Sinterklaas arrival with ‘soot’ Petes in Schiedam, 2016. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Tim de Haan

Students in Middelburg face criticism over ‘soot’ Black Petes

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At Sinterklaas’ arrival in Middelburg last Saturday, there were both traditional Black Petes and so-called ‘soot’ Petes – Black Petes whose faces aren’t painted entirely black, but just have a few smudges to reflect ‘the soot in the chimney’. Not everyone in the province of Zeeland was happy with this decision. The organising committee says this was an “imposed change”, caused in large part by students at University College Roosevelt.

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On Friday, newspaper the Zeeuwse Provinciale Courant (PZC) newspaper wrote about the discontent of the Stichting Evenementen Middelburg (SEM), the local events organisation. That foundation has been in charge of organising the Sinterklaas arrival in Middelburg for dozens of years – with Black Petes. This year, after discussions with the municipality, the decision was made to make 10 percent of the Petes not entirely black, but only smudged with some soot stains. SEM says the decision was ‘an imposed change, one which the current organisation, in a personal capacity, does not support.’

Initially, the newspaper reported that students at University College Roosevelt (UCR), which technically is a part of Utrecht University, had complained with the municipality about the Black Petes. This led to comments on the article that mentioned, among others, ‘foreign students’ who, ‘against the wishes of the population of Middelburg’, want to force through measures with the city council.

The PZC also received a letter written by an ex-UCR-student, who says he speaks for multiple alumni. These alumni don’t want to speak out about what colour the Petes should have. But they do say they’re annoyed with students who “think they know better from inside their ‘UCR bubble’.” The stigma of “self-absorbed elitist students” is only reinforced by “this type of unwanted, clumsy interference in local traditions,” says the author of the letter.

The PZC article has since been adorned with a footnote retracting the statement that students had complained with the city council. Reason for the change was, among other things, a letter from UCR dean Bert van den Brink, which the newspaper writes about in a separate article.

Van den Brink says it’s true that the UCR management had told the city many students and employees think the Black Pete tradition is “incomprehensible and discriminating”. But complaints about Black Pete don’t just come from them, but from all corners of society in the Zeeland province.

Van den Brink welcomes the introduction of the soot Petes. “A justified political decision from a city that’s a home to a renowned human rights award, which is characterised by welcoming migrants and refugees, and that’s also home to internationally-oriented higher education.”

At the same time, he sees how the issue is preying on many people’s minds in the city of Middelburg. For that reason, he’s inviting any involved party who wishes to talk about it for a conversation – but not before Sinterklaas has left the country.

Not yet familiar with Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and the controversy around this popular Dutch feast? We hope this wikipediapage can help.

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