Black Peter is a Dutch elf-like figure that appears weeks before Christmas in The Netherlands. He serves as a sidekick for his leader, Sinterklass. He sings and dances and plays with the children when he appears. But despite his playfulness, Black Peter is usually a white man in black face, appearing to be half-witted; a vision that blacks and immigrants in Amsterdam are totally against. Stories vary on where Black Peter came from, but some say he was a thankful freed slave.
Black Peter arrives on a boat from Madrid, Spain bearing candy for the children. It is Black Peter’s job to work as a page for SinterKlaas, listening at the chimneys for the good and bad children. He carries a rod and a sack to take the bad children away. Black Peter is black-faced, dressed in colorful Renaissance attire with a feather in his cap, gold jewelry and red lips.
The idea of Black Peter was said to have come from several sources. First was the mythical God named Wodan. Wodan flew through the air on his white horse, accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Munnin. The Ravens would report back to Wodan on the behavior of the mortals, like Black Peter would for SinterKlaas. The other idea was that Black Peter was a devil slave of SinterKlaas, forced to work for him. Some say that Black Peter was a slave freed by SinterKlaas, who works for him in gratitude. Others say he was black from chimney soot.
Also in more recent years, protests became more of an urgency when some of the Dutch began wearing afro wigs, gold jewelry and red lipstick to represent Black Peter. Tourists and others have found the character offensive. Attempts were made to give Black Peter a multicolored face, but resistance brought black face back into the celebration. Last year, controversy over Black Peter caused the huge celebration in Western Canada to be cancelled for the first time in 26 years.
At a recent parade in Amsterdam, protestors held signs that said “Free Pete.” One of the protestors, Quinsy Gario, had been arrested in years past, after wearing a shirt that said “Black Peter is Racist.” Both sides of the argument have protested, even on Facebook. Those against Black Peter argue that only the Netherlands has supported this type of racism. Anywhere else in the world, Black Peter would not be allowed.
There has been little government movement as a result of the protests, although the Mayor of Amsterdam wrote to the city council and said “[Black Peter] can potentially result in manifestations of racism — for example if black-skinned people are called Black Peter in everyday life…..the first matter of importance is gradualness.”