Amsterdam’s mayor plans to do something about the city’s Black Pete problem


A Dutch Santa Claus and his sidekicks, representing a figure known as Black Pete, arrive by steamboat in Hoorn in northwestern Netherlands. (Peter Dejong/AP file)

For many Dutch citizens, Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) is a beloved Christmas figure. There's just a small problem: The character, one of Santa's "helpers," is traditionally represented by white actors wearing blackface.

On Thursday, Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan finally decided to do something in response to growing opposition to what is widely viewed as a racist holdover from the Netherlands' colonial history.

Over the next few years, the city will phase out the use of blackface in the annual Santa Claus, or Sinterklaas, parade.


A Black Pete character jokes with children in Hoorn. (Peter Dejong/AP file)

According to the Associated Press, the mayor promised that the "negroid character" of Black Pete would slowly disappear over the course of the city's next few Sinterklaas celebrations.

After that, Pete will appear to be merely dusted with soot from delivering presents down chimneys to good Dutch girls and boys.

Presumably, that means the Afro wig and exaggerated red lips that have long been features of Black Pete performances will also disappear.

UPI has a few more details on how Black Pete will change, including his "promotion" from a subservient "helper" role to a "management" position within the Sinterklaas empire.

"Piet will become Sint's CEO," van der Laan said, according to UPI. "A lot less submissive and a lot more leader."

The mayor added that his "hope is that people will now accept that with these changes Sinterklaas can become a celebration for everybody. Then the Sint will become what he always was: a sweet and beloved tradition that makes everybody happy."

Although the reasoning behind these changes might seem pretty straightforward to most Americans, the Dutch have struggled to understand the international outcry. Black Pete's Dutch supporters — and there are many — have argued that Black Pete is not intended to offend and that he is merely a beloved children's character who remains central to Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands.

In a 2013 op-ed in the New York Times, Amsterdam author Arnon Grünberg attempted to explain why the Dutch love Black Pete so much, even in the 21st century. Essentially, it boils down to "tradition."

"Until recently, Black Pete was uncontroversial," Grünberg wrote. "Not because the Dutch are particularly racist, but because Sinterklaas, like the royal family, is sacred in the Netherlands, perhaps because of a dearth of other, specifically Dutch traditions. A matter, in other words, of conservatism.

"Such traditions are even more important today, given the view that, in order to safeguard the Dutch national identity, homegrown culture and folklore must not be tampered with — a view expressed primarily, though not exclusively, by the extreme right wing Party for Freedom, run by Geert Wilders."

In July, an Amsterdam District Court declared that the figure was a negative stereotype of black people and ordered van der Laan, the mayor, to reconsider Black Pete's use during the city's annual Christmas parade.

It's not clear at this point whether any other Dutch cities — many of which have their own Sinterklaas events — will follow Amsterdam's lead.

Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.
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