Jolly Black Servant – Tradition and Racism in the Netherlands

Yes, we are at it again. In the Netherlands we have a tradition called Sinterklaas. Every year in the beginning of December this old man brings presents to children together with a bunch of helpers: black pete’s (zwarte pieten). The debate is mostly about these helpers, which are a sort of present day manifestations of ‘blackface‘. The video below is quite instructive:
A recent incident triggered the debate once more. During the entrance of Sinterklaas there were several people protesting Zwarte Piet, with a t-shirt stating: ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme’ (Black Pete is racism). One of them was arrested by the police in a way that suggests severe police misconduct:
The views expressed in the video are not mine

Source: Wikipedia

I guess public opinion is best summarized as:
AFRO-EUROPE: Blackface: Black Peter (zwarte Piet) and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

But the black Peter character in the Sinterklaas event has become controversial over the years. Some black people feel the black Pete character is racist, but others feel the black Peter discussion is too serious. The popular opinion in Netherlands is, that the Sinterklaas feast is a part of the Dutch culture and identity, and that it should be protected at all costs. Black Peter is not a black person, he’s a chimney sweeper.

There have been attempts to re-appropriate ‘black pete’ into a sort of ‘rainbow pete’ giving him all kinds of colours making him a sort of multi-ethnic and universal figure, as well as making Sinterklaas ‘less Christian’. These initiatives not really catch on and received a lot of critique. There are a few interesting observations to be made pertaining to this tradition and the debate about it:

  • Zwarte Piet has part of its roots in a devil figure from the Middle Ages and perhaps even with roots in pagan traditions. In the 19th century he was reborn as an African slave under the influence of Dutch colonial system and he is also designated as a ‘Moor’. In later times there might be a link the American black minstrels as well.
  • It is often noted that this debate is something quite recent, the last five years or so. That is in fact incorrect. The protests go back to at least 1995 when a group of migrants protested the whole event. Their critique was dismissed because since they ‘were not Dutch’ they had no right to critique the Dutch let alone accuse the Dutch of racism.
  • There are, at least, three biases with regard to the color black. First of all, black as the symbol of evil. In that sense Sinterklaas having black servants signifies the triumph of good over evil.According to Lulu Helder who wrote about the tradition, this colour bias preceded the second bias: the racial bias. The third bias is somewhat different. As Zwarte Piet is also labelled as a Moor, the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet tradition also symbolizes West meeting East with the former being superior over the latter. These three biases together signify him as a bogeyman but also as slave, servant, authority figure, teacher and clown and not to forget several exotic and sexist connotations attributed to “Moors” and blacks. If all of this appears rather ambivalent, that would be the correct idea. The only thing not ambivalent is the white person as good, trustworthy, superior and civilized.
  • As Allison Blakely notes the image of blacks in the Dutch world is embedded in folklore, art, literature and the religious tradition.
  • Those defending this tradition frequently state things such as ‘This is a pure Dutch tradition’ ‘Don’t tell us what to do’ ‘We are not racist’ ‘You don’t understand this tradition’. In particular discussions raised by black Dutch people are dismissed since they apparently ‘Do not know’ or ‘understand Dutch tradition’. This makes the opposition against this tradition weaker since in this discussion they are treated as outsiders and not recognized as part of the Dutch moral community and with having an equal say about ‘Dutch’ traditions.
  • What is striking is that the agression against anti-black pete protesters appears not be an incident. In the 1990s the activists of ‘Zwarte Piet = Zwart Verdriet’ (Black Pete = Black Grief) protested several times and were beaten and spit upon. In 2008 performance artists wanted to a stage a demonstration against Zwarte Piet and an exhibition in a Museum. Due to death threats, abusive language over mail and phone the museum decided not to go on with the plan. The negative reactions appear to have come from extremist right wing factions as well as more mainstream and left wing circles.


I dont expect a change in this tradition very soon. It should be clear however that Black Pete is a construction, and invention that has already changed in history. The current tradition has lost many of negative connotations which is partly positive but the negative side is that this makes the racism more hidden. Nevertheless, I think this Dutch tradition lends itself perfectly for teaching young children about racism, colonialism and religion throughout history. Maybe that would be a starting point for some change in the future?

See also: Blackface Minstrelsy at Plug

16 thoughts on “Jolly Black Servant – Tradition and Racism in the Netherlands

  1. Tell me where the “racism” is with Zwarte Piet…

    I have never seen where Zwatre Piet was treated like a slave or “man-servant,” which would be, indeed, racist. Zwatre Piet is treated more like a partner, not a slave.

    In a time of disgraceful, un-Dutch, national intolerance and open hate toward “non-Dutch,” Zwatre Piet could bring back the real sense of Dutch culture and heritage grounded in tolerence. Zwatre Piet is a part of the Netehrlands and must not “be deported!”

    And – the Netherlands has a vastly larger problem with Islamophobia and is under the influence of hateful myths of about Muslims, like “Islamisation,” peddled by a so-called “anti-Islam” political figure and “leader’ of a so-called “political party” that threatens the whole constitutional order of the country.

    The loss of Zwatre Piet as a Dutch tradition does not really compare to the loss religious tolerance as a Dutch tradition!

  2. I agree with Martijn that we can use this Dutch tradition to teach our children to be more tolerant towards people from a different race or/and religion. On the one hand we are dealing in Holland with a large group of Dutch people with a great fear for evryone not Dutch and on the other hand, as a result of this, the blacks and muslims (and lots of other ‘foreigners’) who have the idea that they are seen as second-class. Now, isn’t it time that we see this tradition for what it is: for children aged around 2-10. And isn’t the greedy world to blame that we all make a point of this?
    Besides this: Sinterklaas isn’t just good, how many parents don’t tell their children to be good girls and boys because otherwise they end up in Spain and no one knows what happens there….

  3. Sinterklaas has servants. In it’s tradition all noblemen had servants. Mostly white. Servants in the household and butlers were mostly white throughout the whole history. Egyptian pharao’s and such may had white servants who knows. Why does is matter so much what color the servants were? In the children’s story Black Piet is black because of the ashes of the chimney. Does it matter if it’s believable he turns complete black of stays totally white like Santa Claus? It’s all about imagination.
    And the outfit of Black Piet is the same as Spanish noblemen wore. Not the same as slaves.

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