One of the first persons to question Zwarte Piet's portrayal was M. C. Grünbauer in 1968, at least one of the earliest ones with a record of it. Grünbauer linked him with the Dutch history of slavery. She argued that Zwarte Pieten should become Witte Pieten (White Pete) to change the power differences between the white master Sinterklaas and the black slave Zwarte Piet. Black Pete did not change his colour but changed from a rather creepy person to a clownish one. In Suriname (which was conquered by the Dutch in 1667, later reoccupied by the British and the Dutch a couple of times and gained independence from the Netherlands only in 1975), celebrating Sinterklaas was banned in 1980 as it was seen as "an unwanted symbol of colonialism". The following year, the Solidarity Movement Suriname organised the first protest against Black Pete in the Dutch city of Utrecht.
At the moment, there is an unprecedented heavy, emotional, aggressive (Wouters, 2014), nasty, messy, fierce and heated (via) debate in the Netherlands about how acceptable Zwarte Piet is. It is also a debate about tradition, defence of Dutch national identity and the Netherland's self-concept of being a tolerant society.
Social historian and member of the United Nation's Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent Verene A. Sheperd was insulted, threatened, intimidated and told "to go back to her own country" because she had criticised Zwarte Piet (Wouters, 2014) and called the custom "a throwback to slavery" (via). According to a survey carried out by the municipality of Amsterdam in 2012, only 7% responded Zwarte Piet was discriminatory (Wouters, 2014). On the other hand, in 2013, there were 21 official complaints about racist characteristics of Zwarte Piet and calls to stop Sinterklaas parades in Amsterdam (via). The petition "Pietitie" to retain Zwarte Piet was liked by 2.2 million Dutch people on Facebook within a short time.
Black Pete elicits divergent opinions ranging from "innocent holiday tradition, part of culture and identity, just funny, not racist" to "bizarre sidekick and "one of Europe's oddest and most titilating Christmas traditions" visualised by blackfaces that resemble Renaissance minstrels (via). Questioning Zwarte Piet is somehow felt as an attack on Dutch identity ... due to the impact traditions more or less automatically seem to have but also because tolerance is regarded as a core value of Dutch culture by a clear majority (i.e. 66%) of Dutch citizens. The self-image of a great many Dutch is undermined as their tolerance is criticised; society is polarised (Wouters, 2014). The whole issue is surely too complex to generally state that the Dutch have turned into an intolerate society. Various European surveys show that the Dutch are among the ones who highly value non-discrimination, freedom of religion, women's rights, and acceptance of homosexuality (Duyvendak, 2005). In short, Zwarte Piet is an anachronism in a modern and progressive country (via).
According to Duyvendak, cultural homogenisation took place in the past decades which made a Dutch majority develop uniform, progressive ideals. As the citizens of the majority population differ little from one another, "it would seem that Dutch society is losing its ability to cope with cultural differences". Considering policies regarding newcomers, Duyvendak comes to the conclusion that "a 'tolerant' country does not necessarily have to esteem diversity" (Duyvendak, 2005). An interesting paradox.
Office of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Human Rights
Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council
17 January 2013
We have the honour to address you in our capacities as Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on people of African descent; Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; Independent Expert on minority issues; Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 18/28, 19/6, 16/6, and 16/33.
In this connection, we would like to bring to your Excellency’s Government’s attention information we have received concerning the Dutch celebration of Black Pete, also known as “Swarte Piet”, which, each year, is part of the Saint Nicholas Event (5 December), and precedes and accompanies the celebration of Santa Claus .
According to information received:
The character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism. During the celebration, numerous people playing the Black Pete figure blacken their faces, wear bright red lipstick as well as afro wigs. The Black Pete figure is to act as a fool and as a servant of Santa Claus. The Black Pete segment of Santa Claus celebrations is experienced by African people and people of African descent as a living trace of past slavery and oppression, tracing back to the country’s past involvement in the trade of African slaves in the previous centuries. Reportedly, a growing opposition to the racial profiling of Black Pete within the Dutch society, including by people of non-African origins, is to be noticed. However, it is also alleged that no response has been given to associations defending the rights of African people and people of African descent in the Netherlands, which are asking for dialogue on this issue.While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of the facts received, we should like to appeal to Your Excellency’s Government to guarantee the right to equality and non-discrimination of African people and people of African descent in accordance with article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 2 and 26 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) to which the Netherlands is a party. (...)
Furthermore, it is reported that in relation to the acceptance of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2012 by the Netherlands, proposals have been made to declare the Dutch Cultural Historical Tradition “Santa Claus and Black Pete” as Immaterial Cultural Heritage. It is reported that the Dutch authorities have selected the annual Saint Nicolas Event (December 5) as one of the intangible heritages to be submitted for inclusion in the UNESCO list.
Some more facts: Verene Sheperd was criticised by Belgian UNESCO official Marc Jacobs for abusing the name of the UN (via) and not having been authorised to sign the letter to the UN (via). This year, an Amsterdam court ruled that the Zwarte Piet tradition is offensive to black people since it perpetuates a negative stereotype of black people. Amsterdam's mayor wrote in a letter that he would support a "less black and less servile" Pete (via). The songs sung during Sinterklaas, by the way, will be rewritten and certain words will be replaced (via)
- - - NO MATTER IF OR WHAT YOU CELEBRATE AND WHEN ... HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND/OR JUST A WONDERFUL TIME TO ALL OF YOU. - - -
- Duyvendak, J. W. (2005) A multicultural paradise? The cultural factor in Dutch integration policy. Paper presented at the 3rd ECPR Conference - Budapest, 8-10 September 2005. Open Section (31) 17: What the hell happened to the Netherlands? Public culture and minority integration in the country of (in)tolerance. via
- Wouters, L. (2014) "Zwarte Piet contested" Tolerance and the (re)production of the Zwarte Piet tradition in the Netherlands. Utrecht: MA Thesis
- photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995) via, of Roger Moore as Santa Claus (Southampton, 1969) via and via and (with third wife Luisa Mattioli) via