Zwarte Piet: Black Pete – The Racist Dutch Christmas Tradition

This is Zwarte Piet aka Black Pete, the racist Dutch tradition that promotes Blackface at Christmas.

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During the Dutch St. Nicholas holiday, Netherlanders gather for parades in which the saint (in Dutch, Sinterklass) arrives in town to hand out candy and gifts. But these parades have taken on an increasingly political and violent tone because of Santa’s traditional blackface sidekick.

In Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas has a “helper” named Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” who usually appears as a blackface character with large gold earrings and exaggerated lips. Cities and towns host parades featuring hundreds of white people dressed in Blackface as Piet. Stores sell Zwarte Piet costumes and merchandise, while adults visit children’s homes and schools dressed as Sinterklaas and Piet.


The growing number of Netherlanders who are protesting the tradition of St. Nicholas’ notorious assistant, however, have faced increasing pushback. White supremacists raised Nazi salutes at Sinterklass parades. White extremists chanted racist slogans and threw eggs and beer cans at people peacefully protesting the parade.


Before the Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863, the country was deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade. It grew prosperous by selling enslaved people to the United States or sending them to work in Dutch colonies. Some nobles “gifted” each other with enslaved Black children. These children are shown in paintings wearing clothing similar to Zwarte Piet’s.


The exaggerated appearance of Dutch Zwarte Piet costumes may have also been influenced by American blackface minstrel shows. Minstrel shows toured throughout Europe in the mid-19th century. The Dutch tend to argue that Black Pete is a Dutch thing, and other people outside the Netherlands don’t understand their culture. 

Usually, organizations that ban Zwarte Piet change the character’s image instead of getting rid of him completely. In Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas parade, Zwarte Piet has become Schoorsteen Piet, or “Chimney Pete,” who has soot on his face and a different outfit. Which funnily enough he still looks the same. 


However, the fight over Black Pete has exposed a deep rift in Dutch society. There are those who see glaring inequalities for the country’s minority population, and those who believe firmly that their tolerant and liberal society offers equality to all. 

Given the Dutch history of colonialism in Asia, Africa and the Americas, and a relatively liberal labor migration policy, around a quarter of the Dutch population of 17 million were born abroad or have at least one parent born abroad. Around 700,000 people are of African descent.

Consequently, white families still talk with unashamed disdain of ‘Black schools’ when referring to establishments in which more than 60% of the children are from a non-white background. The United Nations special rapporteur on racism, , E. Tendayi Achiume, visited the Netherlands last year and found that “in many areas of life… the message is reinforced that to be truly Dutch is to be white and of western origin”.


The Dutch debate over Black Pete finds echoes in the U.S. culture wars over symbols like Aunt Jemima’s syrup and Uncle Ben’s rice, where large swaths of white Americans see only the nostalgia linked to the characters and not the links to racism and slavery. To his defenders, Black Pete is harmless fun, and efforts to get rid of him are part of a broader effort to wipe out Dutch history, culture and tradition. Supporters argue that he is not based on a person of African descent, and his black face comes from squeezing down sooty chimneys, a theory that does not account for the red lips, gold hoop earrings and black, curly hair.

Critics and academic researchers say he is a throwback to slavery, an embodiment of the Dutch history of colonialism and oppression. Black Pete emerged in his current form in a book published in 1850, in which Sinterklaas has a Black servant. This portrayal came a decade before the Dutch abolished slavery in their colonies of Suriname and the group of Caribbean islands then known as the Dutch Antilles.

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