As also the international media is covering the Black Pete tradition of the Netherlands and whether or not it is racist I feel compelled to tell you a little more about it. First off all this tradition goes back a long time and the origins of Black Pete are not exactly clear. This leaves room for a lot of speculation.
So who is this Black Pete?
Black Pete, or ‘Zwarte Piet’ in Dutch, is the companion/helper of Saint Nicholas, ‘Sinterklaas’ in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is a traditional figure, much like Santa Clause, and is celebrated every year on Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th) on which children receive presents and sweets.
Why is Pete Black?
There are several explanations going around, but as the origins of Black Pete are a little of a mystery, none of these can be confirmed. One of the most popular explanations is that he is black because of the soot that he gets on his face when going down the chimney to deliver the presents and sweets to the children. According to historian and Saint Nicholas expert Frits Booy none of the existing theories on Black Pete are discriminating or racist in nature.
Why is it considered racist?
Well most of the Dutch population will not consider it racist and not even link it to racism, Black Pete is not used to promote racism in any way. That being clear it should be obvious why it can be seen that way. A white man with his face painted black, big red lips, acting a bit dumb and being the help of a holy white man… it’s pretty clear (or it should be) why some people will consider it insulting, although it might not be intended that way.
Did you know that in the 19th century in America minstrel shows were a popular musical entertainment where people in blackface would make fun of Afro-americans? These actually look quite a lot like Black Pete and could explain why also internationally the tradition is easily considered to be racist.
What could be the solution?
There is no immediate solution to a problem that’s mainly based on feelings. In the years to come there will always be those that in no way want to change their tradition and there will always be those trying to get rid of Black Pete or change it’s form. It will take time to see what happens to the tradition and who knows in maybe a decade or so Black Pete will just have a few soot smears on his face… I’m sure the children won’t mind, as long as they get their sweets and presents!