Yesterday marked the closure of the annual celebration of Sinterklaas, the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus. Traditionally, the children’s festivity is an occasion for family fun and pleasure that unites a nation, but this year it has become a highly charged political battleground that is exposing a society increasingly more conservative and hostile towards people of color, while unleashing an unprecedented anti-racism movement that is empowering minorities and posing fundamental challenges to the Dutch establishment.
The story goes that on the evening of December 5, Saint Nicholas, a white elderly man wearing a red robe and riding a white horse rewards children with presents and sweets if they have behaved well during the past year. Unlike Santa Claus, however, his minions are not elves, but Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes — black clown-like figures that appear in colonial dress with afro wigs, as well as big red lips and golden earrings. Yearly, white Dutch people paint their faces black and dress up to enact Zwarte Piet for the spectacle and entertainment of the country’s white majority.
Unsurprisingly, in a country with a bloody and controversial — but often neglected — history of colonialism and slavery, the figure that epitomizes this legacy in its most blatant expression has been the subject of criticism for years. Active attempts to ban Black Pete date back as early as 2003 when African, Surinamese and Antillean communities joined forces to demand that the House of Representatives to take action against this racist characterization of black people. At the time, Celestine Robles from the Dutch Global African Congress denounced the festivity for actively shaping negative perceptions of black Dutch people through the celebration of a “superior race” as embodied by Saint Nicholas in opposition to an “inferior race” as performed by the “silly slave/assistant Black Pete.” (...)
Nevertheless, a large majority of the country still sees Black Pete as a central and vital component of Dutch tradition and collective identity. This became most apparent when 20 opponents of the figure, among them Quinsy Gario and Patricia Schor, recently demanded the municipality of Amsterdam officially ban Black Pete from the annual, state-funded procession in the city. Unlike previous efforts, this step made media headlines and provoked debate on both national television and social media. The accusation of racism was initially received with disdain and mockery, which then turned into an occasion to unleash racist attacks and general fury after an independent U.N. investigator issued a letter urging the Dutch government to take positive action to change its tradition, further confirming that Black Pete is indeed “a living trace of past slavery and oppression, tracing back to the country’s past involvement in the trade of African slaves in the previous centuries.”