Black Pete’s Controversy

is the New Dutch Tradition

By ISABEL BONNET | November 22, 2019

Cover photo by Veronica Fontana  / The Amsterdammer

On November 16, 2019, the first Saturday after Sint Maarten, 25,000 people enthusiastically welcomed Sinterklaas in Apeldoorn. For a couple of years, the arrival of the Dutch St. Nicholas and its traditions, brings with it, the ever-controversial debate of Zwarte Piet.

Since 1945, Sinterklaas has been accompanied by multiple “Piets”, his helpers—or servants. Commonly known as Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete” in Dutch), they are represented with  blackface, red lips, gold earrings, and dark curly hair. 

Despite Zwarte Piet’s relation to Sinterklaas festivities, those of Surinamese and Antillean descent have considered this act of blackface derogatory and offensive, an opinion which was heard on a national and international stage. Moreover, those against it believe it is an outdated tradition that reinforces racist beliefs and dwells on the colonial past. Meanwhile, those in favor of the blackface argue that it is a harmless Dutch tradition. Others argue that the Piets are not black: they’re simply dirty from the soot after going down chimneys. 

“The pro- versus anti- debate has a touch of the Dreyfus affair about it, with both sides being overheated and even sometimes aggressive,” wrote Joost de Vries in The Guardian.

Indeed, the controversy around Piets has escalated beyond the holiday tradition. For instance, Quinsy Gario and Jerry Afriyie, two artists of African descent, were arrested in Dordrecht in 2011 for wearing t-shirts that read ‘Black Pete is Racism’. “This became one of the main moments for the anti-racism movement in the Netherlands,” said activist Jessy de Abreu.

In 2014, the anti-racism and anti-Black Piets movement gained full momentum when Jessy de Abreu and her partner Mitchell Esajas, Amsterdam-based citizens, co-founded “Kick Out Zwarte Piet” (KOZP). The pair have actively challenged the Black Pete tradition with non-violent demonstrations since then. Soon, different collectives that also aimed to end Piets’ blackface merged. “We decided to come together to use [Black Pete] as a symbol to address racism in the Netherlands.”

De Abreu is a former VU student who has multiple degrees in Anthropology. However, she has been unable to land a job after numerous searches. She believes her unemployment is not a personal problem, but rather a systemic issue for people of color. Hence, she states that the movement to end Piet’s blackface serves as a way to raise awareness about a larger issue: institutionalized racism. Zwarte Piet is “a symbol of institutionalised racism, discrimination in education, police brutality in the Netherlands and racist imagery,” said de Abreu. 

Such notions are not, however, baseless. Researcher Melissa Weiner studied the Dutch denial of the existence of race and racism in the Netherlands. “Minorities experience institutionalized racism in the educational and occupational domains and frequent interpersonal discrimination in public places from the general public, business owners, and the police,” reads her study.

“I do see a positive change in the sense that some cities do not have blackfaces anymore” said de Abreu. Ever since the start of the anti-blackface movement, changes in mentality and policy can be seen. For instance, in a recent poll 41% wanted to stop the Black Pete tradition, a much larger number than the 7% from a poll in 2011. Since 2014, Sinterklaas helpers in Amsterdam and Rotterdam have not painted their faces black. In Tilburg, only 25 of the 150 Petes attending the parade had blackface this year.

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