Imro Ritfeld, a Dutchman of Surinamese descent, has gotten used to hearing the same old jokes whenever the festivities for Saint Nicholas Day approach. His friends tell him, “Hey, your family is arriving in the Netherlands again!”
They’re referring to the controversial figure of Black Pete, or Zwarte Piet, a carnival character who sports dark skin, thick red lips, gold earrings and black curly hair. In the weeks leading up to the saint’s birthday on December 6, towns all across the Netherlands hold parades in which revelers dress up as Black Petes, in a ritual that calls to mind the uncomfortably racist traditions of blackface and minstrel shows.
Black Pete’s defenders say that the character is a harmless helper of Saint Nick’s (or Sinterklaas, as he’s known in Dutch), whose blackened face refers not to the country’s colonial legacy or the African slave trade, but to the chimney soot that powders his skin as he sneaks into houses to help Santa Claus distribute presents to children. But for Ritfeld, who grew up as the only non-white kid in his town, the tradition has always provoked uncomfortable feelings. “This party [for Saint Nicholas Day] causes me pain,” he says. “People who look like me are put down and made fun of.”
Ritfeld isn’t the only one who thinks it’s time for the Netherlands to let go of Black Pete. In recent years, the festivities have drawn ire from citizens who see a more nefarious cultural message in the character’s appearance. This year, 21 people—including Ritfeld—issued a complaint to the mayor of Amsterdam and asked that the annual Sinterklaas parade be suspended. The mayor declined to revoke the permit, and the parade is scheduled to go on as usual on November 17.
As it turns out, Black Pete is a recent addition to the Saint Nicholas legend. While the day has been celebrated in Europe since the Middle Ages—and while early iterations of Sinterklaas often placed a Moorish attendant at his side—the Black Pete character only appears in the 19th century, 11 years before the abolishment of slavery in the Netherlands, in the form of black helpers in a book, Saint Nicholas and his Servant, by the Dutch author Jan Schenkman.
In recent times, Zwarte Piet has become a lightening rod for issues of Dutch identity and multicultural tolerance. Every year, as Saint Nicholas day approaches, the question is raised: Is Black Pete racist? For the majority of Dutch, the answer is ‘no.’ In Amsterdam, a recent survey showed that 53 percent of respondents didn’t think Black Pete was a discriminatory figure. That view was more prevalent among white Dutch, with 73 percent saying they saw no problem with Black Pete; respondents of African descent were more likely to say the character was racist.
This year, the debate reached all the way to the halls of the United Nations. In a letter to the Dutch government, the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that it had received reports that the Black Petes “perpetuate 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.” The Dutch government dismissed the accusations, saying that those who feel offended by the celebration have the chance to report it to their local anti-discrimination office, and noting that “the ban on discrimination is enshrined in article one of the Dutch constitution.”
Meanwhile, fans of Black Pete created a petition on Facebook to demand that the character remain as is. In its first day, the petition’s Facebook page gathered a million ‘likes’. And up to 600 people took to the streets in The Hague, the seat of government, to show their support for Saint Nicholas’s sidekick.
Abroad, where the Dutch diaspora also celebrates Saint Nicholas day, Black Pete has provoked a more mixed reaction. Some cities, like Vancouver, have banned the figure.
In Amsterdam, while the municipality decreed that there was no proof the figure was racist, the parade’s organizers said they would be open to reviewing Black Pete’s looks this year. Eventually, they agreed to compromise by removing his golden earrings. The dark face, red lips and Afro, however, will remain.
For Patrica Schor, an academic who studies Portuguese colonialism at the University of Utrecht and who petitioned Amsterdam’s mayor to eliminate Black Pete from the festivities, the character is sending the wrong message to Dutch children. “[It says] that a black person cannot be an adult, that it is infantile, childlike. And that a black person is always on a relationship of dependency to a white master, which is the holy, white, elderly Saint Nicholas.”
Rhoda Woerts, an anthropologist of the University of Amsterdam, notes that “if [Black Pete] was an anti-Semitic figure it would have been changed a long time ago…that’s something very sensitive here, because of the history of the Second World War. But Dutch people don’t have that sensitivity when it comes to their own colonial past.”
Woerts explains that the celebration of Saint Nicholas is for the Dutch “a precious memory of their childhood”. And that, she says, makes the debate very emotional. “Of course, people don’t like to think of themselves as racists. So they find it very hard to cope with something they feel as criticism.”