Zwarte Piet: Discriminatory Black Pete ‘Must Be Changed,’ Dutch Ombudsman Rules

The features of Zwarte Piet (which is translated as Black Pete) are discriminatory and promote racism, a Dutch ombudsman has ruled in a report where she also called for changes to the the controversial character.

Children ombudsman Margrite Kalverboer, with the Netherland’s Independent Institute of Children’s Ombudsman noted that due to its negative social effects on black children, Zwarte Piet goes against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Reuters reported.

Kalverboer’s statement condemning Zwarte Piet comes ahead of the winter Sinterklaas celebration in the Netherlands where the character makes an appearance. In the Dutch Christmas tradition, Zwarte Piet is an assistant or servant of Sinterklaas, the Dutch predecessor of the modern Santa Claus, the Washington Post reported.

Zwarte Piet
The Dutch version of Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, and his sidekicks known as "Zwarte Piet" or "Black Pete" in Hoorn, north-western Netherlands. [Photo by Peter Dejong/AP Photo]

According to a 19th-century Dutch story, Sinterklaas arrived in the country accompanied by Zwarte Piet who help him dole out candy to children and entertain people with jokes. This is reenacted every year as part of Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands. To play the role of Zwarte Piet, on Dec. 5 every year, many adults in the Netherland don colonial-era clothing, paint their faces black, put on red lipstick, wear wigs, and gaudy jewelry.

The Zwarte Piet character has been at the center of a long-running debate. While some people have equated the Black Pete figure to other racist iconography stereotyping people of African descent, others claim it is a harmless act put up to entertain children.

Kalverboer decided to look into the Zwarte Piet character after receiving complaints, RTE reported. Her report said many black kids complained about facing discrimination during the Sinterklaas festivities.

“By stripping Zwarte Piet of discriminatory and stereotypical characteristics, he can be turned into a figure that reflects the joy that so many experience in the Sinterklaas tradition, and that is consistent with the rights of all children in the Netherlands,” Kalverboer said.

She reportedly interviewed several teenagers of different racial background who agreed that the Zwarte Piet figure should be changed if it is discriminatory to some people, according to NL Times.

“Children also say that grown-ups are dominating the discussion in an unpleasant way,” she added.

While Kalverboer called on the public to make changes to the appearance of Zwarte Piet, she did not provide any suggestions about what the character should look like.

The debate over Zwarte Piet has been raging on for some years now. In response to the public outcry over the black face image, some Zwarte Piets now paint their faces in other colors.

Some claim that the black face of Zwarte Piet is representative of the fact that the character climbs down chimneys. However, critics say that in Jan Schenkman’s popular children’s 19th-century book, Saint Nicholas and his Servant, which is credited with introducing Black Pete to the Sinterklaas tradition, Zwarte Piet is clearly made out to be a black servant.

Last year, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on the Dutch government to assess Zwarte Piet, which it described as a vestige of slavery, and to make changes to aspects of the character that promote racial discrimination, RT reported.

“Black Pete is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery, which is injurious to the dignity and self-esteem of children and adults of African descent,” a statement by the UN committee said. “Even a deeply-rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes.”

Despite these calls, the Dutch government has been treading a cautious line in the debate over Zwarte Piet. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last year that the Black Pete controversy is “not a state issue.”

[Featured Image by Peter Dejong/AP Photo]