A longstanding Christmas tradition in the Netherlands has been branded as racist. Many Dutch citizens of African descent want to abolish Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete – the black-faced, red-lipped, curly-afro-wig Santa helpers assist Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, to deliver presents to children.
About 700 Black Petes accompanied Sinterklaas last Sunday when he arrived in Amsterdam, welcomed by half a million parents with children. But not everyone was amused. A small group protested against his helpers, which they consider to be racist.
The tradition of Sinterklaas is actually subject of a fierce debate in the Netherlands. Opponents say Black Pete is an offensive caricature of black people while the majority of Dutch people feel there is no racial insult intended. They say Black Pete has been a figure of fun since 1850. He sings and dances to entertain children, and his face is black from going down chimneys to deliver presents.
Although the discussion comes up every year, the debate exploded this year after the UN started an investigation into whether the Black Pete character is a “racist stereotype”. The Jamaican chair of a committee at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Verene Shepherd, believes the tradition is racist. Calling the practice a throwback to slavery, she said: “As a black person, I feel that I, if I were living in the Netherlands, as a black person, I would object to Black Pete.”
As a reaction, many Pro-Pete protests emerged. A Facebook Petition, called Pietite (Pete-ition), to keep the image of Black Pete unchanged, received over 2 million likes in just two days. This astonishing result in a country of 17 million people reflects the depth of emotion Dutch people feel for this tradition. The majority does not believe Black Pete is racist and gets annoyed by outsiders who judge it without understanding it. Even the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, said: “Black Pete is black, there is not much we can do to change that.”
But a vocal minority of Dutch people, especially of African descent, and many foreign observers agree with the UN commissioner: “Black Pete would not be accepted anywhere else in the world. The world is watching, and the Netherlands has been found wanting,” anti-Pete protester Quinsy Gario said. Gario, born in Curaçao and raised in St. Maarten, Dutch territories in the Caribbean, was arrested and pepper sprayed by the police for wearing a T-shirt saying “Black Pete is racist” to the Sinterklaas parade two years ago.
Demonstrators argue that Black Pete is not appropriate in a multicultural society, which prides itself to be open-minded and tolerant. The protestors, many wearing anti-Black T-shirts, turned their back in silent protest to Sinterklaas and his helpers during Sunday’s parade.
The Dutch government has so far refused all international requests to change the image of Black Pete.