What is 'Black Pete', the Dutch Christmas tradition branded racism in full display?

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

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

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

In recent years, it has attracted growing criticism from in and outside of the two countries, with a UN committee on racism calling on the Dutch government to ban the tradition in 2015.

Moreover, an anti-racism group in the Netherlands called Kick out Zwarte Piet has spent the past ten years campaigning for its elimination.

Its founder Jerry Afriyie has called it “Dutch racism in full display.”

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

Where did the tradition come from?

The original character of Zwarte Piet comes from the book Saint Nicholas and his Servant, written by Dutch author Jan Schenkman in 1850.

In the book, Saint Nicholas has an assistant called Piet whose job is to punish the children who had been naughty during the year, while good children were rewarded with presents by Father Christmas.

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

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

According to the story, the pair arrive in the Netherlands via steamboat from Spain in mid-November, kicking off three weeks of festivities.

Though the book does not explicitly state that Piet was black, illustrations drew him as dark-skinned and dressed in the typical clothing of a Spanish Moor – Muslims of North African descent who lived in Iberian Peninsula between the seventh and fourteenth century.

Supporters of the tradition argue that Pete's black skin has nothing to do with his race but that he is covered in soot from going down the chimney.

What criticism has it received?

For several years anti-racism campaigners have argued that Black Pete is a racist caricature which echoes the Netherlands' colonial past, particularly its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

In 2011 Kick Out Zwarte Piet was founded by activist Jerry Afriyie to pressure the government to ban black-face and try and find alternative ways of celebrating Sinterklaas.

Activist Jerry Afriyie, leader of the Kick Out Zwarte Piet movement, demonstrating during the arrival of Sinterklaas in November 2019. (Getty Images)

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

When asked about the movement by a journalist in 2014, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: “Black Pete is black, and I cannot change that because his name is Black Pete. This is an old children’s tradition: Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.”

The comments were poorly received by some and the next year, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a statement calling on the Dutch government to ban black-face.

It 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 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.”

Saint Nicholas sails into town on his steam boat, together with his loyal helpers (Petes) and his white horse Amerigo. (Getty Images)

Years later the debate began to capture the attention of celebrities from around the globe, including Kim Kardashian West who branded it “disturbing” in 2019.

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

Where does the tradition stand now?

Support for Black Pete seems to be declining.

Last June, nationwide demonstrations against racism took place in the Netherlands in support of Black Lives Matter.

Anti-Zwarte Piet activists played a significant role in these protests.

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

After the meeting, the prime minister changed his opinion on the issue, saying that he no longer thinks Sinterklaas celebrations should use black-face because it clearly causes offence to certain groups in Dutch society.

Anti-racism campaigners argue there are alternative ways of celebrating Zwarte Piet which do not use racial stereotypes. (Getty Images)

Nonetheless, the prime minister fell short of banning black-face altogether.

This year, 123 out of 210 local authorities in the Netherlands have replaced the 'black Petes' at their official Sinterklaas parades with 'sooty Petes' instead.

Those dressed up had smudges on the face instead of painting their entire faces black.

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