AMSTERDAM — Foreigners visiting the Netherlands in winter are often surprised to see that the Dutch version of St. Nicholas’ helpers have their faces painted black, wear Afro wigs and have thick red lips — in short, a racist caricature of a black person.
The overwhelming majority of Dutch are fiercely devoted to the holiday tradition of “Zwarte Piet” — whose name means “Black Pete” — and insist he’s a harmless fictional figure who doesn’t represent any race. But a growing number are questioning whether “Zwarte Piet” should be given a makeover or banished from the holiday scene, seeing him as a blight on the nation’s image as a bulwark of tolerance.
“There is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might think,” says Jessica Silversmith, director of the regional Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam. She said that historically her office received only one or two complaints per year, but the number jumped to more than 100 last year, and will escalate much further this year.
“It’s not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining,” she said, referring to people descended from the former Dutch colonies that once traded in slavery. “It’s all kinds of Dutch people.”
There are various versions of the history of St. Nicholas — “Sinterklaas” in Dutch — and of Zwarte Piet, who made his debut as an African servant in an 1850 book.
The debate comes after a decade in which the Dutch have rolled back many aspects of their famed tolerance policies, and in which anti-immigrant sentiment has risen sharply. Zwarte Piet is frequently defended as part of Dutch cultural heritage, and those who don’t like it are often bluntly invited to leave the country. Many Dutch say Pete’s black face derives from the soot he picked up climbing down chimneys to deliver presents — although that hardly explains the frizzy hair and big lips.
This year the debate has clearly escalated.
For the first time, a white politician has openly challenged the tradition: “The Sinterklaas celebration once began without Zwarte Piet,” Amsterdam councilwoman Andree van Es said in an interview with newspaper Het Parool this week. “It’s time it continues without Zwarte Piet.”