clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Wearing blackface is a big part of Dutch Christmas

Marianne de Wit
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

There's remarkable variety in Christmas traditions internationally. In Japan, eating at KFC on Christmas is a thing. A number of Alpine countries incorporate a demonic figure known as Krampus. But there's no Christmas tradition anywhere that's as bizarrely over-the-top offensive as Black Petes (Zwarte Pieten in Dutch), the black assistants to Santa who play a major role in Holland's holiday celebrations.

1) Who are Black Petes?

black pete 2

Black Petes. (Gerald Stolk)

To understand Black Petes, you first have to know a bit about St. Nicholas Day. While technically just the feast day of St. Nicholas, the occasion — or technically St. Nicholas Eve, December 5 — has traditionally eclipsed Christmas Day as a gift-giving occasion in the Netherlands. The Dutch St. Nicholas myth generally holds that Santa Claus (Sinterklaas) lives in Spain, and then travels by steamboat every year to Holland in mid-November and spends weeks crisscrossing the country handing out gifts.

More than that, this actually happens every year, or at least is acted out. An actor is hired to play Sinterklaas, arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid-November and criss-crosses the country. He's accompanied by a number of people dressed as Black Petes, who according to the legend are elf-like assistants to Sinterklaas, assisting in gift distribution and with punishment of naughty children (one common legend is that the Black Petes will send bad children back to Spain with them).

Oh yeah — also, "Black Petes" are generally white Dutch people wearing blackface.

2) Wait, what, blackface? Seriously?

Yep. Historically, the Sinterklaas legend described the Black Petes as Spanish Moors, and some illustrators depicted them as slaves. In recent years, though, this version has been sanitized, and it's common to hear a version wherein Black Petes are white but got soot on their faces from climbing down chimneys delivering gifts.

The standard depiction of Black Petes — blackface, Afro wigs, big red lips — shares much with minstrel show depictions of African-Americans. The character is particularly ugly in light of the history of Dutch imperialism in both South Africa and Suriname, which while located in South America has a large black population. It's not an accident that historically Black Petes have been portrayed as having Surinamese accents.

"The Dutch were deeply involved in the slave trade, both transporting African slaves to be sold and using slave labor to work coffee and sugar plantations in their colonies," Jessica Olien notes in Slate. "Minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment."

3) How the hell is this still happening?

Because Black Pete is a widely beloved figure in the Netherlands. An October 2013 poll found that 91 percent of Dutch people believe "the tradition should not be changed to suit the tastes of a minority" and 81 percent oppose changing the color of Black Pete. Center-right Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has publicly defended the character, saying, "Black Pete is black and I cannot change that, because his name is Black Pete." He also played the "my black friends say it's okay" card, saying, "My friends in the Dutch Antilles, they are very happy when they have Sinterklaas because they don’t have to paint their faces. When I'm playing Zwarte Piet, I am for days trying to get off stuff on my face."

Diederik Samsom, the leader of the Labour Party, the Netherlands' largest left-leaning party and a member of Rutte's coalition, agreed, saying, "I do not particularly like to quote Premier Rutte, but he put it well: Zwarte Piet is simply black."

"Otherwise mature and liberal-minded adults may recoil from the topic and offer a rote list of reasons why Zwarte Piet should not offend anybody," Olien observes. "The general tenor among the Dutch public was that 'they' should keep their mitts off 'our tradition,' an opinion you can hear in any number of variations on any street corner," Dutch novelist Arnon Grunberg writes. "By 'them' people mean the United Nations and 'unnatural' Dutch citizens."

Defenders of the tradition tend to argue that blackface is only offensive in the American context, and it's different when done in the Netherlands. "It's not blackface like you used to see in America, which is indeed racist," pro-Pete activist Marc Gilling told USA Today. "Pete's blackness has a symbolic meaning which dates back thousands of years, to the days when black represented winter and the Catholic bishop (St. Nicholas) stood for summer."

Some on the Dutch right have seized on Black Pete as a political cause. Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right, virulently xenophobic Party of Freedom, the fourth largest party in Dutch parliament, has called for a law mandating Black Pete be depicted as black at official Sinterklaas events.

4) Is anyone trying to make the tradition less racist?

black pete 3

Just don't. (zoetnet)

Fortunately yes. A vocal minority of Dutch people oppose the tradition or want to modify it, and Black Pete-featuring events are increasingly facing protests. In July, a Dutch court declared Black Pete a negative racial stereotype and ordered Amsterdam to rethink its decision to issue a permit for a parade featuring him. But that ruling was overturned and the parade allowed to go forward. Grunberg notes that Dutch critics of the tradition have received death threats int he past.

Human rights observers abroad are pressing the Netherlands to reconsider its tradition as well. In 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' office sent a letter to the Dutch government expressing concern about the character. Verene Shepherd, one of the letter writers and head of a UNHCHR working group on Black Pete, called the character a "return to slavery."

5) Is Black Pete racist?

C'mon. Yes. Don't take my word for it, ask these London residents who saw Dutch filmmaker Sunny Bergman walking around dressed as Black Pete:

Or these Alabama residents reacting to descriptions and illustrations of the character:

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.