This article by Elisa Criado appeared in London’s Independent.
A documentary about a Dutch Christmas tradition which involves white people wearing blackface has revealed what Londoners think of this controversial figure, and has fuelled the debate on a custom that is perceived by many to be unacceptably racist.
The film shows two Black Petes wearing blackface, an Afro-wig and golden earrings strolling through a London park, going about their traditional job of handing out sweets as they would do in The Netherlands, whilst the camera crew capture onlookers’ reactions.
Today is the culmination of the Dutch Sinterklaas season. Children receive their presents, and Santa and his helpers return to their fictional home in Spain after visiting for a couple of weeks. These helpers are the Black Petes; mostly played by white people in blackface, and represented as jolly, acrobatic and prone to making mistakes.
Russell Brand is amongst the perplexed Brits appearing in the documentary, offering his view on the customary garb and the sweets, which include a black marzipan face with red lips which stretch from ear to ear.
“What this tradition does, is it dehumanises people that are of a different ethnicity and it reduces them to a lower status of either toys or a degenerative role as servants,” Mr Brand told the Petes and the audience back in the Netherlands.
“In this country we think of Holland as a very advanced nation with advanced social principles, so it’s very surprising to see this kind of tradition”, he said.
Other Londoners reacted with disbelief, anger and even threats of physical violence.
The full documentary, created by popular filmmaker and writer Sunny Bergman, was broadcast on Dutch national television this week and has become a major talking point throughout the country.
Ms Bergman took the Petes on a trip to the UK because she wanted to see the reactions of people who don’t have personal childhood memories of them.
The documentary also includes a second experiment, this time in a park in The Netherlands. The set-up involved three men attempting to rob a bike in broad daylight. They all dressed identically and were of the same build, but one was black, one Middle-Eastern, and one white.
The black man and the Middle-Eastern man were both questioned by passers-by, and the police were called to the scene a number of times in both cases. The white man, however, was offered help by two separate bystanders, who came to his aid with bolt cutters so he could free what they assumed was his own bike.
When members of the public were asked why they didn’t show any concern that the white man was sawing away at the lock, they explained that he was probably a father, and they themselves have been in the position where they have forgotten their key. Others, when questioned about their response to the black and Middle-Eastern men, said they were too scared to confront them, because they thought they might get attacked.
Further shocking footage shows the arrest of anti-Black Pete campaigner Quinsy Gario in 2011. He trailblazed the open criticism of the tradition by attending a Sinterklaas parade wearing a T-shirt that read: ‘Black Pete is racism’. For this, he was violently arrested. The film shows him lying on the floor shouting: “I am being hit! I am being kicked! I didn’t do anything!”
Although the discussion surrounding the Black Petes is very much alive, they still have a strong fanbase. A Facebook petition dubbed the “Pietitie” (Piet being the Dutch name for Pete) currently has over two million likes. Ms Bergman asked the two founders of the page what they think of festive lyrics such as “Even though I’m black as soot, I mean well.”
“Well, ‘I mean well’, that’s hitting the nail on the head. And the ‘black as soot’, that just comes from the chimney,” one of them explained. His friend added: “But they are also from Spain, so that also explains the colour”.
The documentary is currently only available in Dutch, but there are already requests on Twitter for it to get subtitled.