Dutch Black Pete Santa Tradition Re-Examined, Blackface Deemed Offensive

The “Black Pete” Santa tradition of the Netherlands may be shocking to most Western cultures — the Santa-in-blackface image is dissonant and appears inarguably racist to most seeing it for the first time — and a fierce debate has erupted anew over whether the custom should finally be retired by locals.

“Black Pete” Santa — Sinterklass or “Zwarte Piet” in the Netherlands — is a Christmas staple for Dutch citizens. But elsewhere, the blackface St. Nicholas reads as incredibly out of line with modern race-related sensibilities, and the tradition is under fire as many call for an end to “Black Pete.”

“Black Pete” Santa was commented upon by Jessica Silversmith, director of the regional Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam. Silversmith says that while the racially charged trope has been tolerated for many years and concerns of racism brushed off, a wider swath of Dutch people and others are complaining about the clearly insensitive tradition.

She explains:

“There is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might think… It’s not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining… It’s all kinds of Dutch people.”

The director says that in the recent past, only one to two complaints were lodged about “Black Pete” Santa — but last year, more than 100 came in, and the Bureau expects that number to climb again in 2012. Silversmith continues, noting that the tradition is beloved, but it may need to catch up to the times:

“Nobody is against the Sinterklaas celebration or is calling people who celebrate it racist… But it is time to consider whether this is offensive, whether there actually are racist ideas underlying Zwarte Piet.”

It’s not just the Anti-Discrimination Bureau protesting “Black Pete” Santa, though — Salon reports that a Dutch politician, Amsterdam councilwoman Andree van Es, decried the tradition as well last week, saying:

“The Sinterklaas celebration once began without Zwarte Piet… It’s time it continues without Zwarte Piet.”

And news blog GeenStijl, which Salon reports is not opposed to potentially offensive subject matter, had this to say on the “Black Pete” Santa tradition in recent days:

“Zwarte Piet is nothing more than a repulsive parody of a slave, fine-tuned to indoctrinate schoolchildren into the finer points of racism… The sooner we get rid of Zwarte Piet, the sooner we won’t look like idiots to the rest of the world.”

Defenders of “Black Pete” Santa contend that racial overtones are only inflected by adults, and children do not realize the potential offense the Dutch Sinterklaas carries.

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