On November 15th, 2014, 90 protesters were arrested for demonstrating against the ‘Black Pete’ festival in Gouda, Netherlands, holding signs and wearing shirts that read, “Black Pete is Racism.” Mass demonstrations against Black Pete have become increasingly prominent over the past few years.
Black Pete is Sinterklaas’s (Santa Claus) joyful assistant, a longtime character in the holiday traditions of the Netherlands.
Each holiday season actors participate in festive parades, dressing up like Pete by painting their faces black, wearing thick red lipstick, golden hoop earrings, a curly afro wig and clothing from the Renaissance era. Given his attire, Black Pete appears to be a racist throwback to the colonial era. Still, Black Pete advocates claim that he’s merely black from chimney soot. However, this doesn’t explain Pete’s afro, big red lips, Renaissance clothing— or why Sinterklaas can’t get off his fat ass and do it himself for that matter.
Black Pete made his first appearance in an 1850 book, Sint Nikolaas en Zijn Knecht (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”) by Jan Schenkman, in which Pete is described as a Moor from Spain. An illustration from Schenkman’s book gives us a clear idea of Pete’s social status and appearance (his face isn’t covered in soot; he’s a black man.)
Sunny Bergman recently released a short video, “Our Colonial Hangover”, where two ladies dressed up like Pete visit Britain, and are subsequently greeted with much animosity and objection. Russell Brand comments on Black Pete in the video explaining, “In this country [England] we think of Holland as a very advanced nation, with very advanced social principles, so it’s very surprising to see this kind of tradition. He looks like he has a colonial hangover.”
Still, Black Pete is supported by Prime Minister and Leader of The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, Mark Rutte. Actually, Rutte told NOS, “Everyone can talk about Black Pete’s colour, but you can’t disturb a children’s party like that.” Yet protesters are adamant that the character alienates the black community, and in particular embarrasses and hurts black children. Experts working under the auspices of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have contended that people of African descent found the character to be “rooted in unacceptable, colonial attitudes that they find racist and offensive.”
Although I suppose the discriminatory nature of the character is up for personal opinion, it’s hard to ignore the evidence of Pete’s racist origins. Whether or not these allegations are true, there comes a time when the Government of the Netherlands needs to weigh the importance of maintaining a holiday tradition against creating mass racial alienation.