British journalists union warns against racism in Zwarte Piet reporting

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten arriving on their steamboat
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten arriving on their steamboat Photo: jehoede/DepositPhotos

With reporting by Zack Newmark.

The supervisory board of the National Union of Journalists, a leading journalism labour union in the United Kingdom, passed a motion unanimously late last week that encourages reporters and editors covering the Zwarte Piet character in the Dutch Sinterklaas celebration to do so in a non-discriminatory way. Journalists were reminded of the union's Race Reporting Guidelines, which states that publications should not "originate material which encourages discrimination on the grounds of race or colour".

The NUJ released this statement because of the increasing debate and controversy around Zwarte Piet, a character traditionally portrayed in blackface, "requiring journalists to cover the topic and arguments". The motion was passed without opposition by the National Executive Council (NEC), the primary supervisory board of the NUJ.

"The NEC supports journalists in Continental Europe in their efforts to encourage non-discriminatory reporting of Zwarte Piet and those trying to raise a discussion about his role in the Netherlands and Belgium in the 21st century", the motion said.

The NUJ's Race Reporting Guidelines also state that journalists should "strive for diversity and balance in reporting, especially on social issues". Journalists should "exercise care, balance and proportionality when covering race relations issues", and not allow letters, online comments, or phone-ins that "contain racist hate speech". 

It was voted on and approved just hours before a violent incident in The Hague on Friday night. A group of anti-Zwarte Piet activists had gathered in a former school building to discuss their activism against the use of blackface and racist caricatures in the Netherlands, when a group of assailants tried to storm the building. Responding police officers caught five people, who were initially accused of attempted arson, destruction of the building's windows, and smashing the cars parked on the street. Four of the five males, aged 13 to 37, were released within two days of the incident.

On Sunday, Hengelo city councilors canceled a Monday meeting with protest organization Kick Out Zwarte Piet scheduled because pro-blackface supporters threatened a mass demonstration where the discussion was to be held. Due to the attack in The Hague on Friday, Hengelo politicians feared a riot would take place in their city.

The motion passed by the British journalists' union originated from the NUJ Black Members Council, on the initiative of Marivn Hokstam, Founder and Managing Editor of the Dutch publication Afro Magazine. Hokstam is a member of the Dutch branch of the NUJ. 

Soot replacing blackface in national events

The Sinterklaasjournaal, the NTR kids show that follows Sinterklaas' annual journey to the Netherlands, started on Monday. The broadcaster announced in September that this year's show will feature only so-called Chimney Pieten, with soot marks on their faces instead of full blackface makeup. 

Due to the decision to scrap blackface from the kids show, supporters of the traditional Zwarte Piet announced a national alternative to the Sinterklaasjournaal, NOS reports. The Staff van Sinterklaas will be put online from November 16, two episodes per week, and will feature Zwarte Pieten in blackface. "I can live with the Chimney Piet, but its execution is always dramatic when I look at it", Andy van Veen, who plays one of the Zwarte Pieten, said to the broadcaster. "Then you might as well shave the beard off Sinterklaas, then you can immediately see who it is. There is a lot of demand for the traditional Piet from the past, and that is no longer there in a professionally made broadcast."

In addition to the series on YouTube, the makers are also planning an alternative national Sinterklaas arrival party, Van Veen said. But this alternative arrival will only happen next year. 

Sinterklaas will make his national arrival to the Netherlands in Apeldoorn on Saturday. The celebration will only feature Chimney Pieten, following the line of the Sinterklaasjournaal.

Last week, a Dutch court had to rule on a lawsuit filed by a man from Amsterdam, demanding that the municipality of Apeldoorn withdraw the Sinterklaas celebration's permit because there would be no traditional blackface Zwarte Pieten. The court ruled against the man, ruling that the permit says nothing about the appearance of the Piet characters and that the national celebration can happen without blackface makeup.