A Dutch Holiday Tradition: Protesting A Christmas Character In Blackface
In the Netherlands, this Christmas season was ushered in with festive parades, gift-giving, and protests over a character in blackface.
The figure at the center of the controversy is Zwarte Piet – Black Pete – often portrayed by people who don Afro wigs and paint their faces black. In recent years, public debate over the character has peaked as he appeared in the traditional Christmas parades across the country alongside the Dutch St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, handing out candy to children.
Police intervened in a number of cities last month as supporters of the Black Pete character clashed with demonstrators who denounced the caricature as racist.
On Dec. 5, the eve of the feast day of St. Nicholas, the Dutch traditionally exchange and open Christmas presents, but it also caps a bitter annual fight over the place of Black Pete in Dutch culture.
Popularized by a 19th-century children's book, the Black Pete character is said to make the annual trip to the Netherlands from Spain, helping St. Nicholas transport presents to good Dutch children and chunks of coal to those who misbehave.
But there are differing interpretations of the color of his skin, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reported in 2014: "Some say he goes back centuries, and is dark because he once represented the devil. Others say Black Pete depicts an African slave subservient to Sinterklaas. Still others say Black Pete is only sooty from sliding down chimneys."
Supporters have latched on to that last explanation as a way of defending against claims of racism. To others, the character is not only racist, but symbolic of more widespread bias in the Netherlands. Jerry Afriyie, a Ghanaian immigrant and founder of the "Zwarte Piet is Racisme" campaign told Al Jazeera that the Black Pete character was used to bully him as a child.
"On the bus, people would throw those candies they make for Sinterklaas season, they would throw it at you making monkey sounds."
Along with pressure from activists, there have been high-profile denunciations of the character's traditional red lips, hoop earrings, and painted black face in recent years. A 2015 United Nations report called for "the elimination of those features of the character of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery." The Dutch Ombudsman for Children released a statement the next year that also recommended "stripping Zwarte Piet of discriminatory and stereotypical characteristics."
That evolving public sentiment has led to some incremental changes. The Washington Post reported Dutch primary schools banned Zwarte Piet blackface in 2015. A borough of Amsterdam ditched Black Petes in favor of "friends of Sinterklaas." And this year, NTR, the public-service broadcaster, updated its annual televised Sinterklass special.
"[I]t is our public duty as an independent public broadcaster to reflect these changes in society," the broadcaster said, according to The Guardian. "Therefore the Black Petes this year will have soot on their hands and faces because they came through the chimney. ... They will have different types of hair and will not be wearing golden earrings."
Deutsche Welle reported that a legal challenge that would have prevented NTR from using the Black Pete character altogether failed because it was filed too close to the celebrations, but that the judge in the case acknowledged the figure will continue to be rethought.
"There can be no doubt that Black Pete is changing. Some believe the change is too slow, and that's fine. Others believe it is happening too quickly," Judge Antoon Schotman said. "What is important is that the discussion continues."