Black Pete and the Dutch Obsession with Blackface

Zwarte Piet Group

Every year during the weeks leading up to Christmas the Dutch go blackface crazy. Visitors to the country unaware of this peculiar holiday tradition probably imagine they have arrived in the midst of a massive Minstrel Show revival or some other horrid festival of antiblack racist stereotypes. The Dutch proudly decorate their streets and stores with blackface imagery and adorn themselves in blackface make-up and Afro wigs to depict and celebrate the story of Sinterklass (Saint Nicolas/Santa Claus) and his helper “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete). According to the tradition, Zwarte Piet, an African, is a devil that Sinterklass has defeated and enslaved. His purpose as Sinterklass’ helper is to punish naughty children by taking them away to Spain in a burlap sack. Good children are rewarded with a gift.

This tradition—which includes street parades and celebrations in towns and cities across the Netherlands—has not gone unopposed. But protests that the images are racist have been ignored by the Dutch media or dismissed. Many folks in the Netherlands apparently don’t grasp the insulting nature of this tradition or don’t care who it offends.

Our friends over at Africa is a Country are featuring an article by Tom Devriendt that offers an excellent overview and current update of the Zwarte Piet travesty: “I Remember Black Pete.” Be sure to view the enclosed video clips.


3 thoughts on “Black Pete and the Dutch Obsession with Blackface

    • Bert, the problem is you are laughing at blackface caricatures that vast numbers of people of African descent find offensive. No, I haven’t grown up with Dutch culture (I’ve only been to the Netherlands once). But I’ve grown up with stereotypical images of “black” people that are clearly racist, and have seen this pattern repeated across the world. And despite your protestations, “Black Pete” is the servant (read: slave) of Sinterklass.

      • I am not laughing at Blackface, I am laughing at this text, do not put words in my mouth.
        My point of laughing at this text is that it is writting clearly by someone who does not know this celebration. Almost everyone celebrates Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, I know of no-one who associates this with racism. Neither is Pete portrayed as a lesser human being or does he portray someone of african decent, except perhaps for the dark skin color which resembles(read: Might look like) that of someone of African decent.

        BlackFace minstrel shows(to which critics of this celebration only all to gladly refer to) were almost only popular in the States, in fact it is invented in the States. It never took off in the Netherlands, people tried to bring it here, but people found it not funny. The Dutch history is ofcourse, far from clean, we have dirty past off slave trading. Even so, the idea that ‘Black Pete’ is of African decent is no where noted. No where can one find that he is African… what one can find is that the celebration come from Germanic ‘heathen’ celebrations. It is similar to Nordic celebration where its black crows, in the Alps its a man with a black demon mask and in the netherlands he is just more human than anything else.
        Yes, the Sinterklaas festival is also celebrated in other european countries but on a far smaller scale.

        Also you write he is a ‘slave’, but the emphasis isn’t on that part of his character. His character of does not mention ‘slave’ at-all. This is wrong and you are not right here.
        Black Pete is a ‘Knecht’ and though it can refer to a slave like definition, in this case it refers to him a servant only. An assistant. Black Peter is also not mistreated.

        The old character of Black Pete was that of a man who would do acrobatics, bring around candy and gifts to kids and if they were bad kids would get a ‘beating with a switch’ and taken to spain. Though this is the old personage, that comes from the oldest tales. I havent personally known the old character but, its our version of Santa giving you coal instead of candy in your stocking. Only Santa is far more commercialized as a character, you can’t sell a Sinterklaas like celebration in America because the issue with racism and their history is still very Fresh and alive. (actually did you know that santa is actually just the commercialised americanised version of Sinterklaas)

        Though in the Netherlands, I will not say that there has never been racism, but it was never the same as in america. Also and important thing is that during the time of the slave-trading, the Dutch never took ‘slaves’ from to the Netherlands. There was huge unemployment and a housing problem(bad houses and to many people living in one house). There was no reason to take slaves here.

        Nowadays through tv-shows intro the Black Pete’s recieved personality, they became individuals with their own talents. They shed the ‘scary’ pete for a childfriend who are gentle and funny(in the shows). There is the Clever headpete who is in charge of all the others and there is Pete for every single thing.

        The character is not racist and that it resembles black-face is a pure coincedance.
        The character is not made fun of or laughed at in a ‘make fun of manner’.

        I fully understand that this celebration might be totally un-understandable for outsiders.
        I wrote this rant our without citing this time, should you want the sources, I would gladly look them up for you.

        ps. sorry of sentences do not seem correct or is there are misspellings.

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