Zwarte Piet: Is 'Black Pete' a racist Dutch custom?

Three women dressed as 'Black Pete'

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Amsterdam - city of red-lights, legal highs, stag-dos and many less salacious pastimes has a visitor from Spain each November.

Unlike most tourists, he arrives in the port on a steamboat and then transfers to a horse. Tall, skinny and white, the visitor dresses in a long formal coat and is accompanied by helpers in strange outfits with costume pantaloons.

The rowdy group passes through the busy streets of Amsterdam throwing small, round cakes and sweets to children. The man in white is the Dutch St Nicholas, Sinterklaas.

But tourists caught up in the festival, may do a double-take when they see Sinterklaas' mischievous helpers. For when Dutch people dress up as Father Christmas' helper 'Black Pete', they blacken their faces, paint their lips red and don afro wigs.

Sinterklaas, surrounded by 'Black Peters' and the Dutch flag The Sinterklaas festival attracts more than a quater-of-a-million people to the streets of Amsterdam

The character is always at the butt of the joke, misunderstanding Sinterklaas' requests and acting as a jester for the crowds. He wears gold hoop earrings - traditionally a slave token.

Zwarte Piet, the literal translation being Black Pete, appears all over the Netherlands at Christmas time. Traditionally the role of Black Pete was to frighten children - if they were bad they would be beaten and carried off in a sack.

Start Quote

Jerry King Luther Afriyie

We have a race problem and we will have to deal with it one way or another”

End Quote Jerry King Luther Afriyie Zwarte Piet is Racism

But not everyone in the Netherlands wants to keep the tradition. The grassroots organisation, Zwarte Piet is Racism appeared in 2011 under the collective The Netherlands Will Get Better and is campaigning to evolve Black Pete into 'Pete'.

Jerry King Luther Afriyie, a Ghanaian-born Dutch citizen who is part of the collective, told the BBC: "For 150 years we have been confronted with this institutionalized racism and we are supposed to be living in the most tolerant and anti-racist country in the world. In the 21st Century there should be no room for racism, especially open racism."

The controversy of Black Pete reached a global stage in January, when a UN working group told the Dutch PM Mark Rutte they were looking into claims the Dutch custom was racist.

In a letter the group voiced its concerns saying: "The character and image of Black Pete perpetuates a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism."

However, in a letter defending the staging of a Sinterklaas festival in Amsterdam in 2013, the city's mayor EE Van der Laan said: "...the tradition is not in the least static. In the past 50 years, Zwarte Piet was no longer depicted as an ogre for educational ends. He evolved from being the stereotypical subservient 'black slave' into a cheerful 'clown'"

An actress applies black make-up to her face
'Colonialism and slavery'

The Sinterklaas festival dates back to the 1600s. There are a number of explanations as to why Sinterklaas suddenly appeared with Black Pete in the 1800s, but it did coincide with the Dutch Empire's involvement in the slave trade.

Mr Afriyie told the BBC: "Zwarte Piet is a figure based on the stereotypical depiction of black people in the 19th Century. His appearance is a direct reference to the Dutch past of colonialism and slavery."

Some believe Black Pete might have been introduced to the Netherlands by an Italian immigrant in 1828. Peter Bergsma, director of Amsterdam's Translator House told the BBC: "Dominico Arata organised a party where, as they say here, a child-loving bishop handed out sweets and he was followed by a servant and that was Black Pete and he had a big basket full of presents."

Start Quote

I think a lot of people in favour of Zwarte Piet feel so upset because they don't like being called racist when it is not the case”

End Quote Vincent ter Beek Arnhem, the Netherlands

Twenty years later the character of Black Pete appeared in a children's book, and his place was cemented in Dutch culture.

The character's name has changed over time, 61-year-old Mr Bergsma recalls: "My grandparents... did not speak about Black Pete like I did when I was little, but they spoke about 'Peter man-servant'.

"You didn't even think about discrimination at that time, but of course society has changed."

While campaigns to ban Black Pete in the Netherlands have been relatively small, a petition set up by two publicists to save him received more than two million likes in a few days on Facebook. Quite an achievement considering the Netherlands has a population of 16 million.

Some of those signing the petition to save Black Pete feel like Vincent ter Beek, a Dutch journalist from Arnhem.

"I cannot help thinking that everybody who feels offended wants to feel offended - it's their choice. There is nobody at all who has any racist motive, not even latent racist motive, with the festival, it's a children's thing.

"I think a lot of people in favour of Zwarte Piet feel so upset because they don't like being called racist when it is not the case," the 36-year-old told the BBC.

An actor dressed as Sinterklaas Sinterklaas travels by horse delivering presents to the children of the Netherlands

Mayor of Amsterdam EE Van der Laan continued in his open letter written in defence of the city council's decision to stage the festival: "The nature of the question of revising a national tradition means it is a question that should be put to the nation, to society. In this light, the current large-scale discussion of the matter is exactly what should be happening."

Others are also in favour of an open debate. Dutch academic Dr Philomena Essed, professor of critical race, gender and leadership studies at Antioch University, told the BBC: "The discussion shouldn't be narrowed down to for or against Zwarte Piet.

"For Zwarte Piet is more, it symbolises the racism. People are very reluctant to talk about racism in the Netherlands, both the dominant group -they feel offended - and the dominated groups who feel intimidated more and more."

Slave trade in numbers

  • In 1699 eight in every 10 people living in the Caribbean were African slaves
  • Britain was the biggest slave trading country from 1690 to 1807
  • By 1737 Bristol was the biggest slave port in England
  • In 1807, the end of the slave trade, anyone found transporting slaves was fined £100

Dutch MP Martin Bosma of Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) feels differently. He told the BBC: "It is not about Zwarte Piet, it is about their hatred against the West.

"They want us to feel guilty for who we are. Muslims and other non-western immigrants, however, need to be worshipped.

"Leftists are waging a cultural war against our traditional values."

A new tradition

But is this really a tradition from a colonial past?

Some Dutch claim Black Pete is black from the soot in the chimneys he climbs down to deliver presents to children; whereas campaigners for change claim it is not only the blackened face that causes offense.

Mr Afriyie thinks the distinction is simple.

"Zwarte Piet each year exposes the Dutch hypocrisy. We are not as tolerant as we tell the world we are. We have a race problem and we will have to deal with it one way or another," he says.

However, Mr Bergsma feels Dutch society has moved on and people are sophisticated enough to know the tradition is not meant to cause offence.

"Originally in the beginning I myself too would have said, lets not exaggerate this, its been a tradition for years. And maybe even if it started in a discriminatory way, its not like that anymore," he explains.

"But then when I see the nationalist feelings that black Pete has descended to now, I think that is scary too," he added.

Dr Essed thinks ignorance is partly to blame but a solution can be found.

"Many wouldn't be aware of colonial history, as it is not in the school books... it is not a significant part of teaching in the Netherlands. So you can't blame people, they have very little clue."

"The children are not born with the story, it is told to them at one point. And you can tell any story to children."

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