Black Pete: Time to give Santa's 'racist' little helper the sack?

In Belgium and Holland, a children's caricature falls out of grace with a growing population of immigrants

For 3-year-old Cyriel Tombeur, Black Pete is a bearer of gifts and sweets. He is the servant of Sinterklaas, a local precursor to Santa Claus that Cyriel hopes will leave toy cars and Lego building sets by the fireplace on Dec. 6 at his home in Zwevegem, Belgium. Every night for the past five days, Cyriel has prepared a glass of water and sugar cubes for Sinterklaas' horse, which, according to tradition, climbs the roofs of Flemish and Dutch houses carrying presents.

Like many other kids about his age, Cyriel was told Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) is black from the soot that darkened his face after he descended chimneys to deliver gifts to children across the Low Countries.

Every night, Cyriel Tombeur prepares a glass of water, cubes of sugar and other treats for Sinterklaas, Black Pete and their horse.
Anthony Tombeur

But some argue there is another reason why Black Pete's skin color is different from that of most people in the northern part of Belgium or the Netherlands. Cartoon artist Jan Schenkman created the dim-witted character about a decade before slavery was abolished in former Dutch colonies. Black Pete has fat lips, curly hair and ears pierced with a golden earring, resembling the long-frowned-upon British golliwog rag doll.

More than 150 years later, the tradition stands strong. Many associate Black Pete with memories of candy and sweet surprises. But a growing cohort considers him a racist icon of colonial times in need of a makeover to suit contemporary sensibilities.

Anousha Nzume, a Dutch artist and activist of Russian-African descent, has an idea for how to accomplish that. Sooty blotches could replace the brown paint used to blacken white actors' faces, and help underwrite the cultural white lie that Black Pete is black because of chimney grime.

It wouldn't be the first time the character changed. The earliest versions of the children's story can be traced back centuries, after which Black Pete has taken on varying identities reflective of the times. In the 1850s, the character first took on the period's common slave caricature. A hundred years later, he was cast as a punitive figure who’d kidnap children if they hadn’t behaved well and reward them with presents if they had. Modern child psychology later largely advised against the practice, and today few Dutch children grow up fearing Black Pete's retribution.

Nzume's campaign is personal. She told Al Jazeera her 4-year-old adopted son Samuel, from Suriname, said he doesn't want to be black anymore. In a speech on national radio, she said no child should ever have to sing along with the famous children's Sinterklaas rhyme: "Even though I'm black as soot, I mean well."

Borrowing from Martin Luther King Jr., she said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Unfortunately, Dutch politicians don't dare speak out on the issue because of the 2014 European elections, she said – such is the popularity of the tradition. 

But others have. In November, the United Nations called on the Dutch government to "promote understanding, mutual respect and intercultural dialogue" on a debate that was getting out of hand. The warning followed a sharp increase in complaints about the portrayal of Black Pete, which would perpetuate negative stereotypes of Africans and people of African descent, the statement said.

A Facebook page defending the tradition accumulated more than 2 million "likes" within a couple of days – the most popular page in the history of the country.

Despite its liberal tradition, the Netherlands has had to deal with a series of reports by the European Union raising alarms about the level of discrimination and racist attitudes of people toward immigrants. Dutch politician Martin Bosma, a member of Geert Wilders' right-wing Freedom Party, told Dutch national television the character doesn't necessarily have to be played by a white actor in blackface.

If "an immigrant comes to bring gifts, they can come by more often. If he leaves [the country] on Dec. 6, they can get a big kiss."

Anthony Tombeur, father of Cyriel and 6-week-old Jef, said he understands the controversy but thinks the tradition should be preserved.

"I think it's a discussion that's been held among adults, but it doesn't really matter to children." For them, he said, it's all about receiving gifts and being rewarded for behaving well, regardless of the color of Pete's skin.

But changes to the tradition have begun to trickle in.

A high school in the Flemish town of Deurne, where students from more than 57 countries study together, decided to have a black student from Angola, Jordao Babadi, dress up as Sinterklaas, the local newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws reported. A photo showed Babadi’s face under a white wig and beard.

"Cyriel has been looking at the photo for 15 minutes now" and still hadn’t remarked on anything that seemed off, his father said. "Again, that's proof that kids really have other things to busy themselves with. But if they would want to change it, [soot patches] seem like a worthy alternative."

And Laurens De Koster, father of 4-year-old Penelope, who's celebrating Sinterklaas for the first time this year, told Al Jazeera in an email he's getting "more and more uncomfortable” with the tradition.

"As far as I know, [Penelope] doesn't think that Zwarte Piet's subordinate status has anything to do with his skin color – I'm not even sure she really gets the concept of skin color already," De Koster said.

"[But] no matter how benign the current view of Zwarte Piet is, it's hard to deny the connotations of a white person in blackface playing a somewhat stupid servant of a good old white man. And since the recent controversy, the defenders of Zwarte Piet have made me even more uncomfortable," he added.

"It's one thing to maintain a racist tradition by accident, but insisting on maintaining it after people have pointed out that it's hurtful is very inconsiderate and also kind of racist."

Several prominent figures have spoken out against the tradition. Dutch singer Anouk received a barrage of racist tweets after speaking out against Black Pete. Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan, in a letter to the city council, sympathized with those who felt hurt by the city's annual Sinterklaas parade. He wrote that the tradition "absolutely isn't static" and that there is a need to try to "make Black Pete less black and less servant."

Others have used the controversy to pick up on a different issue. On Oct. 26, Tilly Kaisiepo joined a pro-Black Pete protest in The Hague, wearing a white sweater with "Free Papua" and carrying the flag of West Papua, a former Dutch colony now part of Indonesia and home to her family, Dutch online newspaper De Correspondent reported.

Kaisiepo joined the protest to criticize the U.N.'s admonishment of Black Pete, not to take on bigger issues such as recognizing West Papua's sovereignty or Indonesian human rights abuses, the newspaper said. But protesters, upon seeing her flag and dark skin color, told her to leave.

"You have to f--- off to your own country, just f--- off," one protester said.

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