Dutch Christmas tradition branded as racist


Dutch people dressed up as Zwarte Piet during the celebration of Sinterklaas’ arrival in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, in November 2019 (Getty Images)

Every Christmas, Belgium and the Netherlands start a discussion about the controversial Zwarte Piet tradition.

The “celebration” involves adults and children painting themselves black, wearing bright red lipstick and curly black wigs, and often putting on large gold earrings.

In recent years, it has drawn growing criticism inside and outside the two countries, with a United Nations committee on racism calling on the Dutch government to ban the tradition in 2015.

Additionally, an anti-racist group in the Netherlands called Eliminate Zwarte Piet has spent the past ten years campaigning for its elimination.

Its founder Jerry Afriyie called it “full screen Dutch racism”.

Despite all this, nearly half of the country is still in favor of retaining Black Pete, according to a survey by Dutch think tank I&O Research, revealing how controversial the issue is.

Where does the tradition come from?

Zwarte Piet’s original character comes from the book Saint Nicholas and his servant, written by Dutch author Jan Schenkman in 1850.

In the book, Saint Nicholas has a helper called Piet whose job it is to punish children who have been mean during the year, while good children have been rewarded with gifts from Santa Claus.

An example illustration by Zwarte Piet from a Dutch children's book (Getty Images)

An example illustration by Zwarte Piet from a Dutch children’s book (Getty Images)

Over time, the character of Black Pete has evolved into a sympathetic sidekick of St Nick, who helps bring gifts to children on the evening of December 5th in the Netherlands and December 6th in Belgium.

According to the story, the couple arrive in the Netherlands via a steamboat from Spain in mid-November, marking the start of three weeks of festivities.

Although the book does not explicitly state that Piet was black, the illustrations depicted him as having dark skin and wearing the typical clothing of a Spanish Moor – Muslims of North African descent who lived in the Iberian Peninsula between the 7th and 14th century.

Proponents of the lore argue that Pete’s black skin has nothing to do with his race, but is covered in soot coming down the chimney.

What criticism has he received?

For several years, anti-racist activists have argued that Black Pete is a racist caricature that echoes the Dutch colonial past, particularly his involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

In 2011 Evict Zwarte Piet was founded by activist Jerry Afriyie to pressure the government to ban black-face and try to find other ways to celebrate Sinterklaas.

Activist Jerry Afriyie, leader of the Kick Out Zwarte Piet movement, protester when Sinterklaas arrived in November 2019 (Getty Images)

Activist Jerry Afriyie, leader of the Kick Out Zwarte Piet movement, protester when Sinterklaas arrived in November 2019 (Getty Images)

At the time, there was little support for the movement, with supporters of Black Pete arguing that activists were trying to erase a significant part of Dutch history.

Asked about the movement by a journalist in 2014, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, “Black Pete is black, and I can’t change that because his name is Black Pete. It’s an old tradition of children: Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. “

The comments were poorly received by some and the following year the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a statement calling on the Dutch government to ban black faces.

He said: “Considering that even a deeply rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes, the Committee recommends that [the Netherlands] actively promote the elimination of those Black Pete character traits which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a holdover from slavery. “

Saint Nicholas sails through town on his steamboat, with his faithful assistants (Petes) and his white horse Amerigo.  (Getty Images)

Saint Nicholas sails through town on his steamboat, with his faithful assistants (Petes) and his white horse Amerigo. (Getty Images)

Years later, the debate began to grab the attention of celebrities around the world, including Kim Kardashian West who stood out for it. “disturbing” in 2019.

During the Black Lives Matter protests last June, US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson wrote to Rutte asking him to ban the tradition.

Where is the tradition now?

Support for Black Pete appears to be waning.

Last June, national anti-racism protests took place in the Netherlands in support of Black Lives Matter.

Anti-Zwarte Piet activists played an important role in these protests.

So much so that Rutte agreed to meet them for the first time since the start of the campaign.

After the meeting, the Prime Minister changed his mind on the matter, saying that he no longer thinks that the Sinterklaas celebrations should use the black-face as this clearly offends certain groups in Dutch society.

Not all zwarte piets are completely covered with black paint.  (Getty Images)

Anti-racist activists argue that there are other ways to celebrate Zwarte Piet that do not use racial stereotypes. (Getty Images)

However, the Prime Minister failed to completely ban black-face.

This year, 123 of the 210 local authorities in the Netherlands replaced the “Black Petes” at their official parades in Sinterklaas with “Soot Petes”.

Those who were dressed had spots on their face instead of painting their entire face black.



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