In the Netherlands, a holiday tradition is now accused of perpetuating a racist stereotype. The character of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete,” originated in the 19th Century but has become a controversial figure in recent times.
Black Pete’s origins are as murky as the reasoning for why the character exists, but some historians point to the 1850 book Saint Nicholas and his Servant by Jan Schenkman as his first tangible appearance.
As the legend of Saint Nicholas grew, so did some of Black Pete’s backstory. Some state that he was a Black Moor from Spain, thus explaining his dark skin and curly hair.
In essence, the Dutch believed that Black Pete was a helper to their version of Santa Claus who both gifted good children and tormented bad ones. Throughout the 20th Century, the Dutch have tried to make Black Pete a mainstream figure while ignoring the character’s obvious racist overtones.
For Dutch natives who are supportive of Black Pete, it is how they chose to depict the character that has caused the most unrest. In a yearly celebration held in cities like Gouda, white Dutch don blackface, Afro wigs and red lipstick to dress up as Black Pete.
Despite the insensitivity of the costume, many feel it is nothing but a light-hearted joke.Some even try to suggest that Black Pete looks the way he does because he shuffles up and down chimneys delivering gifts for Santa.
Not everyone in the Netherlands enjoys Black Pete. Last November, Black protesters in Gouda disrupted an annual Black Pete parade, which led to the arrest of 90 individuals.
While Dutch officials acknowledged the problematic imagery their solution was that celebrants use other colors than black face paint in their costumes. Amazingly, the Dutch government condemned the protesters.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the protests “deeply sad” and seemed more miffed that the children’s parade was disturbed than to acknowledge the feelings of the country’s Black citizens.
The Dutch government says it receives dozens of complaints a year regarding Black Pete, but seemingly has done nothing to seriously address the matter.
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