Santa's Black-Faced Helpers Are Under Fire In The Netherlands

Dec 1, 2014
Originally published on December 8, 2014 3:49 pm

For an American, watching a Sinterklaas parade, like the one I recently went to in Amsterdam, can be a bit of a shock. Because dancing around the dear old Dutch Santa are his helpers, known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.

And Black Pete is played by scores of white people dressed up in black face ... and wearing Afro wigs.

In the past few years, Black Pete has come under fire. A beloved tradition for some, others say he is a racist stereotype. And the increasingly rancorous debate over Black Pete has gripped the Netherlands.

Marc Gilling, 50, has been playing Black Pete since he was 8.

"My father played Sinterklaas, so it was normal that I dressed up as Black Pete," says Gilling. Black Pete may look like a minstrel show performer to me, but Gilling says he's a centuries-old figure, and there's nothing racist about him.

"It's a lovely thing to do, being a joyful Pete," he says. "You see the smile on the faces of the children. They just love Pete. And all the kids want to dress up and play Pete, whether they're black or white."

Raimund Larat at a recent Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam. He and his family object to the Black Pete tradition and believe the Christmas character should change.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

But others, like Raimund Larat, 23, who is black, see it differently. Larat, whose parents emigrated to Holland from the former Dutch colony of Suriname in South America, says people called him Black Pete when he was young and he took it as an insult.

"We feel hurt by the tradition that they call a tradition," says Larat. "There are a lot of people that don't agree with the way this holiday is celebrated. And there is something that has to change."

Larat says Sinterklaas is fine, but Black Pete must go.

"We need to find a Christmas character that everyone can identify with and be joyful about," he says.

A Range Of Views

There are different views on the history of Black Pete. Some say he goes back centuries, and is dark because he once represented the devil. Others say Black Pete depicts an African slave subservient to Sinterklaas. Still others say Black Pete is only sooty from sliding down chimneys.

But everyone agrees that the playful, bumbling Black Pete character celebrated today was popularized in a 19th-century Dutch children's story. According to tradition, Sinterklaas and his Black Pete helpers arrive every November by boat from Spain, bringing presents and candy for every Dutch girl and boy. And they're welcomed in celebrations across the Netherlands.

But this year there were protests: Hundreds of people demonstrated at Black Pete parades. In the medieval town of Gouda, dozens of demonstrators were arrested.

Dutch newspaper columnist Bas Heijne says calls to do away with Black Pete have stirred fierce resistance: "You could say that the whole idea of a pluralist society, of multiculturalism, which has held for a long time in Holland, is now breaking down."

Heijne says the Dutch, because of globalization, are unwilling to give up what they feel is one of their local traditions.

"So there's a kind of tension, and people are saying, 'No, it's not racist, and we are not racist, so leave us alone.' "

A Court Passes On The Question

This month, the Netherlands' highest court refused to wade into the battle over Black Pete. Pam Evenhuis, head of Amsterdam's Sinterklaas parade committee, says that was the right decision. Society should work it out.

"The Netherlands is a country where change goes gradually," says Evenhuis. "We're not changing from one day to the next. We don't have a supreme court that will make far-reaching decisions. Here, we have what we call a dialogue culture."

Evenhuis says in the past year alone the number of Dutch people who say they're ready to accept changes to Black Pete has risen from 3 percent to 15 percent.

At the parade in Amsterdam, there are signs that Black Pete is changing. His hoop earrings and big red lips are gone. Some of this year's Petes aren't black, but streaked in gray coal dust. And there's talk about creating multicolor Petes and clown Petes.

Mira Barens, 10, is here with her mother, Mikah, who came to the same Sinterklaas parade when she was a girl. Barens says she's not trying to shield her daughter from the current debate.

"No, we debate it at home as well," she says.

Barens says that's how she and her husband came to the conclusion that Black Pete is, as she says, a little bit racist.

"I think what they're doing now to give Pete other colors and the whole debate about him is very good," she says.

Barens believes Black Pete will eventually go. But columnist Bas Heijne says the whole debate is really about deeper problems of inequality in Dutch society and that painting Black Pete's face green won't solve them.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A Christmas tradition in the Netherlands is prompting some people to ask a question - do you really want to keep doing that? NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has the story of Black Pete.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: As an American, to find yourself in the middle of the Sinterklaas parade, like this one in Amsterdam, can be a bit of a shock because dancing around the dear old Dutch Santa are his helpers - Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. And Black Pete is played by scores of white people dressed up in blackface and wearing Afro wigs.

MARC GILLING: I'm Marc Gilling. I'm 50 years right now, and I've been playing Black Pete from eight years old.

BEARDSLEY: Black Pete may look like a minstrel show performer to me, but Gilling says, he's a centuries-old figure, and there's nothing racist about him.

GILLING: It is also a very lovely thing to do - being a joyful Pete and to see the smiles on the faces of the children. They just love Pete.

BEARDSLEY: There are different views on the exact history of Black Pete. Some say, he represents an African slave. Others say, he's just sooty from sliding down chimneys. The playful, bumbling Black Pete character celebrated today was popularized in a 19th century Dutch children's story. According to tradition, Sinterklaas and his Black Pete helpers arrive every November by boat from Spain, bringing presents and candy for every good Dutch girl and boy. And they're welcomed in celebrations across the Netherlands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Amsterdam, hurrah.

BEARDSLEY: But in the last few years, people have begun to object to Black Pete.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Dozens of demonstrators were arrested this year at a parade in the town of Gouda. Twenty-three-year-old Dutchman Raimund Larat came out to protest in Amsterdam. He says, people called him Black Pete when he was a kid, and he took it as an insult.

RAIMUND LARAT: You feel hurt by the tradition that they call a tradition. There are a lot of people that don't agree with the way this holiday is celebrated.

BEARDSLEY: Dutch newspaper columnist Bas Heijne says, calls to do away with Black Pete have stirred fierce resistance.

BAS HEIJNE: The Dutch are very unwilling because of globalization to give up local traditions, so there's a kind of tension. They say, it's not racist. We are not racist, and leave us alone.

BEARDSLEY: This month, the Netherlands highest court refused to wade into the battle over Black Pete. Pam Evenhuis, head of Amsterdam's Sinterklaas parade committee says, that was the right decision. Society should work it out.

PAM EVENHUIS: The Netherlands is a country where changes go gradually. We don't have a supreme court who will make far-reaching decisions. Here, we have what we call a dialogue culture.

BEARDSLEY: Evenhuis says, in last year alone, the number of Dutch people who say they're ready to accept changes to Black Pete has risen from three to 15 percent. Back at the parade, there are signs that Black Pete is changing. His hoop earrings and big, red lips are gone, and some of this year's Petes aren't black, but streaked in grey coal dust. And there's talk about creating multicolored Petes and clown Petes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADE)

MIRA: (Foreign language spoken).

MIKAH BARENS: She likes Pete because he gives a lot of presents and nice sweets.

BEARDSLEY: Ten-year-old Mira Barens is here with her mother, Mikah, who came to the same Sinterklaas parade when she was a girl. I asked Barens if she's trying to shield her daughter from the current debate.

BARENS: No, no, no. We debate with it, also, at home.

BEARDSLEY: And that's how Barens and her husband came to the conclusion that Black Pete is, as she says, a little bit racist.

BARENS: Black Pete and what they're doing now to give them also other colors and the debate about it - I think that is very good.

BEARDSLEY: Barens believes Black Pete will eventually go. But columnist Bas Heijne says, the whole debate is really about deeper problems of inequality in Dutch society, and painting Black Pete's face green won't solve them. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.