Dutch Push Back Against “Black Pete” Criticism

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  • AMSTERDAM (AP) — A Facebook page seeking to preserve the “Black Pete” clowns in blackface who accompany St. Nicholas to the Netherlands during the holidays has become the fastest-growing Dutch-language page ever, receiving 1 million “likes” in a single day.

    The mushrooming popularity of the “Pete-ition” page reflects the depth of emotional attachment most Dutch people — 90 percent of whom have European ancestry — feel to a figure that helped launch the tradition of Santa Claus.

    It also reflects their anger at critics who call it racist. Those critics include foreigners who they feel don’t understand the tradition. They also include many of the country’s most prominent blacks.

    “Don’t let the Netherlands’ most beautiful tradition disappear,” the page says.

    On Tuesday, the chairwoman of a U.N. Human Rights Commission panel looking into the festival condemned it flatly.

    “The working group does not 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,” Verene Shepherd told television program EenVandaag.

    In stories told to children, St. Nicholas — Sinterklaas in Dutch — arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid-November accompanied by a horde of helpers: “Zwarte Pieten,” or Black Petes, who have black faces, red lips and curly hair.

    A public broadcaster produces a daily fictional news program about the doings of Sinterklaas and the Petes that is shown in public elementary schools for several weeks. On the evening of Dec. 5, families read poems and exchange presents to cap the Dutch-Belgian festival that is one of the main sources of the Santa Claus traditions.

    Opponents of the tradition say Pete is an offensive caricature of black people. Supporters say Pete is a positive figure whose appearance is harmless.

    The traditional song refers to Pete as a “servant” to the elderly saint, but in recent years those references have largely been replaced with the idea that he is black from chimney soot as he scrambles down to deliver toys and sweets for children who leave their shoes out overnight.

    Discussion about Zwarte Piet has escalated since 2011, when a prominent opponent was thrown to the ground, handcuffed by police and dragged away for wearing a T-shirt reading “Black Pete is Racism” where children might see.

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