International student

Sinterklaas and the Controversy of Zwarte Piet


This blogpost is written by Asyana Eddy, one of our first year student ambassadors. The article was originally written for SLASH, the online magazine of our student association Caerus. 

The end of November and beginning of December chimes in the joyful cheer of children as the celebration of Sinterklaas begins. However, in recent years, it has started the uncomfortable, angering, and, in my opinion, necessary conversation about the controversy of Zwarte Piet, or the English translation, Black Pete.

The celebration typically starts the second Saturday of November, when Sinterklaas arrives on a steamboat from his home in Spain. This is known as the Intocht Van Sinterklaas, he arrives with his white horse and Zwarte Pieten, and they are welcomed by crowds of children and families excited to see them. On this night, children put their shoe in front of the fireplace, sometimes with a carrot for Sinterklaas’ white horse, and they sing songs. They wake up the next morning with small gifts in their shoe, or a lump of coal if they were naughty. Children do this every Saturday night until the 5th of December. The celebration of Sinterklaas continues over the next few weeks, and the spirit is notable as the stores fill with Sinterklaas themed decorations and costumes, pepernoten (small spiced cookies), chocolate letters, speculaas, and other holiday treats. Images of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are seen throughout the city, along with themed parties, events, and shows.

December 5th is known as Sinterklaasavond, and this is the night where many families get together and exchange gifts. How people celebrate can differ between families, some play a game exchanging gifts, while others pull lottery tickets weeks prior and make a surprise and poem for the selected family member. The next day, December 6th, is said to be Sinterklaas’ birthday and  this is the day he gets back on his steamboat and heads back to Spain.

For such an innocent and traditional celebration some may ask, why the controversy?

The image of Zwarte Piet can be quite startling, especially to foreigners in The Netherlands, as he is painted completely black and throughout history that has been known as blackface.

The movement called “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” or “Black Pete is Racism” took storm in 2011. It reached a global level of conversation in January of 2013 when representatives of the UN said they were looking into whether or not the Dutch custom is racist. As a result, they produced a letter stating, “The character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism.” This finding was not met with a positive or accepting response. The conversation became fuelled with anger and defence, many people refusing to see the correlation between Zwarte Piet and a colonial slave.  Amsterdam’s mayor, EE Van der Laan, wrote, “…the tradition is not in the least static. In the past 50 years, Zwarte Piet was no longer depicted as an ogre for educational ends. He evolved from being the stereotypical subservient ‘black slave’ into a cheerful ‘clown’”. Many argued that the blackness comes from the soot of the chimneys, which in turn, does not explain the excessively large red lips, afro wigs, or gold earrings.

“For 150 years we have been confronted with this institutionalized racism and we are supposed to be living in the most tolerant and anti-racist country in the world. In the 21st Century there should be no room for racism, especially open racism.” said Jerry King Luther Afriyie, a Ghanaian-born Dutch citizen.  His opinion is shared by many, even among other countries. In 2014, Sunny Bergman, filmed a short documentary called “Our Colonial Hangover” where two Zwarte Pieten walk through London and hand out toys, and people’s responses are filmed. The strong responses the Zwarte Pieten received revealed the shock and disgust that many people around the world have when they see what this tradition entails. Many comments by people on the street included something along the lines of, “How do they not see that this is offensive?” A man who was clearly from African heritage stated, “ You cannot put this in the face of people who have been oppressed, who have been slaves, you cannot then say here’s what we think of you.” The team even managed to get the famous actor and activist Russel Brand to comment on the tradition of Zwarte Piet, “This tradition dehumanises people that are of a different ethnicity and reduces them to a lower status of either toys or a degenerative role as servants” he says,

“We think of holland as a very advanced nation, with very advanced social principles, so it’s very surprising to see this kind of tradition…I think it’s a colonial hangover”.

As society progresses, it is necessary to question and to challenge societal norms, practices and traditions. It is necessary to reflect on where our practices and traditions stem from and where they lead to. Hear this, the majority of the Dutch population has no intention of being racist, and their meaning behind the celebration is not to be racist. However, the reality is that the impact of the celebration and tradition is. Impact will always carry larger significance than intent. So, is it time to reflect and maybe change what may very well be this country’s “Colonial Hangover?”.


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