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Black Pete: Analyzing a Racialized Dutch Tradition Through the History of Western Creations of Stereotypes of Black Peoples

Dutch society, and therefore Dutch people, takes much prides in being extremely tolerant and anti-racist. Their history proves it; their open policies demonstrate it.  Yet there is a huge discrepancy between what is claimed by society in general, and what many minorities experience.  The traditional Dutch celebration of Santa Clause, “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, is an example of such a discrepancy.  The character of Black Pete, “Zwarte Piet,” in the Sinterklaas holiday has been a very controversial issue in The Netherlands.  Many believe the depiction of Black Pete is racist.  This article will look at the historical origins of some of the most standard stereotypes pitted against black people by Europe and the United States, and use them as a foundation for analyzing the portrayal of Black Pete and the controversy surrounding it. 

Europe and the “Savage”

Throughout history, images of Africa and black peoples as perceived by Europeans changed with the circumstances of societies.  In his book White on Black, Jan Nederveen Pieterse, demonstrates how Western depictions of black peoples demonstrated and propagated stereotypes as a means to further different agendas in Europe and America.  The first major stereotype of black peoples to be discussed is the African "savage". This concept of savagery used against African peoples is not specific to Africa.  It is directly related to the Eurocentric belief that technology and industrialization are symbols of, and nature is a symbol of the lack of, evolution and "civilization."   Societies which believed that the natural environment was something to be respected and protected—to be lived in harmoniously and not owned—were considered primitive, un-evolved, and unorganized peoples who had no ability nor desire to make 'good use' of the opportunities right in front of them.  This attitude was first developed by European immigrants to the Americas, and expressed through their judgement of Native Americans. Peoples seen as "savage" by Europeans were considered to be sub-human—lacking any sort of culture or history—and living in anarchy.

The primitive savage stereotype also served as a justification for the missionary in Africa. Africans were depicted as lacking any system of morality or religion, and condemned for heathen practice of worshipping idols connected to the devil and against God/Jesus. Missionary agendas served to defend and maintain the image/self-image and dominant role of the Catholic Church that had been losing ground in a secularized Europe.  "Saving the lost heathens" justified the missions, with much of the imagery depicting the missionary as the center of attention, using the "lost heathens" to be "saved" as a sort of scenery -- always shown in groups, lacking any individuality or characteristic that could personalize, yet in many cases depicted as thankful and/or in adoration of their "white saviour." 

Different variations of the "savage" stereotype developed for numerous reasons based on the social/economic/ political issues within Europe at the time, as well as the colonial agenda of Europe as a whole towards the 'undeveloped' worlds.  For example, as African peoples attempted to defend themselves against colonial rule, the stereotype of the savage as extremely violent and brutal developed.  It was necessary that Black people be seen as a threat to Europeans and to order and civilization.  Pieterse points out that the increasing class struggles within Europe caused the development of nationalist and racial propaganda as a means of "neutraliz[ing] the class struggle and transform[ing] class solidarity into national and racial solidarity which would be controllable from above.”  Thus the brutal savage took on the role of the enemy of Europe as a whole, replacing the European elite as the enemies of the under-class.     

Once colonial rule was established, however, the African could no longer be depicted as the enemy: "Savages had to be turned into political subjects," says Pieterse.  The brutal and threatening savage was turned into a childlike, unintelligent, and therefore harmless savage, content with the colonial establishment. This, of course, was the same as the stereotypes propagated by the missions.  It served the Europeans' need to not feel threatened by Africans, and to have one's justifications for colonization (including conversion) validated; they needed and wanted to be 'taken care of', and the hierarchy within this was a natural product of the inherent state of the African and the European.  Thus developed the notion of the colonized spectacle: black people functioning for the entertainment and enjoyment of Europeans.  A look at colonial exhibitions exposes the depth and weight of this aspect of racism. European countries organized exhibits of their acquisitions from their colonies. Villages of certain African peoples were recreated and people were shipped from Africa to Europe to be part of the displays.  At first, they were shown in zoos.  "Thus during the heyday of imperialism many exhibits of peoples were organized: at a price, the public was shown Negroes, Indians, and Asians, situated in their own dwellings," recalls Pieterse. Once they'd been defeated, Africans were to be turned from a threat into a decoration.  Pieterse explains the mentality as such:  "The ‘Other’ is not merely to be exploited but also to be enjoyed, enjoyment being a finer form of exploitation….They were demonstrations of racial supremacy in which imperialism seemed to be transformed into 'natural history'.”  Eventually, "action and drama were needed, especially wild action, like war dances…battle scenes, and so on."  In 1883, the Colonial Exhibition in Amsterdam brought 28 Surinamese people to the Netherlands, who were told that they were coming because the King was giving a party for 'all nations' to which they had been ‘invited’.  

In time, another development in imaging of black people arose; this from the exotic spectacle to the humorous joke of a spectacle.  Much of the humour came out of the concept of making fun of the hopeless savage who attempted but never was fully able to adapt to advanced civilized culture and technology.  This served the purpose of an infinite justification of colonial rule and exploitation of natural resources, necessitated from the growing question in the west that the colonies might not be economically profitable.

Pieterse explains that "this kind of humour serves as part of the culture of domination.  Laughter stigmatises and thus demarcated the frontier between cultural worlds."  

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet 

In The Netherlands, Santa Clause, the character developed from the historical figure (or some say legend) Saint Nicholas, is celebrated separately from the traditional Christmas holiday.  Contrary to the American Santa Clause coming from the North Pole with his reindeer; the Dutch Sinterklaas comes from Spain on a boat with a group of black servants, the Black Petes (“Zwarte Pieten”).  The chairman of the Regional Sinterklaas Promotion Foundation, Martijn van Nellestijn, explains how Sinterklaas is celebrated.  "A few weeks before the official holiday, Sinterklaas comes to the Netherlands (and Belgium) on his steamboat with all his Petes, into the city and the presents which they prepared in Spain during the year."  This is a performance by adults for the children in nearly all major cities. Theevent is shown on Dutch television. The Mayor of a given city welcomes Sinterklaas.  Schools and families welcome Black Petes.  Towards December 5th, children can put their shoes in front of the fireplace.  In the night St. Nicholas visits all the houses by traveling over the roofs on his horse. Often the children put straw, carrots and water near their shoes for the horse. Black Pete enters the houses through the chimney to put little presents in the children's shoes.  

Theories about the history behind the characters of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet vary.  The story of Saint Nicholas exists in various European countries. St. Nicholas was a bishop of Myra, (in the region of present-day Turkey) in the 4th century A.D.  There are many legends about the exceptional selfless acts of kindness he is said to have performed in his life for many kinds of people.  The Catholic Church declared him a saint. Many tales about his life made him the patron saint of almost every possible group in the society.  Bianca Berends wrote her final thesis on image-building in the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet tradition: “There are a lot of speculations, but none of them are based on facts.  The legends about St. Nicholas are all written after his death…[and] cannot be proven.”  

Others claim that St. Nicholas did exist but that the Sinterklaas of today is a fusion of St. Nicholas and Wodan, the ancient Germanic god. As the highest god, Wodan had a fellowship. He rode an eight-legged horse in the sky, and was assisted by his two servants, Eckhard and Oel.  Wodan also owned a javelin with a snake and two black ravens, which would inform him about the behavior of people on the ground.  In the Middle Ages Sinterklaas traveled with a creature on a leash that represented the devil.  “This creature disappeared for a couple of centuries. At the end of the 19th century, Sinterklaas was again given a servant, a young black man in the costume of a 16th century page.  

The speculations about this figure are varied as well.  In 1850 Jan Schenkman wrote a children’s book called ‘Saint Nicholas and His Servant’.  There is no name given to this "servant." He is simply referred to as such. Some claim that the portrait of the servant is inspired by the representations of the Moors in portrait art of the 17th and 18th century.  There is also a theory that this servant descends from the devil.  Others speculate that he descends from Piter, an Ethiopian slave who is said to have been bought and set free by St. Nicholas. Schenkman's book was very popular with the public. The concept of this black servant was taken over by other writers of Sinterklaas stories. We find the name ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) for the first time in a children’s book of 1891.  Certain researchers claim that the color contrast between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is a vestige from the time in which Sinterklaas was accompanied by a chained devil.  The chains symbolized a victory of good over evil, light over darkness. After The Netherlands became involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the literal blackness of this figure (Piet) translated to skin color.  Bianca Berends' work, much of which was focused on children's books, examined the emphasis on blackness in Zwarte Piet stories. She found that the Dutch equivalents of the words "Negro" and "Moor" were used frequently from 1915 to 1975, with the last occurrence in 1985.     

Enter the modern day Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Leading up to W.W.II, Black Pete’s job was to investigate which children had been “bad,” and to take them away in his sack and/or whip them for discipline.  Today, the dominating image of Black Pete is more one of entertainment for others’ enjoyment:  He helps Sinterklaas deliver the presents and no longer acts as the one who brings punishment to the bad children. But the old task of Black Pete is still referred to in a funny matter. Many parents joke and say “I will tell Black Pete to take you with him to Spain!”. Sinterklaas will ask Black Pete to see ‘The Book’, which lists all the right and wrong things a child did. Over time, Zwarte Piet’s character morphed into a group of Black Petes; all considered a Zwarte Piet, but each with different characteristics.  

In the celebrations, Sinterklaas, who is white, is played by a white person.  Black Pete is played in full blackface, usually by a white person as well, or by a black person also in blackface.  The actors paint their faces black with huge red lips, wear a curly wig and Moorish dress.  “They are portrayed as young, and agile, and do much running and jumping around and acting like acrobats," says Leyla Hamidi of the National Bureau Against Racial Discrimination.  Sinterklaas is portrayed as old, wise, mature, calm, and in control.  In celebrations and the media, Black Pete is overwhelmingly viewed by children and adults as unintelligent and clownish.  These and other characteristics were found to be typical characteristics of Black Pete as well as black characters in general in Dutch children’s books. Berend’s research found them portrayed as dumb, childish, idle, foolish, and strict (for the old version of Black Pete). Berends further showed similar results for the main physical depictions of black people in children's books and Black Pete imagery - including enlarged red lips, enlarged white teeth, and enlarged and bulging eyes.  

Sinterklaas is considered the employer/owner of Black Pete. Black Pete has no autonomy with regards to what he is doing or where he is going; Sinterklaas is the boss. He will tell Black Pete, for example, to give him his book and hold his stick. Furthermore, Sinterklaas will sit on a chair while the Black Petes always stand. The Black Petes are holding the sack with presents and the roe (a kind whip) in the other hand. Sinterklaas will decide if the child needs to get the roe or a present.

Journalist and television host, Samira Abbos describes the overall image of Black Pete’s portrayal as “white people dressing up as black and acting stupid.”  This sentiment is echoed by Sandra Nelson, a 15 year old student who recalls celebrating Sinterklaas in her younger years at school:  “they are like Santa's helpers…the funny one, the grumpy one, the nice one…I do think it’s discriminatory, – the way he acts and everything, it is very messed up …they’re sort of dumb on the TV and all.”  Another trend in the portrayal of Black Pete is for those playing him to speak with a Surinamese accent.  Bianca Berends remembers her own depiction of Black Pete for Sinterklaas in high school:  "I spoke with a really good Surinamese accent…I had no awareness about what I was doing, that's really the danger about the whole imaging thing—it’s not direct. At the moment you don't experience it like that.  It's just that children will subconsciously store all this information and when they've read another book or see something on television, etc. that's the same, it's also stored, and it adds up."

For these and many other reasons, some people see Sinterklaas as it is now done as racist in nature.  The Global African Congress, an organization which commits itself to repairing the damage of the historical oppression of Black people filed a petition in November 2003 to a resistant Dutch Parliament calling for the abolishment of Black Pete.  Some of the petition's points are as follows:

Black Pete has similarities with remainings of concepts from the transatlantic Dutch colonial and slave past. 

Actions of different organizations and institutes are almost 20 years focused on reorientation of the concept or abolishment of Black Pete because of the racist element and its psychological effect on the black Dutch children of African descent.  

The way Sinterklaas and Black Petes are celebrated has a negative imagebuilding with children because of the projection of a superior white race of Sinterklaas against the inferior black race of a dumb black helping Pete, and so the superior vs. inferior thoughts are growing.

Sinterklaas has comparable racist elements with the American minstrel shows which were famous during the civil war and very respected in the white world, White actors would dress up and paint themselves as black plantation slaves, eventually these minstrel shows were abolished because of the very racist elements in these shows." 

The emphasis of this petition lies in a process of creating awareness in the Netherlands as well as Europe regarding the negative discriminatory and psychological effects of the traditional Sinterklaas celebration.

Thorough examination and analysis of daily institutionalized racism, which occurs in similar circumstances in the whole European Union, is seen as necessary in order to advance the awareness about racism and xenophobia in the community.

Other people in Dutch society, mostly white but some of color, disagree with these sentiments. Some recurring themes were "why do we have to change tradition? We've been celebrating it this way since for years."  A very common argument is that Sinterklaas is for children who love Sinterklaas. Therefore it is not racist. Adults are making it into something that children don't even care about.  Nellestijn, of Sinterklaas Promotions says:  "Those people are making differences between the Petes and Sinterklaas…there is no child under the age of 6 who is thinking about racism.  When I was a child I was thinking about clay…people now think it's racist because you here more about racism now than 20 years ago…we don't block out the disciples because they are old, or the reindeer because of animal rights.”  Sinterklaas is considered not racist because it is a Dutch tradition which children enjoy”. This is not the case for many black children.  Scotty Gravenberch, author of ‘Sinterklaasje, kom maar binnen zonder knecht’, (Santa Claus, come in without your servant) writes of a personal experience as a child in school.  The children put on a Sinterklaas play and drew out of a hat the names of the roles they were going to play.  Although Scotty drew Sinterklaas’ name from the hat and his white female classmate drew Black Pete’s name, he ended up playing Black Pete. The whole class decided that his white female classmate was more fit to play the role of Sinterklaas. Apparently, while gender was not important to who could or could not be the holy man, skin color was. 

The only thing I can still remember with certainty is the black make-up on my skin as if my face became heavier, the thick layer of lipstick of which I had the feeling that it would slide into my mouth if I would talk too much, and that I found it ordinary that I became Black Pete, although destiny had designated me as a Sinterklaas...I end up to the conclusion that this was 'normal' because I stood to Anne as a Black Pete to Sinterklaas.  (Gravenberch, 1998)

Other defenses of Sinterklaas have been more threatening in their nature.    Many are openly dismissive of the raising of the issue, seeing it as an example of Dutch culture being stripped away by the growing immigrant population.  One will hear statements such as "we have so little left." People will become quite angry about it.  Erasmus University Professor, Dienke Hondius, who is currently doing research on Race in the Netherlands, spoke of some of these issues as well.  She focused on the trend of Dutch people using Sinterklaas as a measure of how 'integrated' an allochtoon (an immigrant or (grand) child of an immigrant) really is.  They will ask "do you like Sinterklaas?…do you enjoy Sinterklaas?…"  

There is this anti-racist norm, but there is also a very strong feeling that anything should be able to be said, there should be no taboos…but people aren't allowed to say anything is racist.  Nothing can be racist, it's just too bad…There is racism somewhere, but this particular thing is not part of that…accepting it would require action…if we all agree it is not so bad, then we don't have to do anything about it.

Other responses to the idea of Sinterklaas exposed another aspect of the common Dutch mentality. Many have expressed sentiments such as "it's silly to think that Black Pete makes people believe that all black people are like Black Pete."  Bianca Berends believes that one still couldn't say that the traditions are "really racist because they are not explicit.  A person in my opinion is a racist when he openly expresses negative elements to a certain group of people and as there is no direct connection between black people and Black Pete, but that does not mean that it isn't part of the way we look at black people."  Leyla Hamidi of National Bureau Against Racial Discrimination, recognized the colonial and blackface elements, yet still did not believe it to be a big deal.  "There's so many other things in the world…If black people are celebrating it…" Many other dismissive sentiments were expressed throughout the discussion of Black Pete.  


Examination of the history of white depictions of black people exposes the deeply ingrained stereotypes that are inherent within and promoted through the Sinterklaas and Black Pete tradition as it has been and is celebrated.  The physical characteristics portrayed in Zwarte Piet are the standard western stereotypes of Black peoples as expressed through imagery and performance.  Black Piet is an expression of numerous classic Western prejudices against black peoples that depict inferiority. He conveys the position of both a servant, and the child that exemplifies the paternal/ childlike imagery of the colonizer to the colonized, the missionary to the converted, and the master to the servant.  He embodies stupidity as well as the immaturity created as justification for reason to discipline as well as the comedic spectacle of the African too savage to be able to fully become 'civilized'.  He obviously depicts the black -American coon through his clownish behavior and the degrading tradition of blackface meant to provide entertainment for white people and to exert their power through demeaning and degrading him.  His existence in large numbers, all with the same name and "face", adhere to the lack of individuality of the Negro. He is pitted against the personalization and reverence of the one white savior-like figure among the masses.  

What needs to be addressed is not whether this tradition (or elements of it) is racist, but why the majority of Dutch society is denying the truth that it is.  The answer, we believe, is not at all specific to the unique characteristics of the Sinterklaas/Zwarte Piet issue. The answer is not even specific to the Netherlands, or to Europe for that matter.  The larger issue is the gross misunderstanding of what "racism" is, of how "racism" works, and white guilt and identity.  

When words such as racism become complete concepts.  When a word embodies an entire field of study or aspect of society, it allows for more miscommunication as different people(s) in society have different experiences and understandings. Consciousness and education about "racism" as a system and concept does not exist on any kind of even or similar ground.  For some people, "racism" means explicit, intentional, and out-loud hatred or dislike of a group of people.  Those who have a deeper understanding, however, know that "racism" represents a state of mind that supports or creates means of causing harm to one or more specific racial groups. Racism is not just explicit: it is implicit, and, in fact, is mostly implicit.  Racism is not just the conscious; it is subconscious and, in fact, is mostly subconscious.  Racism does not just enter the minds of whites but is internalized in the views of people of color themselves. Racism is not just about intention: it is about function, and, in fact, is mostly about function.  One cannot just adhere to stereotypes about others and then claim they're not racist because they didn't mean to harbor the prejudice that exists inside them.  For a marginalized person, any experience with prejudice, is an experience with racism.  

The problem however is that the stigma of racism has spread faster than the consciousness of racism. That stigma works as a deterrent to developing the sense of consciousness.  Why?  Because we live in a world of people, most of who are well intentioned, whose fears of being labeled prejudiced are stronger than their fear of actually being prejudiced. Therefore, they contribute to prejudice.  The stigma of prejudice often resonates deeper within non-oppressed peoples than the harm it causes the oppressed.  There has developed a gross perversion of the spirit of the concept of political correctness.  It is about an awareness and sensitivity to the historical oppression of a peoples for the purpose of not only avoiding inflicting further harm upon them, but also for developing a means with which to deprogram ourselves from the notions that have been ingrained in us throughout our lives and the lives of those who raised us.  Is this only out of ignorance however, or does it also stem from people's resistance to face their own demons?  Haven’t these issues been brought up before, or does our extremist definition of racism serve as a way for us to separate ourselves from those other kinds of people, who intentionally and openly hate.  Can we look down on them and say, "I'm not racist, I'm not one of them?"  

What happens when one is so concerned with not being something that the people refuse to look at themselves critically in fear of finding what they don't like, and in many cases greatly oppose?  What we get is denial of the experience of the peoples we are trying to avoid being prejudice against, which gives birth to a new form of prejudice of its own.  The protection of our own egos and comfort, at the expense of the dismissal of an oppressed people’s reality, becomes a judgement of their condition that is completely out of context. This brings further harm to marginalized people.  We create a new form of racism as we tell ourselves that their oppression is not as bad as they say. They attribute their condition to something within them as opposed to coming from without.  Those who pride themselves on being so free from prejudice often suffer the most from it. This could easily be the case in Holland.  Something so obvious should not be so difficult.  But the resistance keeps the Dutch and so many other people from being able to learn about the more complex, subtler, psychological, and institutionalized aspects of racism in an open, objective, and holistic way.  

A new form of consciousness has to be learned:  one which leads from the premise that being against prejudice doesn't automatically mean we are free from it—as a society or as individuals.  That awareness is the first step not the last.  That denial of existing racism is a form of racism in and of itself.  When someone says Sinterklaas is not racist, answer, "what is racism," not "yes it is." When someone says they should be free to say whatever they want, tell them that you also should be free to point out the prejudice inherent in what they say. And furthermore, if they believed in what say they believe in, they would be not resistant but open to the comment because that is how growth and change takes place.   When someone says Sinterklaas is an old Dutch tradition, ask them if they then believe that other cultures of people who have come to the Netherlands should hold on to all of their traditions regardless of anything else. This will expose the hypocrisy that often rests in their answer.  And when they say again, (as they often will) "but it's our tradition," tell them: "so is racism."




Leyla Hamidi, International Affairs, National Bureau against Racial Discrimination, 22nd of June 2004

Marianne Plug, Information Advisor, National Bureau against Racial Discrimination, 22nd of June 2004

Dienke Hondius works for the Anne Frank Foundation, the Erasmus University and the Free University. She has done research on many topics related to racism and WW II, 23rd of June 2004

Martijn van Nellestijn, Regional Sinterklaas Promotion Foundation, 24th of June 2004

Samira Abbos, journalist, programmer and TV-host at MTV (Migrant Television), 26th of June 2004

Carolyn Nelson, American resident in the Netherlands, Amsterdam, 26th of June 2004

Sandra Nelson, 26th of June2004

Thai, 26th of June 2004

Lois Katz-Brown, historian on African-American studies, 26th of June 2004

Street-interviews held on the 26th of June 2004

Bianca Berends, 28th of June 2004


Jan de Bas, Sinterklaas bestaat (als u dat wilt), 1993

Lulu Helder en Scotty Gravenberch, Sinterklaasje kom maar binnen zonder knecht, 1998

Allison Blakely, Blacks in the Dutch World, The revolution of Racial Imagery in a modern society, 1993

Larry Vincent Buster, The Art and History of Black Memorabilia, 2000

Jan Nederveen Pieterse, White on Black, Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, 1992

Arno Langeler, Zwarte Piet, Een Moor in dienst van Venetië, 1994

Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, 1974

Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise, Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. 



















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