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Is The Dutch Santa Racist?

Santa's Dutch predecessor Saint Nicholas is under fire for being racist. Instead of elves, he has black servants.

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Every fall, Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas, is subject of fierce debate in the Netherlands. His helpers the Black Petes (Zwarte Pieten) are under fire for being a racist caricature of people of African descent. Supporters of Black Pete, being the vast majority of Dutchmen who all have very fond memories of this children's holiday tradition, reject this notion and stick to the claim that Black Pete is not a slave. He is a friend of Saint Nick who helps him get presents through the chimneys, getting black in the process from the soot. Of course that doesn't explain the afro wigs, bright red lips, and golden earrings that are usually part of Black Pete's costume. Pete was a black servant in the original story dating back to 1850, but through the years evolved from boogeyman who would threaten to take kids in his sack back to Spain, to a jolly, clown like acrobat who is every child's best friend.

Black Pete seems to never have been more hotly debated than this year. In Amsterdam, 21 plaintiffs who objected to the character of Black Pete went to court in an attempt to stop Saint Nicholas from visiting the nation's capital if he wouldn't get rid of his black helpers. Black Pete even reached the United Nations, where a Human Rights Committee workgroup expressed concern and utter disbelief over the children's festival. On the Dutch news show Een Vandaag Verene Shepherd, chairwoman of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, voiced her personal opinion that the whole festival ought to be abolished, causing a major backlash in the Netherlands. In a country of 17 million, a pro-Black Pete petition ('Pete-ition') on Facebook quickly reached over 2 million likes. Hundreds of Pete supporters flocked to The Hague for a protest spontaneously organised by a sixteen year old girl.

The national debate quickly turned sour as many who pleaded for Black Pete to either change (multi colored Petes, or Petes with just brushes of black 'soot' were among the suggestions) or go away, were flooded with racist reactions, mainly on social media. On the other side, supporters of Black Pete who viewed him as merely a raceless fairy tale creature that kids look up to as a hero, resented the notion of being called racists. Besides insults and name calling, threats of violence and actual death threats also went both ways, causing concern for the Saint Nicholas parades this weekend. Saint Nick's televised national entry this year was in the northern city of Groningen, where he was guarded by armed policemen dressed as Black Petes, according to the regional news network RTV Noord. A police spokeswoman refused to confirm, claiming that it's Saint Nick's and the Petes' secret. In the end there was no need for the Pete agents, that even had bulletproof vests underneath their costumes, to resort to any drastic measures.

In Amsterdam, Saint Nick would have his parade a day later on Sunday. The Mayor of Amsterdam Eberhard van der Laan has been in talks for weeks with the anti-Pete protestors, eventually suggesting that Pete's appearance would change over time. Saint Nick's organising committee announced that as a compromise, Black Pete would remain traditionally black for now, but he would get rid of his stereotypical golden earrings. In the meantime the Amsterdam court case was lost, and the permit for the parade was given. But hundreds of anti-Pete protesters gathered in front of the Amsterdam stock exchange on Saturday and when Saint Nick and his Petes made their way through the capital city on Sunday, small groups of silent protesters showed their grievances by turning their backs to the parade.

Most of the anti-Pete protesters have their roots in former Dutch colonies as Surinam or the Antilles. A survey held last year by the municipality of Amsterdam showed that roughly half of Surinamese and Antillean Amsterdammers felt that Black Pete was discriminatory at least for others if not for themselves. Roughly 20-25 percent felt personally discriminated against.

This is what Saint Nick's weekend looked like. The Dutch will celebrate his birthday on December 5 with presents, poems and sweets.

All photo's by Bertine Moenaff & Maarten Verspoor

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