THE Netherlands today celebrates the festival of Sinterklaas, featuring the blacked-up Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) character, with many Dutch people wondering how much longer the controversial tradition will continue.
The Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters) have been part of Dutch St Nicholas parades for 150 years, since slavery was abolished.
According to tradition they arrive from Spain by steamboat in November to travel through the Netherlands with Santa on a white horse, and hand out pepernoten biscuits to children.
But dressed as they are in colourful suits, frizzy black wigs, bright red lipstick and blacked up faces, the Zwarte Pieten are increasingly seen as racially offensive.
Critics include a Jamaican researcher for a United Nations cultural panel. On the other side are the staunch defenders of the Zwarte Piet tradition, who argue the “innocent”, much-loved and gift-bearing figure is being unfairly picked upon; some say Zwarte Piet has a sooty face from descending chimneys, an integral part of the St Nicholas story.
Both sides have held street protests – one ending in trouble when a dark-skinned woman was surrounded by a pro-Piet mob in The Hague – and tensions have been whipped up with supporters being dubbed racists and opponents zeurpiets (Grumbling Peters).
A Facebook “Pietitie” petition against “the abolition of Sinterklaas”, drew 2.15 million “likes”, and the backing of the far-right PVV party – though the organisers immediately distanced themselves from the politics.
This year’s debate began in October on a Dutch TV show, with protests from Quinsy Gario, a Caribbean-Dutch artist and radio host. There were 21 complaints asking Amsterdam city council to remove Zwarte Pieten from the November parade. But a city commission could “find no legal argument to conclude the character of Zwarte Piet is racist” so it went ahead, minus gold-hooped earrings.
Mr Gario said: “The push-back against even voicing criticism has shown the figure is on its way out. There is a real changing of the guard. If a tradition is perpetuating damaging stereotypes that lead to real consequences, then our self-image as a tolerant, diverse nation doesn’t match up to what we’re doing.”
As a result of the row, it has been decided Sinterklaas festivities can now use “red Piets” or multicoloured helpers in 2014; meanwhile, Amsterdam’s mayor recommended a “gradual” change to Piet’s appearance, subservience, and “questionable lyrics” in traditional songs.