In Depth

Black Pete: harmless tradition or racist throwback?

Protests erupt in the Netherlands as critics say the controversial Christmas character Black Pete should be banned

Dutch police have arrested 90 people after protesters clashed at a children's festival in the city of Gouda celebrating the controversial Christmas character, 'Black Pete', usually portrayed by a white person with a blacked up face.

"Arrests were made on both sides," according to police spokeswoman Yvette Verboon, as the debate surrounding the Christmas tradition continues to polarise Dutch society, Al Jazeera reports.

According to centuries old folklore, Black Pete is Father Christmas's servant who climbs down chimneys to help him deliver presents to children.  But critics say the character, known in Dutch as Zwarte Piet and depicted with a painted black face, large red lips and an afro is a racist caricature that harks back to the country's colonial era.

"The character must speak poor Dutch with a stupid accent, and must act childlike and mischievous when performing," Siji Jabber writes for The Guardian. Songs sung by school children about Black Pete include the lyrics: "Even if I'm black as coal I mean well".

A group called Zwarte Piet is Racism, which opposes the tradition, argues that the image "perpetuates a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism".

"We are supposed to be living in the most tolerant and anti-racist country in the world," Jerry King Luther Afriyie, a Ghanaian-born Dutch citizen who is a member of the group told the BBC. "In the 21st Century there should be no room for racism, especially open racism."

Both the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the Council of Europe's Anti Racism Commission have concluded that the custom is offensive to ethnic minorities. 

However, supporters of the tradition argue that it is not a racist depiction, as the colour of Black Pete's skin is a result of him climbing down a dirty chimney. The reason for his large red lips, however, remains unexplained.

There exists overwhelming support for the tradition among the Dutch population, the New York Times reports. According to pollsters in the Netherlands, over 91 per cent of the population rejects the notion that Black Pete is racist.

The Facebook community that celebrates Black Pete has over two million 'likes' and Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Dutch Freedom Party is attempting to protect the colour of the character's skin by law.

"In general, attacks on Zwarte Piet are widely interpreted as attacks on (white) Dutchness and threats to (white) children's right to jovially celebrate their 'cultural heritage'", the human rights activist Maria Hengeveld writes for the Africa is a Country website.

She argues that politicians, lawmakers and big businesses "are sensitive to public feeling" on the issue. Albert Heijn, the country's largest supermarket chain, went back on its promise to ban Black Pete from its stores after a huge public outcry.

Last week, the highest administrative court in the Netherlands overturned the ruling of a lower court which had called Black Pete "a negative stereotype" that "infringes on the European treaty of human rights". 

"Black Peter is black," the country's Prime Minister Mark Rutte said recently, defending the tradition. "We cannot do much to change that."

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