ONTD Political

opposition to Dutch "Black Pete" tradition

6:41 am - 12/05/2012
AMSTERDAM (AP) — Foreigners visiting the Netherlands in winter are often surprised to see that the Dutch version of St. Nicholas' helpers have their faces painted black, wear Afro wigs and have thick red lips — in short, a racist caricature of a black person.

The overwhelming majority of Dutch are fiercely devoted to the holiday tradition of "Zwarte Piet" — whose name means "Black Pete" — and insist he's a harmless fictional figure who doesn't represent any race. But a growing number are questioning whether "Zwarte Piet" should be given a makeover or banished from the holiday scene, seeing him as a blight on the nation's image as a bulwark of tolerance.

"There is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might think," says Jessica Silversmith, director of the regional Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam. She said that historically her office received only one or two complaints per year, but the number jumped to more than 100 last year, and will escalate much further this year.

"It's not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining," she said, referring to people descended from the former Dutch colonies that once traded in slavery. "It's all kinds of Dutch people."

There are various versions of the history of St. Nicholas — "Sinterklaas" in Dutch — and of Zwarte Piet, who made his debut as an African servant in an 1850 book.

"Nobody is against the Sinterklaas celebration or is calling people who celebrate it racist," said Silversmith. "But it is time to consider whether this is offensive, whether there actually are racist ideas underlying Zwarte Piet."

The debate comes after a decade in which the Dutch have rolled back many aspects of their famed tolerance policies, and in which anti-immigrant sentiment has risen sharply. Zwarte Piet is frequently defended as part of Dutch cultural heritage, and those who don't like it are often bluntly invited to leave the country. Many Dutch say Pete's black face derives from the soot he picked up climbing down chimneys to deliver presents — although that hardly explains the frizzy hair and big lips.

In the U.S., stereotypical black makeup — called blackface — was phased out in the civil-rights era. But in Britain, a TV show featuring blackface lasted until the late 1970s before the practice became taboo. Blackface crops up in other European countries from time to time, such as in a theater performance in Germany this year, but it's only in the Netherlands that it's institutionalized in the form of Black Pete.

A sea-change may have occurred here during last year's festivities, when four men were arrested for wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan "Zwarte Piet is Racism" outside a store during an appearance of Sinterklaas — and charged with protesting without a permit.

Police threw one, Quinsy Gario, to the ground, and kneed him in the back repeatedly as they dragged him away, though he offered no resistance. A video of the incident was placed on YouTube, and the slogan began trending.

Although police were later found to have acted wrongly, many parents still felt that it was inappropriate to protest during the holiday or when children were present. Gario responds that Dutch people won't discuss the matter the rest of the year, so his protest was the only way to broach the subject.

This year the debate has clearly escalated.

For the first time, a white politician has openly challenged the tradition: "The Sinterklaas celebration once began without Zwarte Piet," Amsterdam councilwoman Andree van Es said in an interview with newspaper Het Parool this week. "It's time it continues without Zwarte Piet."

Two major chains of stores, Blokker and V&D, now use images of kids with ash-smudged cheeks in their sales catalogues, rather than Petes with black faces. And in a first this weekend, a documentary laying out arguments against Zwarte Piet aired on national television.

The county's most widely read news blog, "GeenStijl" launched a blistering campaign against Black Pete— surprising because GeenStijl prides itself on being tasteless and politically incorrect, and had mocked Gario after the 2011 incident.

"Zwarte Piet is nothing more than a repulsive parody of a slave, fine-tuned to indoctrinate schoolchildren into the finer points of racism," it wrote in its first posting in a series. "The sooner we get rid of Zwarte Piet, the sooner we won't look like idiots to the rest of the world."

While the author, who uses the pen name Johnny Quid, uses the satirical blog also to skewer Black Pete opponents, he has deeply antagonized the blog's mostly conservative-leaning reader base.

Despite the growing anti-Pete movement, the tradition finds a strong bedrock of support in mainstream Dutch society, meaning it's unlikely to disappear any time soon.

In 2008, a Museum in Eindhoven called off an anti-Pete exhibition after protests. The foreign artists received death threats. And when Victoria's Secret model Doutzen Kroes said on national television in 2009 that Zwarte Piet is the one thing that has ever made her feel ashamed of being Dutch, the studio audience laughed at her.

Jan Pronk, a leftist politician who once served as the U.N. envoy to Sudan, dismissed her viewpoint on the show. "These are very old traditions," he said, "I don't think it's so bad."

A Facebook page with the slogan "Zwarte Piet is Racism" has become a major platform for debate this year, though moderators have begun removing hate speech and personal threats.

One organization reinforcing the Zwarte Piet image is educational broadcaster NTR, which also airs "Sesame Street" in the Netherlands. It has developed a popular fake news program for kids, devoted to the doings of the wise white Sinterklaas and his many bumbling Petes, all with the traditional blackface look.

The program starts in early November and airs nightly until kids open their presents on Dec. 5. (Although the Dutch Sinterklaas is the source of the American Santa Claus, Christmas is a separate holiday in the Netherlands, where the present-opening tradition happens three weeks earlier.) The show draws more than a million viewers in a country of 16 million, and its spokeswoman, Helen Albada, said she was unaware of any complaints about its depiction of Zwarte Piet.

Several years ago, the broadcaster experimented with a story line in which the Petes were turned different colors after sailing through a magical rainbow. That drew thousands of complaints, in part because the backlash against immigration was cresting at the time: Fans said changing Pete was sacrificing Dutch cultural heritage to the forces of multiculturalism.

"We didn't intend that either," Albada said. "Kids don't see Pete as black, it's the adults that give it a racial meaning."

In a recent editorial, one columnist for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper questioned whether the country really is as tolerant as it likes to style itself. He deplored the fact that even as the U.S. has re-elected a black president, not a single member of the Netherlands' new Cabinet is of non-Dutch ancestry.

"That's because we, unlike other countries, have become completely colorblind," Bas Heijne wrote ironically. "We don't need a black minister, let alone a black prime minister: We have Zwarte Piet."

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jettakd 5th-Dec-2012 09:10 pm (UTC)
He has jet black skin and giant red lips like old minstrel shows HOW IS HE NON-RACIALLY SPECIFIC.
katrinar 5th-Dec-2012 09:23 pm (UTC)
"Kids don't see Pete as black, it's the adults that give it a racial meaning."

are you fucking KIDDING ME? that's ALL the adults should be seeing and removing this fucking minstrel show from their "celebrations." once kids see black face, they will either think that it's not that big a deal or just not understand why one is unacceptable but the other is by their society.

fucking awful.
suwiel 5th-Dec-2012 09:22 pm (UTC)
I like how this gets brought up again every. single. year.
katrinar 5th-Dec-2012 09:24 pm (UTC)
i can't believe they aren't doing anything about it.
sakuraberries 5th-Dec-2012 09:31 pm (UTC)
A good friend of mine, who is Dutch, posted pictures on Facebook of herself in black face. I was too appalled to comment. =/

Edited at 2012-12-05 09:31 pm (UTC)
lisaee 5th-Dec-2012 10:08 pm (UTC)
Must be this time of the year again.

I remember seeing people dressed up as Zwarte Piet whilst passing through Amsterdam's airport when I was about 10, and it never gets any less jarring and horrible. And adults bestowing it with racial meaning my arse - it's clearly minstrel-esque blackface, and even kids can see that.
kitanabychoice 5th-Dec-2012 10:10 pm (UTC)
I really don't give a fuck about your cultural heritage when it's actively perpetuating a negative racial stereotype. It's not as if the entire cultural history of the Dutch will collapse if they nix this ONE thing.

It's also hard for me to believe that racism doesn't exist among the Dutch at all ever ever when they were active participants in slave trading.
lone_concertina 5th-Dec-2012 10:26 pm (UTC)
Seriously. America's "cultural heritage" is manifest destiny, unbridled greed, and slavery. Doesn't mean we need to continue down that path for the sake of heritage instead of growing into a mature and tolerant nation.
halfshellvenus 5th-Dec-2012 10:25 pm (UTC)
"That's because we, unlike other countries, have become completely colorblind"

'Colorblind' and 'inured to racism' are not the same thing.

This whole thing is an embarrassment to the good nature of the Dutch people, surpassed only by the embarrassment of them not being able to see how racist it actually is.
lone_concertina 5th-Dec-2012 10:26 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
skellington1 5th-Dec-2012 10:30 pm (UTC)
"There is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might think," says Jessica Silversmith

Er, rather the opposite, actually. :|
endlos_schleife 5th-Dec-2012 10:35 pm (UTC)
you know I get the point of preserving cultural heritage and all that stuff, but if you can't do that without being racist maybe it's time to consider this heritage.

Just because it's your culture doesn't make it okay.
zinnia_rose 5th-Dec-2012 11:04 pm (UTC)
he's a harmless fictional figure who doesn't represent any race

he's a harmless fictional figure who doesn't represent any race

he's a harmless fictional figure who doesn't represent any race

Yeah, no. You fail everything.

Edited at 2012-12-05 11:05 pm (UTC)
moonshaz 5th-Dec-2012 11:37 pm (UTC)
Made the mistake of following the link to the source. Saw photos. Got very grossed out. Need brain bleach. STAT.
free_spoons I'll just leave this from Yo! Is this Racist?5th-Dec-2012 11:39 pm (UTC)
a_phoenixdragon 5th-Dec-2012 11:43 pm (UTC)
evil_laugher 6th-Dec-2012 03:45 am (UTC)
I would love to see that.
anjak_j 6th-Dec-2012 03:14 am (UTC)
Every. Fucking. Year. People of the Netherlands... just get the fucking hint already about this racist bullshit...
cuterabbit33 6th-Dec-2012 03:45 am (UTC)
I remember when I first heard about this tradition. I was so convinced that it was either fake, or something done by maybe their equivalent of the KKK. It's still depressing to know that it's real and ongoing. what the hell.
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