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Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet and the Ethics of Public Debate

Date:15 November 2013
Author:Religion Factor
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet during an entry parade. Photo: Michell Zappa. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet during an entry parade. Photo: Michell Zappa. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Sinterklaas and his somewhat controversial helper Zwarte Piet arrive in the Netherlands tomorrow, marking the start of the festive season. In today’s post, Erik Meinema and Erin Wilson offer thoughts from both Dutch and non-Dutch perspectives on various dimensions of what has become an annual discussion over whether Zwarte Piet is racist or not.

It’s become almost as predictable as Sinterklaas itself – the debate over the character of Zwarte Piet and whether it is or isn’t racist. And this year, again, the debate has reared its ugly head. Discussions about the racial dimension of the character of Zwarte Piet are not new, although commentators suggest that they have become more public in the last few years (1).

This year, however, the debate seems to be particularly ugly. RTL4 Nieuws reporting on the radicalization of the Zwarte Piet debate this year (2), quoted just a few of the comments posted on Facebook in relation to the controversy from both supporters and opponents of the annual tradition:

 “Als ik zulke gasten zie en hoor begin ik bijna terug te verlangen naar slavernij” –

“When I see and hear such people, I catch myself longing to have slavery back”

 “We moeten niet discrimineren. Zwarte piet eruit, dan alle zwarten eruit”

“We must not discriminate. If Black Pete must go, then all blacks must go”

 “Als zwarte piet een neger was zouden onze schoenen weg zijn in plaats van vol met pepernoten en cadeaus”

“If Zwarte Piet was a nigger our shoes would be gone rather than full of ginger cookies and gifts” 

“Zwarte piet gaat niet over een zwart masker, maar over de ONT-MASKERING van een racistisch-nationalistiche aard bij een groep Nederlanders”

“Zwarte piet is not about a black mask, but about UNMASKING a racist-nationalist nature of one section of Dutch society.”

Popular Dutch songstress Anouk, who represented the Netherlands at the Eurovision song contest earlier this year was also on the receiving end of particularly nasty comments on her Facebook page after posting an article from The Guardian criticizing the Zwarte Piet tradition and calling for the tradition to be changed, with people calling her a “white negro slut” (3).

Part of the reason for this escalation in language has undoubtedly been high profile remarks made by Professor Verene Shepherd (4), an independent expert chosen by UN member states to be part of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (5). In an interview on Dutch television programme Een Vandaag, Shepherd reportedly commented that members of the UN working group cannot understand why “people in the Netherlands do not see this is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop.” (6) Her comments have angered many Dutch nationals, 92% of whom, according to a recent poll, do not associate Zwarte Piet with racism or slavery and who are strongly opposed to changing the tradition.

For those outside the Netherlands and Belgium, where the tradition is also celebrated, who have no idea what we’re talking about, here’s a very brief snapshot. In mid-late November each year, Sinterklaas and his helpers, Zwarte Pieten or “Black Petes” arrive in the Netherlands by boat from Spain. After several weeks of build up, the feast of Sinterklaas is celebrated on 5 December, when Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet deliver presents to children throughout the country. Children leave their shoes out somewhere, by the fireplace or if they have no fireplace, outside the doors of their houses and Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet fill them with presents and ginger cookies. Families get together on 5 December and give gifts and share poetry. Sinterklaas is an elderly white bishop, while Zwarte Piet is black, wears colourful costumes and is presented as a mischievous, fun-loving character, in contrast to the kindly but rather serious Sinterklaas.

The origins of Sinterklaas are similar to those of Santa Claus and St Nicholas. Zwarte Piet’s presence in the festivities and his black-skinned appearance has multiple competing explanations. Early 19thcentury versions of the St Nicholas story state that the Saint triumphed over a devil who became his servant. Later adaptations state that Pete is a slave who has been liberated by Sinterklaas and out of gratitude became his servant. More recent stories argue that Pete is a white man who is black from the soot of the chimneys he climbs down to deliver presents (7). Such explanations suggest that there is very little, if any, racist intention behind the tradition.

Other theories, however, such as that of Dutch art historian Elmer Kolfin at the University of Amsterdam, suggest that the Zwarte Piet figure developed out of the colonial practice of child slaves (8). Coupled with the annual depictions of Zwarte Piet by white men with their faces completely blackened, black afro wigs, big red lips and gold earrings, similar in style to the minstrel shows of the 1920s, often behaving like court jesters, these arguments suggest that in fact Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature, linked to Dutch colonial history (a history that the Netherlands, like other former colonial powers, has at times struggled to come to terms with).

We will not comment in this post on whether the tradition is racist or not. Other scholars and authors have written a plethora of commentaries on this issue such that there is very little new that we could bring to the discussion (9). Instead, we focus on the tone of the debate. As in most debates about highly sensitive issues, the different parties struggle to see one another’s points of view, the media emphasize only the most extreme viewpoints on either side of the debate and the voices of those who are prepared to compromise or at the very least try to understand the opposing viewpoint are drowned out in all the commotion.

An indicator of the fierce tone in the debates on Zwarte Piet is that some participants question the right of others to live in the Netherlands and be part of Dutch society. This is most obvious in comments such as the one presented above: ‘If Black Pete must go, all blacks must go’. In many other statements, black critics of Black Pete are accused of attacking Dutch tradition and told to ‘return to their own country’. (10) Likewise, critics of Zwarte Piet with Dutch origins are accused of being traitors, as can be seen in the example of a group of local organizers of a Sinterklaas celebration who indicated that they were going to paint ‘Pieten’ in many different colors in their Sinterklaas celebration. Following this announcement, these local organisers were the victim of threats and being accused of being members of the Dutch National-Socialist Party ‘NSB’ from World War II times. (11) From comments like these it becomes clear that some people feel that everyone who is in favor of experimenting with adaptations of the Sinterklaas celebration is no longer really Dutch, but a betrayer of her or his country.

A related problem is that many who support Zwarte Piet assume that his critics want to do away with the tradition of Sinterklaas altogether, that they want to “spoil the party”. This is in general a misrepresentation – most critics of Zwarte Piet want to keep the Sinterklaas feast and many even want to keep Piet, just in a different form from his current appearance.

What can be read in the comments of some of the proponents of Zwarte Piet is thus not only a concern for the celebration of Sinterklaas, but also anger and fear towards a growing influence of non-Dutch actors that will eventually alter or destroy Dutch culture and traditions. In a much more mild way, such a line of arguing can also be found on the broadly supported Pietitie on Facebook , on which is written:

‘Nederland staat achter het Sinterklaasfeest en daar hoort Zwarte Piet bij. […] Blijven delen, maak een statement naar de VN.’

‘The Netherlands support the Sinterklaas celebration, and Zwarte Piet is part of this celebration. […] Keep on sharing, make a statement towards the UN.’

As this message firmly states that the Netherlands support the Sinterklaas celebration with Zwarte Piet, and is directed towards United Nations as a foreign actor, the Dutch identity of critics of Zwarte Piet is implicitly questioned.

Within the social sciences, extensive work has been done on the impact of debates on the social cohesion within communities and societies. According to sociologist Francis Fukuyama, trust is a major factor that determines the amount of social cohesion within a community. Fukuyama defines trust as ‘the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community’ (12). When tensions within communities rise, trust may deteriorate or even shift into suspicion.

As examined above, it seems that within the Zwarte Piet discussion, especially the supposedly non-Dutch identity of critics of Zwarte Piet is a cause of concern. This also leads to suspicion towards the intentions of critics of Zwarte Piet, as some proponents of Zwarte Piet have argued that black critics of Zwarte Piet ‘want to ruin a children’s feast’ or are only in the Netherlands to ‘benefit from government support’ (13). In this way, critics of Zwarte Piet are again implicitly or explicitly placed outside the boundaries of Dutch society. According to anthropologists Pamela Stewart and Andrew Strathern, uncertain situations have the potential to further aggravate existing suspicions between groups of people. Such a development can also be seen when the rumor that the arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam would involve ‘Pieten’ in different colors intensified the debate (14). Although the court eventually ruled that Sinterklaas celebrations in Amsterdam could involve regular Zwarte Pieten, several critics of Zwarte Piet were in turn angered, as this decision in their view reconfirmed the racist status quo.

Is there some way that the debate can be salvaged from the messiness and nastiness it has descended to this year? For inspiration on this, we look to interventions in another debate that at times becomes extremely heated and nasty, that between extreme secularists and fundamentalist religious believers, perhaps particularly Christians, regarding the role of religion in public life. Tim Keller’s 2006 book The Reason for God, highlights some of the core problems in the debates between secularists and believers, some of which appear similar to those of the supporters and opponents of Zwarte Piet. Keller begins by noting that progressive secular voices lament the apparent increase of conservatism in politics and society at the same time that conservative religious voices are warning against the rising tide of secularism and liberal values that threaten to undermine strong religious moral frameworks. One side is claiming religious fundamentalism is on the rise while the other is claiming that secular liberalism and moral relativism are threatening to dominate society. The result is that both sides end up feeling that they are under threat, that they are in danger of being overcome by the other. Two such opposite arguments cannot possibly both be right, can they?

Keller argues that in fact they can and that this is the first step in moving from antagonistic opposition to constructive dialogue across the cultural and political divide between social political conservatives and progressives. “First, each side should accept that both religious belief and skepticism are on the rise. Atheist author Sam Harris and Religious Right leader Pat Robertson should each admit the fact that his particular tribe is strong and increasing in influence. This would eliminate the self-talk that is rampant in each camp, namely that it will soon be extinct, overrun by the opposition… If we stopped saying such things to ourselves it might make everyone more civil and generous towards opposing views.” (15) Regardless of whether you agree with Keller’s analysis of the state of relations between secularists and religionists, his point about the importance of recognizing the legitimacy of the arguments of both sides still stands. Further, as Keller notes, admitting that both sides are right is both reassuring and humbling. “There are still many of a secular turn of mind who confidently say orthodox faith is vainly trying to ‘resist the tide of history’, though there is no historical evidence that religion is dying out at all. Religious believers should also be much less dismissive of secular skepticism. Christians should reflect on the fact that such large sectors of our formerly largely Christian societies have turned their backs on faith. Surely that should lead to self-examination.” (16) Thus, acknowledging the legitimacy of the argument of someone you disagree with does not necessarily weaken your own position. Rather it opens up space for conversation, dialogue and collaboration. It recognizes that one side, one person, cannot understand all the aspects of a particular social or political issue, and the importance of being willing to at least try to understand, if not identify with, the arguments of those to whom you are opposed.

We suggest that this is an important first step for supporters and opponents in the Zwarte Piet debate – to recognize that both sides have a point. For those who view the figure as a racist caricature and throwback to slavery, it is important to remember that this is not the intention or meaning with which most Dutch people celebrate the tradition. Perhaps even more importantly, the Zwarte Piet character is an intimate part of childhood experiences and cultural rituals (17), contributing to the formation of individual and collective identity. Any comments made regarding the need for changes to the tradition should consequently be done sensitively, being respectful of both the personal and collective experiences that are bound up with it.

For supporters of the figure, regardless of how they themselves view it and experience it, it is important to at least try to understand how it appears to someone from a minority population, who has daily experienced racial discrimination, whose national and cultural history has been dominated by experiences of colonization, slavery and oppression. To be annually reminded of this history through a figure that, to them, appears to be a demeaning and belittling caricature, adds insult to injury. The realization that both sides of the debate have legitimate arguments can also counter the idea that critics of Sinterklaas are only out to destroy Dutch tradition or the idea that everyone who celebrates Sinterklaas does so with racist intentions. Instead, it can encourage us to trust that we have much more that brings us together than what drives us apart.

The media also have a big role to play in calming down the discussion. Instead of predominantly presenting the extreme views of either side, leading to a somewhat infantile “he said, she said” style of debate that upsets many and resolves nothing. Especially when some question the rights of critics of Zwarte Piet to live in the Netherlands and participate in Dutch society, this only strengthens the impression of critics that Sinterklaas actually is about racism. Instead, the media can give a voice to the large segments of Dutch society with more nuanced views, and encourage discussion of potential compromises and the development of new traditions to celebrate the rich multicultural diversity of contemporary Dutch society, whilst not forgetting or abandoning important historical traditions.

An additional factor is the role and use of social media, which has undoubtedly had a major impact on the way in which public debate is carried out. As Stig Hjarvard, who gave a talk in Groningen earlier this week, has highlighted, previously public debate was controlled somewhat by centralized media structures who engaged with politicians, public intellectuals and other recognized “experts” on certain topics. With the advent of social media, public discussions, such as those on Zwarte Piet, have been decentralized and arguably even democratized, allowing a greater number of people to participate and voice opinions. Such democratization of the debate is particularly important when social and political elites do not take the lead on discussions of public significance, as some have criticized current Dutch politicians for in the Zwarte Piet debate (18). This means, however, that there is greater responsibility on all of us who utilize social media for engaging in such debates to maintain a respectful tone, no matter how much we may disagree with what our opponents say.

A final element will also need to be patience. The present impasse over Zwarte Piet is not going to be resolved overnight. For those opposed to Zwarte Piet, they cannot expect change immediately. Any possible intervention by an outside party such as the United Nations insisting that the Netherlands and Belgium abandon the tradition of Zwarte Piet is only likely to inflame the situation and entrench the divide further. At the same time, however, supporters of the tradition need to recognize that the issue of Zwarte Piet’s racist undertones is not going to go away, that it is not just Dutch citizens from Caribbean or African descent who object to the figure but a growing number of white Dutch citizens as well. What is perhaps most important is that all Dutch citizens, regardless of their ethnic background, can find a way to celebrate Sinterklaas together in the spirit of fun and mutual respect that the tradition inspires.

Erik Meinema is a recent graduate of the Research Master Religion and Culture in Groningen who did fieldwork on sexuality and youth in Kenya and Uganda and youth peacebuilding initiatives in Ambon, Indonesia.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen

The authors would like to thank Kim Knibbe, Renee Wagenvoorde and Birgit van der Lans for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts.









(9) For some of these commentaries, see ;



(12) Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (London 1995) 26.


(14) and

(15) T. Keller. 2006. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Hodder, pxvi

(16) Ibid




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