The ‘Black Pete’ Controversy: Dutch ‘Tradition’ or ‘Racism in Full Display’?

Written by | Friday, November 29th, 2019

The late-November arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is again accompanied, as it has been for the past seven years, by protests against Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, Sinterklaas’ helper, who many see as a racist stereotype. As every year, during the three weeks of holiday festivities, Sinterklaas is portrayed as an elderly white man riding a white horse through parades across the Netherlands, while many children and adults dress up as his helper, Black Pete, painting their face black, wearing prominent red lipsticks, black frizzy wigs and large golden earrings.
Sinterklaas’ arrival some two weeks ago was greeted by intense protests against Black Pete in many cities across the Netherlands, during which scores of people were arrested, primarily counter-protesters supporting Zwarte Piet, for throwing eggs and bananas at anti-racist demonstrators. “A lot of people were shocked, but you know who was not shocked? Black people are not shocked. We have been saying it,” says Jerry Afriyie, one of the founders of the ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’ campaign in 2011, who arrived in the Netherlands from Ghana when he was 10. “They would call me Zwarte Piet, or you are dirty just like Zwarte Piet. You are only good to be Zwarte Piet.”
Many people in the Netherlands support Black Pete, and a majority of the country seems resistant to changing the tradition. “Black Pete is black and I can not change that because his name is Black Pete … It is not green Pete, or brown Pete, it is Black Pete…” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte back in 2014 in a controversial statement. The exact origins of Black Pete are mired in myth and controversy and people across the Netherlands have a slightly different origin story depending on when and where they grew up. But whatever the Zwarte Piet’s exact origins, it is clear that the character is a tradition and history, including the country’s infamous colonial legacy that many Dutch have yet to come to terms with. As the debate continues, one thing is clear: when Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet depart the Netherlands next week, the controversy of Black Pete is here to stay, awaiting their arrival next year.

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