Albert Heijn drops Zwarte Piet... almost

Supermarket chain Albert Heijn has mostly dropped the black-faced version of Zwarte Piet from it’s stores and product packaging, the company’s parent said Wednesday. Though the character might pop up on the boxes of candies and cookies, the store’s parent company, Ahold, says it will not be used inside or outside stores.

The same version of Zwarte Piet will not be depicted in advertising either, an Ahold spokesman said. In his place, the company plans to use a young white boy without makeup as their new Piet.

“We came to the conclusion that Albert Heijn must not be deaf to the heated public debate about Zwarte Piet that has firmed up in recent times,” spokesman Els van Dijk told newspaper Het Parool.

Defending their decision to continue selling blackface Zwarte Piet chocolates and candies, van Dijk said, “The entire country comes to our locations, and so we want to respond to the needs of everyone; some will really want to buy these products.”

The countrywide argument over Zwarte Piet, and whether or not the character is racist, was volatile last year. A letter written by a professor in Jamaica tasked with advising the United Nations about the character led to a fiery response by a large number of Dutch people, many of whom used racial epithets and death threats against the woman. A similar response was given to Dutch pop singer Anouk when she spoke out against the character.

Zwarte Piet is the assistant to the Netherlands’ Christmas legend, Sinterklaas. Though the character was described in the early 19th century as being more akin to a devilish imp, that changed to an ashen-faced Moroccan slave with the release of a popular Christmas tale by author Jan Schenkman in 1850.

Over time, the character went from being a difficult troublemaker to a bumbling fool, almost always portrayed by a white person in blackface similar to the minstrel shows of the 19th and 20th centuries. The character is still often portrayed by white people wearing chocolate-coloured makeup, with a wig of dark, nappy or kinked hair, big red lips, and gold hoop earrings.