New Dutch tradition – Debate about ‘Dutch Black Pete’: Racist or not?

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Winter is coming to the Netherlands. This means: erwtensoep (pea soup), hoping to ice skate and… Sinterklaas.

 And for some years with Sinterklaas comes: the Zwartenpietendiscussie.

What is that and what does it mean? What do Dutch people and foreigners think about it?

To see what their opinions are, let’s first see who this black Pete is.

In short: who is Zwarte Piet (black Pete)?

Sinterklaas, which is one of the most important traditions, comes to the Netherlands in the middle of November. He arrives on his boat and he brings presents and a team of helpers: (zwarte) Pieten.

What is the problem? A celebration where a white man is the boss of black men who do all the work, is a bit strange. Especially if you consider that Dutch people of colour have their historic roots in slavery.

One part of the population wants to change the zwarte piet or give him other colours. The other part wants to stick with tradition.

“It’s a tradition”

In Dutch you say these people are ‘voor Zwarte Piet’.

The argument that people use, in favour of Zwarte Piet, is that it’s an innocent children’s traditional celebration. Let’s keep it ‘gezellig’ and not change it. Also Black Pete is only black from the soot of the chimney. Another argument is that everybody grew up loving Black Pete and you cannot call everybody racist.

However, the support for Black Pete is diminishing. In 2013, 89% wanted to keep the traditional Zwarte Piet. This percentage has dropped: now 68% do not want to change him. There is a large minority in Amsterdam who do want to change the appearance of Zwarte Piet. The discussion seems to reveal a gap between the Randstad and the other parts of the Netherlands.

If you want to say you support Zwarte Piet you can say:

  • Ik ben voor Zwarte Piet.

(I am pro Black Pete.)

  • Zwarte Piet is onderdeel van de Nederlandse cultuur.

(Black Pete is part of Dutch culture.)

It’s racist

In Dutch you would say these people are ‘tegen Zwarte Piet’.

People against Zwarte Piet view him as a legacy of slavery. It shows the racist aspect of our society, and we are keeping that alive with this. An example is people of colour being called Black Pete.

  • Ik ben tegen Zwarte Piet.

(I am anti Black Pete.)

  • Zwarte Piet is racistisch.

(Black Pete is racist.)

“I don’t know if Zwarte Piet is racist”

Although the news and social media are filled with opposite and polarized opinions, there is also a big group in the middle.

A big part of the Dutch population isn’t as radical as the two opposites.

They feel it’s a tradition, but in the last few years, it begins to look like it has to change. But they feel that isn’t possible overnight. So slowly moving towards multi-coloured Pete or soot Pete is not a problem for these people.

What do I think?

Since 2011 there have been a lot of demonstrations. Historically, the Dutch are known for being open and tolerant. I think the debate could be less heated and hopefully this tradition will develop into one big party which everyone can enjoy.

In the news

As I said, it’s in the news every year. One of the biggest items reported was the problem of the ‘blokkeerfriezen’. What happened?

2017: Blokkeerfriezen

In 2017 there was an ‘intocht’ of Sinterklaas planned in Dokkum (Friesland). In Dokkum a special area was marked off where demonstrators could stand.

A number of Frisians got wind of the fact that there was going to be a demonstration. And they decided a few hours before the arrival, ‘as a spontaneous action’ to stop the three buses with demonstrators on their way to Friesland. This happened in the middle of the road. The buses were blocked by cars and forced to stop and as a result there was a huge traffic jam. There was uproar and chaos everywhere, and the mayor abruptly decided to cancel the demonstration in Dokkum.

Since then there has been a lot of controversy about the legal process.

2019:  More world news

In 2019 a photo of a young Dutchman as Black Pete went viral as that ‘the racist figure from the Netherlands’.

It started when the American rapper Waka Flocka posted a screenshot of it on Instagram. It didn’t end there. There were over nineteen thousand responses to that message. Subsequently, a bigger American artist, Trey Songz also posted a similar photo. That’s when it really went off. Even Kim Kardashian posted criticism of his ‘Pete face’ on her Twitter account.

How to avoid the discussion

Foreigners who have come to the Netherlands and have lived here during Sinterklaas know all about this.

And I am not saying that this is a bad thing. I believe that the discussion is there for a reason. But what’s happening now is that people are very tired of hearing it endlessly argued about.

  • Het is was het is.

(It is what it is.)

  • Elk jaar hetzelfde liedje

(Every year it’s the same song.)

  • Ik heb geen zin in de Zwarte Piet-discussie.

(I am not interested in the discussion.)

Also, it is difficult to bring the two polarized groups together.

My advice is to listen to both sides, try to make up your own mind. But be very careful about bringing this up in conversation.

Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School