Over multiple years now, WorldViews has run stories about the problematic Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet. Around Christmastime, myriad Dutch adults and children have customarily donned frilly wigs, patted themselves in blackface, painted their lips red and japed around in costumes as “Black Pete,” the dark-skinned helpers of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas.
For reasons that are both obvious and complicated, many people think the tradition is racist — one that is shaped by the country’s not-so-distant colonial past and trades on garish racial stereotypes.
Others, including a significant proportion of the Dutch public, are less sure. They argue that the legend of Sinterklass and his swarthy sidekicks predates any colonial entanglements and the legacy of slavery. Dressing up as the trickster figure, they say, is an innocent, jovial children’s pastime. Even minorities in the Netherlands embrace the tradition, some say. (Last year, we addressed each of those arguments here.)
Protests and demonstrations from minority groups have rocked Sinterklaas celebrations in recent years in Dutch cities. In August 2015, a United Nations-convened committee on racial discrimination in Geneva called on the Dutch government to “promote the elimination of those features of the character of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery.”
The growing backlash to Zwarte Piet seems to have had an effect. Last year, Dutch primary schools abolished the sporting of physical markings during Sinterklaas that could be deemed offensive, including blackface, thick lips and gold earrings. And on Friday, the country’s children’s ombudsman, a post linked to the government’s oversight agency, issued a report arguing the tradition violates children’s rights.
After interviews with Dutch children, Margrite Kalverboer, the ombudswoman, said Zwarte Piet should “be stripped of discriminatory or stereotypical characteristics.” Otherwise, the Netherlands risked contravening conventions on children’s rights to equal treatment and protection from discrimination.
“Many children of color say they experience discrimination in their daily lives and that it is worse around the time of Sinterklaas,” the report states. Changing the long-standing characteristics of Zwarte Piet would enable all children to “experience the joy of the tradition.”
Dutch politicians have largely tried to dismiss controversy surrounding Zwarte Piet as inconsequential, but one’s attitude about such blackface antics is increasingly part of a political fault line in the country.
Far-right politician Geert Wilders has repeatedly spoken in defense of Zwarte Piet, even proposing a law that would ensure the character is preserved exactly as it is. Meanwhile, a burgeoning leftist, pro-immigrant party has called for a wider Dutch reckoning with the nation’s multicultural identity that would include a museum about the history of slavery as well as the abolition of the black minstrel figure.
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