Feminism and (Zwarte) Piet

It is almost impossible to live in the Netherlands and not know about Sinterklaas. This mythical Greek-Turkish bishop, who resides in Spain for most of the year, comes over to the Netherlands by steamboat in November. For a few weeks children can put their shoe in front of the fireplace, put a carrot in it for Sinterklaas’ horse Amerigo, and hope to receive a small gift. On the 5th of December the Sinterklaas time has it’s climax on Pakjesavond (Presents Night). Gifts are exchanged, often accompanied by poems. After that event, Sinterklaas silently leaves the country to return to his castle in Spain. Since a few years, there are some ‘going-away’ festivities as well, especially for children with autism.

But Sinterklaas does not come alone. He bring a bunch of helpers, and this makes the festivities very problematic. The Helpers of Sinterklaas wear blackface make-up, including bright red big lips and are called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Additionally, they wear big gold hoop earring and their suits are modeled after the uniforms that black child slaves wore in the 17th Century.
In the last few years, more and more people have been speaking out about the Zwarte Piet figure, pointing out that it is a racist and harmful stereotype. A lot of people disagree with this viewpoint and the debate has been quite grim.

A lot has been written about this debate and as intersectional feminists, we feel it is our duty to share some insights on this debate. In this post, we will share articles written by others that can help understanding the tradition and the harmfulness of it; as well as deciding where you stand and maybe shift your position a little bit.

We’ll kick off with some English articles. As a lot of our members don’t read Dutch, we try to keep our posts in English. These articles also offer a different point of view for Dutchies, as the writers usually have more distance to the tradition.

English articles

Some background on Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas can be found in the following links 
Sinterklaas, Wikipedia
Zwarte Piet, Wikipedia
Sinterklaas, explained by the municipality of Amsterdam

Blog posts and news articles on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Piet: They are not black, the come through a chimney! – Simon Woolcot, October, 2013
Dutch debate on Zwarte Piet: Recap of major developments – Benjamin Garstka, I Am Expat, November 2014
Is Black Pete Racism? – The Economist, November 2013
Black Pete is just a bit of fun for the Netherlands, right? Wrong. – Samira bin Sharifu, The Guardian, August 2014
Change offensive Black Pete figure, says Dutch Children’s advocate. Toby Sterling, Reuters, September 2016
Interview with Shantrelle P. Lewis –, February, 2013

Academic articles on Zwarte Piet, discussing the tradition and what role race plays in it.
Black Pete: Analyzing a Racialized Dutch Tradition Through the History of Western Creations of Stereotypes of Black Peoples.
– Izalina Travares, Humanity in Action, 2004
United Nations on Zwarte Piet – United Nations, January 2013

Not in a reading mood? Check out this CNN-film.

(These links will also be added to the Feminist ABC’s!)

Dutch articles
Zwarte Piet – College voor de Rechten van de Mens, oktober 2016
Geen twijfel: ‘Zwarte Piet stamt af van kindslaven.’ – Michiel Kruijt, Volkskrant, 23 oktober 2013
Nieuw licht op Zwarte Piet. – Eugenie Boer-Dirks, Volkskundig Bulletin (n.d.)
Zwarte Piet vraagt om aanpassing – Kinderombudsman, September 2016
Piet Magazine, een handleiding voor een moderne sinterklaasviering. December 2015
Met het krampachtig vastklampen aan Zwarte Piet staat Nederland internationaal voor schut. Niek Stolker, HP de Tijd, augustus 2014
Kritisch kijken naar onze Zwarte Piet is lastig. Leonie Breebaart, Trouw, november 2013
Vroeger was Zwarte Piet prima, nu niet meer. Dat heet beschaving. Woody van Olffen, Volkskrant, november 2013
Zwarte Piet gaat nog veel verder, dat is goedbedoeld racisme. Harriet Duurvoort, Volkskrant, juni 2014
Zwarte Piet, wie kent hem niet… Danielle Roelofs, doctoraalscriptie (n.d.).
Zwarte Piet Niet: reeds in 1930 bepleit door Melis Stoke. Usha Mahre, november 2014
Nederland is verscheurd en angstig. Nourdine Tighadouini, Volkskrant, november 2014

(Many thanks to Claudia for sending us a lot of these links!)

Now what?
Want to take a stance against Zwarte Piet? Increasingly, people are choosing to not have Zwarte Piet at their parties anymore. A Soot Pete seems much more suitable! We’ve heard of cities and schools who chose to have Pieten of many different colors, or even a whole different kind of helper altogether.

Some people are choosing to engage in protest at the arrival of Sinterklaas, which will be next Saturday (12th of November). More about this movement can be found on the StopBlackFace website.

If you’re not part of any festivities and feel like protesting is not for you, maybe you can just share some articles via Social Media to your friends and family.

In particular you can speak up when black people are being offended, which may happen in your personal circle on the 5th of December, or in public with people you don’t know. Or you may have seen the terrible backlash that people like Sylvana Simons have been getting.

And if the Sinterklaas Festivities were able to continue after almost every house lost their fireplace, changing the looks of Sinterklaas’ Helpers shouldn’t be a problem at all.




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