The Netherlands still struggles with Zwarte Piet stereotype

A Zwarte Piet protest. Photo: Constablequackers via Wikimedia Commons

With 11 days to go before the official ‘arrival’ of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, his controversial helper Zwarte Piet is once again centre stage.

According to research by the AD, most local councils are planning to stick to the traditional black or brown-faced pieten and just 17 will include pieten with sooty faces in their parades.

Zwarte Piet is traditionally played by a white person in blackface makeup but over the years protests against the racist stereotype have been growing, culminating in demonstrations and scores of arrests. Dutch celebrities, including actors who have played Zwarte Piet, have also called for change.

Now in some towns and cities, the blackface pieten are being replaced by other versions, including pieten with different coloured makeup and sooty smudges to show they have been down chimneys to deliver gifts.




Amsterdam has said it will move further away from the stereotyped blackface make-up and page attire at its official Sinterklaas parade on November 19.

In the capital, Sint Nicholas will be accompanied by almost 400 pieten with long, wavy brown hair and costumes based on the clothes of 16th century Spanish noblemen. Their outfits will also sport the three Andreas crosses to denote Amsterdam.

The result is ‘a way to celebrate what is the best children’s event in the world in a manner that is acceptable to all,’ the organisers said.

Traditional

Many of the parade organisers told the AD that Zwart Piet is not an issue in their communities and that some sponsors have asked specifically for ‘traditional’ pieten.

The organisers of this year’s official welcome of Sinterklaas, which will take place in Dokkum on December 18, have kept mum about what the pieten will look like this year, as has Dokkum council.

Public broadcaster NTR which broadcasts the traditional children’s show Sinterklaas journaal, has already said that last year’s multi-coloured ‘rainbow pieten’ will not be making a comeback but has not revealed any more details.

Multi-coloured

Sooty pieten will be part of the parade in The Hague but Rotterdam has not yet said what its plans are. Amstelveen‘s local Sinterklaas committee has resigned en masse after the city council said it wanted multi-coloured pieten to join the event.

Utrecht will have a mixture of traditional and new-style pieten, but next year the blackface piet will disappear entirely, the AD reported.

A confidential survey by the social affairs ministry last year found that 21% of the Dutch back changing the appearance of Sinterklaas’s controversial helper.

Of the native Dutch, 18% now support change, compared with 43% of people with an Antillean or Surinamese background, the report said.

Sinterklaas was first given a black page in a book called Sinterklaas and his Servant published in 1850 by school teacher Jan Schenkman. Schenkman also established that Sinterklaas lived in Spain and came to the Netherlands by steam ship.


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