Reader’s Letter: Ashamed to be from Holland: Zwarte Piet is racism

POSTED: 12/4/12 12:49 AM

Approximately 90% of the time I am proud to be from Holland. But around November, when December 5 is approaching, shame is taking over. The Dutch celebrate a national holiday, somewhat like Christmas, on December the 5th called Sinterklaas. The discussion around the racist elements of this holiday is going on for quite some time, but many have either missed it or ignored it.

Let me start with some back ground information. Sinterklaas is based on a historical figure, Bishop Saint Nicolas. The story has changed many times in the course of time. Initially, in the 15th century, Sinterklaas was not a friendly Bishop. It was terror that made the children obey him.  In the 19th century they gave Sinterklaas a counterpart in order to clear his bad image. The servant got blamed, he was painted black, or in Dutch: “de zwarte piet toegespeeld”. From then on Sinterklaas was the friendly white master with a scary black servant (Zwarte Piet).

At some point in time it appears as if the Dutch realized it was racist, because they came up with a story for the kids. Zwarte Piet was not a servant anymore, but a friend of Sinterklaas.  His skin color was not black; he was just dirty from soot. Zwarte Piet furthermore became friendlier. He however was still the spitting image of black face.  To put icing on the cake, Zwarte Piet surprisingly enough multiplied by dozens.

If you claim that the image of Zwarte Piet is offending and racist, you better be well prepared for some nasty name calling. A lot of grownups instantly turn into high school bullies when you criticize Zwarte Piet. We have seen what happened to Sint Maartener Quinsy Gario in Dordrecht; he got arrested because he was wearing a shirt with the print ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’. Although he was not prosecuted, he was publicly ridiculed and insulted. I have seen many discussions in Holland end with the remark ‘go back to where you came from’, which basically implies that the opposing party of Zwarte Piet has to go back to Suriname or the former Netherlands Antilles, the (former) colonies, where – ironically enough – the same Dutch people paint their face black for personal enjoyment. Can the opposing party then say to the painted black Dutch people that they have to go back to where they came from?? No they cannot, because that is disrespectful right?

Right now I’m ashamed to be from Holland, ashamed to have a ‘tradition’ this tasteless, and moreover I’m ashamed of the intolerant, uncompassionate and ignorant response to the Zwarte Piet is Racism Campaign. Do not come with the same excuses over and over again: ‘but it’s tradition’, ‘but it’s nice for the children’. The children do not determine what is right or wrong. We do. And Black Face is wrong, period.

Don’t be mad at me for telling it how it is, and don’t tell me to go back to where I came from. I rather stay far from Holland until the present image of Zwarte Piet is defeated.

Hedy Kockx

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Comments (12)


  1. Robine says:

    I’m also ashamed.. very ashamed.. Hopefully we can get past this horrible racist tradition and move forward.

  2. A.van de Bosch says:

    Why this negative approach?

    As a dutch person i went through childhood with the idea that sinterklaas was for real until you were about 11 whereafter you start know the real truth about this event.
    In my eyes and millions of other children the zwarte piet was our hero as he was funny really flexible sportive and was the one climbing the roofs etc. an adventurous figure that all of us admired and wanted to be. If we were allowed to dress up then we wanted to be a zwarte piet.
    Children from these ages dont know anything about racism and for them the event is made. Its only in the adults vision that this could be regarded as racism. Well this event is not for you but for the children and if it is to be seen as separatism not racism it is a positive separatism not negative.
    Hope this will shine a new light on your vission.

  3. Ethan says:

    Well-said! And indeed, given the degree of hostility the topic arouses among those who think themselves “pure Dutch,” it takes some guts to stand up and say it!

    I and several others have shared your comment on Facebook and are getting lots of “likes”!

  4. Dwight Cicilia says:

    I am born and raised in the Netherlands, I celebrate this holiday event every year. We always got explained why “Zwarte Piet” is black and learned from the history of “Sinterklaas” at school. Zwarte Piet is black because he comes down the chimney! This always was the case and it is NOT a racist tradition. Sinterklaas exist since the 15th century.

    The poster above me, Robine, really doesn’t know a damn thing about this tradition or it’s past to call it a racist tradition you must be a moron.

    I am black and I celebrate Sinterklaas, deal with it!

  5. benj says:

    I always hear that zwarte piet is black because of soot, wher does the afrowig comes from, where does the surinam accent comes from, the kruid and peper noten ( from Indonesia) the chocolate and sugarsweets( from the plantations in Surinam and The Antilles) Dutch please stop playing . My mom always says some people lie untill they believe themselves, this is a national lie aimed at teaching white children that they R the boss of all colored people in the world. THe world is becoming more and more aware of what U R doin. Children don’t give a damn , even if Adolf Hitler himself and the SS was sharing gifts they would take it. They do not KNOW, we R the grownups and should act accordingly. THAT would be inappropriate. People R probably angry that I say this but 400 years of slavery and acting as if this is a joke. Those days R OVER.

  6. LMG says:

    “The poster above me, Robine, really doesn’t know a damn thing about this tradition or it’s past to call it a racist tradition you must be a moron”

    Dwight, I think you are rather a moron for calling someone a moron simply because he/she considers the Zwarte Piet part of Sinterklaas celebration as kind of racist.

    And tradition does not imply that something is wrong or fishy. yeah it used to be a tradition to treat blacks only as servants/entertainers for others, so we should keep that tradition too? Traditions can be a subject for change and therefore this Zwarte Piet aspect too

    Zwarte Piet is black because he comes down the chimney? Now how lame does that sound? Firstly, Zwarte Piet obvious looks and act like a ‘jiggaboo’ with a big Afro hairdo, big black red lips and big earrings and in some cases the people dress like Zwarte Piet talk with the worst f-ing Surinamese/Antillean accent I ever heard in my life. It’s simply a neo form of blackface/minstrel show (if you do not know what that is, I suggest to google it whenever you have nothing to do). Since when do chimneys give you an afro or ‘black’ accent? Tell me.

    Secondly, we do not have chimneys anymore, so that already shows how stupid it sounds to keep bs-ing little children nowadays. In Europe they have central heating and on this island we do not even have a heating, so so far for the chimney part. But if you are so used to tell kids that it is a chimney cleaner who became black because of soot, ok, then portray him as a white person with lanky hair and some black smudges on his face. Problem solved, but stop bs-ing kids with this white chimney cleaner nonense

    Because you know damn well that a chimney does not cause big red lips, big earrings and an S-Curl afro and kids will see that also and make a quick link between Zwarte Piet and their black classmate.
    If you don’t, well you’re lost like a pinguin in the desert.

    Now you deal with this opinion, bro

  7. Hedy Kockx says:

    Dear A. vd Bosch,

    I refuse to close my eyes for racism because ‘children do not see the harm of it’. Children don’t see the harm in many things in life. They will walk on thin ice (lets keep it European Dutch) turn on the boiling hot water to bathe, cross the road without watching…

    We are suppose to be educating our children right from wrong. Still Sinterklaas is teaching them that its normal that hundreds of silly black faces are serving the white man. Better yet, the white man with hundreds of serving black faces is a reason to celebrate with candy and presents!

    This tradition can be a reason to celebrate for all Dutch citizens – black white and every color in between – if only we were willing to adjust it a little. I like to see it positive from all of us.

    It truly beats me why this humble but justified request causes so much anger and frustration.

  8. Piet says:

    There are very much ‘Sinterklazen’ black and white that has many servants, black and white. A lot of these pay their servants low salarys because of the depending situation. Nobody care shit bout these servants. Sinterklaas is not teaching the children bout rasism, which is something you do on purpose, but you because obviously you tell your children ‘your’ idea about it. I hope you find your children a school were they do not know anything about Sinterklaas and prevent them from joining. Have a good live far from Holland.

  9. chambachada says:

    In Greece Sinterklaas is sthe protective saintt of the sailors. He went in his dys sailing along the Mediteranean sea ports and gave presents to the widows and children whose men had died at sea. His helpers from the North African coast, and the Moors from Spain come with him when he celebrates his birthday in Holland. It is a high post to be a bischops helper. Zwarte piet is a high rank officer. Racism? You who scream racism are jealous it seems

    • M. Douglas-Ungaro says:

      Incredible B.S. And, by the way, Greece can be a helluva place to be a Black person. But some people KNOW this already.

  10. Hedy says:

    I’m happy to see that this opinion is still up and running, and I have faith that it will not take long before the image of ‘zwarte piet’ is gone or at least adjusted. Opposition grows in Holland, and the world expresses its disapproval as well.

    I did not ask to abolish Sinterklaas. I asked to take out the racist part that is obviously present. Those who don’t see or better said, those who don’t want to see this racist element, are not necessarily racist, but in any case too comfortable in their own habit and their ‘tradition’. I did not call anyone a racist, the image ‘zwarte piet’ is racist. the black (many times brown) painted face, the afro wig, red lips and creole earrings. ‘zwarte piet’ did not get all those features from the chimney. it is a caricature of a black man and there is no way you can deny this. why is this insulting image so extremely important? I know it’s not easy to acknowledge the wrong if you did this over, and over, and over, so I understand the defense to some extend. But why is the request to take it easy on the paint, loose the afro wig or mix it with all kind of all other colors, so unreasonable in your eyes?? why do we have the urge to make reference to skin color?

    we can keep sinterklaas, we can even keep zwarte piet if he gets a little make over, we can keep the presents and the ‘pepernoten’… no crying kids. so don’t cry or get mad with me for my request.

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