Friday, 11 July 2014

The Future of Zwarte Piet

We are usually spared the whole Zwarte Piet debate until around October or November time when Sinterklaas is due to hit Dutch shores but this year the summer is already poised to be filled with Black Pete discussions.

Last week an Amsterdam court ruled that Zwarte Piet is a racist figure, and consequently the Amsterdam council may like to rethink the intocht (the arrival of Sinterklaas in November in the city) and revisit the appearance of the iconic Dutch figure. The court has expressed that the council should consider the negative feelings that Zwarte Piet evokes for some people. In short, Zwarte Piet is a negative stereotype. Some agree with the court ruling. Some don't.

Last year the anti-Zwarte Piet lobby was more vocal than ever and even the United Nations waded into a debate that had longed stayed at a national level, stepping on more toes than it ever could have imagined.

Behind the scenes, not just in Amsterdam, but in the Netherlands as a whole, a new image of Zwarte Piet is being discussed and worked on. What this means for 2014 remains to be seen but it is likely that the stereotypical slavery items such as the gold hooped earrings and the black curly hair will be the first to go. There has also been lots of talk of ditching the black face altogether in favour of different colours - rainbow Petes if you will. I saw an example 'Purple Piet' in a newspaper article and I have to say it looked pretty good.

As I stated last year in a blog post the time for change has come and Zwarte Piet will evolve - that is sure to happen. It is something that has been happening over the decades anyway in a slow and subtle manner. But it is a fact that any dramatic immediate change will be met with fierce resistance.

However the Zwarte Pieten look when they arrive this November from Spain with the good, holy Sint I do hope that someone else will be doing the explaining for us parents who will be the ones left with confused children asking a billion and one questions. The same children who do not see Zwarte Piet as a racist figure, the same children who fortunately wouldn't know what racism is if they fell over it on the way to school, the same children who are blind to the implications of the colour of a person's skin and see Zwarte Piet as a fun clown like figure. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the evolution of Zwarte Piet, far from it,  but I hope that whatever changes are made the children are put first - after all Sinterklaas is a children's celebration.


  1. Thinking of the children, do you know that black people have children too and children innocently call other (black) children Zwarte Piet?It is not easy to explain to a black child why he/she is Zwarte and Sinterklas is not Witte Sint...

  2. Which is why I make it clear in the post it is time for change. I don't think that part of the story is debatable. However, whenever you take a children's tradition and change it very notably then there is a need for explanation that children understand. I am very happy to say that on a personal level if I explained what is happening around Zwarte Piet in Dutch society to my own children they would be baffled simply because they do not see their black classmates as 'Zwarte Piet' - that is what I mean with seeing this through children's eyes. I think, and I hope, my children are in the majority. The fact that there is a minority is part of the reason there is a drive for change. Again, as I already stated I don't think the fact change is coming that is up for debate.