The Netherlands, it’s time to officially abolish Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”)


Here in The Netherlands, especially in the last 10 years, there has been a lot of discussion about the character Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”). I have steered clear of this discussion, as there is nothing to discuss. It’s 2020, we have all the facts, and the solution to this problem is astonishingly simple: Zwarte Piet is a Blackface character, Blackface is racist, it’s time to abolish this Zwarte Piet character.

Back in the day, when I was still young and idealistic, I was convinced that, as long as I would calmly (never angry!) provide someone with racist opinions with the right arguments and the right facts, while using the correct tone and the perfect examples, they would undoubtedly see the error of their ways. Nowadays however, I know that I could talk until I’m blue in the face, but that if in 2020, with all that we know now, somebody is still pro-Zwarte Piet, there’s nothing I can say that will convince them otherwise. Like I said, it’s 2020. It’s not ignorance to the problem. It’s unwillingness to fix it.

As anybody who’s ever read an article on change management or who has worked in an office that still used WordPerfect 5.1 in 2003 “because Marie doesn’t want to learn how to use Word” knows, there are people who will flat out refuse to change. No matter how much you cater to them, no matter how much you take their feelings into consideration, no matter how much time and energy you spend on talking through their feelings and objections, they’re just not going to adapt to the new situation willingly. It’s just not going to happen, and to keep trying is just a waste of time, energy and money. In the case of Marie and her refusal to switch to Word, it’s simple: at some point, management will just implement the change. Marie will then have two choices: either to switch to Word, or to find employment elsewhere. In both cases the problem is solved.

I strongly feel that the Zwarte Piet “debate” has reached this point of “management needs to enforce the change” and I find it absurd that the Dutch government hasn’t taken any action at all up to now. Our Prime Minister won’t take any responsibility in this matter either, he just keeps talking about it as if it’s a case of individual responsibility, a personal problem that should be “figured out among the Dutch themselves”. What in the ever-loving neo-liberal bullshit is that? The way he talks about it, makes it seem that the Zwarte Piet situation is on par with a conflict between neighbours about the fence dividing their gardens, instead of a racist tradition that needs to be abolished. Just to make sure: racism is a type of discrimination. Discrimination is prohibited by law here in The Netherlands, it’s in Article 1 of the Constitution for the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Actually, all language used by the Prime Minister on this matter is extremely manipulative: “People FEEL like they are being discriminated against”. No. People ARE being discriminated against. If I stomp on your toes and you scream “Ouch!”, it would be absolutely absurd if I were to say “I see that you feel like I’ve been standing on your toes”. No, I apologise for standing on your toes and, going forward, watch where I put my feet. The fact that the Prime Minister uses this particular manipulative language is completely on purpose by the way, it’s a way of trying to make the situation seem less serious than it is. [Note: If anyone wants to know more about manipulative language: I did my thesis on manipulative language in political speeches and have lots of articles I can share.]

Not only politicians, but also the Dutch media play an undermining role in this matter, by framing it as “People feel HURT by the Zwarte Piet character” instead of saying the truth, which is “The Zwarte Piet character is an expression of racist ideology, racism is considered discrimination, and discrimination is prohibited by law here in The Netherlands, time to abolish the Zwarte Piet character”, they created the possibility for debate. Because if it’s framed as being about “feelings”, it suddenly seems logical and fair to “hear all parties” and “take the pro-Zwarte Piet people’s feelings into consideration”, because “everybody has the right to have their feelings acknowledged” and “who is to decide that the feelings of the anti-Zwarte Piet people are more important of those of the pro-Zwarte Piet people”? And since this is The Netherlands and we looove talking and talking and talking things over until a compromise is reached, we’ve been talking and talking and talking and trying to reach a compromise for years now, despite this being THE type of situation in which there is no compromise. Because it’s not about opposing views and “hurt feelings”. It’s about racism, plain and simple. Racism is a type of discrimination. And discrimination is… exactly.

Even the United Nations have recommended (as that is all that is in their power) the Dutch government in 2015 (Page 4, under 17) to actively promote the elimination of the racist features of the Zwarte Piet character, and last week, the European Parliament has expressed their wish for the Zwarte Piet character to be abolished.

But it is of course a lot easier for the Dutch government and politicians to pretend that the Zwarte Piet situation is just a matter of “two opposing groups needing to figure out a compromise amongst themselves”, which in essence comes down to putting the onus on the people who are being discriminated against to “just go and convince the other group that you deserve to be treated decently”. This of course is victim blaming of the highest order, and it needs to stop.

As inhabitants of The Netherlands, we urgently need to increase the pressure on, well, everybody and everything, to abolish Zwarte Piet completely. We really need to stop with all the compromises like Roetveegpiet (“Soot Pete”) or “Regenboogpiet” (“Rainbow Pete”), they are just diversion tactics stemming from White fragility that only undermine the cause. Roetveegpiet just confirms that “he’s not Black, he’s just got soot on his face from sliding down the chimney” and we all know THAT isn’t true. This is just going to lead to endless discussions on “How much soot is still acceptable and how dark can that soot be?” and… Just stop giving the pro-Zwarte Piet people ways to defend Blackface. The same goes for Regenboogpiet. Rainbows are among my top 3 things in life, but let’s not pretend that painting a rainbow on your face is the solution to the Zwarte Piet problem. It ignores the severity of Blackface, and promotes the “All colours are the same!”, which undoubtedly will slide into “I don’t see colour! I am colourblind! See, I’m not racist!”, which are unbelievably problematic statements, as has been extensively documented, well, everywhere. Because it’s not just the colour of his face that is the issue with Zwarte Piet. It’s the colour of his face, the outfit he’s wearing, the wig, the horrific history that this character is inextricably linked to.

Look at what is happening in the USA and in the UK: they don’t go around giving statues of slave holders and other atrocious historical figures face lifts, new hairdos or an new outfit to try and “fix” things, they just get rid of the whole damn statue. The only way to fix this Zwarte Piet situation that has been allowed to drag on for way longer than necessary, is to abolish the character completely.

So let’s stop spending all our time and energy trying to convince our family members one by one that racism is really a thing (especially not via Facebook) and instead do what Kick Out Zwarte Piet mentions on their website under “What can I do?”. I would specifically suggest to focus on filing complaints with organisations, and sending emails to both local politicians and politicians in parliament, to ask them what they are going to DO to fix this matter. Do remind them of the fact that next year is an election year. Sign a petition or start your own.

Talk about it at school, contact the local organisers of the Sinterklaasfeest (the holiday Zwarte Piet is currently part of), the neighbourhood association, the sports associations. Boycot the holiday. Don’t go to festivities, don’t watch the Sinterklaasjournaal (“Sinterklaas news”, a show that is on television during the Sinterklaas holiday season), don’t buy Sinterklaasgoodies. Let your city council, the producers of the Sinterklaasjournaal, and shop owners know that it’s time to abolish Zwarte Piet completely. Especially companies that are trying to sell you something are, as we have seen proof of in the last three weeks, especially sensitive to public pressure and fear losing out on money. Use the fact that most businesses have zero principles whatsoever and the fact that Black Lives Matter is “trendy” right now to your advantage.

“But will this holiday still be fun for kids if there aren’t any Pieten, Black or otherwise?” Abolishing Zwarte Piet can be the excellent start of the reimagining of the entire holiday, starting with the whole lying to kids about how “Sinterklaas is really, really real!”, involving all kinds of elaborate schemes to make them believe this is true, and then at some point when they’re a bit older going “Haha! We lied! He’s not! We fooled you!” Stop lying to kids people, there literally is no reason for it. Children are well aware that Elsa and Anna aren’t “real”, but that doesn’t stop them from loving and enjoying the characters.

Other ways in which I would update the Sinterklaas holiday: First, I would get Sinterklaas a mobility scooter, which considering that he’s about 1700 year old is more appropriate than the horse he rides in on. The Pieten will be replaced by a group of 20-ish year olds wearing personalised overalls, who help Sinterklaas out and keep him up to date to “How society works”, a kind of grandchild – grandpa dynamic, which makes sense considering this is supposed to be a holiday geared towards children. This group of youngsters will be called the S-Team, which is of course short for “Sinterklaas Team”, but also spells “steam”, referring back to the boat on which Sinterklaas travels to The Netherlands from Spain. Side note: For the people thinking I’m making all of this up, check out the Wikipedia entry on Sinterklaas, and you will see that I’m dead serious. #cantmakethisshitup

The members of the S-Team are excellent dancers, which is great considering there’s both a TikTok hype going around, and a need for kids to move more. The S-Teamers are also musically talented, and work together with young Dutch artists to create modern sounding songs with modern lyrics. I’m thinking of a whole new Sinterklaas repertoire, combined with songs about topics kids deal with in their lives, and current events. Anyway, the fact that I just thought this all up in 3 minutes, shows that if a couple of professional producers get to work, they’ll be able to create a holiday without Pieten that could be fun for ALL kids.

“But what if people start rioting?” Then the Dutch police force will finally have something more useful to do than to racially/ethnically profile people. Sorry not sorry.

I don’t think we’re going to get massive riots. Sure, the professional racists and the “I don’t care what it is, I’m against it, because I just wanna fuck shit up!”-crowd will probably set up a date through Facebook to yell some nonsense and fuck some shit up, but they’ve already been doing that once in a while anyway. Knowing the Dutch Mentality, people will at first cry bloody murder, mostly online on Twitter and Facebook, and then begrudgingly adapt to the new situation. A couple of years later, these exact people will claim that they have always been against Zwarte Piet, and that they’re so happy to see that they have been proven right that the holiday is more fun without that “awful character”. Of course you’ll always have the Maries of this world who will forever hold on to Zwarte Piet, or WordPerfect 5.1 for that matter. That is however absolutely no reason to keep things the way they are.

Don’t let “Black Lives Matter” be a hollow catchphrase in your life. The Netherlands needs to abolish Zwarte Piet. Officially.