Is ‘Black Pete’ Racist?

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A decorative Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is displayed in a department store in The Hague, The Netherlands, on November 15, 2013.
Valerie Kuypers / AFP / Getty Images

A decorative Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is displayed in a department store in the Hague on Nov. 15, 2013

They’ve been on my living-room shelf for a year now — wrapped chocolate candy figurines from the Netherlands of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. A friend who lived there for a while gave them to me in irony. Black Pete is a wooly-headed little “Negro” caricature, and in the Netherlands he is as cherished a part of the holiday scenery as elves are in the U.S. In fact, Zwarte Piets are depicted as elves, helping out Santa.

There is a growing movement in the Netherlands to ban Black Pete. Predictably, there are those who think a mountain is being made out of a molehill by people who just need to get a sense of humor. Judging the matter from the U.S. is tricky, though. There are practices regarding race that in this country most would consider repulsive but, when done elsewhere, I am inclined to give a pass.

For example, Finnish friends have told me of attending parties in the ’90s where everybody dressed up as “black,” right down to blackface and wigs. Many will be reminded of stories of U.S. college fraternities condemned for having “ghetto” parties, blacking up and lampooning life among black people in the inner city. With America’s history, as well as its messy present, when it comes to race, clowning around in blackface at a party is obviously callous and ignorant.

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But are the Finns really doing the same thing? For them, it’s just a matter of imitating videos, made in a language most of them don’t really know, about people most of them have barely ever even encountered in real life. Subtle, no — but racist? I don’t think it’s too much to ask to let “black parties” in Helsinki pass as harmless foolishness.

It gets murkier, though, with things like the Darkie toothpaste common in East and Southeast Asia, a product whose mascot used to be a dark-skinned black person with shiny white teeth. After some complaints from abroad, its name was changed to Darlie and the person was made white (or whitish — it’s hard to tell). But in Chinese, the name still translates as “black-person toothpaste.”

Technically there are worse insults than being associated with good teeth. But “black-person toothpaste” comes within a context: people in East Asia can be pitilessly unenlightened when it comes to racism. I long ago lost count of how many Asian Americans have told me that their immigrant parents are openly disparaging of black people. Back in the ’80s a couple of them said it would even be awkward for them to have me in their homes. It’s harder to laugh off the Darkie mascot when the people using it are so often coming from a place like that.

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Which brings us to Black Pete. As hard as it is to remember today, given what a small and peaceable nation it is, the Netherlands has as much historical blood on its hands as the U.S. when it comes to people of color. The Dutch once had colonies in both hemispheres (including what is today New York City) and committed countless atrocities in the Caribbean and South America, where they ran brutal sugar plantations.

Recently a student asked me why a photo he found of me shows me at a conference about Indonesian languages taking place in the Dutch city of Leiden, of all places. It’s because of the Dutch’s other hegemony in Indonesia, where today countless brown-skinned people are comfortable in Dutch as a legacy of the colonial era.

Black Pete, then, is not the Dutch version of a Finnish teen bouncing to Jay Z in an Afro wig. Black Pete in 2013 is a lame, thoughtless thing, carrying an implication that all that slavery and servitude and imperialism was some kind of cartoon. Black Hollanders often feel the same way, in a country where blacks from former colonies are overrepresented in housing projects.

“Who are we to judge?” some might ask. I would say that a country with our colonialist history is no less responsible for judging such matters than other ones. We’ll never eradicate racism entirely. But surely we can do something about white men made up as “Negroes” dancing down the street at Christmastime — which would never happen even in our non-postracial country.

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Back in 1976 I toured the Dutch Historical Museum in Amsterdam. One of the sections on Dutch commerce portrayed the coats of arms of various merchant families, one of which consisted of three black faces. But not a word about the slave trade so far as I could determine. So I agree, the Dutch don't deserve a bye like the Finns.


The word Moor literally means black in its etymology. Medievel Europeans often equated the name Moor with Black Africans in general. The word Moor comes from the Latin word Maurus which means black.

Saint Isidore (560-636 AD), a Catholic scholar and Archbishop of Seville wrote that the word Maurus meant black.

Saint Isidore of Seville writing in the seventh century, claimed that the Latin word Maurus was derived from the Greek mauron which is the Greek word for black.

Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 BC), the Roman dramatist, maintained that the Latin word Maurus was a synonym for black.


It's not USA's business, they should write about it.


John Mc Worter is a major racist. He uses the race card for every story he does.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,


Of course it's racist. There's clearly no debate... but it is hard for folk to accept that their views are ignorant. It seems this will be the biggest challenge for Holland, and it will be a mark of their character whether they can do it with grace or not.


With the new OpenRacism Protocol, you are allowed to say anything as long as it is funny.


C'mon, you can't fool me. Black Pete is the villain in Uncle Scrooge comics, along with the Beagle Boys.

Is nothing sacred?!!


I'm Finnish and I've never heard of us having parties where everyone dresses as blacks. The whole hip hop culture was trendy in the 90's when I was a teenager so we dressed in baggy jeans and the like, but I've never heard about what you describe.  But I can imagine what sort of ex-pat Finns would go telling things like that to foreigners, many would like our tiny people to join the guilt of the European ex-Empires, ignoring our actual history.

We also have a Christmas tradition play that includes a "Moorish King". But I don't think our traditions are any of the business of Americans of any color.


Pete is a Moorish character the moors use to go into europe and buy up christian women. Moors are why the slave trade happened.There is whole history on black Pete. Yes Black pete would be racist.


Created in 18C Europe, the White supremacy propaganda machine is so powerful that its countless of lies, fakes and fabrications have distorted the views of millions across the world, including in the Western world

There is so much evidence about the blackness of the Moors

1) Dozens of traditions like the Moor’s head, a Negro head in profile on crests, blazons and flags. Many of the heads wear crowns and jewelry

2) Countless of expressions and sayings, like black as a Moor, blacking up as a Moor, the blackfaced Moor

3) Names of recipes and dishes like Moors and Christians dish (black beans and white rice or Moor pepper aka Negro pepper

4) Old scientific names of plants and animals of black or dark brown color like Macacus Maurus aka Negro Monkey

5) Artistic representations, like the famous Wild men and Moors tapestry

6) Entries in etymological dictionaries before the 18C

7) Narratives of ancient European or Arab travelers and historians,

8) Portrayals in advertising (Mohren Brau, Sarotti Moor, Meinl Moor)

9) Entries in encyclopedias as late as the 20C

Yet the blackness of the Moors was completely erased from history textbooks or classes.

The brainwashed people, victims of the White supremacy propaganda machine cannot accept that the word moor was an early English term for negro and the word moor was a synonym for negro
Being a dark people in relation to Europeans, their name in the Middle Ages was a synonym for "Negro;"

The English word Moor used for black skinned Africans has equivalents in other European languages

-Moriaan in Dutch
-Morian in Danish and in Swedish
-Mohr in German
-Moretto in Italian
-Murzyn in Polish
-Mavros in Greek
-Maure or More in French
-Morien in old French
-Maurus in Latin

Denying the word Moor was ever used for black skinned Africans is a ruse in order to cover up the following:

a) The golden age of black skinned Africans known as Moors including in Europe before the Roman Empire, during the Roman Empire and after the Roman Empire

Some of the Moors became members of the elite: the nobility, monarchy, clergy.

Therre are at least three Roman Emperors of African origin. There are at least 5 000 African saints of Moorish origin.

b) Early Christianity among black skinned North-East and Saharan Africans. The patron Saint of the Holy Roman Empire is a black skinned man from Egypt.

c) Thousands of years of White slavery at the hands of the Moors, including in Europe.

d) The presence of black skinned Africans among Romans, Greek armies as well as Ottoman troops posted in the Balkans.

e)Intermixing with the Moors.

The e1b1b haplogroup is the third haplogroup in Europe. It point of origin is North-East Africa near Ethiopia located in Africa south of the Sahara. This haplogroup is the signature gene of black skinned North-East and Saharan Africans.


We Europeans know about Moors. What has recently happened in places like Mauritania and Mali also helps to understand the difficult history between Moors, other African ethnicities and Europeans.


Black Pete is from the time of the Moors, Yes it is racist. It is like the heraldry of the pope.

The African Moors sparked the European Renaissance!
Ruling Spain, southern France, much of Scotland & North Africa during the Middle ages for 700 years, the Black African Moors gave Europe one of its
finest civilizations. The word Moor is from the Greek word mauros, meaning scorched.

In the introduction of The Story of the Moors in Spain by Stanley Lane-Poole, John Jackson writes:

"Eurocentric historians arguethat Europe gave civilization to Africa, which is a complete inversion of the truth. The first civilized Europeans were the Greeks, who were
chiefly civilized by the Africans of the Nile Valley.

The Greeks transmitted this culture to the Romans, who finally lost it, bringing on a dark age of five hundred years. Civilization was restored to Europe when another group of Africans, the Moors, brought this dark age to an end...

During the Golden Age of Islam, the Moorish Empire... was the most advanced state in the world... Cordova was the most wonderful city of the tenth century; the streets were well-paved, with raised sidewalks for pedestrians... Public baths numbered in the hundreds... at a time when cleanliness in Christian Europe was regarded a sin...

Moorish monarchs dwelt in splendid palaces, while the crowned heads of England, France, and Germany lived in big barns, lacking both windows and chimneys, with only a hole in the roof for the emission of smoke."

The Moors had an insatiable lust for knowledge, and acquired it from East and West, translating into Arabic all they could find, even ransacking
monasteries for rare books. One king had a private library of 600,000 books! In Moorish Spain education was available to the most humble, while in Christian Europe 99% of the populace were illiterate, including kings. The incredible city of Cordova had 800 public schools!

The Moors made great advances in mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine, botany,
chemistry. The Moors also introduced the first shooting mechanisms or rifles known as firesticks!-which revolutionized European military science, ultimately causing their downfall when their enemies used gunpowder to drive them back into Africa. Their contributions to European civilization is vast - with no credit given to them.

For more details, Ivan Van Sertima, ed: The Golden Age of the Moors, and Samuel Scott: The History of the Morish Empier in Europe.


Whether large or small, if someone is offended it merits looking into. The most important thing that matters is respect for all and dignity for all. That does not mean that people judge but that inner self divides and sorts out what is right. You seem to have created a maze of the matter but in essence if it offends one it is worth looking into.


I cant find a picture of you with a white person anywhere. All I find is you complaining on and on about racism.


I personally take offense that Piet is offending Africans, not Spaniards. I have the right to be offended, and by calling him "black" instead of swarthy (Zwarte?) or even Moorish, it avoids insulting me.    When done, Sinterklaas goes back to Spain not Congo nor even Morocco.    If you have been bad, Piet stuffs you into the sack and takes you off to Spain; how horrible is that? I have a right to be offended and I speak for millions like me.

Speaking for all the Gonzalii

Bernard Gonzalez


We, as concerned citizens of the Netherlands, are deeply alarmed by the physical and nonphysical violence directed at Black people and critical voices in the Netherlands, most recently displayed in the national public debate about the racist blackface figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).

We, the authors of this public statement, show solidarity and support to all who are protesting against the racist blackface figure of Zwarte Piet. We reiterate that this protest cannot be separated from the struggles against global White supremacy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, neoliberalism, ableism and all other forms of oppression.

We urge each and every one who subscribes to this statement to show solidarity by signing and sharing it.


The whole world needs to confront and talk about racism and what it means. I don't have answers, and I do have questions, we need to be able to move beyond our obvious differences and look at our common humanity.