Mayor Eberhard van der Laan’s Letter

Dear Members of the City Council,

The appeals committee of the municipality of Amsterdam has considered the twenty one complaints filed against the issuance of thepermit for the arrival of Sinterklaas on 17 November 2013. The appeals committee has advised me to declare the complaints unfounded, because the committee is of the opinion that all the requirements for granting a permit have been met. In addition, the committee has not, at the moment, legally established that the figure of Zwarte Piet is racist. I have taken on this advise, along with some additional points, which I will clarify below. To wit, the license for the arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam has not been withdrawn. Attached you will find the opinion of the appeals committee.

The most salient objection raised concerns the figure of Zwarte Piet. The aggrieved parties argued that the event in its current form is racist. I am aware of the feelings of the aggrieved parties, however, I am also aware of the feelings of the people who love Sinterklaas. That is why I had a conversation today with Quincy [sic.] Gario and the organizers of the parade. I personally explained my decision to them.

Sinterklaas is a traditional children’s festivity; a fairy tale and a play, in which virtually everyone participates. It is a dear and beloved tradition. In Amsterdam alone it brings 3 to 400,000 people (mostly children) together.

That tradition has different origins. Parts of the tradition are hundreds of years old. In the 19th century a stereotypical black person acting as a servant, who could be associated with slavery, entered the stage. The tradition is (thus) far from static. In the last fifty years, due to pedagogical concerns, Zwarte Piet has stopped being a bogeyman. Moreover, Zwarte Piet evolved from the stereotypical submissive ‘black servant’ to the cheerful ‘clown’ who no longer speaks broken Dutch. He could be someone who doesn’t need to have an Afro hair or thick lips, who is not necessarily naturally black, but whose face is clearly painted, for example, to suggest chimney soot. In the play, Zwarte Piet is the one who makes and solves problems.

The festivity itself is in its current form cannot (usually) be termed as racist; rather, in essence, it brings people together. Yet (the history of ) the festivity can give rise to racist expressions. For example, when dark people are referred to as Zwarte Piet in everyday life. The point is that such expressions cause pain.

Where such painful experiences occur and—due to the history of slavery—partly arise from aspects of the Sinterklaas tradition, at least in its history , there is reason for us to see if we can solve this problem. This is because we may expect empathy from each other when determining and solving problems.

‘We’ is not a mayor, who grants a permit for a parade; even more since this is not a local, but a national issue. However, more importantly this is not be a governmental matter, nor should it be. Due to its very nature, the question regarding the (un)desirability of an adaptation of a folk tradition is a question for the people or society at large. From that point of view, the full-scale debate happening right now is exactly what is needed. Consequently, it is primarily down to all Sinterklaas Committees, which consist of volunteers who are rooted in society, to draw conclusions from this debate. The only thing ministers and mayors, Parliament and local councils can do is to try their best to help facilitate the smooth running of this discussion, to help make sure that Sinterklaas is a party for all. This also goes for an international organization as the UN.

After consulting the College and City Council, I would like to follow, as regards the contents of this discussion, the lead of Head Piet Erik van Muiswinkel. He writes: Of course, Zwarte Piet should stay, but we must continue to make Piet less black and less of a servant (NRC Handelsblad October 22, 2013). Speaking broken Dutch, Afro hair, thick lips, earrings and subservience confirm the links, felt by many, with slavery and should therefore be avoided.

How black Zwarte Piet can continue to be remains to be seen. Zwarte Piet with blond hair, Piets who are overly made-up, Piets with sooty faces, or other coloured Piets—everything is possible.

Subservience can also be counteracted, more than it is now, in many different ways. Questionable lyrics can be taken out of Sinterklaas songs. That task can safely be left to the imagination of the committees.

In all this, gradualism is paramount. This is first and foremost necessary for small children (between the ages of three and eight years), who might be led to confusion by too rapid and radical changes. This is also necessary because many well-intentioned people, who have warm feelings towards the Sinterklaas festivity in its present form, would find it difficult to see their festivity and childhood memories being tampered with. That befits also to the nature of the discussion. As regards this discussion, it is now difficult to foresee when we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Besides, it is imperative to share positive local experiences nationwide so that these examples can be followed, and this takes time.

Would it not be good to make joint efforts to ensure that 1 ) the next step is taken as soon as possible and that 2) in, for instance, five or ten years time the Sinterklaas festivity has turned, in fact, into a celebration for everyone ?

Each party involved in this discussion, nearly 17 million people, basically, has honourable interests. It is of the utmost importance that the debate does not continue at the expense of the children, for whom this is all about. The freedom to demonstrate is a rather sacred right in our country, however, tolerance is also required of protesters. Barring what can be said about the matter in legal terms, disrupting the Sinterklaas parade clearly is, in moral terms, a bridge too far. This also holds, in my opinion, for deliberately upsetting small children by publicly declaring that Sinterklaas does not exist. It would, in any case, be welcome if the discussion did not, as is recurrently the case, flare up shortly before the arrival [of Sinterklaas], and die down immediately after the departure of the Saint. It would be better if it were the other way round. Finally, in social intercourse we should approach each other with respect, regardless of anyone’s opinion about the figure of Zwarte Piet. Discriminatory remarks are evidently not permissible.

In 2012 I had, on behalf of the College [of Mayor and Aldermen], three conversations; first, a conversation with Quincy [sic.] Gario, Kno’Ledge Cesare, Miguel Heilbron, and Raoul Balai, followed by a conversation with Raymond Borsboom , Henk Leegte and Jeroen Krabbé of the Amsterdam Sinterklaas Committee, and finally a conversation with both parties. Even though, there was mutual understanding and the discussion about the modification of the figure Zwarte Piet continued amongst themselves, it still has not, as we know, yielded a solution. I have spoken with Quincy [sic.] Gario and the Amsterdam Sinterklaas Committee again, and have informed them on the decision concerning the complaints. In addition, I have expressed the desire that they discuss jointly the possible solutions outlined, and to seek dialogue with the NTR [a Dutch public-service broadcaster] and other local Sinterklaas Committees. I am pleased that each party is willing to continue the conversation.

I hope I have informed you sufficiently with this letter.

Sincerely ,

The original (Dutch language) letter can be read here.