Published On: Wed, Oct 23rd, 2013

Dutch holiday tradition, criticized as racist

SinterklaasWILLEMSTAD – Foreigners visiting the various countries in the Dutch Kingdom at the end of each year, are often surprised to see that the Dutch version of Santa Claus’ helpers have their faces painted black, wear Afro wigs and have thick red lips – in short, a racist caricature of a black person.

The overwhelming majority of Dutch citizens (both in Europe and in the Caribbean) are fiercely devoted to the holiday tradition of "Zwarte Piet" – whose name means "Black Pete" – and insist he's a harmless fictional figure who doesn't represent any race. But a growing number are questioning whether "Zwarte Piet" should be given a makeover or banished from the holiday scene, seeing him as a blight on the nation's image as a bulwark of tolerance.

There is a constant struggle here in Curacao about the “Zwarte Piet”. This year more than ever, there is a group arguing that this figure is a symbol of slavery and racism. Even the United Nation has become part of the discussion.  They state in a letter sent to the Dutch Government this year.

“We would like to bring to your Excellency’s Government’s attention information we have received concerning the Dutch celebration of Black Pete, also known as “Zwarte Piet”, which, each year, is part of the Saint Nicholas Event (5 December), and precedes and accompanies the celebration of Santa Claus. According to information received: The character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism. During the celebration, numerous people playing the Black Pete figure blacken their faces; wear bright red lipstick as well as Afro wigs. The Black Pete figure is to act as a fool and as a servant of Santa Claus. The Black Pete segment of Santa Claus celebrations is experienced by African people and people of African descent as a living trace of past slavery and oppression, tracing back to the country’s past involvement in the trade of African slaves in the previous centuries. Reportedly, a growing opposition to the racial profiling of Black Pete within the Dutch society, including by people of non-African origins, is to be noticed. However, it is also alleged that no response has been given to associations defending the rights of African people and people of African descent in the Netherlands, which are asking for dialogue on this issue.”

The debate comes after a decade in which the Dutch have rolled back many aspects of their famed tolerance policies, and in which anti-immigrant sentiment has risen sharply. Zwarte Piet is frequently defended as part of Dutch cultural heritage, and those who don't like it are often bluntly invited to leave the country. Many Dutch say Pete's black face derives from the soot he picked up climbing down chimneys to deliver presents – although that hardly explains the frizzy hair and big lips.

This criticism will continue until the government either ban the whole celebration or at least get rid of the Zwarte Piet.

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