The Netherlands' Controversial Blackface Christmas Tradition

By: Dave Roos
Zwarte Piet, Black Peter arriving by boat
People dressed as the character known as Zwarte Piet or Black Pete arrive on a boat with Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) Nov. 24, 2018, in Katwijk, Netherlands. Recently, the traditional black-faced character has been the subject of debate as to whether it is racist or not. Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images

Christmas comes early to the good children of the Netherlands. In mid-November, St. Nicholas, known there as Sinterklaas, arrives via steamship from Spain for two weeks of celebrations leading up to the eve of his birthday, December 5, when Dutch families and friends exchange gifts.

But Sinterklaas doesn't come alone. The stern, white-bearded bishop is traditionally accompanied by a jolly troupe of Zwarte Pieten, white men dressed up in blackface, curly afros and Moorish costumes fondly known as Black Petes. In the United States, talk show hosts are fired if they question the inherent racism of blackface, but in Netherlands, many Dutch defend their beloved Black Pete tradition as an indispensable part of Dutch culture.


American author Emily Raboteau spent half a year in the Netherlands while writing her award-winning nonfiction book "Searching for Zion." She'll never forget the first time she saw the bumbling, blackface character of Black Pete popping up on grocery store displays and kids' TV specials with his red lips and gold earring, an experience she chronicled in 2014 for the Virginia Quarterly Review.

"As an African American, I was shocked to witness the widespread practice of blackface leading up to Christmas," Raboteau writes in an email. "It struck me as offensive, racist and willfully ignorant."

But what was almost more shocking to Raboteau was the pushback from her liberal-minded Dutch neighbors who insisted that Black Pete wasn't a racist caricature at all. He wasn't even Black, some argued. His dark skin came from shimmying down chimneys to deliver presents. (No explanation for why only his face is covered with soot and not his bright, clown-like clothes.)


The History of Black Peter

The origins of Black Pete, many believe, stem from an 1859 book called Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht ("St. Nicholas and his Servant") written by Jan Schenkman, where, for the first time, St. Nicholas was given a servant, who was depicted as a Moor or dark person. It seems to have been part of a tradition of removing the punitive side of Christmas (punishing the naughty children) away from a religious figure and giving it to a sidekick or servant, rather like Krampus in Austria and Germany.

For most Dutch people, Black Pete is wrapped up in the overwhelmingly joyful and "cozy" emotions associated with Christmas in the Netherlands. Starting with the arrival of Sinterklaas and the Black Petes in November, Dutch children and adults write Christmas poems for friends, family and coworkers. They sing festive songs and attend jubilant Sinterklaas parades. It's perfectly lovely, unless you happen to be Dutch and Black.


"Probably every Black person in the Netherlands has been called a 'Black Piet' at least once in his or her life, especially in the weeks prior to December 5," wrote Dutch journalist Marthe van der Wolf. "It hurts, it always has and always will."

Black Pete has long had his detractors in the Netherlands, ever since the first wave of African and Caribbean immigrants began arriving in the 1970s, but the backlash picked up in 2011 after a Black Dutch activist was violently dragged from a Sinterklaas parade by police for wearing a T-shirt that said, in Dutch, "Black Pete is Racism."

Since then, the Dutch have taken sides, with liberal strongholds like Amsterdam removing blackface celebrations from school celebrations and parades, while more conservative and rural groups condemn the elimination of Black Pete as an affront to Dutch culture and tradition. People have gotten married in blackface to protest the anti-Pete movement, and in one disturbing case, activists wearing blackface stormed a school in Utrecht that had banned Black Pete, telling non-white teachers to "go back to your country."

While the controversy over Black Pete is certainly bound up in right-wing European politics surrounding immigration, Dutch historian Sandew Hira believes that other deeper issues are at play. Hira was born in the former Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. Suriname was an important stop for the Dutch slave trade, which enriched the Dutch royal family on the backs of enslaved African men, women and children.

The bigger problem, explains Hira, who works as the coordinator of the Decolonial International Network, is that Dutch school children aren't taught about this dark chapter of Dutch history. Instead, they learn how Dutch Enlightenment thinkers and "entrepreneurs" ushered in a period of unprecedented progress and wealth known as "The Golden Age."

"It's not called the bloody age, which would be a more appropriate term," says Hira, "because millions of people were transported from Africa and millions of people died of genocide."


Black Pete Today

This ignorance of Dutch history allows many people in the Netherlands to view the character of Black Pete without any sense of collective shame over the role the nation played in the slave trade. Hira says that the same willful ignorance existed in the United States before the Civil Rights movement, which initiated an ongoing national reckoning with institutional racism.

"That is lacking in Holland," Hira says. "We're still in the process of where you were 50 years ago."


There has been some measured progress, though. Like the school in Utrecht, many grade schools in the Netherlands have banned blackface or cut out Pete altogether from their Christmas parades. And Dutch public broadcaster NTR recently announced that it wouldn't show blackface actors in its annual children's "news" broadcast, only actors with smudges of soot on their faces. Hira hopes that Black Pete will be gone in five to ten years.

"That's because power changes after pressure. It doesn't change by itself," says Hira. "What's happening is that slowly but surely there's a growing number of people who think this is wrong. The fact is that it's not touching on the fundamental pillars of Dutch society if you leave out the character of Zwarte Piet in blackface."

American author Raboteau is less optimistic, seeing the battle over Black Pete as a symptom of something that runs much more than skin deep.

"Even if the Netherlands outlawed blackface entirely, blackface itself not the real problem," writes Raboteau. "It's the face of a national problem, which is that white people in the Netherlands feign ignorance or are actually ignorant of their brutal history and wish to remain so."

2020 Update: Although the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his views on Black Pete were undergoing "major changes," he said he wouldn't go far as to ban him, CNN reported. But many Dutch retailers and websites are distancing themselves from the character, says Politico.