Zwarte Piet: Dutch Blackface Tradition Sparks Fury and 90 Arrests


Revelers donning blackface, Afro wigs, and red lips clash with antiracist protesters during the Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete” festivities, prompting police to arrest 90 people. Black Pete is a pre-Christmas celebration (Sinterklaas) in which Black Pete—the controversial sidekick—helps Saint Nicholas give presents to the children. Black Pete is invariably played by a white person in blackface (supposedly black because he has come down a chimney—tsk, tsk). As The Economist underlined last November,in recent years, Dutch citizens of Caribbean ancestry have begun protesting the portrayal of St Nicholas’s sidekick as a racist caricature. In the increasingly polarized political climate in the Netherlands, the custom was a tinderbox waiting for a match.” Here are excerpts of an Al Jazeera report with several links for related articles below:


Police arrested 90 people as protesters for and against the controversial “Black Pete” clashed at a traditional Dutch festival for children which critics say is racist, but that many locals defend as harmless fun in the run-up to Christmas. The event which started on Saturday in the central city of Gouda re-enacts the arrival of Saint Nicholas, bringing presents for children and helped by his sidekick Black Pete, who is invariably played by a white person with a blackened face.

“Sixty people were arrested for demonstrating in unauthorised areas, and 30 for disturbing the peace,” during the procession attended by thousands and broadcast live on national television, police spokeswoman Yvette Verboon told the AFP news agency. “Arrests were made on both sides,” Verboon said amid an increasingly acrimonious and racially-charged debate in the Netherlands.

State broadcaster NOS showed images of minor scuffles breaking out on the main square, where Saint Nicholas appeared on a balcony, with protesters unfurling a large banner reading “Black Pete Racism”.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the arrests “deeply, deeply sad”. “Everyone can talk about Black Pete’s colour but you can’t disturb a children’s party like that,” he told NOS. [. . .]


‘Racist stereotype’

The debate around Black Pete, called Zwarte Piet in Dutch, has divided the Netherlands.

Many say that Pete – traditionally dressed in a gaudy medieval costume with a blackened face, red lips and an afro wig – is a racist stereotype dating from the colonial era. Black Pete’s defenders say he is black from coming down the chimney and refuse to admit there might be anything racist about the historic character.

This year Saint Nicholas and dozens of Petes arrived in Gouda aboard a gift-filled boat from Spain in a national event looked forward to by children.

For the first time, the mayor introduced other coloured Petes, angering many. They include “Cheese Petes” with yellow faces, “Stroopwafel Petes” with striped, light brown faces resembling the traditional Dutch syrup biscuit of the same name and a white-faced “Clown Pete”.

Nevertheless, protesters attended Saturday’s annual procession wearing T-shirts reading “Black Pete Colonial Symbol” or “Black Pete Doesn’t Fit”.

“Some black kids feel hurt at this time of year,” said a man at the procession who gave his name as Knoledge. “It’s a real shame that in a civilised country, in 2014, you still have to defend equality,” he told AFP. “If we were seen as equals, Black Pete would have been changed a long time ago so that this celebration is for all Dutch people,” he said. [. . .]

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