Dutch fury over UN body's 'Black Pete' racism charge

23rd October 2013, Comments 9 comments

A Facebook petition supporting a Dutch Christmas character called "Black Pete" on Wednesday hit a million 'likes', revealing the liberal nation's attachment to a beloved figure the UN has warned may be racist.

Anger over the issue has swept the Netherlands after a UN human rights body said it was assessing whether "Zwarte Piet", who accompanies Saint Nicholas during a traditional children's festival before Christmas, is racist.

The character, who arrives on a gift-filled boat from Spain, is typically decked out in a gaudy medieval costume and afro wig, with his face painted black and lips red, prompting criticism of racial stereotyping.

Opponents say the character recalls when Dutch colonists exploited slaves, notably in the Caribbean colonies of Suriname and Curacao, while supporters are offended at the suggestion that a character so central to Dutch culture could be racist.

The debate comes up every year, but now it is particularly bitter after the Jamaican chair of a committee at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Verene Shepherd, bluntly told Dutch television that "the practice must stop".

"The working group cannot understand that 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," she told the Eenvandaag show on Tuesday.

"As a black person, I feel that if I was living in the Netherlands I would object to it," she said.

Her Geneva-based committee at the UNHCHR sent a letter to the Dutch government after they heard that "the character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens" and asked for further information, Dutch media reported last week.

The Dutch give each other gifts, allegedly distributed by Saint Nicholas -- a Turkish bishop wearing a long red gown and mitre who resembles Father Christmas -- and Black Pete, on December 5 and then also celebrate Christmas on December 24-25, but without gifts.

'What is wrong with one Santa Claus?'

Shepherd angered the Dutch further by suggesting they should adopt a US-style "Santa Claus" instead.

"What is wrong with one Santa Claus, why do you have to have two Santa Clauses?" said Shepherd, who is due in the Netherlands next month to witness the arrival of Saint Nicholas and Black Pete first-hand.

The Dutch are also divided on the issue, whatever colour they might be, but there's near-universal agreement that those who do not understand Dutch culture should not get involved in the thorny debate.

"Black Pete is a chimney sweep and Saint Nicholas is a Turk and they live together in Spain and that's what we celebrate in the Netherlands - it's just the best integration party ever!" said one Facebook commentator.

"Note to UN: isn't there a war or famine or genocide going on somewhere where you could better bring your pressure to bare (sic)?" said another one of the 1,033,669 'likes' garnered in less than 24 hours.

A Dutch Facebook page called "Black Pete is racism" had 7,166 'likes' at the same time.

Amsterdam city hall held a public hearing last week during which 21 complaints about Black Pete were filed, calling on the Dutch capital to revoke the permit for this year's festival.

Mayor Eberhard van der Laan is to rule on the permit in early November.

But supporters called for the Saint Nicholas festival to go ahead, arguing that it has been part of a Dutch tradition as far back as the 16th century, with the Black Petes first appearing around the 1850s.

In a survey of 10,000 people published by the popular broadsheet De Telegraaf last weekend, some 96 percent asked for a stop to the debate over Black Pete.

Some 66 percent said they would prefer that the entire Saint Nicholas festival be dropped rather than stripping it of the Black Pete character.

© 2013 AFP

9 Comments To This Article

  • carrico posted:

    on 25th October 2013, 01:52:17 - Reply

    Many good points. A suggestion: To the festivities, add dark people with faces painted white. Festivus for the rest of us.
  • jan posted:

    on 25th October 2013, 01:21:54 - Reply

    I am pretty sure people who don't know the fest it self can't judge its meaning. Its really harmless. Because black pete its as racist as a Rednose raindeer, white Christmas or Santa's elves.

    Even Hajji Firuz, a person in persian tradition, who looks exactly the same, is also there to let children smile, and is cultural heritage according to UNESCO and protected by the U.N. Why this difference ??

    And if the UN want to cancel unsensitive or racist traditions; start with something like Columbusday or THANKSGIVING !!!

    Several Indian tribes do not see this holiday today as a day on which one should be grateful, but consider it as the beginning of a process by which they tragically lost their land, and their population was decimated. Every year on Thanksgiving Day Wampanoags and other Indians come together in Plymouth to commemorate their "national day of mourning."

  • dutch anonymous posted:

    on 24th October 2013, 13:07:15 - Reply

    sint nicolaas was a turk , fled to spain.
    bought free child slaves and gave them work with freedom and money.
    children love both caracters.
    even in suriname and the antilles this festiveties are held with black pete.
    you can look up video's on youtube of sint nicolaas in paramaribo.
    so you can decide what people really feel about it. this all started becouse one dude couldt handle the fact that some young racist's made a sick joke towards his mother and called her black pete. he should have made a case against them but instead tries to make a case against the enitire country.
  • carrico posted:

    on 24th October 2013, 12:50:24 - Reply

    What do Dutch 'people of color' think?
  • Uggbert Braun posted:

    on 24th October 2013, 07:03:17 - Reply

    Strange things happen whenever 'traditions' come under pressure: we lose our minds and often abandon commonsense as we struggle to hold on to something that is ultimately quite irrelevant.

    I keep hearing the argument: "...but it's a children's party..." presented as a reason to leave things be. Really? A children's party promoted, planned and perpetuated by adults.

    Anyone who grew up in England during the early 60's will remember "eenie meanie miney mo, catch a ni**er by his toe..." This rhyme was used in our decision making process: who would get to ride the bike or have a turn on the swings or be on which team. I remember thinking my Mother had gone crazy when she banned its use in our house. We children had no idea what a ni**er was and were simply using a rhyme which everyone else used but Mother pointed out how hurtful that word was to black people when she could have just let us be — we were children after all.

    This is what springs to mind when I hear people bring up the 'children's party argument'.

    As a non-Dutch person, I'm certainly not going to tell the Netherlanders how to live their lives. That said, in such an interconnected world as we now live in, they should accept that their fun may cause offense to others.
  • Pinkiepete posted:

    on 24th October 2013, 02:12:41 - Reply

    OK, this is about a special day for children, a party for children, before Xmas.

    Xmas is about family, food and food, lights and candles (it depends of the glamorous/e housekeeper) and presents, but not children.

    Lets head the facts:

    Turkish bishop... from Turkey, secular country with 99% Islamism ... OK

    Spanish boat... from Madrid that has no sea... correct.

    Presents... from Spain? with that crisis? ... no comment.

    And Pete, a tease character that makes the party colorful, fun and is beloved for everyone.

    Where is the racism? Ask to a child for Pete ask him to describe him and you will realize that words like slave, nigger or another kind of racism relation has no space there.

    come on! the full story over Sinterklaas nowadays is no sense but great!

    Let the children to enjoy their childhood when they don't understand about racism.

    and long life to Pete! Mijne met roze pak natuurlijk ; )

  • Pete posted:

    on 24th October 2013, 00:19:01 - Reply

    That's fair, but are we eliminating Santa because dwarves might be offended by Santa's elves? Why not eliminate Santa claus himself, because people that look like bisschops can't be trusted around children, right? Let's stop for a moment and consider this for the children's party that it is. This is also a big and ancient tradition in Holland, which doesn't exactly top the racism top 100. Far from it. The US and even European countries should wish for the lack of racism evident in the Netherlands. But of course, this topic is just too juicy, thanks to the UN, to not destroy a children's party over. [Edited by moderator]
  • Jason posted:

    on 23rd October 2013, 22:14:07 - Reply

    "with the Black Petes first appearing around the 1850s"

    Well, that's interesting. The Netherlands didn't abolish slavery until 1863. If Black Pete was born in the era when the Dutch ran New World slave colonies ... then its hard to claim its not a caricature of a slave.
    The Dutch need to acknowledge their dark past as one of the leading slaver nations and that the holdouts from that era still pervade their culture. Just like the neighbouring Germans have had to own their dark past, the Dutch need to do the same.
  • a dutch child of 15 years posted:

    on 23rd October 2013, 20:27:03 - Reply

    when it is sinterklaas. the children are happy to see zwarte piet. every child's dream is to work for sinterklaas. you can adjudge if you it in the netherlands celebrate. my english isn't 100% correct. but you know what i mean