Blackface: Black Peter (zwarte Piet) and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

It’s Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) and black Peter time in The Netherlands. Which means blackface characters in the streets, in the shops and in the schools. The Sinterklaas feast is an annual children’s event, which starts in the middle of November and peaks on the birthday of Sinterklaas on December 5th. The whole event revolves around presents, so this is retail primetime of the year.

But the black Peter character in the Sinterklaas event has become controversial over the years. Some black people feel the black Pete character is racist, but others feel the black Peter discussion is too serious. The popular opinion in Netherlands is, that the Sinterklaas feast is a part of the Dutch culture and identity, and that it should be protected at all costs. Black Peter is not a black person, he's a chimney sweeper.

Black Peter: offensive or just fun? (Dutch)

"I Like it, but somehow it's racist. Because of black Peter of course. Those things happened during slavery. It still happens."

Dutch writer Lulu Helder (photo), who coauthored the book 'Sinterklaasje, Kom Maar Binnen Zonder Knecht (Sinterklaasje, You Can Enter Without Your Servant)' in 1989, was the first who actively protested against the black Peter character. In the Amsterdam district Bijlmer (the urban part of Amsterdam) she pamphleted a primary school with the message: zwarte piet is zwart verdriet (black Pete is black grief).

It obvious that black Pete is racist. Before this became an issue, black Peter often spoke broken Dutch with a Surinamese accent. After the protests black Peter gradually stopped speaking "pigeon" Dutch.

So to end, some more videos on this Dutch tradition (update).

Black Peter: what exactly is the problem?

"Yes, I like Sinterklaas. I celebrated it when I was a kid . Then it didn't bother anyone if it was black Pete. When you're a kid you don't look at it too seriously. It doesn't bother children. I don't think adults should make a big deal out of this. It's just fun for everyone.".

Black Peter from an American perspective


  1. This party is so racist. I am a black woman 40 years old born in the Netherlands and still suffering from severe mental damagement of my brains though this racist event, every year, year by year. Now my children go to school and the suffer the same pain. Dutch people dont want to listen to us, they just continue with it and dont care a damn how we feel. I feel so sad..

  2. I've heard that this still goes on in the Netherlands. I'm a college student in the United States, and amazingly we're still struggling with some of these issues over here. Blackface obviously has a different history in the US than it does in the Netherlands, but people here still fail to understand the problems behind whites painting their faces to look black, regardless of their intentions. we had an incident at my college a month ago in which a white student dressed up as "bob marley" for halloween and painted his face black. Regardless of intention, there's just no reason for this in any country. It deals with issues of representation. Nobody wants to feel like someone else is purporting to be able to speak for them or on behalf of them, which is exactly what blackface implies. People really just need to let this die.

  3. Hi Assata,

    Thanks for your comment. You're right they don't listen, but we should keep on lobbying. Your great online bookshop helps to create awareness about this subject.

    Hi Benpitler,

    Thanks for your comment. There was interesting discussion on the site shadow and act about the blackface subject. It was partially triggered by a Dutch white woman who transformed herself into a black woman.

    But personally, I don't feel that a white person who paints his face black does somehow represents me. But read this post, on Shadow and Act. The conclusion is, that not everything is blackface.

    I can understand that your "Bob Marley" is a different story, especially in the US.

  4. that Bob Marley Halloween story is weird ... I thought Halloween was all about being dressed up as some scary, evil ... character. How can a ‘rastaman’ be perceived as scary or evil in these days (well yeah, the name 'dread'locks comes from the fact that the hair was perceived as dreadful, but that's more than 50 years ago ...)
    Bob Marley is a preacher of peace, love and harmony. Being dressed up as a 'Bob Marley' for Halloween makes as much sense as being dressed up like Bono for Halloween ...

    next you'll see people dressed up like peaceful Muslims (mistaken for terrorist Taliban)for Halloween, ... oh, what am I saying, this def'tly already happened …

  5. There's nothing wrong with dressing up as Bob Marley! He's a reggae idol! People love his music and unless somebody is dressing up as him to be slanderous it's perfectly fine. And as for the blackface thing it's the same thing! It's tradition. Tradition defines the history of certain places. How bout we all just stop making a big deal out of nothing and get on with life! Life is no fun when you have to be "politically correct" all the time

  6. Please change your text about me. It says: "Dutch black activist and writer Lulu Helder". pls change it to just "writer Lulu Helder".

    I don't perceive myself as a "black activist writer"

    This is my third request to change your text.

    thank you,
    lulu helder

  7. Hi Lulu. Third request? This is the first request I have recieved from you.

    I can understand that you don't percieve yourself as a "black activist writer", but others do.

    But anyway, I have changed the text.

  8. I've just heard that in Canada there will be a Black Pete-free Sinterklaas celebration (by the Dutch community there). I'm so glad. It gives me hope because every year it irritates me to be surrounded by those images. People here react violently if you claim that it's racist, but I'm considering joining the peaceful protest of wearing a tee shirt with the words 'Zwarte Piet is racism' next year.

  9. who is running this website?

  10. ok found the answer

  11. Book Online: "Sinterklaasje, Kom maar Binnen ZONDER Knecht": Download > (Deel I), en (deel 2)

  12. It's not a big deal at all in the Netherlands, but onze a year some people make a big deal out of it.
    Just let it be as it is, he isn't black, it is from the ashes out of the chimney, Sinterklaas isn't a slavedriver, he takes all his pete's to spain every year for 11 months orso. It's tradition, it is how it is, how would you Americans like it if they want to cancel Halloween, because those costumes are racist too sometimes,

    1. LOL Altogether, your arguments are utter drivel.

      But most hilarious to me is that you say Zwarte Piet isn't supposed to be a black man. If Zwarte Piet isn't black (actually, a racist, stereotypical depiction of black), than why does he have woolly/kinky hair and exaggeratedly big, bright red lips?


    2. Do all black people have woolly/kinky hair and big bright red lips?

    3. Of course not, that's a primary problem with gollywog/blackface caricatures and iconography. It warps, distorts and exaggerates Black bodies and points to a cultural/social period in history where blacks were openly ridiculed and seen as buffoons. And Zwarte Piet's image was made PRECISELY in that old, racist tradition. To deny that fact is ridiculous.

    4. Hi BlkViking
      I agree and I disagree. I think there is a huge difference between ignorance and aggression. However, needless to repeat what I think about the issue; I'm from Belgium and I wrote the following last year:

  13. Hej Sibo!

    The Netherlands had a direct hand in the commodification, distribution and subsequent abuse of black bodies by way of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

    Under King Leopold II of Belgium, millions of Congolese were enslaved, beaten, mutilated and killed all in the name of greed.

    Both the Dutch and the Belgian establishment have a history of violence and aggression against black bodies. In my opinion, things like Zwarte Piet and TinTin in the Congo are nothing but offshoots of that violence and aggression. Because of the perceived physical, mental, emotional, racial, social and cultural inferiority of blacks, our bodies were not deemed fit for anything beyond being sold for labor, raped for sexual pleasure, and violated for sport and entertainment. I see Zwarte Piet and TinTin in the Congo as cultural manifestations of that aggression.

    1. I completely agree with what your wrote BlkViking. I also think that most people, black and white, are not aware of that history. It is our duty I think to make them aware, to teach this history. However, the method how this should be taught is open for discussion. I am very much tempted by diplomatic and cautious initiatives rather than confrontation. But still, I completely agree with your analysis.

  14. Thanks for writing back Sibo!

    I too agree with you that most people, black and white, are ignorant to the brutality that came before them. But I believe that in this day and age, that ignorance is a CHOICE. I believe that European whites, in particular, want to maintain their impenetrable cultural narcissism...because that's easier and nicer than seeing things as they really are. As a society and culture, they NEED to hold onto this image of themselves as the benevolent, good intentioned big brother to the poor, lowly and downtrodden black Africa. Collectively, acknowledging the atrocities spanning hundreds of years committed against blacks would spiritually bring them to their knees and destroy the sense of “GOODNESS” and superiority that has sustained them for so long. The ego of the Narcissist fights with ferocity whenever truth is clear and imminent. He fears the truth and instead, clings to half -truths, convenient lies, and flat out delusion.

    Just look at Europe's collective lack of empathy! For about 30 years, Black people have come forth and said, “Zwarte Piet is HURTFUL. He OFFENDS us and our sensibilities. He reminds us of a time when our bodies and likenesses were openly ridiculed and despised.” An empathetic people would, at the very least, heed the cries of the offended and carefully consider and listen to their concerns, if out of nothing more than HUMAN DECENCY. But NO, we are written off as overly sensitive whiners and complainers...trouble makers. And then, when that decent and empathetic people would take into account the centuries worth of abuse, victimization, dehumanization and cruelty experienced by black peoples at their hands, they would probably say, "Well, considering what we have done to them, we should at least cater to their sensitivities. They’ve been through enough." But NO…still dismissed as they defend their silly, demeaning traditions to the death.

    Taking my Narcissism analogy further, when speaking of clinical Narcissism, there is generally no quick cure or easy fix. The delusions of “grandeur” and “superiority” and the psychotic need to believe in those delusions run bone deep. The idealistic image that the Narcissist has of himself must be upheld for the sake of psychic and emotional survival. The only way for the Narcissist to begin healing is to SHATTER the image he has of himself and reconcile the truth of who he really is. Usually, the psycho-therapist who is too slow, steady, and cautious runs the risk of disengaging the Narcissist because the therapist may be seen as too passive, weak and inferior to be taken seriously. The Narcissist is most drawn to those who reflect their own self-image…strong, forceful, powerful, capable. However, the psycho-therapist who is too confrontational and heavy handed may incur the Narcissist’s wrath and cause him to strike back even HARDER in defense of his fragile ego. My solution? A combination of both methods. We should have temperance, cadence, and a steady open hand for peaceful dialogue but at the same time must be able to turn that open hand into a wicked back hand when unfairly attacked. We must show that we are not weak and passive. We are slow to war but when War erupts, we become WAR-LIKE…strong and formidable.

    I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that in my soul, I want to CONFRONT...badly. That tends to happen when folks are tired of being the punching bag. They strike out and lash out. It may not be right, and can be counter-productive, but in the moment, it feels GOOD to hit back…HARD...and right where it hurts.

  15. God if your against a holiday don't celebrate it. don't try and change it. I am from the U.S and I don't find it racist. Black people participate in the holiday too. Its only racist if you make it out to be. god why do people have to mess with another countries holiday

  16. Dec.5 is NOT St. Nicholas' birthday. It's his feast day in the Catholic church. And Zwarte Piet is a Moor.

  17. Sorry - should be Dec. 6, not 5th.

Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form