Kids Sinterklaas show keeps one in blackface alongside ash-swept Zwarte Pieten

Sooty Piet (Picture: Twitter/@Warda_E) chimney pietChimney Piet (Picture: Twitter/@Warda_E)

The first episode of NTR's kids show Sinterklaasjournaal on Monday featured mainly Chimney Pieten with soot marks on their faces. Only one, played by actor Maarten Wansink, had a completely black face, reports.

In the first episode, presenter Dieuwertje Blok made first contact with the steamboat, which has to set course to Zaanstad where Sinterklaas will make his national arrival in the Netherlands on Saturday. The boat hasn't departed yet, because Sinterklaas is not yet on board. 

There are clear rules for New Pieten", Hoofdpiet, the head of Sinterklaas's helpers, said in the episode. "The first: real Pieten make everyone happy with presents. Pieten are always very nice to everyone, and especially to Dieuwertje. And thirdly: Pieten always do what Hoofdpiet says. Is that clear?"

Early in October broadcaster NTR announced that the Sinterklaasjournaal and national arrival will feature only Chimney Pieten with soot on their faces. A few days later the broadcaster clarified that there will also be Pieten with completely black faces, because they went through the chimney many times. This choice "fits with the trend of recent years", a spokesperson said to The broadcaster wants to reflect social developments in its programs. "Not to steer them or to take positions on them. We are not an active participant in the Zwarte Piet discussion."

Tradition and change must go "hand in hand", the NTR spokesperson said. "The Pieten have soot on their faces, because they go through the chimney. As a Piet goes through the Chimney more often, he or she has more soot on the face."

The character of Zwarte Piet is a controversial topic in the Netherlands. Some consider him a valuable tradition that must be protected, others consider him a racist and stereotypical symbol of slavery. On Monday morning a number of anti-Zwarte Piet activists occupied a footbridge to the Mediapark buildings in Hilversum to protest the fact that NTR still has the character in his blackface form on the Sinterklaasjournaal. The Majority Perspective foundation filed summary proceedings asking the court to ban the national arrival of Sinterklaas in Zaanstad on Saturday.

In 2016 the United Nations concluded that the figure of Zwarte Piet is an expression of racism that must be combated through education. The tradition is outdated, the UN concluded. 

Children's Ombudsman Margrite Kalverboer investigated the figure of Zwarte Piet after receiving complaints. She concluded that the Sinterklaas celebration with Zwarte Piet in his current form can contribute to bullying, exclusion and discrimination. Zwarte Piet in his traditional blackface form is therefore in conflict with the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, she said.