AFRICANGLOBE – Black Pete, the jolly slaves of the Dutch Saint Nicholas, is finally getting a facelift after years of bitter debate including death threats against those calling for change.
An Amsterdam court’s ruling in July that Pete – traditionally dressed in a gaudy medieval costume with a blackened face, red lips and an afro wig – is a ‘negative stereotype’ encouraged many to try to change the deeply rooted custom.
‘It’s the beginning of change, it will continue for years to come because more and more people agree it should change but it’s going to take a long time,’ said historian Gabor Kozijn, author of a study on Black Pete for the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage.
With less than two months before Dutch kids’ favourite day, December 5, when Saint Nicholas and Pete hand out presents, the debate has reached fever pitch, with Black Pete’s defenders refusing to admit there is anything racist about the playful character.
In Gouda, where Saint Nicholas and dozens of Petes will ‘arrive’ on November 15 with a gift-filled boat from Spain in a national event broadcast live on television, the mayor on Tuesday decided to introduce some new colours.
Besides a number of Black Petes, there will also be ‘Cheese Petes’ with yellow faces and ‘Stroopwafel Petes’ with striped, light brown faces resembling the traditional Dutch syrup biscuit of the same name.
‘There is no simple way to find a solution that everyone can identify with,’ said Gouda Mayor Milo Schoenmaker.
Gouda’s Black Petes ‘changed several years ago to dark brown without stereotypical big red lips and earrings,’ the city hall added.
Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan has said that a ‘substantial’ number of this year’s Petes will not be black but will have some ‘soot marks’ on their faces, ostensibly from climbing down the chimney.
And a White Pete will for the first time be present during a daily televised ‘news bulletin’ on Saint Nicholas’s activities.
Dutch shops will have fewer Black Petes this year, although discount retail chain Hema in August denied rumours that it planned to remove him entirely by next year.
Customers at supermarket Albert Heijn will have different coloured Petes to choose from, including black: ‘Saint Nicholas is for everyone,’ the chain said in a statement.
Despite compromising on Black Pete, the two chains are being threatened with boycotts.
Many people in The Netherlands do not want to see the national tradition changed because what they consider a minority of people see it as racist.
Last year’s debate about Pete’s skin colour was particularly heated amid a UN rights probe of the matter.
The UN working group released its findings in July, concluding that Black Pete is indeed a racist figure and that many Dutch did not recognise him as a throwback to colonial times and slavery.
This year, Dutch celebrities who called on Facebook for a ‘Pete makeover’ have received death threats.
After investigative journalist Peter R. de Vries entered the debate on Facebook he received an email saying: ‘If I meet you you’ll get a bullet through your head.’
A ‘Pietitie’ (Pete-ition) on Facebook calling for action against changing Black Pete’s face has more than two million likes, in a country of 17 million.
Populist Geert Wilders, who heads the anti-immigration PVV party, tweeted: ‘Black Pete must stay black!’
‘What children want is presents. Whether the person who hands them out is Black or White Pete, a woman, yellow or bald is of no importance,’ actor and presenter Paul de Leeuw said on Facebook.
‘It’s a popular family event, celebrated by millions of people who want their kids to experience what they experienced as children: it’s more of an emotional than a rational debate,’ historian Kozijn told reporters.
Even if it is the beginning of the end for Black Pete, Kozijn said the character will be around for a while yet.
‘If the average life expectancy of children who now know Black Pete is 80, then he will in any case remain a figure that people know,’ he said.
By: Ted Thornhill