UN body mulls Dutch 'Black Pete' racism claim: report

19th October 2013, Comments 4 comments

The UN human rights body is mulling whether a Dutch caricature called "Black Pete" who accompanies Saint Nicholas during a traditional children's festival is racist, a media report said Saturday.

A committee of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is assessing responses to a letter sent to the Dutch government early this year, the NRC Handelsblad reported.

Black Pete, or "Zwarte Piet" in Dutch, traditionally accompanies Saint Nicholas at a festival on the third Saturday of November, when he officially "arrives" in The Netherlands in a gift-filled boat from Spain.

The character is typically decked out in a gaudy medieval costume and afro wig, with his face painted black, prompting criticism in recent years of racial stereotyping.

Opponents say the character recalls when Dutch colonists exploited slaves, notably in the Caribbean colonies of Suriname and Curacao.

"According to information we have received... the character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens," said the letter, dated January this year and published Saturday on the NRC's website.

The letter by four officials of the Geneva-based UN rights body asked for a clarification from Dutch authorities.

"Please indicate to which extent your government has involved Dutch society, including African people... in the discussions regarding the choice of 'Santa Claus and Black Pete' as expression of cultural significance in the country," it said.

Emotions are flaring over the racially sensitive issue.

Amsterdam held a public hearing on Thursday during which 21 complaints about Black Pete were filed asking 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, his spokeswoman Tahira Limon said.

But Black Pete's supporters called for the children's Saint Nicholas festival to go ahead, arguing that it has been part of a Dutch tradition dating 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 on Saturday, 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.

One respondent told De Telegraaf: "The 21 complaints are spoiling it for the rest of The Netherlands."


© 2013 AFP

4 Comments To This Article

  • Pieter posted:

    on 27th October 2013, 14:18:49 - Reply

    What's next????
    Black Coffee? Wooden Shoes? Smoked eel? Rol-Mops? Olie-bollen? Carneval? Spek? Patate frites?
  • Bruce posted:

    on 21st October 2013, 09:04:32 - Reply

    Every year I see black kids dressed as Zwarte Piet and it doesn't seem to bother them. The race relations / human rights industry has to keep creating issues otherwise it becomes redundant.
  • Michael posted:

    on 20th October 2013, 14:10:02 - Reply

    The Black Pete, is a generally accepted way and welcomed way to institutionalize any of the already existing racial tensions in childrens' innocent brains.

    That is what the UN's business is all about to check out!
    It is like showing Rambo movies to kids. Also considered harmless by the majority. Either rightfully or not.
  • Jason posted:

    on 19th October 2013, 21:27:54 - Reply

    Its an important part of Dutch culture. The Netherlands was, of course, one of the major slave-traders of the early colonial era, and the Dutch need to dress up once a year to celebrate that.
    Yes, they could paint their faces purple or blue instead of black, and drop the frizzy wigs and large lips, but that would defeat the whole purpose of the event.