The Dutch tradition of Black Pete – a jolly children’s friend, or a racist caricature? Johanna Brunt

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As a little girl growing up in The Netherlands in the 1970’s, the festive tradition of Sinterklaas was my favourite time of year. Based on Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, Sinterklaas is seen as ‘the Dutch Santa’: a kind, elderly man with a long white beard, who hands out presents every year on the 5th December.

Sinterklaas lives in Spain, but every year in the middle of November he, and his loyal helpers, called Black Petes (of which there are many) arrive in The Netherlands on a steam boat. This is a huge event, which is broadcast on live tv, and a few hours later the same event takes place in towns all over Holland. Parents, grandparents and children all go to see the arrival of Sinterklaas together, and many children dress up as Black Pete (including black face paint), in celebration of this wonderful event. Sinterklaas is finally in the country. How exciting!

During the three weeks that follow, every Dutch family with young children watches the Sinterklaasjournaal (Sinterklaas news) at 6pm every day. The following day, children watch a repeat of it at school. It shows how Sinterklaas is busy preparing for the 5th December, with his Black Petes collecting children’s drawings and wrapping presents, and all of them settling into their temporary accommodation in The Netherlands (the Black Petes all live together in the Pietenhuis). Children put their shoes in front of the chimney, sometimes with a carrot in it for Sinterklaas’ horse Amerigo, and the next day there will be some chocolate coins or a small present in it. Also at this time of year, shops sell chocolate letters, marzipan and kruidnootjes (little Malteser-sized gingerbread cookies). Sinterklaas songs can be heard everywhere. Everybody is getting ready for the big day on 5th December: pakjesavond (present evening)! That’s when families get together, and children are beside themselves with excitement waiting for that loud knock on the front door. They run there as fast as their little legs will take them, and find a huge canvas sack full of presents on the door mat. “I’m sure I just saw a Black Pete running away behind those bushes! Quick, let’s get the presents into the house and open them up!”

‘Sinterklaas’ really is a fantastic tradition, and most Dutch people associate it with the kind of happy childhood innocence that is so rare in this day and age. It brings a warm and fuzzy feeling to the heart, like a soft, comforting blanket from the past that we want to pass on to the next generation.

So, when protests started against Black Pete about 5 years ago, most people were genuinely baffled and upset. Huh, Black Pete is racist? What on earth are you talking about? Black Pete is not a person, he’s a fictional character – it’s like talking about elves or gnomes as if they are real people! He is black, because he goes down the chimney to deliver presents to children, and the soot gets onto his face. Saying that this is a racist tradition is belachelijk (ridiculous)! Telling me that I am racist, because I, and millions of other people, enjoy this amazing children’s event, is very offensive and makes me quite angry. I really object to you accusing me of being racist – I am not, and you are spoiling the Sinterklaas celebrations with all this nonsense. I also know several people of colour who are perfectly happy with the traditional Black Pete, so that means that there is no problem. Political correctness has gone mad!

A huge discussion in Dutch society followed, and suddenly everyone was talking about the ‘Black Pete is racist’ issue. Around 90% of the population wanted things to stay as they were, and a pro Black Pete ‘pietitie’ (Piet-petition) on Facebook received a million likes within one day. It appeared that the people who wanted to abolish Black Pete were in a tiny, loony left, out-of-touch minority, and the not-so-silent pro-Black Pete majority was having none of it.

Personally, I wasn’t really sure where I stood in those days. I had moved to London when I was 20 years old, so I was following the debate from a distance. I could certainly understand the traditional pro-Black Pete point of view, based on my own happy childhood memories, but I could also see the other side of it. I remembered once reading a letter in my older sister’s Club magazine in the late 1970’s, in which a young black girl stated that she hated Black Pete, because children used to use it as a swear word towards her. Having spent many years living in a big, multi-cultural city, and meeting people from different countries and all walks of life through work, I probably also knew a lot more non-white people than the average Dutch person. I was pretty sure that they would find it hard to accept the idea that the Black Pete concept was completely innocent. It simply came across as unintended racism.

Curious to hear a neutral, non-Dutch, outsider’s opinion, I asked my English husband Chris what he thought of it all. He and I had been together for almost 20 years at this point, but amazingly, I had never talked to him about the Black Pete phenomenon – so I had no idea what he really thought of it! Chris is a very middle-of-the-road kind of guy: not particularly left-wing, nor particularly right-wing. He grew up in a half-English, half-Polish household in the middle of cosmopolitan London, so he’s pretty tolerant of other cultures, and not bothered about strange habits that other people may have. I truly had no idea what he thought, but I secretly suspected that he would say it was just an innocent Dutch tradition, and that the protestors were making a big fuss over nothing.

To my complete surprise and astonishment however, Chris said that he had always found Black Pete to be totally racist, and that he couldn’t believe that the Dutch were still getting away with this kind of stuff in this day and age. What??? Had I been missing something all these years? He wasn’t exactly on the fence – that was a very definite and damning opinion, from a pretty laid-back person. Was Chris right? Had I been blind to some kind of racist undercurrent; had I been too Dutch, too naive to see it?

I still wasn’t convinced that this was the case, but I did start to look at things through different eyes. “Black Petes”, i.e. black men, being helpers/servants to a white man. The songs: “Even though I am as black as soot, I do mean well..” In the old days, rather menacing and sinister-looking Black Petes putting naughty children in the sack, ready to take them away to Spain – while white Sinterklaas was the good guy giving presents (although, to be fair, Black Petes are very happy and friendly now, and everybody loves them). The similarities between Black Petes and black slaves (Holland’s involvement in the old transatlantic slave trade is notorious). The similarities between Sinterklaas’ steam boat, and old slave ships from colonial times. Black Pete’s name, the blackface, the big red lips, the afro wigs, the golden earrings. Try to google the words “Sinterklaas Russell Brand” on YouTube, and you will see what I mean. If you’ve ever had to explain the concept of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet to someone who has never heard of it, you will suddenly hear yourself utter the words “Look, I know it sounds bad, but it’s really not meant to be racist – honestly!” The more I saw and heard, the more I started to change my mind. Dutch people’s outraged and continued insistence that Black Pete was most definitely NOT a white person’s caricature of a black person began to ring quite hollow.

I also started to hear personal stories. I had a conversation with a black American colleague who came across some Black Pete-type pictures in a cafe in Barcelona. Being a very calm, culturally aware and sensible kind of guy, he debated whether or not he should stay quiet, but he then decided that he shouldn’t. He called the owner over, pointed at the pictures, and asked: “Is this how you see me? The blackface, the bright red lips, the curly hair…really? Do you think I look like that?” The owner was clearly embarrassed – to him, they were just pictures. But to his customer, they were hurtful, offensive and degrading.

There were other stories as well. A colleague’s son had been teased at school, with other kids calling him Black Pete when he was younger – which led to his mum now being a fervent anti-Black Pete protester. A Canadian friend who came to visit us in our Dutch town, joked “Oh, that’s not racist at all!” when she saw a picture of the “old-fashioned golliwog” (incidentally, another Thai friend who visited commented on how blonde everybody was, and that there was barely a non-white person to be seen). The “OMG-I-can’t-believe-it-this-is-so-racist!!” face of our English au pair, who came to the arrival of the steam boat in our town, and who texted photos of Black Petes to her friends back in the UK. They couldn’t believe it either.  I began to realise that every single foreigner seemed to see instantly what every Dutch person insisted did not exist.

Personally, I gradually became convinced that it was high time we changed Black Pete’s appearance. The debate in Dutch society is still ongoing as we speak, but it is also still pretty polarised. The question is, though: why are there not a lot more people like me in The Netherlands, who have changed their mind on Black Pete? Surely I can’t be the only person who has heard new stories and opinions, that they weren’t aware of before? My own solution would be simple: a gradual change from the traditional ‘blackface’ Black Pete, to a ‘Chimney Soot Pete’, who only has some soot on his face. It’s an easy compromise, and one that I think both sides could live with.

It’s hard to explain, but I suspect that the reason that people are sticking to their own uncompromising position, and why this is still such a black-and-white issue in The Netherlands (pardon the pun) is that the whole debate started off on the wrong foot some 5 years ago. Millions of regular Dutch people felt shocked that they were, in their view,  suddenly being accused of being racists, so it got their backs up. The anti-Black Pete approach was perceived to be very aggressive, and as a result, people on the other side dug their heels in. Extremism on the one side breeds extremism on the other side, unfortunately.

On the other hand, though, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the pro-Black Pete brigade to continue to deny that many people find Black Pete hurtful and offensive. Hundreds of tv programmes and news articles have been devoted to this issue. We now know, for instance, that many black children are being teased, and even bullied, and that the figure of Black Pete is no fun for them. Surely we can collectively agree that ALL Dutch children should be able to enjoy that warm, fuzzy Sinterklaas feeling? Or is that only reserved for white children? Even if you yourself may not particularly see the need for change (possibly because nobody in your predominantly white environment thinks that there is a problem..?), try to at least have an open mind, rather than the closed one which so many Black Pete supporters seem to have these days. No wonder that this debate keeps coming back every year – that’s what happens when you stubbornly refuse to move an inch.

Thankfully, things are changing, albeit much slower than the anti-Black Pete brigade would like. In 2013, 89% of Dutch people wanted to keep the traditional Black Pete, but now that figure has gone down to 68% in just 4 years. 26% of people now agree that Black Pete’s appearance should change. The irony is that it would have been pretty easy to reach a compromise many years ago, if things hadn’t become so polarised. But a change is still possible, desirable and inevitable in my view. Nobody wants to take away the joy of Sinterklaas – quite the opposite. Changing Black Pete’s appearance is hardly going to make much difference in the grand scheme of it all.

Roetpiet (Chimney Soot Pete), I believe that YOU will ultimately save the day. It is already happening, in the Sinterklaasjournaal, in shops and other places. And you know what? The world won’t end. Grownups will finally grow up, and Dutch children will be just as happy as they have always been.

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My name is Johanna Brunt (my Dutch name is Joke), and I was born in The Netherlands in 1970. After secondary school I studied English and European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I went to London on a ‘gap year’ when I was 20, met my husband Chris, and ended up staying in London for 24 years.  Chris and I married in 2004, and we have 3 children: Emma (10), and twins Daniel and Katie (7). We moved (back, in my case) to The Netherlands in December 2014.

I have been a flight attendant for United Airlines since March 1992, flying out of Heathrow to the United States. Apart from the flexibility, the best thing about my job is that I get to meet passengers and crews from all over the world. I truly enjoy talking to people from different nationalities and backgrounds, and I have learned a lot from hearing various points of view about a variety of subjects. I am a firm believer in the Mark Twain quote that ‘travelling broadens the mind, and is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness’.

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3 thoughts on “The Dutch tradition of Black Pete – a jolly children’s friend, or a racist caricature? Johanna Brunt

  1. Nice explanation Joke. I like your perspective and I could live with roetpiet but not the colorful ones they have been coming up with. 🙂

  2. Johanna

    I enjoyed reading about this Dutch tradition that I have never heard of. We are all so innocent as kids and of course accept all these traditions until we or others around us question them and by doing so we all learn some new perspectives. I hope you and your family have a wonderful ‘new’ traditional Christmas this year!

    Have fun

    Mariax

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