Sunday 18 April 2021

Zwarte Piet debate starts early as chief Piet, celebrities call for change

Dancers dressed as Zwarte PietIt may be only almost June, but the debate about Sinterklaas’ helper Zwarte Piet is already raging in the Netherlands, after a rebellion by Dutch celebrities and television personalities.

Earlier this month comedian Erik van Muiswinkel, who has played the main Piet character on television for years, said he was quitting the role. And this weekend, his name is one of over 100 on an open letter to the public broadcasting umbrella group NTR calling for change.

The Sinterklaas festivities on December 5 are always proceeded by weeks of special programming about the adventures of the saint and his sidekick in the Sinterklaasjournaal.

But now the celebrities, including Van Muiswinkel, tv presenter Arie Boomsma, sax player Candy Dulfer and actress Halina Reijn, have written an open letter to the NTR urging programmers to modernise the television tradition and take a stand.

‘The NTR does not seem to be able to see that they are maintaining Zwarte Piet in its current form, despite the well-founded criticism and calls for change,’ the letter said. By not moving with the times and taking a moral standpoint, the NTR is ‘ditching its responsibilities,’ the signatories said.

New mood

The NTR hit back later on Monday, stating that Zwarte Piet is changing in the television show and that the Sinterklaasjournaal news show does reflect the new mood.

The show first introduced different coloured Piets in 2014 and that shift is irreversible, NTR director Paul Roemer and media director Carel Kuyl said in their rebuttal.

‘Zwarte Piet is changing and that is self-evident,’ they said. ‘The question is really about how you do this, and how fast you should move. The makers of the Sinterklaasjournal are caught up in the middle of that complicated process.’


Meanwhile, Sinterklaasjournaal reporter Dolores Leeuwin on Monday afternoon said she was leaving the programme because not enough was being done to reform the character of Zwarte Piet.

‘I am going to miss it, but I can no longer sell it to myself,’ Leeuwin, who is black, told ‘The NTR is not making a choice, and if it is, it is taking the easy way out.’

The character of Zwarte Piet is played by white people in blackface make up.

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