Is the Dutch 'Black Pete' racist? Legally, not yet.

As the Christmas season begins, many people dress up as Santa Claus helper 'Black Pete' by donning blackface and curly wigs. Opponents were disappointed when a Dutch court refused to rule on whether that violates antidiscrimination laws.

Peter Dejong/AP
Opponents of Black Pete listened to the Council of State's ruling in a case involving the controversial figure on Wednesday in the Hague, Netherlands.

Opponents of "Black Pete," the black-faced helper to the Dutch Santa Claus, hit a setback Wednesday when the Netherlands' highest administrative court refused to rule on whether the character was racist.  

Antidiscrimination activists in the Netherlands, an increasingly multiethnic country, have pushed for years to ban people from dressing up as Black Pete as the Christmas season gets under way. But many Dutch people consider him a harmless fantasy figure, The Associated Press reports.

In sidestepping the debate, the Council of State overturned a lower court's opinion that said Black Pete should be banned from the traditional festivities marking the mid-November arrival of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) in Amsterdam. The lower court had said Black Pete "forms a negative stereotyping of black people," the AP reported. 

But the Council of State declined to say whether the character breaches Dutch antidiscrimination law, claiming the question was out of its purview. Instead, the court ruled that Amsterdam's mayor doesn't have the power to ban people from dressing up as Black Pete in public.

"I think a lot of people will be disappointed with that – supporters and opponents who were waiting for a judgment on what we should think of Black Pete," Wil Eikelboom, a lawyer for opponents of the character, told the AP.

However, the Council of State did say opponents could file civil or criminal complaints against the festival's organizers, shifting the debate to other courts around the Netherlands. 

Every year dozens of Dutch people – often white – dress up as Black Pete by putting on blackface and curly wigs. The clown-like figures hand out candy and other treats to children during the Sinterklaas festival in Amsterdam, which runs from mid-November to Dec. 5 (the eve of St. Nicholas Day).

Amsterdam's City Hall received at least 21 official complaints about the annual tradition last year, reported Peter Teffer for The Christian Science Monitor.

As Mr. Teffer noted, the history of Black Pete – and the character's racist attributes – goes back more than a century:

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. 

Samira bin Sharifu, a writer and filmmaker who grew up in the Netherlands, is unequivocally opposed to the character. In an opinion article for the Guardian, she calls Black Pete a legacy of slavery and colonialism and writes that "the main problem is a lack of education."

Never did we have one history lesson teaching us about the severity of Dutch conduct in Surinam, the Dutch Caribbean, Indonesia or South Africa. Perhaps if this schooling was there, Dutch people would find it easier to connect Black Pete with our history of slavery and racism ...

Black Pete is a symbol of this legacy and as long as a post-racial society is still a utopian idea, the opposition of Black Pete is completely legitimised.

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