Why the Dutch Can’t Let Go of Black Pete

The Dutch are drawing a line in the sand against the erosion of their national culture.

Sinterklaas, surrounded by Black Petes, rides through Amsterdam, the Netherlands, November 14, 2010
Sinterklaas, surrounded by Black Petes, rides through Amsterdam, the Netherlands, November 14, 2010 (Marc van Woudenberg)

On Friday morning, children across the Netherlands and Belgium woke up to find gifts deposited by the fireplace — if they hadn’t unpacked them last night already. Their parents will tell them the gifts came from Sinterklaas, a folklore figured inspired by a fourth-century Christian saint who was the template for the American Santa Claus.

The tradition goes back centuries and the Sinterklaas celebration is one of the few distinctly Dutch events that is completely apolitical and seen by the vast majority of people in the Netherlands as harmless fun worth cherishing.

Little wonder that the annually recurring accusations of racism in the Sinterklaas celebrations are an affront to by far most native Dutch.

According to the folklore, Sinterklaas arrives every November by steamboat from Spain with an army of black helpers who are all known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. The acrobatic characters, who are goodhearted but often a bit clumsy, are mostly played by white men in blackface who also wear curly wigs, golden earrings and red lipstick. The two traverse the country, visiting schools and delivering gifts, aided, of course, by various local imitators.

Critics say the depiction of Black Pete is racist and that his subservient role to Sinterklaas reinforces colonial-era stereotypes.

This year, emotions ran particularly high. In Gouda, just north of Rotterdam, ninety protesters were arrested for disturbing the parade to welcome Sinterklaas in the city. Smaller demonstrations took place elsewhere.

Polls show that opposition is strongest in multiethnic Amsterdam where one district council even banned the festivities altogether this year.

Amsterdam also went farthest in making changes to the festivities. Black Petes there no longer wear the earrings and lipstick of racial stereotype. Most other major cities have followed suit. Amsterdam also introduced several non-Black Petes.

So did the national broadcaster’s Sinterklaasjournaal which is watched in late November and early December by most children in the Netherlands and which sets the standards for the celebrations. In the series finale on Thursday, it showed a “Grandpa Pete” riding horse side by side with Sinterklaas into the night to help deliver the gifts.

Pete is no longer an old white man’s servant but rather his equal. The stereotypical features are gone. So, often, is the very word “black”. Sinterklaas‘ helpers are simply called “Pete” now.

Yet for his detractors, it’s still not enough. They want Pete gone as a character altogether.

Most Dutch people say the changes have gone far enough. 91 percent told one pollster they did not believe the tradition should have to accommodate the tastes of a minority.

As they are prone to do, the Dutch have nevertheless deliberated and compromised — not without controversy. But it’s hard to find common ground if the other side isn’t open to compromise to start with.

Perhaps the reason native Dutch draw the line with Sinterklaas is that they have had to accept so many changes in the last few years and decades.

Immigration from the Caribbean, Suriname and Muslim countries has changed entire neighborhoods, especially working-class areas in the major cities. Eastern Europeans later joined them. Many Dutch tried to be tolerant and accepted some foreign customs as part of Dutch culture. But the influx of millions of foreigners also created problems and for several decades, anyone who dared talk about them was immediately branded a racist.

That has changed but it is no coincidence that the very critics of Black Pete also decry what they see as a resurgent Dutch nationalism.

They’re not completely wrong. In a country that has been so changed by immigration and globalization, where many people are struggling to keep up and most have serious doubts about the further erosion of borders and nationality, the Sinterklaas celebrations are one of the few unquestionably Dutch and — it seemed — unquestionably good things people could hold on to. Now the Dutch are told that’s something they can’t have either. They won’t accept that.

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