Irrational Activism: Why “Black Peter” Should Not Be Called Racist

Rather than taking some cheap shots at the US about the NSA spying on basically the entire world, today I wanted to talk about something very different: the effect of ill-considered activism. Usually I don’t talk about things that are prevalent in the news in my own country, but since this has gone quite international and since there is an underlying message, today I would like to talk about the Dutch “Black Peter”, a character that is under heavy fire, even by the UN, because supposedly, it is racist.

First of all, some background: something the Dutch are very proud of is the fact that we “invented” Christmas as it is today. Unfortunately, nobody but the Dutch actually knows about this, but Santa Claus is derived from Sinterklaas, who in turn was based on Saint Nicholas and who is celebrated every year on the 5th or the 6th of December. However, unlike Santa, Sinterklaas doesn’t have little fairies to help him distribute all the presents: he has Black Peters (or “Zwarte Pieten”).

These men and women are a major part of the festivities, but for the past decade or so some voices have been raised: Black Peter is supposedly racist, because, not very surprisingly, they are black, and they even wear afro-wigs and have bright red lips. Although the official story is that they are black because they have to enter people’s houses through the chimneys, it has raised a lot of questions about Dutch involvement in slave trade and how a developed nation could possibly support a tradition in which a single white man rules over hundreds, if not thousands of black men and women, presumably without pay.

At least that’s what the UN seems to think right now. An “independent” team of representatives has done some “research” and concluded that the tradition is racist, and that Black Peter should be abolished. To this, they added that it was ridiculous that the Dutch felt like there was any need to have this festivity anyway, because after all, why don’t we just celebrate Christmas?

Especially that last point caused a lot of uproar, directed both at those who oppose the tradition and even more so at the failure of the UN to get a decent image of the country before drawing conclusions. Not only were the researchers incredibly biased, all of them being black activists and generally from countries where things still aren’t that great when it comes to equality, but they also have no clue about what Dutch society is like, or for that matter, any society the UN ever does its research in. Things are looked at from a US point of view, and issues that exist in the US are portrayed onto those other countries, suddenly causing issues where there were none, or at least where they weren’t that problematic.

After all, the US has a very different method of dealing with racism than any other country in the world does. In the US, race is a sensitive issue that is raised time and time again, while in Europe it is something that just isn’t talked about much because extreme racists are very rare. Basically, in the US efforts are made to convince children that being black is fine, while in the Netherlands, the suggestion that there is any difference between people from different races is just never suggested, so children have no clue about it.

Now, in this case, can you imagine what the debate has caused? Not only has it suddenly created a schism between those who support the tradition and those few who don’t, but it has also caused a lot of Dutch people to become angry at “those black people.” The debate has caused racism where there was none. Also, it has been front page news here for days, and already lots of angry parents have complained that their children have heard about all this. These children are asking their parents why people are saying that Black Peter is not allowed to be black anymore, because why would it be wrong to be black?

In the end, the debate has caused nothing but misery, and for what exactly? In the Dutch view, Black Peter is no different from those fairies: they are fictional characters and don’t have a race. Now that has changed. Black Peter has suddenly become “black-black”, and for some reason, despite the fact that his job is actually great fun and leisurely and despite the fact that Black Peter is adored by hundreds of thousands of children, that is an issue.

The only way to change anything would be by abolishing the tradition all together, but how do you think people would react to that? What would happen if people in the US were told that Christmas had to end because Santa is a white man with a white beard? Just think of your country’s most precious tradition and consider what people would do if it was abolished, and then consider that in this case, it is being abolished because immigrants don’t like it. It is no wonder that half the country has suddenly become racist again, and I’m sure our extreme-right party will be very happy about all of this, because they will gain a lot of voters. That’s a lesson many activists still have to learn: if you don’t think about your actions, you might end up making the issue even worse than it already was. Even activism needs rationality.


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More on this topic from Dean Richards:

White People’s Opinion on Racism is Important

Racism in Young Children: Our Future

Why The George Zimmerman Case Has Nothing To Do With Racism


About Dean Richards

A young student with a passion for writing. Aspiring author and human rights activist, but I write about anything. "If you don't like how things are, change it! You're not a tree!" New blog post every Monday!
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21 Responses to Irrational Activism: Why “Black Peter” Should Not Be Called Racist

  1. Oh boy, I have so much to say about that. But I’m doing it on my own blog. However, I am going to refer to your post. Thanks.

  2. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Um, didn’t the Dutch profit immensely from the Transatlantic slave trade? Oh well, Americans have professional sports teams named after Native Americans. Traditions rooted in racism deserve to be abolished and cowering in fear because extremists will react is an exercise in circular reasoning. Haters gonna hate no matter what.

    • Yeah, we did, but why should that make a difference? “Haters gonna hate no matter what” is like saying that racism will ALWAYS exist, and the way countries like the US are dealing with it, that’s actually the reality. But if we can make sure that our children don’t even know that there is any perceived difference between black and white people aside from the colour of their skin, THEN we can actually reach a point where racism doesn’t exist anymore.

      All it takes is for nobody to talk about racism for about 20 years. Now, seeing as racism still exists, that’s not going to happen, but the least we can do is not to turn everything into a problem so that children will go a very long time without knowing about all these things. Eventually, the goal is that when they are about 10 years old, they will get a history class in which they are told about slavery, and they will be as appalled and confused as we would be upon hearing that all blonde people were forced into slavery.

      If, however, we keep going like this and accuse everything and everyone of racism, it’s not ever going to disappear. It might sometimes be effective on the short term (although as we’ve seen in this particular debate, even that isn’t always the case), but on the long term, it’s an awful tactic.

      In the end, the only way to get rid of racism is to make it is a thing of the past, and to do that, we need to stop discussing it everywhere we go. I would like to mention, for example, that definitely not every immigrant or black person in the country feels like Black Peter should go. It’s a small minority that wants to see change, and it is that small minority that has given a whole generation of children the idea that apparently black and white people aren’t the same after all.

      • Jeff Nguyen says:

        I think I see some of where you are coming from and that your arguments are a reframing where the ends (a world where children know no racism) justify the means (avoiding discussing the uncomfortable topic hoping it will go away on its own). If only life were so simple. There are times when there is no other way to bring down the dams then to raise the water line. Every voice matters and no one knows which drop of water will be the one to bring down the levees. To deny the past is to be complicit in it even if we would prefer to have it another way.

        I should have bee more clear on my own comments…Americans have professional sports teams named after derogatory terms for Native American, i.e, Redskins, Braves, Chiefs, and see no problem with this. When I say haters gonna hate, I’m referring to the fact that whether racism is spoken of openly or buried under the rug, the extremists position will not change. So if they (the right-wing extremists you refer to) are going to hate anyway, might as well talk about it. The dominant culture always seeks to frame the discourse on its own terms, by controlling the narratives that children hear dissent is preemptively managed.

        I do appreciate your willingness to approach this topic and consider other’s opposing viewpoints.

        • The problem is that that is exactly how anti-racism activists did their thing about a century ago, but times have changed. The issue is not as black and white anymore, it has become much more complex. Back then, black people had no rights whatsoever and the first aims were to get equality under the law, which can be done by being very vocal, but to convince actual people that they should treat you in the same way as anyone else… that’s a matter of psychology and high level rhetoric. It requires rationality every step of the way, because the change we want to make is very, very complicated.

          To get back to what you said about extremists not changing their views…as much as their views won’t change if issues aren’t talked about, their views also won’t change if we DO talk about it. In fact, it is a psychological fact that people will become MORE orthodox in their views if they are opposed, and that is exactly what we have seen in the Netherlands in the past few weeks. Because of the debate, the Netherlands has gained some extra racists.

          However, one thing is for sure: people die. So to say it bluntly, life is so simple, because problems like these solve themselves if just you wait long enough. Averagely about 80 years, to be precise.

          • Jeff Nguyen says:

            Final comment, I promise. So the argument is wait for the old guard to die and expect the new generation to be non-racist? A word from Dr. King, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

            Thanks again for listening.

  3. I am a white Dutch man and I fully support the UN and the activists to stop Black Pete tradition. Because:
    – Several professors in art history have established that Black Pete’s outlook is based on slave costumes from the 17the and 18the century
    – Black Pete shows exagerated facial racial expression features of black people and therefor mocks them
    – Black Pete is the eternal servant of a white bishop. Well, isn’t that a very old fashioned (racist) way of presenting a black persons’ destiny? The US has a black president for years already which is living proof that all colors of mankind are equal.
    – After the UN criticism of Black Pete Dutch people started pro-Pete petitions and demonstrations. Guess what happenend? One of the big political parties PVV, who happen to be very xenofobic and fight a nonstop war against muslims and islam, claimed the results of the online petitions. Few opposed. Also many pro Pete voters argue that whomever doesn’t like Black Pete can go back to his own country.
    – People who demonstrate against Black Pete have been attacked viciously by the police and crowds.

    • And those last two points are exactly why the discussion is wrong, if you ask me. That is what I am suggesting: as an activist, you need not only think of what you can do to bring the issue into the news, but also about what the consequences will be. Of course I understand that certain parts of Black Pete can be perceived racist (although I will very strongly disagree with the point about the bishop being their eternal leader, that is how an outsider might view it, but in practice they are not truly servants), but why then not suggest slight changes? Why does he immediately have to be blue rather than just giving him a bit of a haircut?

      In the end, as a Dutch activist, you should KNOW that people won’t just accept the entire tradition to be done away with. No real suggestions for improvement have been made, because either the improvements would be too small or it would ruin the entire event, so instead you end up with a pointless discussion that is going nowhere and that will cause the entire political spectrum to move further to the right because the racist and the conservative in people has been unleashed.

      The fact that this discussion has become so big now has caused huge lasting issues, mainly for generations to come but also for current generations, because Geert Wilders is going to gain a whole lot of voters. And when anti-racism activists give Wilders more votes… something is going wrong.

  4. Great article. It has been brought to my attention three times, so I will use the charm.
    Allow me to disagree. The Sinterklaas en Zwarte Pieten travesty is not attacked because of Black (and white) people from other countries not understanding the “children’s party”. They overstand it very well. In the same way as Black people in Hell Land. We KNOW that it is racist. “Ik zal je niet de ZWARTE PIET toespelen, maar…” to state that there was no problem, means that every Black person in this country who has been stating that the “children’s party” is a celebration of Black slavery, has been ignored. To ignore something does not mean that it does not exist. To ignore something means that you see it, and THEN look the other way and continue to do so until someone else gets rid of the problem or the people pointing at the problem.
    Now that you know that Black people in Hell Land have been protesting this racist travesty for years – and some went to jail for it, while the rest got ignored – will you keep ignoring the problem or… finally DO something about it? Just asking.

    • But what do we do about it? So far, I have only heard suggestions that we should do “something” about, but what is this something? And how will it play out in practice? And what will its effect be on racist thoughts in the younger generations or even on Geert Wilders’ influence in this country.

      I am not necessarily disagreeing that Zwarte Piet is racist. I do think it has been greatly exaggerated, but my main issue with this debate is the effect it has had. Therefore, the point of this article was not to argue in favour of Zwarte Piet, but to argue in favour of rational activism.

      • Allow me to agree. The pro-Black Pete league has uttered death threats against any Black person protesting the travesty. Even the UN delegate. This aspect of the racism has been much ignored as well. So, “rational” – the use of reason instead of ignorant hatred to claim ignorance of racism – would be much appreciated.
        Thank you for allowing me to address this important issue on your site.

  5. Deborah says:

    We have white clowns but black clowns are not ok? Black pete doesn’t refer to a black man but to a character. Sinterklaas is a old and wise man that is being helped by the Pete’s, like exploring-pete, technical pete, headmaster pete, professor pete and more.

    You can’t assume that when black characters help a white guy they are automatically slaves. Then you would be your own racist.

    This is a festival where the pete’s are idols to kids and give candy.

  6. Gekrenkte witte says:

    You are right, the anti-Zwarte Piet action with the slogan: “Zwarte Piet is racism”, frames all Dutch people as racists if they just visit a Sinterklaas arrival. The action is counter-productive. The action seems to be inspired by a “revenge action” of Mrs. Biekman who wants to take away the PROUD (her words!) of the Dutch white man that she depicts as celebrating Sinterklaas with the racist concept of the symbol of Zwarte Piet to indulge the black man. A support action, pro-Zwarte Piet, followed in the Hague, 26 October with also the presence of some tens of extreme right wing persons and even a MP of the Party of Freedom. The arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam will take place, because there are no legal gounds to refuse the permission. The organization of the more than 400 arrivals in the country is in the hands of the societal organizations, and is not organized by the Dutch authorities. Those authorities only want to guarantee the public order in the context of the Constitution, the Law on Public Manifestations and the local police rules.
    In the shops we see already products with only the name Piet, and a series of Sinterklaas stamps issued by PostNL on November 4, 2013, depicts Zwarte Piet in a violet colour. The discussion goes on, not to abolish, but to adjust the tradition. The major of Amsterdam plays an important role as mediator and facilitator in the discussion.

  7. Liv says:

    I am black, and it is offensive to me, but being black, I guess I am not technically a human being and my emotions and feelings dont matter.

    • Don’t you think that comment is a little childish…? Surely you can come up with something more intelligent than that, so that it could actually lead to something productive.

  8. Jo says:

    Sorry I am just curious to know why is it covering all of the face with red lips still and not made instead made to look more like a soot covering if thats where it’s from? I can see it’s not racist, the children of Holland did seem to be really happy in the news, he’s obviously a positive figure therefore shouldn’t be taken away. I am surprised though that they don’t think to update it a little to help it continue in a way that avoids a controversy debate about it; like the current performing minstrels do. – In that theres white & black people and they paint their faces however, usually when they do go for a black covering they paint it more as a mask so its clear its for an entrainment purpose and also people who aren’t familiar with the tradition it stems from are not only focused on the face colouring.

    • Because then they might be recognised. The thing is of course… these Black Peters are fictional characters, so they have to be played by locals, who often have children of their own or at the very least people they know attending the event, and it would be quite problematic if they were recognised. Even at a big parade, it wouldn’t be difficult to spot your uncle or your cousin if they didn’t have their entire face painted and a large wig on their heads.

      This means that also if black people want to play Black Peter, they will have to have a lot of make-up to make sure they no longer look like themselves. I mean… Sinterklaas (and Santa, for that matter) wears a big white beard to conceal his face, and Black Peter has a wig and a lot of make-up for the same purpose.

  9. Jesse says:

    Allow me to ask a question that may be obvious to some but not to me: is Black Pete black because of the soot from the chimney, because of ethnicity, or both? If it’s only from soot, why not put smears of soot-like makeup on the face of Black Pete instead of full blackface? If it’s because of ethnicity, why not just have people who are ethnically black portray Black Pete instead of white people in blackface? And if it’s because of both soot and ethnicity, could you combine the two suggestions above? These suggestions don’t perfectly address the concerns surrounding allusions to slavery, nor do they perfectly maintain Dutch tradition, but perhaps it’s a compromise that could work for both sides? I’m a Dutch Canadian – I’d love to hear other comments and perspectives, thanks!

    • Well, the official story is that it came from the soot, but most likely the idea did originate from black people a couple of hundred years ago. Not as slaves, however, quite the opposite.

      Anyway, as I also mentioned in the comment before you, the problem with not covering it entirely is that people become recognisable. You have to realise that Black Pete is not just a character on a TV-show or part of a single parade: he is that, but he is also a character that pops up in every city, town or village, every primary school and kindergarten and even a lot of houses, where he (or she, by the way) is often played by people familiar to the children.

      Cutting down on the make-up is no option, and neither is letting black people play Black Pete (not only because there wouldn’t be enough people to play Black Pete, but also because black people still need the make-up to be unrecognisable and because that would mean that Black Pete does actually have a race, while the story is that he does not, that anyone can become a Black Pete, regardless of their race).

      So yeah… that hopefully makes the issue more clear. The only way the tradition can be upheld without the “blackface” would be to do the same thing in different colours, but then Pete would start looking very weird, and I’m not sure how children could be explained that Cool Pete turned into a smurf.

  10. Jesse says:

    Thank you, that does make things clearer, and thanks for your patience with me – I must have missed your previous comment. It seems to me that the main issue surrounding Black Pete is one of semiotics. In much of the world today, when people see a person in blackface, they interpret this sign as a highly racist and offensive caricature of black people due to its use in minstrelsy over the course of many decades. However, the Dutch have associated and continue to associate the same sign with Black Pete for cultural reasons you’ve noted above.

    If people living in Holland only associate blackface with Black Pete, the tradition should continue there. Here’s the challenge: how does this specific cultural tradition continue in the context of an increasingly global culture that associates blackface with minstrelsy? I don’t pretend to know the answer, but perhaps pointing to semiotics gets to the heart of the issue and thereby closer to a solution. Thoughts? 🙂

    • Yeah, I definitely agree. The main issue I have with the anti-Black Pete movement (when it comes to the content) is that 1). 90% of its supporters have only read fragments of foreign media without understanding it and 2). it is suggested that there is an easy solution. But there isn’t. There’s an issue, because people feel insulted, but the solution isn’t so easy to find.

      Now, personally, I’m not sure what I would want. I guess I’d find it acceptable if they changed it somehow (without ruining the tradition), but the problem I’m concerned with is that this entire protest is incredibly counter-productive. That is what I tried to point out in this post, and if I were to answer the title of this post, I would say “because it increases racism.”

      The Black Pete controversy has been absolutely terrible for black people in the Netherlands. The longer it takes, the more examples I see. Just yesterday, my mum, who works with poor immigrant children, asked me whether it was okay to call cute but devious black children “little monkeys”, something she does with white children, but after all the controversy, she wasn’t so sure if it was okay to say it about black children.

      That, and many more things (such as last week’s topic) is what I really think is the issue of the controversy: it has brought about a lot of racism, and if we keep going like this, soon it will be just as bad here as it is in the US.

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