, 'postmodernism' occasionally functions to assert the superiority of a false universal (we are beyond racism). Colonized people that are still reeling in the effects of the intial colonial encouter, should be allowed to engage in voicing their particularities and certainly challenging the legacy of racism is one of those particulars.

Unknown said...

@ Anonymous above:

I think the comparison with the Apartheid regime is appropriate, as there was also a great resistance to change there and the concept was very well 'ingrained' in Afrikaans society. Regarding your comments on the Dutch feeling they are 'beyond racism' - It would be an interesting argument to make - Zwarte Piet is as a postmodern expression of this elevation to a higher plane of race equality. However, I don't think this is likely due to the fact that many racist responses are inherent or automatic (as opposed to being what you consciously believe or express), but I wonder if social reforms (e.g. banning racist imagery in Zwarte Piet ceremony etc) will address this issue. An interesting test is the Implicit Association Test. I would like to see whether Dutch and Flemish (and white South African) people score differently on this test compared to whites from other countries? Personally I do not see the test as a 'racism test' but it offers some interesting insights.

See website here:


dummy van Gerald said...

ty for that post. Excellent work. I resigned as a Zwarte Piet yesterday, even though I love Sint and Piet. It's going to be interesting to explain my decision to my kids who, like most of us, never saw Zwarte Piet as an icon of white ideas on black people. It's just a completely separate category in our mind, I think. Which doesn't make it right, btw. I suspect that the teachers, who counted on me being ZP, are going to be completely baffled too. I'll read your post once more to make the job easier. Should be fun, though.

Toby Sterling said...


I have a 3-year-old (almost 4) who is really absorbing Sinterklaas this year.

I have no idea how to explain it to him!

The main problem is that I can't think of a way to say I don't like the way Piet looks without admitting Sint and Piet aren't real.

Otherwise the short summary for a child would be, these people dressing up as Piet are choosing do so in an outfit that's intended to make people from Africa look weird and dumb.

I'm still thinking about this one _ let me know what you do!

Toby Sterling said...

@Gerald (part II)

Also _

I wouldn't say you should resign as Piet, not if you like it.

What you *should* do is just smudge your cheeks with ashes, and ditch the wig and lipstick.

Adults can accuse you of political correctness, but that's an argument worth having.
I don't think kids will notice the difference, not if the royal costume is the same.

dummy van Gerald said...


Some more exploratory thoughts...
Children at the age of four would not understand that "these people dressing up as Piet are choosing do so in an outfit that's intended to make people from Africa look weird and dumb". The level of abstraction is simply too high for them. To tell them that it's all fake would also be confusing for them, I think. They are constantly exposed to this amazing reality of Zwarte Pieten at school and in the media. Whether things are real or not is just not an issue at that age. Whatever they see and hear is real for them. They would certainly not be able to link the Pieten issue to the past, nor to present day racial issues, even if we told them all about it. So, I never worried about that with my kids when they were that young.

In order to sensitize my eldest kids, who are 12 and 14, I asked them what they thought about my doubts on the matter. They rejected the idea that younger kids would make the connection between Zwarte Piet and black people when I told them that we were giving the wrong message. To infants, it’s just a funny strange figure, they say. They never made the connection themselves, nor did my wife, even though racism is a major concern to all of us.

It's hard to believe for the non-Dutch that we could be so blatantly ignorant, rather than indifferent or simply mean. We just compartmentalize things in our mind: We learn so much about Zwarte Piet, at such a deep emotional level, when we’re infants and only many years later we learn about racial issues. We store these things in separate drawers and it seems far-fetched to us to make a link at all. It’s only when we are seriously challenged about it that we need to resolve cognitive dissonance. We then construct an explanation for things that are hard to defend. Most of us never even have to resort to that, though. The dominant culture is just too strong in its defense of Sint and Piet for anyone to seriously challenge it, I believe.

My decision to resign as Zwarte Piet - and I would have made a formidable Piet indeed - has been informed by this very debate, reading about the historical background, the discontent of groups of people in Amsterdam and the bewildered reactions of Americans. And I can assure you, Toby, smudging my face with ashes is not an option. People who organize these things at schools take it very seriously. You're either a real Piet or no Piet at all. I now prefer the latter and I believe that if people like yourself keep showing us how despicable it really is, more (potential) Piets will follow. Until we allow ourselves to have Blue Piets, perhaps. So, keep up the good work, Toby!

Virginia said...

Dear Toby,

I'm still trying to figure out how to explain to our dutch friends and relations the problem with zwarte piet and all the stuff that goes with it (him? them?). Your piece is still the best one I know of, and the comments have been especially interesting this year.

For Gerald: sterkte, dude! Thank you so much for being brave and doing the right thing.

Enjoy the holidays, everybody. It's still a lot of fun, even without the blackface.

Regards, Virginia

Ian Macdonald said...

This is going to have to be posted as two separate entries, on account of the 4096 character limit for a comment.

Before claiming that Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype, one must first examine the intention behind the imagery and the effects of its portrayal.

Without going into great detail, it's my firm belief that the portrayal of Zwarte Piet does nothing to damage the esteem in which Dutch children hold black people. It is, in fact, as claimed by so many of my compatriots, a harmless tradition; no more, no less.

To suggest that the problem, in as much as one is perceived by you, could be largely alleviated by eradicating Zwarte Piet's black make-up, fuzzy hair and thick lips, is to unwittingly trivialise the deep-seated nature of racism where it truly exists. You can't eradicate racism by making cosmetic changes to a racial (not racist) caricature, any more than you can change the way people feel about the handicapped by referring to them as challenged. In this case, however, the perceived racism doesn't even exist.

The notion that Dutch children are somehow being subtly, but profoundly damaged by exposure to images of white men in black make-up and fuzzy lips is absurd. You present no evidence to build this case, instead relying on your intuition.

Fair enough; I won't be presenting data to back up my opposing claim that it's not damaging, either, but just look around you at the hordes of parents and children lining the route when Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet roll into town.

You seem to equate this manifestation with something akin to a Nazi rally, but the thousands who turn out in all weather to greet the Sint and his throng of Zwarte Pieten are no more racist than you are. They're just there to have a good time and make their children happy. You'll also notice that a good number of them happen to be black, themselves.

No-one is there to celebrate the historical oppression of black people; it's not even on their minds.

My wife is American and the issue has been discussed in our household at some length. For what it's worth, she doesn't take issue with the portrayal of Zwarte Piet in Dutch society and is happy for our two children to take part in the festivities, including dressing up as Zwarte Piet. She is confident, as am I, that we can somehow still manage to raise our children to be respectful of people of all cultures and creeds, regardless of the colour of their skin. Enjoying Zwarte Piet and attaining this goal are not mutually exclusive.

The reason this issue has been discussed at all in our household is that one or two of my wife's American and Canadian friends have expressed distaste at the portrayal of Zwarte Piet. One of these friends is even considering moving her child to a different school in an attempt to flee what she perceives to be the inculcation of her child's mind with damaging racial stereotypes. To me, this is bordering on hysteria.

In my experience, this really is primarily a (North) American issue, where centuries of white guilt are only now being assuaged with the rise to the highest office in the country of one of the formerly subjugated. Hallelujah, white middle-class America can finally put to bed the legacy of shame and the guilt that it has borne like a cancer for the sins of its forefathers.

Until now, articles like your blog posting have been natural vents for denizens of a nation in search of a way to salve its collective conscience. All too often, though, the intellectual issue at the heart of the discussion is subverted and obfuscated by emotion.

That is also the case in this discussion.

Most Dutch people are not racists, if we assume the definition of a racist to be someone who makes irrevocable judgements about other people, based on their race. Those who celebrate Sinterklaas are making no such judgement.

Ian Macdonald said...

Part 2 of my response:

Whether or not the legend has its origin in deliberate racist ideology or just the prevailing social culture of the day is neither here nor there. What matters is the intent with which the tradition is kept alive today, and its long-term effect on our nation's children.

I would argue that there is neither a racist intent, nor a racist consequence. There is no issue here, other than the one that arises by the very voicing of the complaint. To state that it's not acceptable for white people to dress up as black people is to actually perpetuate racist thinking. This should be a non-issue, as is the case with the idea of a black person dressing up as a white.

So long as blacks and whites are subtly (or not so subtly) pressured into feeling uncomfortable about acknowledging each other's physical differences, the unease will continue.

Zwarte Piet really is as harmless as others have tried to tell you. He's no more damaging to children than allowing a copy of Dr. Doolittle to be on the shelf at your local library, although there are those who would have that removed, too, on account of its abject racism.

Ironically, the racial intolerance that underpins your article is none other than your own, towards the Dutch. You mistakenly view this Dutch tradition in the context of American society and social values, which serves only to distort your perspective.

Seen in the context of Dutch society, Zwarte Piet is a harmless figure of Dutch folklore. No more, no less.

Juliana said...

Here goes...Thanks for your post. Here is a perspective from someone else who is NOT white. I actually am not Black either. My Mother is from Puerto Rico and my father from Japan. First let me say thanks for your post. I'll get to why I mentioned my ethnic backround later.
I live in the United States and my husband is Dutch. I have a one year old son but have had reservations about Piet since I married my Husband. I have had such a hard time explaining to my Dutch relations why I find Piet so offensive. They always come back with that it's their "tradition and culture".
Since I researched it like yourself I always come back with "no, it's not's recent...and what's worse, you got it from us and we have accepted that it is WRONG." I have heard my fair share of criticism about America from the Dutch and am shocked at the reluctance to give up something so..."american".

Anyway, this is my policy. NO Darky Iconography Piets in my house. I have given in and allowed a few very small chocolates but for the most part only non-offensive Piets are allowed. Actually, they can be found. I came up with this idea after seeing a childrens book in NL depicting Piet as a very nice looking young black boy. I am pleased to report that my son did receive a non-offensive Piet Knuffel for this holiday season. I think that without the whole minstrel thing it could be a very a nice tradition. It could be one that celebrates diversity rather than mocking it.
In regard to whether Children are affected by this I'm going to say YES. And here is why I mentioned my ethnic backround earlier. When I first visited NL there was a character on TV called 'Ushi' (I think). She was a carricature of all the horrible asian stereotypes out there(like that drink mix packet). I hate to say it, because I'm a New Yorker and consider myself to be pretty tough but it hurt my feelings. And in a very deep way made me feel sad and kind of unwelcome in their country. I was told by my mother in law not to be offended and that it was just satire. That's nice to say but it still stung. And it stung more for her to be dismissive about it.
And with regard to children...I kid you not a few days later I was sitting in a square with my husband when some Dutch children came around and starting giggling and pointing and calling me "Ushi". I only figured it out because my husband told them off. And I was like "Why are you yelling at children?" Let me tell you...I look NOTHING like buck bangs...5'8'...long hair...american size 2 was just my asianess or 1/2 asianess that they were reacting to. So yes, kids pick up on things in subtle ways. And I honestly think that Dutch kids of color are afraid to express the pain it makes them feel or get just plain really confused about it.
I mean if your 7 and it makes you feel like crap how do you fight against something that you're told is so intrinsic to the culture. When you're told that you 'just shouldn't' feel like crap about it. You just feel stupid and confused about why you felt like crap.
Unfortunately now a days I do feel like there are a few Dutch people who would tell that 7 year olds parents that if she can't accept Piet and 'BE DUTCH' they should go home. And that's sad.

Taz said...

Hi everyone. I grew up in NL and now live in England. I have 3 kids to whom I have explained about Sinterklaas and how he 'becomes' father Xmas when travelling to other parts of the's a right mix of tradition, religion ,superstition and making money and quite hard to 'honestly' explain to small children. As for Zwarte Piet; yes very offensive and unnecessary! Tradition? Why can't we respect people with dark skin? Zwarte Piet is a constant reminder of slavery. Jeugd sentiment? Yes I have fond memories of Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet, and now a new generation can grow up with fond memories of Pieten of all races! I think Dutch people can be extremely intolerant.
We don't celebrate Sinterklaas, after all we have Father Xmas (or should I say 'Yule man?' as he has little to do with Christianity) and in England we don't have the Sinterklaas 'tradition'. It wouldn't be allowed in England anyway precisely because of it racist aspect. All the best!

Anonymous said...

Well, my opinion is that from something small is made something big. I agree that the older pictures of Piet are questionable, but the fact how he looks now is more something practical. What little people know, but Piet's background is actually Italian. It came from times that Italian where chimney wipers (and smudged). Those Italian were immigrants and spoke of course not accent free Dutch. The simple reason Piets do not have smudged but pitch black faces and wigs is to keep them unrecognized. To keep up the story for the kids! Ever tried to dress up as Piet without red lipstick - looks ridiculous as the paint will go on and off your lips.

In the past (like 5 years ago) there have been yellow and blue piets, but that was ridiculous and made a clown out of a traditional figure. Since Piet was an Italian guy his looks have changed. I don't know why in pictures the lips are made thick, all I know is that lots of white women have injectables to get thick lips, so I do not see much racism in that.

I really feel sorry for the people that feel offended by it, but it is not intended that way. If a Dutch kid at all makes the connection between Piet and black people, it is the other way around, and they think a black person looks a bit like Piet. For the rest who still thinks there is a connection: kids love zwarte piet and I think racism has more to do with hate.

And if you look at the latest Sinterklaas shows on television, there are all different kinds of Piets, stupid and smart (people alike). You'll also see that it is actually the Piets that arrange and manage everything, and Sinterklaas is just a wise, but very old man.

Last, this is a Dutch tradition, and I think these critics are sometimes seen as offensive by the Dutch, as the Dutch are made racists for something that is not racist at all. The fact that Piet is black should be just as normal that your nabour is black. My opinion is that anyone thinking that Piet (looking as Piet does) is a version of an African charactar, so someone making that connection, is more a racist, then people just celebrating a tradition with a character that comes from the Italian chimney wipers, but colored more black to prevent recognition. Suggestions to make them blue or whatever are just as stupid as suggesting that Sinterklaas should start wearing blue instead of red for him not to look communist....

Anonymous said...

I do not understand how a legacy of slavery in America automatically dismisses OR disqualifies opposition toward Zwarte Piete. People that take this position tend to suggest that the American legacy of slavery is what makes Americans so sensitive about race and racism, and that explains their discomfort with black pete. This line of argumentation overlooks the historical fact that the Netherlands, as one of the leading trading nations in the 16th and 17th century, also utilized slave labor in ITS colonies. Further more, I think it is possible to argue that apartheid in South Africa was esentially an extension of Dutch colonial power, and its implementation basically systematized racism in that society, which unfortunately continued until 1994, when Nelson Mandela finally became preisdent of A FREE South Africa.
Civil rights in America, which is supposedly so much less tolerant and more racist that Holland, had already established legal equality for black citizens by the late seventies.
I am not sure it would be a stretch to claim that Holland actually has a more recent legacy of racism to deal with, than does America. So maybe when Dutch people argue that Americans are just offended by Zwarte Piet because of their racist society and legacy, they might consider examining the history of their own country, and the legacy of its empire. America is not the only country in the world that accumulated wealth through slavery. And, Americans are not the only nationality that should seriously question contemporary social racial constructions, imagery, and representations.

Anonymous said...

In regards to the argument that Black Pete is not "INTENDED" to be racist, and is therefore not racist, I think it might be helpful to examine how THE CONCEPT OF INTENT is utilized to justify the conclusion.
When used this way, the concept of intent presupposes or predetermines thoe correct interpretation of the phenomenon it is describing. It does not permit intent to function as if it was a subjective experince in which the individual is free to assign meaning, (the idea is good/bad/fair). Instead, it dictates the only interpretation of intent that can be used to justify an argument based on such circular reasoning. Because something (zwart pete) is not supposed to be racist (intent) it is (zwart pete) not racist. In logic this is equivalent to saying A because B and A because B. Such reasoning is considered to be a logical flaw because no new evidence is introduced to support the intial claim.

I just wanted to help everyone make the very best arguments that they can make. Holler.

adeb said...

as the intent example, here in California, two men were just given time in prison for racing their cars on the highway.

They intended to only race their cars, but in the process, they cut off others on the highway, causing a huge truck to jack-knife into traffic going the other direction. The truck burst into flames and my friend's car drove straight into it and all three in the car died.

So, even though though the racers didn't intend to kill anyone, probably, they caused quite a lot of damage and also pain for the families.

piets (probably?) have never killed anyone, but its the same idea. just because the intent is "pure," hardly frees you from carrying some responsibility for unintended results.

Toby Sterling said...

@Ian, Juliana, Taz, Adeb, Anonymice _

Thanks for a number of very good posts.

It's frustrating in a thread that's gone on this long that ideas and counter-ideas tend to repeat; I wish there were a good way of keeping things organized.

Anyhow, Ian _ you make a strong case for your side top to bottom.

I agree with the posters (Adeb, anon.) who point out that intent is not everything.
I would agree with you that intent is relevant. But I would disagree that it's totally innocent in this case: (as Taz points out) there's quite a history of Dutch racism and quite a present as well.

As far as that the negative consequences are unproven: there I can't see a resolution to our disagreement, since I've always admitted, including in the original post) there's no way that I know of to measure the negative impact of Zwarte Piet or any racist stereotype.
And I think you agree there's no evidence for your side either, though you seem to be saying that the un-racist nature of the Dutch proves Zwarte Piet isn't harming them.

I would disagree that the Dutch aren't racist, but I think we would agree in general that that line of debate isn't going to get us far.

I'm idealistic enough to think that a racist image is worth trying to stop without hard proof of its negative effects.

As a comparison, we could say that the harm of racial insults (coon, darky, kaaskop, spleetoog) is impossible to measure, so why bother to discouraging them?

Another issue that keeps resurfacing is that this is somehow an American hangup. I think Anonymous 2 answered that charge very well.
In addition, look at the responses to this article: some are from native born Dutch, others from people of quite a diverse background. I think anybody would have to admit, if they are honest, that there is a contingent that finds Piet a problem no matter where they are from.

I'm Dutch myself now, by the way.

Anonymous I of today represents the typical Dutch view as it occurs in the wild: that all criticism of Piet is misplaced and then offering up a hodgepodge of justifications (that white women nowadays want big lips is a classic). I get the feeling that he hasn't read, or certainly hasn't understood, anything said above his post.

To begin the process of enlightenment, I would challenge him (or her) to hold up one photograph of an actual black person in front of his eyes, and another of Zwarte Piet, and ask himself whether black people really look like that.

Juliana _ I agree with everything that you say, and I think Ushi is an example that deserves more attention. In fact the Dutch have a blind spot for Asian racial caricatures exactly equal to the ZP phenomenon. Did you catch those commercials for "Xi"? Or the chain restaurant _ I forget the name _ for Chinese (Okay, Chinese-inspired) fast food? There's one at Utrecht Centraal Station.

One idea I've been toying with is thought exercises.

What about a new Sinterklaas helper called "Blank Kees"? He would eat only cheese and be very miserly, with bad teeth and yellow yarn for hair.

Or "Rift Valley Rashid," who would steal everything in sight.

Too aggressive, I know...

Anonymous said...

OK first of all can we please call it "The Netherlands" it really pisses of Dutch people when you say Holland. Second of all, I really don't appreciate all the rude comments you're saying about us.
You said "even Dutch people think they're rude" OK how do you know what all of us think of each other? Are you even Dutch? it´s like me saying ALL US citizens are fake, fat, and racist. Its not true and im sure you don´t appreciate it. so dont say rude stuff about us either. Second of all, maybe you should look up a bit more about the history of Sint Nikolaas and you'll understand a bit more about our tradition.

I could easily say that Santa has his own sweat shop of midget slaves working for him year around.
Zwarte Piet is not a racist symbol here. I understand what you're thinking but seriously calm down.

You keep saying that Zwarte Piet is portrayed as STUPID. well thats not true at all. In fact one of the main zwarte pieten by Sinterklaas' side is named "Slimme Piet" which means "Smart Piet" so please think before you make accusations like this.

Now i dont want to speak for every Dutch person because i know i cant, (btw i am Dutch yes, and i lived in USA most of my life so i know about both Americans and fellow Dutch people) but every single Dutch person I know knows that we arent being racist with Zwarte Piet. the whole symbol of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is an image of what Sint Nikolaas did.
Our tradition has meaning.

Anonymous said...

Dear anonymous (what a coincidence - that's my name, too!):

Have you actually read Toby's essay? Nobody is claiming that the Americans are not and never were racists (as Toby points out, a lot of the so-called darkie iconography comes out of American pop culture, albeit American pop culture from a long time ago).

The point is not that Zwarte Piet is the only racist stereotype in the world, but that it is a racist stereotype, none the less. The often-heard arguments that we Dutch people mean no harm, that we love zwarte piet, that it is tradition, that not even black people living here find it offensive are just not relevant. Racial stereotypes, no matter how intended, are dehumanizing and operate to reduce real people to a handful of (usually external) characteristics. They belittle and denigrate the humanity of the ones portrayed, but also that of the ones using the stereotypes for whatever reason. Until you can acknowledge the fact that zwarte piet is a racial stereotype, there is just no way you are going to be able to free yourself from the consequences of approving of and engaging in racial stereotyping.

Give it some thought. Nobody wants you to apologize; we just want you to move on. I hope you can find yourself in a better and more humane place this time next year.

Toby Sterling said...

@Anonymous II - Thank you.
@Anonymous I - Ik ben nederlander.

"It pisses Dutch people of[f] when you say Holland" - Not really. Not anymore than when someone calls the U.S. "America". Gaan wij echt mierenneuken?

"'even Dutch people think they're rude - OK how do you know what all of us think."
Nogmaals, gaan wij echt mierrenneuken?
Being overly direct, blunt or downright rude is widely known as a Dutch characteristic. Most Dutch are a little proud of it.

"Zwarte Piet is not a racist symbol here." Mere assertion isn't a very compelling argument.

"I understand what you're thinking"
apparently not.
"seriously calm down."

Do I come across as uncalm?

"You keep saying that Zwarte Piet is portrayed as STUPID. well thats not true at all."

Yes, it is.

"In fact one of the main zwarte pieten by Sinterklaas' side is named "Slimme Piet" which means "Smart Piet" so please think before you make accusations like this."

Slimme Piet is what is known as an exception that proves the rule.
Most Piets are portrayed as stupid, and Slimme Piet is a difficult concept to communicate when the Piets are out throwing pepernoten.
(Or are you watching the NOS Sinterklaas Journaal all the way from the U.S.?)

Incidentally, the trope of the clever slave that outwits his master is as old as Greek comedy.

But regardless, the racist nature of Zwarte Piet doesn't rest solely on whether he is smart or stupid, and the inclusion of a token "Slimme Piet" hardly excuses the rest.

"Now i dont want to speak for every Dutch person..."

Oh I think you do.

"but every single Dutch person I know knows that we arent being racist with Zwarte Piet."

Congratulations. You've just met your first Dutch person who does think you are being racist with Zwarte Piet. There are six or seven more on this page alone. Maybe you should get out more?

In fact, most Dutch people I know say that they know Zwarte Piet is "a little bit" racist _ they just don't care.

"the whole symbol of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is an image of what Sint Nikolaas did."

Uh, huh. Maybe you can direct me to the history book about Saint Nicholas where Zwarte Piet is described.
I'd appreciate that.

"Our tradition has meaning."

Yes, it does.

Your conclusion strikes me as very sad, a cry from a tortured soul afraid of losing a treasured childhood memory.

Don't worry, Anonymous, the Sinterklaas festival will always have meaning, with or without the racist clown called Zwarte Piet.

Anonymous said...

Er is echt iets mis met jou Toby. als je niet wil dat je kinderen zwarte piet zien, dan moet je ook niet hier wonen. I agree with Anonymous. the one saying it's not racist.

Toby Sterling said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Toby Sterling said...

@Anon of Dec. 7 _
Why do you say normal things in English and crazy things in Dutch?
In any case, re "if you don't like Zwart Piet then don't live here."
No thanks. I think I'd rather stay here and criticize your beloved Zwarte Piet for what it is, a racist caricature.
What I have to say is called vrijheid van meningsuiting and I intend to use it.

Anonymous said...

ive spend alot of time in holland... and ive spend a lot of time in america... and there is no way... anyone can possible say that the dutch are more racist then americans. maybe u should write about how to fix the hatered and racisim towards minorities in your own country before bshing a tradition everyone loves.
awrte peiten are not wrong. as children we grow up LOVING them. kids run up to them, dress like them, ad are crazy about them. there isnt a child in holland who would tell u that zwarte pieten are treated unfairly or like slaves of sinterklaas. in fact, most children dont even consider that they are black people.
now lets talk about santa. hes got his own little sweatshop of midgets working in extreme cold all year long to build toys for children. as if that wasnt bad enough, santa abuses like 12 reindeer by making them carry a huge sleigh including his own fat body, whipping them as he flies off into the night and forcing them to flying at impossible speeds all night long to deliver pressents. what an image for ur children, animal abuse and swatshops with ufair labor conditions.
u might find this ridicouls. but to us dutch people, saying that zwarte piet is a racisit anecdote is crazy. the whole nations loves them they are not portrayed as stupid lesser clowns, but rather as determined, kindhearted warm people who make children happy.
so i would say, maybe focus on the real probems the world has, leave the dutch to enoy their harmless holiday... we dont complain about the millons of turkies u slaughter at thanksgiving. they are zwarte pieten for crist sakes.... get a life... maybe if u open ur eyes and stop judging other people and ations u really will be working towards making the worl more fair and just place. i hope u an grow up. good luck

Toby Sterling said...

@Anonymous. Hi, I don't know if you are a new anonymous or an old one.
Either way, I don't think you've read my post or many of the above comments.

My argument is that Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature and parts of his appearance should be changed. Because as he is, it's painful for black people, an embarrassment for the Netherlands and a bad influence on children.

So, to your post.

1) I am Dutch. So I am trying to "fix hatred and racism in my own country."
2) I'm not interested in debating whether Americans or Dutch are "more racist."
I don't have an opinion about that, and it's not relevant to my argument.
3) I'm also not interested in problems with U.S. holidays. It's irrelevant to my argument.
If you have something to say about Thanksgiving or Christmas as celebrated in the U.S., you could start a blog _ or I'd even let you do a guest post on my blog, if I thought it was interesting. Give it a whirl!

4) You argue that Dutch people love Zwarte Piet.
I ask you whether they would love him more or less if he didn't have blackface, curly hair and red lips.
5) "There is not a child in the Netherlands who thinks" etc.
That's because children are too young to understand racism. They are old enough to absorb stereotypes, however.

6) "Leave the Dutch to their harmless holiday"
Well, I'm not going to go out on the street and shout "boo, boo" at every Zwarte Piet I see. However, I don't think it's inappropriate for me to say what I think on this blog, or in public if anybody asks my opinion.

7) "Focus on the real problems the world has."
This is a real problem. Maybe not the biggest in the world, but that's not an excuse for devoting a tiny fraction of my precious time to it.
Also, I enjoy it. It's better, for instance, than watching TV.

"Maybe if u open ur eyes and stop judging other people and ations u really will be working towards making the worl more fair and just place."

I try not to judge other people too much, but sometimes it's hard not to.

You have my word that I'll do my best.

Maybe you could do the same and stop for a minute to actually read what I say in the original post?

Especially the last few paragraphs about how I think the wonderful institution that is Dutch Sinterklaas can be preserved and improved for the future.



S.Parkin said...

Dear Toby, Well done for speaking out. This is my first year here married and living in Rotterdam and I was shocked. 'Gollywogs' as known in England as Robertson's Jams were taken off years ago and they were a tradition from 1900's as much as Golly taken out of Enid Blyton with Noddy and Big Ears. My teenage daughter was more than shocked as most of her friends are English jamaican african, 'How come this is allowed? If I was black and here I'd be throwing bricks through the confectioners windows.'
Ahmen. My husband says its a tradition thats too old to be changed, and its fun not rascist, the kids love it, the soot made him black etc... He came over on a boat, its the story...' That'll be the slave boats I expect? I so love that story!

Anonymous said...

according to history he comes on a boat because sint nikolaas is coming from Turkey. not a slave boat.

Anonymous said...

oh and Toby, i read all the comments people are making and your FULL blog. you saying the same arguments that are really weak. you say nothing new to support your ideas. just that you're "speaking out" and that its a "racist caricature" and that "they are clowns" thats all you say. hmmm not the strongest points ive even heard when debating topics. tbh i think the people against wat you are saying have much stronger arguments.

Anonymous said...

i only have one thing to say. wat the fuck was all that mieren neuken crap about? no one says that in holland. go away. get out of our country if you´re going to be like that. no one is racist against zwarte pieten. maybe you should fix america first who have a hell of a lot more issues than the netherlands. i used to live in louisiana and my black friends werent even allowed to come with me into certain restaurants. so dont fucking say that our tradition is racist because its not! its historically significant. focus on real problems in the world and stop with all this bullshit.

Toby Sterling said...

@Anonymous _ feeling lonely and bitter on a Saturday night? Feel free to vent.

Laura said...

Hello. do you realize that zwarte pieten originates from an old myth?
in greek mythology the god Odin had black ravens on his shoulders. these ravens would listen at people's chimneys to see if everyone was acting proper and good. just like zwarte pieten do now when they listen if children have good or bad. it originates from this old greek myth which is also why if you knew some of the history behind this tradition you would know that a long time ago zwarte pieten also wore really long beaks. like ravens have. the greek myth through time merged sint nikolaas to create one holiday.

please stop saying such horrible things about culture and people in the netherlands. this is why everyone here stereotypes americans the way they do.
it's our tradition. no one complains about christmas even though that has completely been commercialized.

Dutchman said...

I am a Dutchman who has been living in the US for the past 7 years (Brooklyn NY to be specific). I grew up in Groningen, and have very fond childhood memories of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. As a teen-ager I dressed up and played the Piet role on numerous occasions. I did not think there was anything wrong or racist with Sinterklaas and Piet then. Obviously there is a lot wrong with it. As Toby observes, Zwarte Piet is a caricature of a Black man as seen through the eyes of the Colonial Dutch. All Black stereotypes are personified in one shamelessly racists character; Piet. It’s really all there:
Piet is submissive, dumb, clumsy yet athletic, and Surinamese accent or no, is far from articulate. If that was not enough some of the Sinterklaas songs will leave no doubt: “Ook al ben ik zwart als roet, ik meen het wel goed” translated: “Although I am black as soot, I mean quite well”
Why do so many Dutch people seem incapable of recognizing these blatant racist elements when it comes to Piet? Well, one reason is that the Dutch don’t do very well with criticism, especially when coming from ‘outsiders’ such as foreigners or Dutch people of color, who are considered second class citizens and go by the code-name of “Allochtoon”. I think Toby is on point when it comes to the “So what” response. Even if you are dismissive of Piet as a racist caricature, wouldn’t you be inclined to at least try to be sensitive to the fact that to a considerate part of the population Zwarte Piet is a stab in the heart? A painful reminder of the many (and to this day very marginally recognized) Dutch wrong-doings of the colonial and slave trading past. No consideration from the Dutch, who are in turn very quick to point the finger at everyone else especially when it comes to the inability to take criticism (Muslims).
Like Toby noticed, when the Dutch are confronted with very rational and fact based arguments supporting the racist element of the Sinterklaas festivities, Dutch people immediately become defensive and start working extremely hard to justify and rationalize the existence of Piet. For obvious reasons they never get very far and very quickly become antagonistic. Usually the challenger is told to leave the country, or if he/she is a Dutch national of color, to be more grateful about having the privilege of being allowed to live in the Netherlands. Do you think I exaggerate? Read what happened when a Dutch theater group addressed these very issues in a play scheduled to be shown in Eindhoven (,1518,594674,00.html)

Dutchman said...

Noticed link didn't come through correctly in previous post:,1518,594674,00.html

Toby Sterling said...

Thanks for the comment and link Mattijs.

I recently heard a good summary of the deep-level reaction of Dutch people who get so angry enough about criticism of Zwarte Piet that they turn aggressive, call names, make threats, etc.

"Dit [Zwarte Piet] pikken ze niet van ons af," is the thought.

That is to say, "THEY", meaning black people and the forces of political correctness/multiculturalism, won't take Zwarte Piet away from "US" meaning, normal, white Dutch people.

The preservation of Zwarte Piet in his "darky" portrayal has become a matter of cultural prestige, divorced from any rational discussion.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Hey Toby,

I just discovered your site today. I myself went the other way and moved too the U.S.
I’ve been living here for 10 years now.

I have been really impressed with what I have seen and read on your website.
I think you have been very honest and sincere about all the things about you have come across in Holland sofar. Honesty is something I value very much.

So I wanted to share you my quick thoughts on Sinterklaas. When I read your article about the racism and “zwarte piet” black pete I was honestly surprised. (Shocked really)

I have never made the link between the zwarte piet and something that is racist. Not even when I explained it too my American wife it dawned on me that there was something racist about it. (although I don’t think my wife ever fully understood it)
I understand the points you are making and accept them.

To me Racism is something completely wrong and unfair towards a group of people.
I Don’t know how to explain this very well but I personally have never made the link with black people and the story of Sinterklaas. E.a I don’t have feelings of racism towards black people because of Sinterklaas.

I guess it comes down too intend. The intend is not negative or racist.
I think technically you are right on all points but somehow you are still not seeing the full picture when it comes to this holiday.

Hmm, now it sounds like I am trying to make excuses for behavior a traditions that must seem so obviously wrong for someone unfamiliar with this tradition.

I am going to think about this some more but I hope you believe me when I say that it was a big surprise that this holiday is seen as a racist tradition.

I love the site, I wish you all the best!


Anonymous said...

@ marc: I really like your comment for its honesty and for your willingness to admit that you never really thought about the issue in terms of race. I understand that you don't see the tradition as a racist one, but that's because you are so deep inside it (and it is so deep inside of you) that you can't see it that way. You don't see yourself as capable of being racist toward an individual black person, and so you cannot imagine that a tradition that you value and enjoy is based on some pretty horrible stereotyping of all black people. (You mentioned you have an american wife; I AM the american wife of a dutch man and so I've had a long time to try to figure out why otherwise fair, decent people continue to engage in such retrograde, hurtful behaviour every year.) Your comment already shows that you are openminded; please stay that way. The longer you think about this issue, the more likely is that you'll "get it" one day. Thank you again for being so forthright.

Unknown said...

I must say it’s been an eye-opening day!
I’ve listened and looked at different websites and videos about this subject.

I can now totally see the point of view of someone not being raised in Holland AND at the same time understand why people in Holland would get upset about this subject. (This includes me)

I live currently in Alabama (moved 10 years ago) and this state had of course more than its fair share of racism. To think that someone could even start to defend this type of behavior is un-imaginable! Racism is and will always be un-excusable.

So please don’t interpret what I am going to say next as way of justifying racism in any way.

I asked myself why did I get so upset about this?
The answer is I think because all of sudden people can get the wrong idea about you.
The sinterklaas holiday is for me and for most people in Holland simply not about race.

By the way I am perfectly willing to accept that it’s possible that I could be racist. I think we all have said and thought things at times that we should be ashamed off. In other words I am not trying to convince you that I am a “holier than thou” type of person not capable of racism. But I am trying to make it clear that Sinterklaas is not about racism.

It’s not the possibility that some one might call me a racist that got me thinking but the fact that most people will simply not be able to understand where the Dutch people on this subject are coming from.

Can the holiday still be racist? Yes most definitely in fact I’ve come to the conclusion that in many ways it is but the people in Holland do not have any racist thoughts behind it. (At least I am sure that this is true for most people)
I hope that makes some sense. I think the most important thing to remember is that even though it has every appearance against it there no racist intend behind it. Maybe it did in the beginning but not anymore.

I understand that you can have a field day with that kind of statement but that’s the best way I can put it.

Perhaps I can make it more clear with an example. Lets take Santa Clause. Now suppose some one taps you on the shoulder and said that Santa was really abusing all of those poor elves. Putting them to work all year long with out pay etc, etc. You would probably say well hang on just a minute it’s not the same those elf’s are not real it’s a made up story. It’s not about that at all. Santa Claus is a good person he gives gifts and happiness too millions of children.

That’s how I feel about Sinterklaas in The Netherlands. I really hope that people don’t think everyone in Holland is racist because of this tradition.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Marc, it's "anonymous" again. I understand your point -- you don't feel like a racist when you dress up in a fright wig, black face and big red lips, and so because you don't feel racist thoughts, your conduct must not be racist, either. I disagree with you. The only way the piet thing can have nothing to do with race is if the dutch will abandon the racist stereotype and adopt another, "fantasy" piet. You simply cannot use the worst kind of physical stereotyping to depict a character and then say, "but we don't mean anything by it." Get real: of course you mean something by it! Do you not understand the pain these stereotypes have caused and continue to cause as long as they are used? I appreciate that you are trying really hard, but you're just not there yet. Please don't give up.

Unknown said...

Dear Anonymous,

I understand what you are saying. I agree that you can conduct in racist behavior with out understanding that you are doing it. This doesn’t make it acceptable in any way but perhaps you can help me understand something.

Do you think that being a racist i.e. fully understand your own behavior and thinking and actively act on it is equal to participating in a activity that is racist but you have no idea of this?

It’s a real question I am not trying to be facetious about it.(not trying to be a smart***)

You said “"but we don't mean anything by it." Get real: of course you mean something by it! Do you not understand the pain these stereotypes have caused and continue to cause as long as they are used?”

For me I think this is the heart of the argument I am trying to make. When you say we don’t mean anything by IT hat would first require some sense of knowing what IT means.

In this case we are talking about racism of course. So if I understand what you are saying the full meaning of sentence would be:

“The Dutch people know it’s offensive and wrong but since it’s and old tradition and fun for everyone what’s the harm in that?”

I hope you belief me when I say that is a wrong statement. I understand that this may be hard to believe especially when you look at the depiction of Black Pete and the many valid points people have made etc. but personally that thought never entered my mind.

This whole discussion is a problem for me. I’ve always tried hard to be honest and fair towards everyone and everything. To first find out that there is a “fence” on this subject (a tradition I have fond memories off) and then find out that I may be sitting on the wrong side of it is terrible.

Most importantly what really did it for me was when you said: “Do you not understand the pain these stereotypes have caused and continue to cause as long as they are used?”

In the end what ever my personal hiccups maybe about Sinterklaas and this discussion if this hurts many people the tradition it should change. I think making people aware of the now obvious stereotypes is step number 1.

I very much appreciate you taking the time to explain your point of view.

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

Dear Marc,
First, I'll try to answer your question: do I believe that someone can behave in a racist way but still have a "clean heart", i.e., not harbor personal animus against people of other races. The short answer is "yes" but don't get your hopes up. I'll explain. If one is unaware that wearing blackface, furry hair, and red lipstick is offensive and one does it anyway to celebrate a children's holiday, then it's an act of ignorance. But that's not possible anymore: there is not a single dutch person anywhere inside or outside the NL that has not had to confront the question of zwarte piet as a racial stereotype. It simply can't be ignorance anymore. (You put it well yourself: "The Dutch people know it’s offensive and wrong but since it’s and old tradition and fun for everyone what’s the harm in that?"). The fact that it continues means that dutch society collectively finds its tradition more important that the way it deals with racism and stereotyping. Whether or not the propagator of racist imagery intends, in his own heart, to cause pain has absolutely no bearing on whether those depictions are actually racist and wrong.

I understand that you (and many other people) have happy, warm, good memories and associations with zwarte piet. I also understand that it's painful for you and other people like you (1) to realize that the depiction is objectively racist and (2) to realize that the depiction causes real hurt among real people, including people who happen to live here in the NL now. I don't want to minimize the difficulty that you and others have with acknowledging these two things. To the contrary, I am encouraged and hopeful that you have taken the time to think, read, learn, and consider your own position. I meant it when I asked you please not to give up. This is a process, very similar to the process a lot of nice, decent white people went through during the consciousness raising times in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s. They saw themselves as honest, fair, non-racist people, but they still did not want black people to come to their schools, live in their neighborhoods, or join their clubs (nothing personal, you understand, just tradition and we like it this way . . . .). Only when you can see it for what it is will you be able to let it go. (And, if you live in Alabama, then you can probably find plenty of examples of the kind of "ignorant" racism you want to distinguish from purposeful race hate: both things are damaging and wrong. There's still plenty of both there and elsewhere.) I wish you well.

Toby Sterling said...

&Marc & Anonymous _ you guys are really having a high-minded discussion, and I love it!
(Sorry I've been letting the blog slide for a while: raising two kids and holding down a job is more than enough to handle right now...).
Marc, on the question of honesty. Honesty demands that I update this very long discussion with my latest frame of mind.
That is, I need some distance from the argument for a while in order to be sure that I'm not injecting my OWN emotional investment _ namely a very public claim _ in my attempt to be rational & objective about Zwarte Piet.
That doesn't mean I've changed my mind, just that I think it's good I "take a break" on the question.
I do regret some snippy answers I gave to people higher up in the discussion. I was partly thinking I needed to "shock" them into a confrontation with a new viewpoint, but really I was letting trolls get under my skin (I trust everybody knows what trolls are).
Anyhow, thanks again for your honest and thoughtful remarks.

Old Bean said...

Hold up a moment Anonymous!

Your credibility to preach to others regarding racism needs a self-examination. You said to Marc

"if you live in Alabama, then you can probably find plenty of examples of the kind of "ignorant" racism you want to distinguish from purposeful race hate"

Since when does where one lives make you more likely to find racists? Since when can you so easily lump all people who live in Alabama (or any other state, for that matter) and generalize that there are more racists within that area?

Methinks some of your own personal predjudices are showing. Perhaps it is time to take a look into your mirror to examine who is staring back at you.

Unknown said...

Thanks Toby.

I am looking forward to your updated post on this subject. Take all the time you need of course!

I will no longer argue against “Anonymous “ and your arguments.
It’s clear you know much more about the history of sinterklaas then I do but more importantly I agree with the facts you talked about.

It’s been a pretty amazing experience reading about it (not sure if amazing is the right word)
I just read everything one more time, a little slower and a little more precise this time.
Especially the photos, the very old ones from the past and the ones not depicting black pete, cause a CLEAR feeling of “this is wrong” and “how could people ever find this acceptable” etc.

The photos of black pete especially images that are closet to the ones I remember form my youth (the black pete doll in the store and the candy) generate a completely different feeling.
Much more complicated, I recognize the stereo types you explained (now), but I also still see the
Positive memories. It reminds me of a time that was much simpler.

The part that is kinda mind blowing is that there is no separation between the photos of course. There are no different categories. ALL the photos tell the same story.

I think that this worth understanding. For everyone else that has not been raised with this tradition there is only one set of photos only one clear truth.

For people like me (raised with sinterklaas) there is room for some amazing positive childhood memories.

Having these positive memories collide with some cold hard facts is a hard thing to face.
(Perhaps something to keep in mind when you talk about it with your wife)

Ultimately as I have tried to say in a previous post necessary. When people are discriminated against something should change.

For this reason I like the last two photos the best. I think we can do away with black pete in it’s current from and change it so it not racist.

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

@ old bean: I actually said that there's plenty of both kinds of racism there (Alabama)and elsewhere. As for looking in the mirror, how exactly do you think I came up with my own opinions on this issue? It certainly wasn't from only looking at others. I would have thought that much was clear from my comments.

@ marc: Like I said before, I know it's painful to realize that something wonderful from your childhood rests on a rotten foundation. It is possible to move on, enjoy the holiday, and not engage in the nasty stereotyping. And if you refrain from using the stereotypes, then when they grow up, your kids/nieces/ nephews/ godchildren will not have to make the same painful journey you've just made. Thank you so much for taking this issue seriously (and we're still months away from Dec. 5). I wish you well.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I have found the discussion on this site and the articles associated with it fascinating and a good point of reference for me. I live in Belgium and the Zwarte Piet tradition is still going strong here. I am shocked and dismayed by the continued attachment to the grotesque spectacle of Zwarte Piet at festive events, on advertising posters and even on packaging for biscuits and chocolates?! I am a person of colour and having Zwarte Piet appearing everywhere you look is like seeing what people really think of your race when the stupid, thick-lipped, Zwarte Piet comes around. There is no way we would ever sanction creating some comedy version of eg. a racist jewish stereotype and call that 'harmless fun', why then is it acceptable to continue with the blackface Zwarte Piet?

I am going to lodge an official complaint with the advertising standards authorities over here and see what happens. Again, thank you to all for the depth and detailed discussion and to you, Toby for your great blog.

Alix said...

Dear Toby,

I have read your post and most articles (at one point I did stop) - I'm not sure how I feel about all this. I come from Belgium, where Saint Nicolas comes on a donkey out of the forest on the 6th, and with no Piets I think. 'I think' because I grew up abroad, but in our family celebrations Piet was never mentioned. I've lived in Holland for eight years. I have a big issue with intolerance, as well as the harm that has been done through colonialism and imperialism.

I don't have children. I know they pose all kinds of questions, and I guess I would feel awkward if they asked me something about Zwarte Piet being black or even African. But perhaps in our world today, where children often know a lot of 'real' black people - of all nationalities - or at least see them on tv, we don't have to worry that they will be hammered into associating, even lightly, black people with stupidity because of Zwarte Piet. You assume they make that link, but they may indeed just think of him as a clown, or as a character. In fact you also assume they will link 'blackness' with Africa, but they might associate it with the U.S., considering the large representation of black people in American pop culture so very available in Holland.

As I said, I don't have a real opinion on this in general, and do struggle with our heritage of racism and colonialism (and our current economic and political practices). But I would not worry too much about how the children's perspective on black people will be influenced. When they are older you can talk with them about it and discuss whether Zwarte Piet is offensive and/or disrespectful.

My two cents..

Happy holidays,


Anonymous said...

Is a white man, who paints his face black, with red lips and black crulled hair always a racist? Or is he a racist when his purpose is to ridicule black people.

In my opinion a racist is someone whose purpose is to ridicule a group of people. And that dont have to be someone who just paints his face and put some lipstick on.

Zwarten Pieten dont ridicule black people as white clowns dont ridicule white people.

Anonymous said...


I'm black British born to Jamaican parents , now living Belgium. I too was extremely horrified when I first heard and saw Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas. I too think it is racist and do not celebrate this tradition. Once a little flemish child pointed his finger at me on the bus and called me Zwarte Piet and everyone on the bus responded with laughter. I did not feel comfortable at all. I can't believe that Dutch people look at this character and not see the connection to racism. What do they learn in history class here anyways????

Unknown said...

I wanted to respond to the last couple of comments.

I have made earlier comments and you can read those if you want I better understanding of where I am coming from.

I really want to stress simply one thing: The Dutch Sinterklaas tradition has no racial INTEND what so ever.

You can argue that it is racist and Toby has done a good job of making that argument. I do not dispute that. You can argue that something ought to be changed and I could agree with that too.

I just hope that people that are offended by sinterklaas do understand that there is no Hate or racist feelings behind the tradition.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Marc, it's me, Anonymous, again. Dude, you and I have been through this ad nauseum: just because somebody thinks to himself, "I'm not a racist" does not mean that s/he can dress up in blackface, fright wig and bright red lips without engaging in racist caricature. Have you had second thoughts since our exchange here a few months ago? The fact that most white Dutch people truly believe that they are not capable of racism is exactly why we still have people running around in the most atrocious 'darkie' get-ups imaginable for weeks at a time every year. Having a 'white heart' is not a license to engage in nasty conduct. If it were, we all could justify doing all kinds of nasty stuff as long as we 'don't mean anything by it.' Bah. I am disappointed to see that you are back to where you were when we started our conversation.

Unknown said...

Hey Anonymous,

I am frustrated as well mostly because perhaps we are both stuck in perceived ideas of what other people (on one side of the fence) think.

I am also frustrated because it’s hard for me to make myself clear. (In English)

I do NOT believe it is ok to say to your self I am not a racist and then go ahead and do racist things. I.e. dress up as a caricature. This is NOT the point I am trying to make.

I am also NOT saying that the Dutch people are incapable of being racist.
I am also NOT saying that I am not capable of being a racist.
I am also NOT saying that having a “white heart” is a license to engage in nasty conduct.

I understand all that. I really do. I am with you on that and with Toby.
I am NOT trying to make excuses for Racist behavior.

Part of the problem is that I am (apparently) on one side of the issue and you are on another. There for I must be defending this behavior.

I am trying to break through these preconceived ideas we have of each other.

The only thing I want people to understand is that I am not sure that you can be a racist in the true sense of the word without some idea of what your are doing.

Believe me, many kids and people in Holland are not having ANY racial ideas when celebrating this holiday.

Does this make it right?
Does this make it acceptable?
I never said it did.
I still think that something needs to change. I really hate the fact that a tradition that I have fond memories off is also hurting people.
This is a complicated issue. This may be an open and shut case for you but I am asking you one more time to try and understand what I am saying.

All I want is that the people that are hurt by this tradition understand that the people in Holland do not have a racist agenda with this tradition. Again not saying that the Dutch people are incapable of being racist, or that the tradition should not change.

Lastly, I hope you don’t get the impression that I am mad at you. But it is frustrating to have you own words used against you and interpreted the wrong way.

Not saying that I am right and you are wrong. I just wish you would understand where I am coming from.

Best regards,

Tiffany said...

Answer's to your questions Ive been told:

Piet's black because he's covered in soot from the chimney's - kinda like how Dick van Dyke was in mary poppins - more then just his cheeks were covered...

Piet wears make up as he is a preformer who entertains the children..

Toby Sterling said...

Alix, Marc, Anon.

Alix, yes, there are a lot more positive images of black people in the western world nowadays (though whether they're mostly negative or mostly positive is a different question).

Now that my son is 4 _ well, I haven't tried to explain racism to him. Both he and my daughter have now seen black people and said "zwarte piet" (exactly the experience that jamaican person had on the bus). So yeah. I think the stereotype really does have a effect, and yes I think it's negative. And no, I don't think its such a disaster that it's going to make my kids turn out racist.

Heaven help us, even a whole country (the U.S.) can slowly but surely get better. It definitely has gotten better in my lifetime, despite every thing.

So, maybe Zwarte Piet is not such a huge deal, but it's still wrong.

Marc & Anonymous I really appreciate your taking the time to hash things out. You do agree on almost everything, which (I would argue) is the best possible kind of discussion.

Especially Marc, I know how frustrating it can be when nobody understands the nuance you're trying to reach.

I, like Anonymous (I think) understand and agree with you that the Dutch aren't usually consciously trying to be racist with the Zwarte Piet caricature.

In law, intent makes a huge difference in how *wrong* something is. So we shouldn't judge the Dutch too harshly on this.

BUT we shouldn't just let it slide either.

The example Anjuli gave a year ago is overly dramatic but essentially right. If you drive drunk and hurt someone, that's probably not what you were trying to do. But it was a chance you took.

Dutch people can say they don't know that ZP is a racist caricature, but I think in their heats they do know, most of them do. I think they just don't care, or figure 'so what, it's not a big deal.' And the possible damage in terms of hurt feelings or instilling racist attitudes in children is given a weighting of 0,0.

Someday, in a thousand years, maybe all racist caricatures won't matter because they will have no power.

Maybe it will be a world where really, the meaning of blackface, swastikas, klu klux klan hats, etc. are so far behind us that we don't need to pay any attention to them.

Maybe we'll be able to just look at them and laugh about how silly people can be.

In 2010, I think the taboo against these symbols is there for a good reason. And it's still important to point them out and reject them as much as we can. In the current political atmosphere in this country, it will be very difficult to change ZP, but it's part of citizenship, solidarity, whatever you want to call it, for me to point it out. And state clearly that I don't think it's right.

As a final word, because my children's Dutch great-mother died this past year, we celebrated the holiday with just our immediate family and my wife's parents this year.

So it was smaller this year, more personal, and I have to say it was nice, a lot of fun. A great holiday. I have to say, I appreciate very much the fact that the Dutch separate the gift-giving holiday (Sinterklaas) from Christmas.

And I'm not religious in that way!

To me, I honestly would love to see Americans celebrate Sinterklaas way, on Dec. 5 or 6. The Santa Claus holiday is so over-the-top & nonstop from Thanksgiving (late November) until Xmas, it's like eating too much candy, so commercialized.

But of course, I would only want to celebrate Sinterklaas with NO Zwarte Piet in blackface.

Unknown said...

First off, I am sorry to hear of your loss.
Regarding this topic I think I have done my best to explain my point of few. I think you and Anonymous are pretty close to understanding what I mean. Both of you simply don't agree with me on everything and I can live with that. (Barely! :D…j/k)
This discussion has taught me a couple of things, about my me and Sinterklaas.
When I have more time I might come back and get into that.
The tradition should change and get rid of all the negative stereo types and keep the joy it gives to generations of small children and parents.

This blog is rare in the sense that the people commenting on it seem all very honest sincere and patient.
Something I can appreciate very much. Thanks.

Best of luck, and happy holidays.

Anonymous said...

what about the basic principles of Cultural Relativism? I don't think you can simply apply modern american values on european traditions.


Anonymous said...

Cheers Toby, for a hosting this (most likely unexpected) lively, heated and lengthy discussion.
I guess I should begin to clarify that I am a Dutch citizen, before I'm told to use restraint in speaking ("shut up") and leave the country. I am also vehemently opposed to the BLATANT racist imagery of Zwarte Piet. Some people rightly say that the origins of Sinterklaas and his merry helper stretch back as far Greek sagas ("Its HISTORY!"), but again probably have not read your article. Theres a lot of cherry picking going on in these discussions in defense of a needlessly hurtful symbol of slavery and historic subjugation.
The defense of which (in my personal, and again for those who find this important, Dutch position) I find hilarious (and at the same time quite disturbing). The examples are plentiful, but I'll just pick out two. Firstly, the celebration takes place on one day out of a whole year, why make a fuss out of it and just leave it alone? If the event is so insignificant (just that one day) why not forget about it altogether and indeed move on. There are plenty of other commercial shindigs you can dress up for. And the other classic retort, "the tradition isnt racist, i'm not racist and if you think so, get out of MY country". The sheer ignorance and blind hatred is almost unfathomable, but highly entertaining.
This is probably not the most constructive post, but I'll add it all the same.

Toby Sterling said...

Thanks, newest anonymous. I had an interesting talk recently with a young (white) Dutchwoman who was raised on St. Marten in an all-black class where they celebrated Sinterklaas and she says that nobody ever thought Piet was racist and she was bored of the discussion. Pretty discouraging. Anyhow. I'm getting my nerves up to talk to school administrators / the parents' organizing committee at my son's school. Funny how professionally (as a reporter) I can ask tough questions, but in this scenario I feel the social pressure against challenging the Piet paradigm pretty strongly.

Anonymous said...

I live in curacao, an caribbean island next to aruba. Here the people celebrate sinterklaas. The black people here, paint their faces even more black, while sinterklaas is painted white face. Offcourse, the tradition comes from de dutch, but the curacao people welcomed it with pleasure.
Maybe you are right, and should the zwarte piet just black his cheeks a bit as if he has been through a chimney. but than kids will recognize the piet as their dad or teacher!
And, the word "zwarte" is allready banned on tv etc. in the netherlands.

Anonymous said...

Nice Blog!
I think we should create a page on facebook with: Change Zwarte Piet Tradition'' and make people sign and like it; Then we can take it to the next step...
Personally I want to do it but I would prefer the author of this blog to do so...If you give me the permission I will do it and use the precious information you have on your website to do so; Can I?

Toby Sterling said...

Hi Solange.

I don't keep the blog up anymore, but the Zwarte Piet page keeps drawing a lot of hits...

There is at least one facebook group I know of with a similar goal.

They've cited my blog entry, among others.

Feel free to use alter or reuse anything I've written on the blog, here there or anywhere.



Caribbean Girl said...

I am from St.Maarten, my mother is from Curacao and I still live on the island. My college education was in the U.S. and I'm so grateful for that. I have family in Holland (and yes we call it Holland and not the Netherlands just because the latter sounds too official) and I visited once when I was 8 years old during summer. Thank God it wasn't during Sinterklaas time. To this day, my sister and I are hurt and appalled by the Zwarte Piet images and everything having to do with that character all together. Marc and others, it hurts me, as a black Caribbean woman with a Dutch passport (not that it matters) to see white people dress and behave like that. Bottom line Marc, once it hurts or offends people of a race/origin it should be stopped!!! I'm sorry you guys grew up with it and I hate the fact that Curacao celebrates it. Talk about "slave mentality". It's not all in good fun, it's derogatory! "Black Pete"?!!??!? I mean come on, that screams racism all over it!

That's my 2 cents. I'm so glad I do not live in Holland because I would be protesting along with the others right now!

Anonymous said...

Your having a pavlov reaction. If zwarte piet is a blackface that doesn't make him wrong.

Your just narrow minded.

Oh, and sinterklaas is a herectic so if you like him your brainwashed.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Scarlet Ibis said...

I am from the English speaking caribbean. I am currently a student in Amsterdam. I did not know much about the Dutch before coming here except the dutch pancakes which I absolutely love. I also admire how dutch people can transport anything on a bicycle. Just this week I saw a guy on his bike carrying a sofa. Incredible!

Then Christmas time arrived and I was bombarded with these black face characters. A number of emotions engulfed me when I saw them; anger, hurt, disappointment and sadness to name a few. I was in complete disbelief that in 2011, these black face characters exist. I truly believed that this was a thing of the past.

I attended a debate this tuesday where a Dutch historian stated the history of the zwarte piet and where it came from and at the end he said that it was racist, and it re-enforced the stereotypes of black people. If he can see it why can't other Dutch people.

As one gentleman stated at the debate, "even though you may not intend it to be racist, it does not mean that the effect is not racist." I have not experienced any form of racism since I've been here and I don't consider Dutch people as racist. I think in every society there are extremes and so far I have been fortunate enough not to encounter them. However one must appreciate that many people including myself are offended by the existence of these zwarte piets. This is not an arbitrary feeling or some sort of conspiracy against the Dutch. These feelings are based on actual historical events which still have repercussions today. For example, at the debate a lady stated that her daughter came home crying because her classmates were calling her a zwarte piet. Clearly some black children cannot enjoy this tradition. Furthermore, an East Indian gentleman who works in the Netherlands stated that at his job, his colleagues made fun of him because of the colour of his skin and called him a zwarte piet.
(to be continued)

Scarlet Ibis said...


I feel like I have to spell it out or that I need to connect the dots for those who still cannot see the connection. Zwarte piets were only added to the Sinterklass legend in the 1850s. This was at a time when slavery was still legal in Dutch colonies. Now, I will not assume to know the intention of the author of the book (who introduced Sinterklass' helper) but one can look at the context. He wrote it at a time when blacks were mere property and servants. At a time when they were seen as stupid, ugly and were subject of ridicule and abuse. Zwarte piets at that time were not considered to be rich and Sinterklass' equal. Surely not. As time progressed, the story of the Zwarte piet changed to now where he is black because of the chimney.

For me, the fact that the story has changed over the years shows that the Dutch know that it is offensive. On some level they know. In addition, I think they must realise that changing the story does not change where it actually came from and it does not change the effect it has. If Zwarte piets are mythical characters, why are they portrayed as having African features, that is, the skin, hair and lips. If it is a mythical character then it should be based on an entity that does not exist. However zwarte piets bear too much similarity to black people. Especially the idea of a Sinterklass on a boat and he is wearing a religious attire with his "black helpers". It is too similar to a slave ship coming to the Americas with the crucifix at the front of the boat and the boat is filled with enslaved Africans. The parallel is too close. This might all be a coincidence but considering the past and the involvement of the Dutch, one ought to be sensitive to the connection that can be made.

Why does the piet have to be black? Why does he have to have African features? If you love the zwarte piet for his character and not for the colour of his skin then why not change his skin colour and his similarity to black people. I wish I could partake in the Sinterklaas celebration, but I simply cannot.

I do look forward to the day when the Dutch society can say ok its time to change this.

Scarlet Ibis said...


I feel like I have to spell it out or that I need to connect the dots for those who still cannot see the connection. Zwarte piets were only added to the Sinterklass legend in the 1850s. This was at a time when slavery was still legal in Dutch colonies. Now, I will not assume to know the intention of the author of the book (who introduced Sinterklass' helper) but one can look at the context. He wrote it at a time when blacks were mere property and servants. At a time when they were seen as stupid, ugly and were subject of ridicule and abuse. Zwarte piets at that time were not considered to be rich and Sinterklass' equal. Surely not. As time progressed, the story of the Zwarte piet changed to now where he is black because of the chimney.

For me, the fact that the story has changed over the years shows that the Dutch know that it is offensive. On some level they know. In addition, I think they must realise that changing the story does not change where it actually came from and it does not change the effect it has. If Zwarte piets are mythical characters, why are they portrayed as having African features, that is, the skin, hair and lips. If it is a mythical character then it should be based on an entity that does not exist. However zwarte piets bear too much similarity to black people. Especially the idea of a Sinterklass on a boat and he is wearing a religious attire with his "black helpers". It is too similar to a slave ship coming to the Americas with the crucifix at the front of the boat and the boat is filled with enslaved Africans. The parallel is too close. This might all be a coincidence but considering the past and the involvement of the Dutch, one ought to be sensitive to the connection that can be made.

Why does the piet have to be black? Why does he have to have African features? If you love the zwarte piet for his character and not for the colour of his skin then why not change his skin colour and his similarity to black people. I wish I could partake in the Sinterklaas celebration, but I simply cannot.

I do look forward to the day when the Dutch society can say ok let us change this. I hope that they will not be like their cousins in South Africa who held on to their ideals despite the world saying that it is wrong.

Anonymous said...

I realise this is a very old subject, but every year it rears it ugly head and now that I have children who are growing up Dutch I have to confront how I am going to deal with it. I find the connections with an oppressive slave owner and his 'helper' who plays the fool to his master just too obvious, but denial goes deep especially when people don't want to spoil their treasured childhood memories. I have just added a new article on the Amsterdam Mamas website about this whole problematic area of parenting and doing the right thing where your innocent children are concerned.
Thanks for this great informative post (even if it was 5 years ago),

Unknown said...

Well, most of the makeover-tips have already been implemented. Piet has gained about 75 IQ points, lost the lips, the dumb accent is gone. Except in Surinam, where the local population (black people) still put on black make-up to play the role of Zwarte Piet. But the resistance to change goes deeper: Saint Nick has already lost the cross on his hat due to religious sensitivities of muslims and now we have to radically change Piet as well? I think it is also a case of not wanting to bend over backwards to appease everybody anymore. Thank god for the pro-Piet facebook page, which has gotten over 2 MILLION likes in 36 hours.....

Unknown said...

Well, most of the makeover-tips have already been implemented. Piet has gained about 75 IQ points, lost the lips, the dumb accent is gone. Except in Surinam, where the local population (black people) still put on black make-up to play the role of Zwarte Piet. But the resistance to change goes deeper: Saint Nick has already lost the cross on his hat due to religious sensitivities of muslims and now we have to radically change Piet as well? I think it is also a case of not wanting to bend over backwards to appease everybody anymore. Thank god for the pro-Piet facebook page, which has gotten over 2 MILLION likes in 36 hours.....

Unknown said...

2013. But it is a great post from Toby, so why not react.

As a Dutchie, I except all points Toby makes, but I feel that a slight mistake is makes sometimes in the definitions.

Sometimes it seems to me like you mix up, race and racism. So when somebody dresses up as negro, or Moor, then he impersonates a person of another race. This does not automatically imply racism.

Once the role becomes stereotypical, in a play or tradition, it is still not automatically racism. It would be racism in my opinion, if negative stereotypes are portrayed consistently.
Now Toby states that Piet is always dumb, but I do not completely see where this comes from.

Another way that this could be a racism is because it represents a historical precedence. For exmaple, if Piet would be a slave. But he is not. PIET IS A FREED SLAVE. Hence the role of the Sint. A distinction that seems purposely overlooked by the Piet opponents. Right the story changes often, from soot to Moor, etc. But the tradition has multiple origins. As somebody explained here there is a piece of Nordic sage in it. What people generally agree on is that Sint freed these slaves that became his helpers.

Somehow I also feel that in an ideal world a white person should be able to impersonate a black person. And I even have the feeling sometime that opponent project their own racist thinking in this debate. But I do understand that things can be sensitive. Like, the best example I saw was that we still do not except Germans dressing up as Jews (but the thought of conjuring up obvious Jewish characteristics is already frightful). Mmh this I have to over think a little.

I think you have to understand about the Dutch is that we do have a certain complex about an elite left that is implementing all their high ideal, without caring for the real consequences on society. As Bas Heijne explains in his NRC columns, the humanism does not live with the people anymore, bbut continuous to live in our institutions. That's why we become so aggressive when people interfere in the culture. Because this perceived elite has changed society so rapidly over the past decennia.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. All of you.