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What is your assessment of the debate surrounding the cultural practice of Black Pete in the Netherlands?

(A historicised view on the culture of Black Pete)

Paper written by Max Herold jr. for Millfield School, Somerset, UK as part of the GCSE (General Certificate of Secundary Education: Course English First Language), may 2019.


In the Netherlands, we practice a centuries’ old tradition called Sinterklaas, also known as Saint-Nicholas. According to the story, he sails into the Dutch harbours on his steamboat from Spain on the day before his birthday. After his arrival, people either celebrate this event on the evening of the fifth of December, or on the morning of the sixth of December, his birthday. Sinterklaas’s helpers, the ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (Black Petes), bring presents down the chimney. Children recognise Sinterklaas through three defining aspects of his appearance: namely, his red mitre with an embossed golden cross, his golden crosier that holds the key that opens all doors, and his big red book containing all the names of children both deserving and undeserving of presents. These three items signify his status as canonised, and therefore signify that he is deserving of reverence. Dutch people, generally view Sinterklaas’s actions and status as both stately and serious.

A debate occurred in current affairs in 2013, where many critics argued that the tradition of Black Pete carries racist connotations; in particular, the tradition’s use of degrees of blackface. And this debate is still ongoing. Unfortunately, such critics take a very reductive view of the complex provenance and development of the tradition. It is true that degrees of blackface attach to the tradition, which is both racist and wrong. Nevertheless, many Dutch people practice the tradition either without blackface, or in a manner that educates children about the racist appropriation of this tradition. Again, unfortunately, because many critics reduce the practice to its racist appropriation, people and the media often assume that Dutch people are racist in general. This is both misguided and upsetting. 

A more historicised view of Black Pete’s provenance reveals a more complex case: that Black Pete is a synthesis of two non-racist origins; namely, the Moors and the medieval folk character Krampus. Influenced by the incredibly huge popularity of minstrelsy and blackface entertainment in British and American culture, nineteenth century Dutch childrens’ writers appropriated portrayals of Black Pete in similar ways, principally by representing him as conforming to the dominant racist caricatures of the time. Uneducated and unhistoricised responses to Black Pete typically view him as a reproduction and normalisation of the master slave relationship of the colonial slave era, and argue that the tradition should be dispensed with entirely. 

Some critics like Samira bin Sharifu, who wrote in The Guardian that, “Black Pete is just a bit of fun for the Netherlands right? Wrong,” uses extreme emotive language throughout her article that makes it sound like her experience of this tradition was one of terror and trauma. By using words like, “terror”, “petrified”, “racist” and “dehumanising,” her emotive hyperbole does not explain why the tradition has a racist element. Instead, she focuses on her subjective unpleasant experience of this tradition. Of course Ms. bin Sharifu is entitled to express and describe her childhood experience, but her article nowhere engages with the complexity of both racist and non-racist elements within the tradition. Her inflammatory rhetoric encourages the reader to have a more reductive and closed-minded view on this topic. However, a closer examination of the origin of the tradition suggests that, while it does have racist nineteenth century appropriation (blackface), people can practise the tradition in a non-racist manner. This is due to the fact that the narrative trajectory of the origin of Black Pete is a synthesis of Moorish culture and medieval representations of the devil as black - both of which have no racist connotations or elements. 

Unlike the representation of Black Pete in cultures without colonial or slave economy history, Dutch culture represents Black Pete as skilled, helpful and a bearer of gifts, rather than some demeaning or hostile character. Whilst he does share some characteristics with Krampus, a medieval character whom most agree is the cultural precursor to the kindhearted Zwarte Piet, and who is still an integral part of culture in countries like Hungary, Czech Republic, and northern Italy, Black Pete’s use of a bundle of sticks (de roe) to use as a means of punishment, was a natural progression in his development or evolution from Krampus. In this sense to interpret Black Pete’s representation as an evil African is false. 

The Dutch representation of Black Pete in actual cultural practice doesn’t represent a negative stereotype of black people. Krampus would represent a much more humiliating and critical representation than Black Pete. The reason for this is that in his pictorial representations, artists portray Krampus as a black horned devil in chains. People could construe this image as a demeaning image of black people. Unfortunately, this argument does not hold true. Firstly, Krampus comes from cultures without a history of slavery; his representation dates chiefly form the medieval period, from portrayals of the devil in morality plays, where the devil’s evil nature was always signified by his black appearance. As the medieval period predates any colonisation involving slavery, Black Pete’s origin therefore remains free from any racist connotations. This historicised view of the provenance of Black Pete suggests that the cultural practice has no racist origin but rather uses the opposition between black and white to represent the distinction between good and evil, which was at the heart of medieval morality plays in Europe. This conceptional distinction predates white European contact with black people. This therefore demonstrates one way of interpreting Black Pete as having no racist qualities.

Around 1850, Jan Schenkman, a teacher from the Netherlands, portrayed this tradition according to the American practice of black face and minstrelsy, in an illustrated collection of children’s verse based on Laurens Philippe Charles van den Bergh’s book “den zwarten knecht van St. Niklaas” written in 1836. Unfortunately, Schenkman’s images of Black Pete directly reproduced racist caricatures drawn from the American traditions of black face and minstrelsy, which without doubt are racist in presenting demeaning and insulting images of black people as either one or some combination of the following: glad to be enslaved, unintelligent, clown-like, or lazy. The truth is actually that Black Pete’s ethnicity differed from the African American ethnicities of these caricatures. A 2016 documentary by the journalist Arnold-Jan Scheer showed that Black Pete originates from a highly developed North African civilisation which offered great expertise in mathematics, architecture, and astronomy, to name but a few. The Moors have never been enslaved. Black Pete therefore does not originate from slave culture. On the contrary, in medieval times, the Moors colonised southern Spain, therefore it is entirely possible that Saint-Nicholas and the Moors met as equals. Nevertheless, the images in the illustrations associated Black Pete with American and Dutch slavery and present demeaning images of him. It is therefore entirely understandable that people find the continued representation of Black Pete in black face as racist and upsetting.

Returning to Ms. bin Sharifu, I agree that “the main problem is the lack of education.” Most of her article comprises autobiographical reflection on her distressing experience of Black Pete and negative stereotypes of black people. At times, she does refer to statements she refers to as facts, but without any supporting discussion or argument, therefore arguably reducing the strength of these points to assertion only. For example, she cited “a local court ruling that the depiction of Black Pete is, in fact, racist,” and a “negative stereotype of black people.” Whether or not these rulings are true, and I believe that in some cases this is true, Ms. bin Sharifu rather disappointingly does not provide any historicised explanation to support these judgments. Later in the article, when discussing the negative effect of demeaning stereotypes on black people, she cites research by an artist that such stereotypes “contribute to low self-esteem in children of colour,” which few people would argue with. What I think the article needed to do was argue why representations of Black Pete can be racist and where that racism comes from.

Upon reflection, I think that the tradition of Black Pete is worth keeping but only when children and adults are educated about its provenance, both the racist and non-racist side of it, while also making sure that representations of Black Pete do not use full black face. Instead of black face, people who play Black Pete should in my view wear a sooty appearance in accordance with his narrative role as someone who climbs down chimneys to bring presents. By taking this educational approach, and avoiding the racist use of black face, both adults and children benefit from the continuation of this cultural practice. Adults and young people will learn an important history and at the same time children will continue to enjoy the annual visitation of this exciting and intriguing character whom millions of Dutch adults and children look up on with great fondness. Keeping the cultural practice of Black Pete is an essential part of learning the history of our cultural identity, both good and bad. 

Max Herold junior
May, 2019