Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, is it racist?

Lately there has been a lot of fuss about the Dutch holiday Sinterklaas, because of the fact that  Sinterklaas’ assistants (Zwarte Pieten) are all black. Therefore, more and more people want to ban Zwarte Piet. What do international students know about Sinterklaas, and do they think it’s a racist tradition? We showed them a picture of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet and asked them.

Marios Touvanas, European Masters in Law & Economics from Cyprus

“That’s Saint Nicholas, right? If I remember correctly, you celebrate this holiday at December 6th. At least, that’s what we do in Cyprus. Saint Nicholas day isn’t a major holiday in my country, but it is an Orthodox Christian tradition that there is a celebration day for each name, and Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th. Presents are not part of this tradition.”

“The Cypriot holiday that comes closest to this ‘Sinterklaas’ of yours, is the feast of Saint Basil on the first of January. On that day, a man who looks quite similar to Santa Claus brings gifts to the children, and we also eat cake and reward the kid that finds a hidden coin.”

“It’s interesting to hear that some think your festivity is racist. Are the assistants always black? If so, I can imagine that there are Dutch people who feel that way. Especially because Saint Nicholas, the ‘boss’, is always white and has black helpers. It reminds me of the Dutch colonies and the slaves they got from Africa to do their work. Maybe it’s a good idea to make some changes. Because of the tradition it would be kind of stupid to make Saint Nicholas a black person, but it would be good if some of his assistants were also white.”


Sarvesh Singh, Master Business Administration (MBA) from India

“Yes I recognize the people in the picture, it is about the Dutch holiday Sinterklaas, isn’t it? The man looks a bit like Santa Claus, and I heard that, according to the Dutch tradition, he also puts presents in the chimney. I think it’s a nice festivity, just like the Hindu holiday Holi, when we throw around colored dust and give each other presents.”

“You tell me some Dutch people think that Sinterklaas is a racist tradition? I don’t think I agree with them. I heard the helpers are black because of the soot in the chimney. But even if they are supposed to be black Africans, I don’t think the intention of the holiday is about slavery or something like that. It’s just meant as a nice festivity for the youth and has nothing to do with discrimination.”

Kakanang Tosanguan from Thailand and Yun Liu from China, both master students Health Economics, Policy & Law (HEPL)

Kakanang: “Hmmm, I have no idea who these people are and what they are doing. The man with the beard and the red dress looks a bit like the pope! Does it have anything to do with Catholicism?

I didn’t know that this was a Dutch holiday, so I have never heard that black people in the Netherlands criticize this tradition. To be honest, I didn’t even know that Holland has a lot of inhabitants with origins in Suriname and the Antilles. But I think they have a point, I understand why they would associate this with racism. The white man with black assistants can have the effect of a flashback to the colonial period, and of course they don’t like to be reminded to that.”

Yun: “Are they going to a costume party? They look quite funny. We have no such holidays in China, but it reminds me of the Christmas culture that I know from the United States. In Chinese culture, adults give children money at the lunar new year, but besides that, we don’t have a lot of holidays with presents involved.”

“Now that I look at this picture of Sinterklaas more closely, it is indeed pretty strange that all of his helpers are black. Maybe it would be better if some of them would be white or if Sinterklaas himself would be black!” MvS