AFRICANGLOBE – In December the Netherlands’ version of Christmas, Sinterklaas, is welcomed with Santa Claus, chocolate, presents and… blacked up ‘elves’. According to the original tale, ‘Black Pete’ acts as Santa Claus’s slave and does his dirty work.
Since the 1850s, Dutch people have painted themselves black, worn curly wigs, donned red santa outfits and overdrawn their lips to create the black caricature on Sinterklaas. He is feared by Dutch children, who are told that he will kidnap or hit naughty children, while good children will get treats from Santa.
Professor of Literature Theory at the University of Amsterdam, Mieke Bal, who grew up with the story, thinks that this traditional view contributes to a fear of Black people. “If you habituate children to this response of these strange characters with black faces, that’s their moral [understanding] of Black people,” she says.
Although this sounds like something that should belong in another decade, the tradition is
still alive and well. The United Nations (UN) sparked an international debate about this Dutch tradition in 2014 by renouncing the character, stating that Black Pete is “portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced… as a vestige of slavery”.
In this year’s Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam, organisers announced that Black Pete would be replaced with “Chimney Pete”. Those officially playing the character were told not to paint themselves black or wear soot on their faces. Yet many revellers were still seen to be dressed in blackface and wigs.
An ongoing argument among supporters of Black Pete is that he is a long-standing part of Dutch tradition and that his blackness is due to the soot from chimneys.
Briton Paul Bestall observed: “From my Dutch friends it seems as if group of 20 or 30 people have orchestrated a complaint about this.” But he believes that “the growth of the far right in the Netherlands is a real issue” – something that is a key factor in a resistance to acknowledging criticism of the Black Pete tradition.
Black communities in the Netherlands have been campaigning tirelessly for the abolition of the offensive figure for decades. Activists share explanations of the racism behind the character and arrange protests on their Facebook page ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’, translating to ‘Black Pete is Racist’. Their page has 18,136 likes, compared to ‘Zwarte Piet is GEEN racisme’, meaning ‘Black Pete is NOT racist’, which has 60,632.
ANGER: Pictures were tweeted of Dutch soldiers in Mali
Quinsy Gario, 32, a Curaçaoan performance artist and activist in the ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’ movement, has noted that there has been more awareness of how the figure is racist, but this has been set back by support of Black Pete among Government ministers and mainstream politicians. Even Dutch soldiers have been seen to join in, with the Ministry of Defence outrageously tweeting pictures of their Blackface on Sinterklaas while in the African country of Mali.
With the exception of multicultural Amsterdam, Black Pete merchandise is still widely found anywhere from art museums and bakeries to adult shops. On visiting the country, Briton Sharon White recalled: “I came across Black Pete wrapping paper and was shocked, it seemed to glorify slavery.”
Gario said that major Dutch retail chain stores now “see the figure as a liability for foreign expansion and have dropped the figure”. This move has been met by angry protests and boycotts. However, Dutch attitudes towards Black Pete do appear to be slowly changing, according to Gario.
“There is a noticeable shift, but I think that has a lot to do with how people from marginalised communities are now speaking up about the everyday and institutional racism that they face,” he says. The activist explains that this has started to happen because people are empowering themselves with the knowledge of their human rights in their fight against racism.
As the version of the story that is celebrated today was written during the Netherlands’ colonial past in 18th and 19th centuries, members of the country’s Black community feel unable to participate in the Sinterklaas celebrations. “I don’t see how you can partake in Sinterklaas without coming to grips with the historical era that the celebration comes from,” says Gario.
However, despite slowly changing attitudes, fierce resistance from the Dutch authorities and people to stopping or changing Black Pete remains.
A recent march in Rotterdam saw clashes between people in favour of keeping the tradition and protesters of whom 200 were arrested. Because of the heated and sometimes violent nature of the debate, Gario has resorted to avoiding certain places for fear of his life. “I am sent racist abuse and death threats every single day via social media. I’ve also been beaten up, pepper sprayed and arrested by police,” he says.
Despite this, Gario and the rest of the ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’ campaigners continue their fight to be heard.
“The ‘success’ of the struggle for the emancipation of Black and other racially marginalised groups in this country is the result of countless people realising that something needed to be done,” he says.
By: Adrienne Watson