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Black Pete no more? Tide turning against Dutch Santa's blackfaced helper.

Why We Wrote This

The controversy over Black Pete, Santa Claus's helper long portrayed in blackface, seems to be as much a tradition in the Netherlands as the holidays themselves. But the debate may have reached a tipping point.

Eva Plevier/Reuters
Revelers dressed as “Black Pete,” Saint Nicholas's assistant, wore controversial blackface makeup during a traditional parade in Zaanstad, Netherlands, Nov. 17.

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Black Pete, the assistant of Sinterklaas, the Dutch-speaking world's Santa Claus, is tasked with handing out presents to the good children and punishing the naughty. Pete, the tale goes, shimmies down chimneys to perform his mission, becoming sooty – hence his “black” descriptor. But Black Pete performers weren’t just made up to look sooty – they appeared in full blackface, complete with large red lips, golden hoop earrings, and afro wigs. To those unfamiliar with the tradition, Black Pete appeared simply racist – Sinterklaas’s slave. Not long ago, most Dutch celebrants would have denied it. “I think we have reached the tipping point,” says Bert Theunissen, professor of history at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. A dozen years ago, the criticism against Black Pete “was mainly from people outside the Netherlands who saw the blackface and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ ” But now there’s a critical mass of people who perceive the tradition as having racist roots, whether or not people who used to celebrate it were racist themselves. “If part of your culture is offensive to a fairly large number of your fellow countrymen,” Dr. Theunissen says, “then the culture needs to change.”

As children pour into this cobblestoned dockside neighborhood, they begin jamming to live Christmas music and charting Santa’s progress on a jumbotron at the annual party to celebrate the arrival of the man himself – Sinterklaas, as he’s known to Dutch speakers in Belgium and the Netherlands – and his faithful helper, Black Pete.

In the Dutch-speaking world, Santa arrives on the scene in mid-November, traveling from Spain where, according to legend here, he spends the off-season, eschewing Arctic climes. He makes the journey by steamboat with his assistant Pete, who is tasked with handing out presents to the good children and punishing the naughty – a job that kind-hearted Santa is loath to take on.

It’s a festive time that culminates this week in the feast of St. Nicholas, when children receive presents. Many of the tiny dancers here are dressed up like Pete in anticipation of the big day, complete with Renaissance-style sateen puffy caps topped with a feather, a nod to the aristocratic Spanish attire of the time. 

It’s a wholesome scene, until the neo-Nazis arrive.

Three markedly different-looking Petes begin circulating among the revelers with bags of candy. Though their ensembles match those of the child Petes, these newcomers also wear blackface, with large red lips, golden hoop earrings, and afro wigs. They are from Voorpost, a right-wing group that has been under surveillance by state security services.

As the newcomers pose for photos with children who come running for treats, burly, skin-headed men hand out pamphlets to the grown-ups: “Politically correct elements of foreign origin” are trying to “ruin a cherished cultural celebration.” The pamphlets urge readers to “Say yes to our real Black Pete.”

This year is perhaps the most fraught version of the Dutch-speaking world's now annual debate over Black Pete. But that may be because the movement to bring an end to the blackface that was once part and parcel of Pete's portrayal appears to be winning. Barely more than a decade ago, accusations that Black Pete was racist were fringe in Dutch society. Today this has become the prevailing view, with defenders of blackfaced Pete increasingly in the minority.

“At this point, If you ‘black up’ and say you love Black Pete,” says Romny Maanen, a Dutch mother of three young children living southwest of Amsterdam, “it’s like you’re saying, ‘I’m a racist and proud of it.’ ”

‘Simply no racial connotations whatsoever’

For many years now, the question of just who is the “real” Black Pete has been the subject of intense debate throughout the Dutch-speaking world – a debate that rekindles annually with the holiday season.

Until very recently, the majority of people portraying Pete in parades, at house parties, and at school celebrations – children included – wore blackface. It was a nod to Pete’s Moorish origin, argued some, who added that he was from Spain, after all. Historians, however, pointed out that Black Pete’s inception went back to the heyday of the highly lucrative Dutch colonial slave trade, which did not end until 1863 – likely making Pete Santa’s slave.

Eva Plevier/Reuters
A Black Pete, Saint Nicholas' assistant, is seen in sooty 'chimney' makeup, rather than the more controversial full blackface, during a traditional parade in Amsterdam on Nov. 18.

Dutch speakers tended to shrug off critics, who where mostly non-Dutch and pointed to appalling racial stereotypes, by saying that everyone needed to relax about a fun party meant to bring joy to children – and that no one was trying to make any racist statements about white superiority.

Bert Theunissen, professor of history at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, told the Monitor in 2005 that it is “utter nonsense” to associate Black Pete with racism. “It's a tradition,” he said, that “simply has no racial connotations whatsoever.”

Besides that, many added, everyone knows that Dutch people are very progressive – an argument made by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the self-described “conservative liberal” leader of the country since 2010 who weighed in on the debate.

People who want to “abuse the freedom” of Dutch culture by “attacking gays, harassing women in short skirts, or derogating ordinary Dutch for [being] racists” should just leave, he said. “I can only say that my friends in the Dutch Antilles are very happy when they have Sinterklaas, because they don’t have to paint their faces. When I am playing Black Pete, I am for days trying to get the stuff off my face,” he noted in 2014.

Chimney Pete

Yet it is precisely the strong image that the Dutch have of themselves as progressive that was preventing them from seeing that their behavior was actually pretty racist, says Michael van Zeijl, board member of Majority Perspective, an advocacy group that has been filing lawsuits asking European courts to declare Black Pete a violation of human rights.

Today, Dutch discomfort with Black Pete has been steadily growing, thanks in part to widespread discussion sparked by the comments of the prime minister, which went viral. The vast majority of young people, Mr. Van Zeijl points out, now oppose blackface portrayals of Pete.

In a number of Dutch-speaking towns and schools, Black Pete has a new name: “Chimney Pete,” with soot smudges on his face instead of greasepaint – the result, adults explain, of his trips down the chimney to deliver presents. He has lost the red lips and earrings.

Ahead of this year’s celebration, Dutch public broadcaster NTR announced for the first time that blackfaced Pete would no longer appear in children’s programs in the run-up to the holidays.

“I think we have reached the tipping point,” Dr. Theunissen – the academic who told the Monitor he saw no problems with Black Pete in 2005 – said last week.

A dozen years ago, the criticism against Black Pete “was mainly from people outside the Netherlands who saw the blackface and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I think there was hardly any discussion in the Netherlands itself,” he noted. “We looked on these comments with amazement and said, ‘What do you mean, racist?’ ”

Today, there’s a critical mass of people who perceive the tradition as having racist roots, whether or not people who used to celebrate it were racist themselves. “If part of your culture is offensive to a fairly large number of your fellow countrymen,” Theunissen says, “then the culture needs to change.”

‘I woke up’

The child of an mother of Indonesian descent and a white Dutch father, Ms. Maanen didn’t always feel Black Pete was a symbol of racism. Growing up, she enjoyed celebrating his arrival. “I’m a brown woman, but I never saw it as a problem,” she says.

True, there were some signs of her subconscious discomfort, she notes. “You’re at a party and people say, ‘Shouldn’t you be working tonight? You’re the Black Pete of the evening.’ You laugh” even though it’s not funny. “What can you do? People are just making a joke.”

But she was suffering from “mental colonization,” she says now. “I went to white schools, and we celebrated Black Pete – my whole family celebrated it. You act white to be accepted.”

That all changed the day she went to a Sinterklaas parade with her husband and firstborn child. “My husband is black,” and she could tell he was uncomfortable. “But he said, ‘It’s all good. It’s for the children.’ ”

A Black Pete handing out candy approached her son in a stroller. “He said, ‘That’s a cute Pete. He doesn’t even need to paint his face.’ Once my own child was confronted with this, I woke up.”

For her three children, now 8, 6, and 1, Maanen translates racism as bullying. “I tell them, ‘It’s not nice to be called Black Pete when you’re not Black Pete.’ ” Her children’s school is multicultural, where they celebrate the holiday with Petes of all colors – pink, purple, and blue, but not black.

Over the years, she has had discussions with white friends “who were very pro-Pete.” This year, one of these friends texted her. “She said, ‘I really want to see you and talk about Black Pete.’ I said, ‘I’m not really into it if you’re still radically pro-Pete.’ I’m tired of explaining.”

But Maanen’s friend said she’d had a change of heart. “She asked, ‘How can I celebrate this without racism?’ It was a really nice conversation, and it wasn’t the last one I had this year.”

More work to be done

Maanen and some friends decided to take to the streets this year in her seaside town of The Hague to protest Black Pete – the first time any of them had demonstrated. There, they ran into groups of neo-Nazis. “It was really intense. You’re two feet away from these guys screaming at you, and literally looking racists and racism in the face.”

It was a stark awakening to the existence of racism in what she and many others have long considered to be a highly progressive culture – a fact with which Dutch are increasingly willing to grapple.

“The Netherlands was a colonizing country for 350 years, but after that they presented themselves as country that is so progressive and respects human rights,” says Van Zeijl. The Black Pete debate has helped open the floodgates for the Netherlands to start acknowledging its colonial past, he says. This includes school books with little mention of the Dutch colonial past and slavery. “It’s not just Black Pete. Our history books are whitewashed.”

There is now a movement in Utrecht and other Dutch towns to start “decolonizing” streets named after slave traders. “The Dutch were really big in the slave trade and as a country, we earned a lot of money from it,” Theunissen says. “From a present-day perspective, we would call it war crimes, what they did.”

Still, this growing awareness has not resulted in completely linear progress. Many Dutch towns continue to portray Pete in blackface, and the highly lauded move by NTV to drop blackface Pete did not turn out the way some had hoped.

To assuage vocal Black Pete supporters, the station settled on an equation of 75 percent “Chimney Petes” and 25 percent “Black Petes,” explaining that the more often Pete goes down the chimney, the blacker he gets.

Maanen shakes her head. “It’s not like a little racism is okay,” she sighs. Majority Perspective’s Van Zeijl for his part calls it “racism light – which is actually more racist,” he argues, “because they’re acknowledging the racism but saying, ‘We’re still going to do it.’ ”

The station for its part conceded, if not the paradox of its policy, the way good intentions can come up short. “We try to take a step every year to gradually follow the change that is in society,” an NTR spokesman told a local newspaper. “Every year [Black Pete will become] a little less black.”

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