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The case of Black Pete: a controversy explained

15:59 27/11/2014

December 6 is quickly approaching. For those who have been in Belgium a while, you know what that means: present wish lists being perfected, a bright gleam of expectation in children’s eyes, and news media erupting with cries of racism, outrage and intolerance.

This is the holiday of Sinterklaas, when Saint Nicholas travels from rooftop to rooftop across Belgium delivering candy and presents to all the good girls and boys, all with his dumb but affable assistant Black Pete forever in tow.

In recent years, Black Pete (known as Zwarte Piet in Dutch and Père Fouettard in French) has begun to incite yearly protests, decrying the character as racist. Protesters claim that Black Pete’s features and mannerisms are vestiges of oppressive and belittling stereotypes of black people during periods when Belgium and the Netherlands colonised parts of Africa.

Outcry against Black Pete has grown exponentially in recent years, and fights over the racial implications of Black Pete and whether he belongs in the multicultural milieu of modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands have become as much a part of Benelux’s Sinterklaas tradition as singing songs and heading to Antwerp’s port to greet the arrival of Saint Nicholas on his white horse.

Who is Black Pete?

Black Pete didn’t always accompany Sinterklaas on his voyages to the Low Countries. Saint Nicholas had been celebrated for centuries before Pete appeared on the scene in 1849 in a children’s book called Saint Nicholas and his Servant.

Despite his late arrival, Pete quickly became a popular fixture of the Sinterklaas myth. Originally, Black Pete was a stern and punishing figure who carried a staff with which he would beat bad children. In recent decades the figure evolved into a more playful character, a childlike clown who is well-meaning but simple-minded.

While his precise origins are unclear, what is clear is that from the beginning Pete was always understood to be of African origin, whether he was a Moor in Spain or an Ethiopian boy rescued by the kindly saint. His dark skin colour is represented in Belgium by (usually white) Belgians wearing blackface, an act considered highly offensive in many countries, including the US and the UK. 

In the mid-20th century, the political climate changed, and Pete’s story along with it. Instead of being a black man, he is said to be a (presumably white) man with soot on his face from climbing up and down chimneys delivering Saint Nicholas’ presents. 

Is Black Pete racist?

That depends on who you ask. There is no doubt that Black Pete is an important and much-loved part of Belgian and Dutch cultural heritage. A majority of citizens stand by the character, considering him part of a tradition that brings fun and joy to children. Most stick by the story that Pete is not a representation of race, but just dirty from chimney soot. Others argue that Pete is a positive role model for children of colour, given that he is generally more loved than the lordly Saint Nicholas.

Last year, when a member of a UN advisory board wrote a scathing letter to the Dutch government claiming that the Black Pete tradition may infringe upon the human rights of some of its citizens, a large portion of the Dutch population was outraged at this defamation of their beloved character. They began protesting in the streets to keep Black Pete and a Facebook petition in support of Black Pete gathered more than two million likes.

However, while the story explaining Black Pete’s darkened skin has changed with the more race- and privilege-conscious political climate of the 20th century, for a growing number of people, most aspects of his dress, face and behaviour make clear links to his historical roots as Saint Nicholas’s servant or slave. Newcomers in Belgium, especially, are often jarred by what they perceive as the flagrant depiction of racist caricature, but a growing number of Belgian and Dutch citizens are calling into question the ethical politics of the story as well.

The chimney cannot be held responsible for making his hair thick and tightly curled, or explain why he must be painted with thick, red lips. Pete’s general countenance is strikingly similar to the blackfaced minstrel shows popular in the United States at the time when Black Pete first arrived on the scene in the mid-19th century.

Likewise, his slow, silly, slightly mischievous behaviour corresponds closely to the racist caricatures of black African people held by white Belgian and Dutch colonisers during colonial rule. All of which has led many people to claim that Black Pete as he stands today is an inherently racist character.

So should I boycott Saint Nicholas?

You have a few options here, apart from the too-easy and pernicious option of saying: “It’s not my culture, I’m just going to let it slide.”

Some favour a full-on boycott of Saint Nicholas and the abolishment of the Black Pete character altogether. However, this view receives a strong push back from local Belgian and Dutch populations for whom the character is part of a beloved childhood tradition.

Many organisations fighting against the representation of Black Pete, such as the Netherlands-based Zwarte Piet is Racisme and the Belgian Het Pieten Plan (currently only in Dutch), take a more inclusive approach. They aim to make “Sinterklaas for everybody” by refiguring “Black Piet” into simply “Pete”.

“We believe that in our current society, in the 21st century, it is time to get rid of the racial stereotypes in the Zwarte Piet figure and make Sinterklaas a joyful celebration for everyone, not just the majority,” says Zwarte Piet is Racisme’s Facebook page, calling for “a figure free of racial connotations and stereotypes”.

One step in this direction is to not blacken the whole face, but just make streaks to appear more soot-like. Another is to lose the lips and afro wig and just stick with the medieval page cap and dress, thus removing the markers of race that hark back to colonial depictions of the bumbling servant-minstrel of black colonised subjects.

Black Pete offends me. What can I do about it?

Het Pieten Plan offers several ways you can express your feelings about the current character of Black Pete. These include writing or talking to schools, teachers, colleagues and business leaders about keeping racist portrayals of Pete out of schools and workplaces during the festivities.

Also, Pete often appears on candy wrappers and other products during the season. Letting supermarkets and manufacturers know that you prefer not to see products with his image can help make the racist image less pervasive.

Finally, encourage the media to talk about Black Pete and report any complaints or incidents of discriminatory or racist speech or action you’ve experienced or witnessed to the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism. The latter keeps a log of all complaints, so your views will be duly noted and will perhaps inform their policies and strategies for addressing the controversy in the future.

Photo courtesy Zwarte Piet is Racisme

Written by Katy Desmond