This Sunday, for the 75th year, Sinterklaas – a.k.a. St. Nicholas – will be welcomed to Amsterdam in an annual parade that hundreds of thousands of parents and children are expected to attend.
And once again, he will be accompanied by some 600 helpers dressed as "Zwarte Piet" or "Black Pete," a servant to the Dutch version of Santa Claus that many view as a beloved traditional figure – while others see him as a racist stereotype in blackface. This year he has a new, prominent critic: the United Nations.
The debate on whether or not Black Pete is racist is almost as traditional as the Sinterklaas holiday itself. The figure entered Dutch folklore in the nineteenth century, when teacher Jan Schenkman published the book “Saint Nicholas and his Servant.” Although the writer only called the servant black once, illustrators interpreted him as an African slave.
It is hard not to see a racist stereotype in the historical version of Black Pete. He quickly became a servile witless figure with curly hair, big lips, and big earrings. His grammar was bad and he talked with a Surinamese accent – the South American nation Suriname was a Dutch colony until 1975.
In recent years, the most common incarnation has lost several of those features – but the question remains as to whether the current Black Pete has evolved into a figure with which all Dutch people are comfortable. Of the almost 17 million inhabitants, almost 350,000 are from Suriname or have a parent from Suriname. Around 145,000 have their roots in the former Dutch Antilles.
The debate has been rekindled in recent years partly thanks to an art project called “Black Pete is racism,” by performance artist Quinsy Gario, born in the Dutch Antilles. Two years ago, he wore a T-shirt with the slogan “Black Pete is racism” during a Sinterklaas parade in the city of Dordrecht and was arrested. Since then, Mr. Gario has brought his critique of Black Pete to several talk shows on national TV.
This year, the city of Amsterdam received 21 official complaints about the parade – including one from Gario – asking the city council to deny a permit to the committee that organizes the Sinterklaas parade on the basis of Black Petes' racist characteristics. But while Eberhard van der Laan, Amsterdam's mayor, wrote in a letter to the municipal council that he supports a "less black and less servile” Pete, he deemed the complaints against the parade to be unfounded.
But the UN appears to disagree. A working group under the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is expected to publish a report on Sinterklaas and Black Pete at the end of this month. The head of the working group, Verene Shepherd, raised some hackles in the Netherlands by calling for an end to the Sinterklaas tradition even before finishing her investigation.
The figure of Black Pete is “offensive,” Ms. Shepherd said in an interview with the Dutch news program EenVandaag. “The working group cannot 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,” she said.
The international attention has triggered a fierce campaign to defend Black Pete. A Facebook page that calls for keeping the Sinterklaas tradition as it is, with Black Petes, has received 2 million "likes." Supporters feel an innocent tradition is being taken away from the country's children. Sinterklaas and Black Pete are as culturally important to The Netherlands and Flemish Belgium as Santa Claus is to the US – and like the US, their significance extends to annual roles in feature movies.
The white population of the Netherlands prides itself in being tolerant of minorities, but is often unaware that certain expressions can be offensive, say two musicians who often tackle racism in their lyrics.
“When you call a white Dutchman a racist, he will be very shocked”, says Dutch rapper Leeroy, of Surinamese descent.
His group is called Zwart Licht, or Black Light. It was so named to put the word "black" in a more positive context, says his fellow rapper Akwasi. Even more so than in English, "black" is used metaphorically in Dutch for bad things: to ride a bus without a ticket is “riding black,” to work illegally is “working black.”
Akwasi says that minorities' grievances are often not taken seriously. “When I say that I feel discriminated, they say I'm whining,” he says.
Online, the debate is worse. “If I eloquently write that I feel offended that someone uses the word 'neger' [negro], they write 'Go back to your own country,'” says Akwasi, born in the Netherlands to Ghanaian parents. Similar racist remarks were made during a recent pro-Pete demonstration.
The Black Pete debate sparks strong emotions on both sides. In his letter, Mayor Van der Laan requested that the discussion not be waged “at the expense of the children” between 3 and 8 years old that still believe in Sinterklaas. Traditions are not fixed, he wrote, but it is important that changes are made gradually.
Van der Laan urged the opponents of Black Pete not to disturb the parade by shouting that Sinterklaas and Black Pete are not real.
And the volunteers that organize the parade are planning a gesture to critics: The Black Petes this year will not wear gold earrings, in an effort to make them seem less foreign.
But the earrings were not the problem, says rapper Akwasi: The black-painted face is. He says the change "hardly takes the people seriously that want to modernize" the tradition. "They aren't listening. It's like going to a brain surgeon, who then pulls a tooth."