Men in support of a racist blackface caricature have hijacked debate around the offensive “Black Pete” by disrupting schoolchildren and government meetings.
It is early December, which means that discussion of Black Pete has once again taken hold of the Netherlands, a progressive country that every year goes through a national debate about racism, its colonial past and a Christmas tradition.
Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Santa-inspiration St. NIcholas, arrives in mid-November each year ahead of December 5th’s St. Nicholas Day, but along with presents destined for children’s shoes brings his helper Pete.
Tradition from the 19th century holds that Pete is a goofy and inept servant from Spain, with white Dutch people wearing blackface, painting their lips red to make them fuller and wearing curly wigs to simulate someone of African descent.
Depictions also included gold hoop earrings, a mark of the slavery in which the colonial Dutch played a major role.
Larger cities such as Amsterdam have changed their parades to remove any racial signifiers to Pete amid debate over racism in recent years, with some creating a Soot Pete who has dirt on his face because he climbs down chimneys.
Demonstrators hold signs reading “Black Pete is Rascism” and “Free Black Pete” during a demonstration against Zwarte Piet in Amsterdam.
(BAS CZERWINSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
But a group of men dressed as the “traditional” Black Petes have injected themselves into this year’s back-and-forth about the caricature by bringing it uninvited to a school in the city of Utrecht.
Many schools have done away with the blackface tradition in recent years, particularly since 2015, the same year a United Nations committee said that the character “perpetuates a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens” and fosters racism.
Police were called on the 10 school invaders, whose disruption was called “bizarre” by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, previously criticized for saying that there was nothing to be done about Pete being black.
One member of the group, Hugo Kujper, told newspaper De Volksrant that he had previously demonstrated against Muslim refugees and supported the far-right Party of Freedom led by Geert Wilders.
He denied that he is racist or far-right, as well as accusations that some of his fellow Black Petes told teachers at the school to go back to their country of origin.
Support for the caricature has declined in recent years, though it still has support of more than half of people in the Netherlands.
Three men from the same group briefly shut down an Amsterdam city council meeting on Thursday, though told De Telegraaf that they have “no political color”
Wilders’ anti-Muslim party was defeated in national elections earlier this year, part of a push back against far-right populism in Europe, though the Black Pete debate has brought out hatred again.
A group believed to be in part from nationalist organizations stopped anti-Black Pete demonstrators from attending a protest in Dokkum by blocking a highway earlier this month, though another anti-racism event is planned in the northern city for Saturday.
On Monday a man was sentenced to 40-hours of forced work for calling protesters slaves and a Dutch version of the n-word.
Dutch opinion writers have questioned whether there is a divide between cosmopolitan cities such as Amsterdam and the countryside, though opponents of Black Pete have made at least some ground.
A poll conducted by EenVandaag this year showed that 68% of people wanted to keep the “traditional” Black Pete, down from 89% four years ago, De Telegraaf reported.