Outrage in Netherlands over Calls to Abolish ‘Black Pete’ Clowns Which March in Christmas Parade Dressed in Blackface
Emma Thomas, Daily Mail (London), October 23, 2013
A Facebook page seeking to preserve the ‘Black Pete’ clowns in blackface who accompany St. Nicholas to the Netherlands during the holidays has become the fastest-growing Dutch-language page ever, receiving 1 million ‘likes’ in a single day.
The popularity of the ‘Pete-ition’ page reflects the emotional attachment most Dutch have to a figure that helped launch the tradition of Santa Claus.
It also reflects their anger at critics who call it racist. Those critics include foreigners who they feel don’t understand the tradition. They also include many of the country’s most prominent black people.
‘Don’t let the Netherlands’ most beautiful tradition disappear,’ the page says.
On Tuesday, the chairwoman of a U.N. Human Rights Commission panel condemned it.
‘The working group does not understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery, and that in the 21st century this practice should stop,’ Verene Shepherd told television program EenVandaag.
In stories told to children, St. Nicholas–Sinterklaas in Dutch–arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid-November accompanied by a horde of helpers: ‘Zwarte Pieten,’ or ‘Black Petes’, who have black faces, red lips and curly hair.
A public broadcaster produces a daily fictional news program about Sinterklaas and the Petes that is shown in schools for several weeks. On December 5, families read poems and exchange presents as part of the Dutch-Belgian festival that is one of the main sources of the Santa Claus traditions.
Opponents say Pete is an offensive caricature of black people. Supporters say Pete is a positive figure whose appearance is harmless.
The traditional song refers to Pete as a ‘servant’ to the elderly saint, but in recent years those references have been replaced with the idea that he is black from chimney soot as he scrambles down to deliver toys and sweets for children who leave their shoes out overnight.
Discussion about Zwarte Piet has escalated since 2011, when a prominent opponent was thrown to the ground, handcuffed by police and dragged away for wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Black Pete is Racism’.
Opposition has been centered in Amsterdam, home to the Netherlands’ largest black community.
Mayor Eberhard van der Laan this month said he would support changing Pete’s appearance – but only gradually, as it has changed over time in the past.
‘If it appears that Amsterdammers feel pain as a result of this tradition, that’s a good reason for new development,’ he said.
Organizers of the festival and the broadcaster also said they would be open to changes if people want them.
The latest public figure to speak out against the tradition was the man who has played the part of ‘Head Pete’ on the Sinterklaas news program for more than a decade.
His commentary appeared in a top Dutch newspaper on Tuesday, entitled ‘Make me less black and less a servant.’
Others to question the tradition include Victoria’s Secret model Doutzen Kroes.
But their campaign has failed to draw widespread support and the overwhelming majority of Dutch people don’t want change.
‘Message for the U.N.: Isn’t there a war somewhere, starvation or genocide going on that you could better be concerned about?’ Dutchman Peter Udo commented on the Facebook page. His comment attracted more than 2,000 likes.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte said it isn’t his place to intervene in a folk tradition.
‘Black Pete: The name says it already. He’s black,’ he said. ‘I can’t change much about it.’