Dutch Language Blog

Zwarte Piet – Black Pete, still there? Posted by on Nov 15, 2014 in Culture, News

Sinterklaas, wie kent hem niet? Sinterklaas, Sinterklaas, en natuurlijk zwarte piet! 

This is how a kinderliedje goes that is sung around Sinterklaas time. See it here:

Natuurlijk zwarte piet. Of course! He is part of the Dutch Sinterklaasfeest and annual tradition like nothing else. White Dutch people paint themselves black and dress up as zwarte piet, the kind and nice helper of Sinterklaas. They spread pepernoten and other lekkers all over the place, give hands full to kids waiting for Sinterklaas to pass by with his pieten. It is the Dutch tradition that is celebrated by literally everyone.

However, in recent years, the pietendebat (pieten debate) began. White people painting themselves black – isn’t that blatantly racist?

One side says that it is not, as racism has never been the intention of zwarte piet, and the tradition says that piet is black. The real reason for this is not even clear. Some say they actually represent slaves of Sinterklaas that would work for him back in the days. Some have a more innocent explanation: because the pieten deliver all the presents on December 5 by climbing through the chimneys, this theory says that piet just got all black because of the roet (soot). And since there are so many chimneys, the soot would not go off anymore. There may be plenty more explanations, but the main point is that nowadays there is no racist connotation with zwarte piet among the Dutch.

The other side, however, claims that depicting zwarte piet as the dumb, black helper that works for the white Sinterklaas is patronizing and racist. This view came from other countries, raising their eyebrows upon seeing this peculiar Dutch habit. Not surprising, when you see things like this:


They claim that this goes way too far, and should be stopped.

The solutions found this year are manifold, and the struggles to get it right for everybody are greater than ever. Some pietencentrales (companies that rent out pieten) offered pieten in different colors: purple, yellow, blue, green… Whatever you want. But that backfired: most pietencentrales got calls from their customers that wanted a confirmation that their pieten would really be black.

The official, national city where Sinterklaas will be arriving on his boat all the way from Spain this year is Gouda. The municipality also faced this issue: what to do to please everybody? That nobody feels offended, but everybody is still able to celebrate Sinterklaas as usual? Their idea: two new kinds of pieten: the stroopwafelpiet (caramel wafer piet) and the kaaspiet (cheese piet). Both very Dutch things, and why not paint a piet in the colors and patterns of kaas and stroopwafels? Well… A survey resulted in 93% saying that this would not solve the pietendebat. Bad replacement, it seems…

The Sinterklaasjournaal, the annual TV program made for children around the time of Sinterklaas, also dealt with this racial issue. In the first episode, watched by a whopping 850 thousand people, showed the normal, black pieten. Then, in the second episode, white pieten are used as helpers for Sinterklaas, because for some reason many pieten could not come from Spain to the Netherlands. One of them climbed through the chimney and came out with black roet. Personally, I think that is the best way to deal with it!

What do you think. Should it be allowed, should it be forbidden? What are your thoughts on the SinterklaasfeestGezellig or gruwelijk?

Zwarte piet

Zwarte piet

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.



    As a South African, having gone thru 20 years of “orientation “. I can believe that this is an issue, but this is part of the Dutch heritage,and should be allowed to continue, only extremely insecure individuals would find swarte piet offensive. At some stage people need to get over themselves and put that energy into something really useful – like feeding the poor and destitute of Africa.

  2. Peter Simon:

    As your audience was asked this question, and opinions of non-Dutch people were also referred to, I’d like to add an outsider’s view as well – but nobody should be offended by the negative side in it.

    As I come from E-Europe, I have very different views and traditions on Santa Clause, which we call, in translation, Father Winter. Our word is a clear reference to Father Christmas, but only appears on 6th Dec., the official name day of St. Michael.

    But that’s a different culture. However, coming from there, I was clearly disgusted with the way the Dutch go about it. For me, with that background, it’s seriously overdriven. Basically, it should be a kids’ tradition, and yet, when I was sitting on a HMBO course for adult foreign learners of Dutch, Sinterclaas en zwarte Piet in full gear appeared and began to behave to us as if we were 5 years old. I found the situation, at my age, positively stupid and disturbing, even disgusting.

    In my view, the Dutch can all do this decently according to their tradition, but if they televise it for weeks on end, they shouldn’t be surprised that people of foreign origin find it very strange at best. It should be limited in scope, a lot less commercialized, and then they can say that it’s about the Spanish resistance in the Middle Ages, and that the helper came through the chimney. These explanations should be communicated even if there’s no complete agreement on it, and they should declare that there’s nothing against people of other nationalities in it.

    I suspect there is/was, though, if I think back to times when the Dutch were the original slave traders into N-America (see Tony Morrison’s book “Home”), were the overlords of Indonesia and the greatest traders in the world before the English. So, there may even be stuff in the ‘looking-down-on-black-slaves’ theory, which Anglo-Saxon N-America took several hundred years to solve, in a not-quite-complete manner. After losing America, the Dutch at least hasn’t had to wrestle with this issue, so try to do as if there were nothing about black people in the zwarte Piet issue.

    Furthermore, making and publishing songs like quoted above also reflects very negatively on the Dutch culture. I haven’t expected anything of high quality there, as usual, but this is towards the bottom, in my opinion.

    Of course, it’s my personal view. But I don’t think the factors I referred to don’t put Dutch culture in a better view for other nationalities. One very positive side to it, though, is the love of children and the desire to amuse them – but it seems even that comes at a cost.

    No harm meant, but as the audience of the article, I was asked for an opinion, so that’s mine. I look forward to those of others.

  3. Peter Simon:

    Sorry for the faulty reference – I wanted to refer to T. Morrison’s “A Mercy” (2009).

  4. Pam:

    I have the solution. An actual black person should play the part of Zwarte Piet. No more exaggerated black face makeup on a white person. How can anyone find fault with an actual black person portraying a black character?!