SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – A row has broken out over the decision not to use blackface make-up in this year’s official Sinterklaas welcoming parade in Zaanstad. Public service broadcaster NTR said that ‘sooty Piets’ rather than traditional black Piets would accompany St Nicholas for his ceremonial arrival in Zaanstad on November 17.
The portrayal of the saint’s helpers by blacked-up white actors has been the focus of protests in recent years by anti-racism activists. However, the local organising committee in Zaanstad said on Thursday it would not be taking part in the parade because of the changes.
‘We have already made considerable adjustments,’ said committee member Rene de Reus. ‘We are only providing brown Piets. Not sooty Petes, because we are distancing ourselves from that.’
Black Piet, known as Zwarte Piet in Dutch, has been the focus of an increasingly heated public debate in the last few years. Last year a group of counter-activists blocked the A7 motorway in Friesland to stop anti-racism campaigners reaching Dokkum, the scene of last year’s official arrival ceremony.
NTR said it was responding to public demand to change the appearance of Sinterklaas’s entourage while remaining faithful to the original legend. ‘We are not an active player in the Piet debate,’ it said in a statement.
‘Tradition and change go hand in hand. The Piets have soot on their faces because they go down the chimney. The more times a Piet goes down the chimney, the more soot he or she has on their face.’
In recent years Piet has lost a number of other characteristics associated with racial stereotyping, such as thick curly hair, puffy red lips and large gold earrings. NTR said this year’s version would be more diverse, with varying hair lengths and textures.
Amsterdam city councillor Sylvana Simons, a prominent anti-racism campaigner, described the move as a reward for ‘years of effort by activists. She added: ‘At last this national tradition can become an inclusive festival for all children in the Netherlands.
De Reus said the Zaanstad committee would hold its own parade a week later featuring traditional Piets. Eight other regional committees are participating in the official event, providing a total of 165 Piets.
De Reus argued that anonymity was essential to preserve the mystique of the black Piet character. ‘It’s the end of your career once you’re recognised,’ he said. (DutchNews)