Mayoral letter to City Council regarding the Sinterklaas parade

30 Oct 2013

Re: Complaints Commission decision regarding Sinterklaas parade

Esteemed City Council members,

The City of Amsterdam Complaints Commission has closely considered the 21 submitted complaints objecting to permits being granted allowing the Sinterklaas parade on 17 November 2013 to go ahead. The Complaints Commission has recommended that I declare the complaints to be unfounded, as the Commission is of the opinion that all requirements for granting the permits were satisfied. Additionally, the Commission can currently find no legal argument to conclude that the character of Zwarte Piet is racist. I have adopted this advice, including a number of additions outlined below. This means that permission to allow the Sinterklaas parade to proceed in Amsterdam will not be revoked. Please find attached the Complaints Commission recommendations.

The most striking objection is linked to the character of ‘Zwarte Piet’ (literally: ‘Black Peter’). The objectors claim that the event in its current form amounts to racism. I am mindful of the feelings of the objectors as well as those of Sinterklaas enthusiasts. As such, earlier today I met with Quinsy Gario and the parade organisers to personally explain my decision.  

Sinterklaas is a traditional family event: a fairy tale with theatrical elements that almost everyone gets involved with. It’s a joyous event, cherished by many. The parade draws crowds of between 300,000 and 400,000 people (most of them children) in Amsterdam alone.

It’s a tradition with numerous origins. Some parts of the tradition can be traced back hundreds of years. In the 19th century, a stereotypical black person appeared as a servant on stage. He could be linked to slavery. But the tradition is not in the least static. In the past fifty years, Zwarte Piet was no longer depicted as an ogre for educational ends. He evolved from being the stereotypical subservient ‘black slave’ into a cheerful ‘clown’. He no longer had to talk incoherently, needn’t have curly hair and big lips and wasn’t necessarily black-skinned but was clearly wearing black make-up – to give the impression of chimney soot, for example. In the current tradition, Zwarte Piet is the character who creates problems, but also who solves them.

In its current form, the event itself is generally not racist – its nature is rather one of unification. However, the history of the event can potentially result in manifestations of racism – for example, if black-skinned people are called Zwarte Piet in everyday life. The point is that such occurrences are hurtful. 

In the case that such grievous instances occur and – due to the national history of slavery – originate from elements of the Sinterklaas tradition (or in any case, the history of the event), we clearly need to address the problem. It is only fair that we expect empathy from each other as we identify problems and deal with them.

In this case, ‘we’ is not simply a mayor granting a permit to organise an event. Partly because this is not a local matter, but a national issue. But more importantly, because this isn’t – and shouldn’t be – an administrative matter. The nature of the question of revising a national tradition means it is a question that should be put to the nation, to society. In this light, the current large-scale discussion of the matter is exactly what should be happening. It follows that it’s primarily the duty of all Sinterklaas committees, comprised of volunteers and actively involved in society, to draw conclusions from the discussion. The best that ministers, mayors, parliament and city councils can do is to help the discussion stay on track, to do everything in their power to ensure that Sinterklaas is an event for everyone. For that matter, the same also applies to an international organisation such as the United Nations.

Subsequent to consulting with the College and City Council, I agree with ‘Hoofdpiet’ (the event’s lead ‘Peter’ character) Eric van Muiswinkel with regards to the actual content of the event. Writing in Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on 22 October 2013, he commented: ‘Of course Zwarte Piet should stay, but we should continue to make Piet less black and less of a slave figure.’

Talking incoherently, curly hair, big lips, earrings and subservience all underline the link with slavery felt by many people and should therefore be avoided. Time will tell how black Zwarte Piet will remain. Zwarte Piet with blond hair, with patently obvious make-up, smeared in soot or multicoloured Zwarte Piet characters: anything’s possible. The element of subservience can be tackled in many more ways than is currently the case. For example, questionable lyrics could be removed from Sinterklaas songs. Such things can certainly be left to the imagination of the Sinterklaas committees.

When addressing these issues, the first matter of importance should be gradualness. This is firstly required with younger children (between three and eight years old) in mind, who could be confused by overly drastic revisions being introduced too quickly. A gradual approach is also required because many well-meaning people with warm feelings for the Sinterklaas event in its current form take issue with ‘their’ event and childhood memories being tampered with. This also matches the nature of the discussion, as it is currently difficult to anticipate when the sting will have been removed from the topic. It is also essential that positive local experiences are shared with the rest of the country so that they can be imitated. This too will take time.  

Wouldn’t it be good to unite in working towards 1) the next step being taken as soon as possible and 2) ensuring that in five or ten years, for example, Sinterklaas is truly an event for everyone?

All parties in this discussion (essentially 17 million people) have interests that should be respected. It is vital that the current discussion continues not at the expense of the children – for whom the event is primarily organised. The right to protest is held dearly in our country, but the need for tolerance also applies to demonstrators. Irrespective of legal concerns, disrupting a Sinterklaas parade is clearly morally objectionable. I believe the same applies to intentionally confusing young children by shouting in public that Sinterklaas doesn’t exist. In any case, it would be preferable if – as has happened again this year – the discussion didn’t flare up shortly before the parade and die down as soon as Sinterklaas departs. It would be better if it were the other way around. After all, people should treat each other with respect, irrespective of their opinion of the character of Zwarte Piet. It goes without saying that discriminatory remarks are unacceptable.

In 2012, I was involved with three meetings on behalf of the College: initially with Quinsy Gario, Kno’Ledge Cesare, Miguel Heilbron and Raoul Balai; subsequently with Raymond Borsboom, Henk Leegte and Jeroen Krabbé from the Amsterdam Sinterklaas committee; and finally with both parties. Whilst mutual understanding was expressed regarding revisions to the character of Zwarte Piet, actual solutions were not forthcoming. I have met with Quinsy Gario and the Amsterdam Sinterklaas committee once again to inform them of the decision regarding the objections, to introduce the goal of close consultation regarding the envisioned solution and to enter into discussion with the NTR and other local Sinterklaas committees. I am pleased that all parties are willing to continue discussions.

I hope that this letter provides you with sufficient information.

Yours sincerely,

E. E. Van der Laan
Mayor of Amsterdam