Why blackface is still part of Dutch holidays

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Published at : 06 Dec 2020
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The debate over Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), explained.

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This year, like every year, people will take to the streets across the Netherlands and Belgium to celebrate holiday festivities by dressing up as St. Nicholas and his "assistant," Black Pete. And like every year, people will put on blackface — including big red lips and afro wigs — to portray Black Pete.

According to the legend, St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch) lives in Spain, arrives in Holland by boat every year with a team of black assistants in tow, and spends a month delivering presents to children across the country. Ever since the release of a children’s book in 1850, however, that myth has included a black caricature named Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.

So is Black Pete racist? Clearly, yes. I spent part of my childhood in Belgium, growing up with this tradition, and I’ve heard a lot of excuses that try to justify continuing the tradition. Some people say Black Pete doesn’t have black skin; instead, he’s just covered in soot from delivering presents through the chimney. Others say he’s St. Nicholas’s friend, and has never been a slave caricature. But historically, none of the defenses really hold up.

Change is happening, slowly. Though a 2014 decision to remove Black Pete from Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas parade was overturned in a higher court, city parade organizers have taken it upon themselves to gradually remove Black Pete’s racist characteristics from celebrations.

One of the ways they’ve done that is by introducing Chimney Pete, an alternative interpretation of the character without the Afro wig, earrings, or exaggerated lips — and with only a bit of soot dusted on his face. Half of all performers at the 2015 Amsterdam festival were Chimney Petes, and the plan was to boost that number to 75 percent for 2016. But in a surprise announcement, the city decided to replace all Black Petes with Chimney Petes for the 2016 holidays.

These efforts are still being met with resistance. In November 2017, pro-Zwarte Piet protesters obstructed highway access into Dokkum to block anti-Zwarte Piet protesters, even though the city had given them permission to demonstrate peacefully. The protest, which the mayor subsequently forbade out of concern about riots, has since been rescheduled with higher police presence.

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