The debate around Zwarte Piet – Black Pete – has been raging in the Netherlands for several years.
Is the character a black-face racist stereotype or just a harmless Dutch tradition?
Listen to the latest Here in Holland podcast to hear what internationals think:
Many in Dutch society are simply stunned as to what’s happened around what is a treasured family holiday. Sinterklaas is one of the favourite times of year for many people.
Positions are entrenched – with supporters and opponents clashing sometimes hysterically.
At one stage the UN even got involved.
For a lot of people in the Netherlands this was very bizarre – why the hell was the UN suddenly telling them they were racist?
The debate was already raging before this – but there’s nothing like a pointed finger from outside to add fuel to the flames and entrench positions.
The battle is between supporters who say Piet is part of a harmless tradition and embedded in Dutch culture and opponents who see Piet as a negative racial stereotype an image of a slave from a colonial era which should not be made light of.
Most white Dutch people now groan when the subject is raised and just don’t see the fuss…it’s been like this forever so, like, what are people on about?
Surveys regularly show that more than 70% of Dutch people say nothing should change.
But there is an increasing backlash and the surveys show younger people are more open to change.
And amongst different ethnic groups the figures differ a lot with a survey in Amsterdam showing that more than half of Dutch people with a Surinamese, Antillean or Ghanian background finding Zwarte Piet discriminatory.
So what about the international community here?
How does the Black Pete tradition come across for people who have come to live short term in the Netherlands?
The podcast took a snapshot of opinion at a recent expat fair and online by posting the following question in a number of expat Facebook groups.
“ As an international in the Netherlands where do you stand on Zwarte Piet?”
There were hundreds of comments and a civilized discussion online – which is pretty amazing.
Opinions were divided of course.
A Nigerian woman who wished to remain anonymous:
“ It is racist – they say the Petes are black from coming down the chimney, but you don’t get thick black curly hair, red lips and golden earrings from coming down the chimney – it is just of way of them being racist.”
But a Bulgarian women felt the exact opposite:
“What if a black person were to put on white make-up would that be racist too? I think black people shouldn’t be so sensitive and as outsiders we should respect this tradition.”
For the ful range of the discussion listen to the podcast above or here.
Counting up the opinions what I found was a majority of internationals as being against Black Pete in its current form.
Around two-thirds of comments posted in the Facebook groups Leiden Expats and Expats Utrecht and the comments I collected at the expat fair were for changing Black Pete.
These people find it a negative racial stereotype and then yes, racist.
A small group of people were neutral on the debate with the rest favouring the situation as is.
The debate will remain heated of course – at the same time changes are happening. And the city council in Amsterdam recently came out with what they said will be the end of the discussion.
From now on Petes in the capital of the Netherlands were no longer be black-face but just have a smear of soot on their cheeks.
They will wear costumes from the 16th century based on the clothing from Spanish merchants to keep that part of the tradition alive.
The city is trying to compromise and keep everyone happy. Time will tell if the strategy works.
Here in Holland is the podcast in English about life with the Dutch – it’s produced by Andy Clark – contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook – website – you can subscribe to get all the podcasts in via your iPhone podcast app or your Android app of choice. Or follow on Soundcloud