‘Kick out Black Pete!’ Anti-blackface paranoia comes after Dutch children’s festival tradition
The Netherlands traditionally celebrates the Arrival of Sinterklaas – or St. Nicholas –with annual street parades in early December. However, it isn’t just cheerful, colorfully dressed festival-goers that will be taking to the streets this weekend, as dozens of protests take place across the country against what was once a children’s holiday tradition.
It is not that the Dutch suddenly became disgruntled over a Christian saint with a long white beard greeting children ahead of Christmas. It is his companion that has been sparking uproar in some parts of society. Zwarte Piet – or Black Pete – is usually portrayed by people wearing full blackface, red lipstick, curly wigs and dressed in colorful costumes.
Black Pete hasn’t always been all that warm and fuzzy. St. Nicholas’ companion has come a long way from being a much more menacing character punishing poorly behaved children. He has been associated with Moors and even demons, according to some reports. Some also claim that he is nothing more than the legacy of the Dutch colonial past.
But it isn’t his somewhat murky history that is of concern for most anti-racist campaigners and all sorts of social justice warriors, as he has long been depicted as a positive character tasked mainly with amusing children and distributing special festival sweets. It is the sheer fact that the character is associated with blackface that draws the ire of all those who call him a “racist caricature,” adding that the tradition is “hurtful” to black people and “damaging” to children.
The “Kick Out Black Pete” movement that has been active in the Netherlands for several years, and has organized protests against the tradition on the sidelines of street parades in about a dozen Dutch cities, including The Hague.
Weg met Zwarte Piet! Donder op Zwarte Piet! No more black face! pic.twitter.com/gFy2gdXGZr— Zouhair Hammana (@EmceeZu) November 16, 2019
Weg met Zwarte Piet! Spreekkoren op de Koekamp bij demonstratie #KOZP geen tegendemonstranten, wel veel politie die arriverende mensen vraagt of ze 'voor of tegen' zijn. Beetje raar. pic.twitter.com/pn5N1qjIrp— Den Haag Centraal (@DenHaagCentraal) November 16, 2019
The protesters held banners and placards that read “Racism is not children’s holiday” and “Black Pete is racism.” Some rallies were attended by hundreds of people, while others saw only a handful of protesters.
Al deze DOMME GANZEN kunnen mij geen enkele goed onderbouwde reden geven waarom zwarte piet racisme zou zijn. GEEN ENKELE! Ze maken alleen maar zichzelf belachelijk. pic.twitter.com/UEVQPZ45r9— Dutch Joker🚜🚧🏗👨🏫👩⚕️🚨 (@Dutch_Joker1) November 16, 2019
Dutch authorities and the media have seemingly also grown uncomfortable with a topic that sparks such controversy these days. Dutch TV has decided to drop characters wearing full blackface in favor of ones with a few dark smudges representing soot from all the chimneys they are supposed to climb down while delivering presents. Some towns and cities, including the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, as well as Apeldoorn, which hosts the nationally televised Arrival of St. Nicholas, also adopted Sooty Petes for their parades.
The Dutch public, however, appears to be in no rush to follow yet another woke trend. The street parades across the Netherlands have certainly seen their fair share of blackface-wearing Petes this weekend. According to a recent opinion poll cited by Reuters, almost 60 percent of Dutch people still want to keep Black Pete as he is – with blackface – while only slightly more than a quarter of them said that the tradition needs to be changed.
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