Black Pete, the helper of Sinterklaas, the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus, is in for a makeover.
A Dutch court ruled Thursday that Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) is a negative stereotype of black people and said the city of Amsterdam should rethink its yearly tradition that welcomes him into its harbor. In December, the popular character descends on the city to hand out candy to children and assist Sinterklaas with his duties, but the judge ruled that his looks and behavior can be hurtful to the country’s black community.
"The judge, juridically speaking, has wrung Zwarte Piet's neck," the complainants' lawyer Frank King told the Dutch news agency ANP.
The court's ruling is the start of "an essential change in our society," he said.
The verdict comes after years of heated debate on the tradition, which some trace back to a cartoon artist’s creation of a dimwitted character with fat lips, an Afro wig and ears pierced with a golden earring, a decade before slavery was abolished in former Dutch colonies. According to folklore, Sinterklaas arrives on a ship from Spain surrounded by a flotilla of black men, who serve him.
Most Dutch people deny he is a racist stereotype and are fiercely loyal to their holiday tradition, saying Black Pete is black because of the soot that darkens his face from descending chimneys to deliver gifts to children on the morning of Dec. 5. Many think of him as the bearer of gifts and sweet memories from their childhood and say his depiction is harmless.
The controversy reached a peak when Verene Shepherd, adviser to the United Nations on cultural affairs, wrote a letter last year in which she lambasted the tradition’s “racist” roots and demanded the country update the tradition to reflect its changed politics.
“The character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism,” she wrote.
“Reportedly, a growing opposition to the racial profiling of Black Pete within the Dutch society, including by people of non-African origins, is to be noticed,” she concluded.
Amsterdam’s mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, now has six weeks to review the permit of the procession, according to the verdict, and reach an agreement with activists about what Black Pete's contemporary version — one that does not negatively portray black people — might look like. Last November, the mayor already sympathized with those who felt hurt by the tradition and wrote in a letter to the City Council that there is a need to try to "make Black Pete less black and less servant."
Efforts to redress the character are already underway, with some suggesting he paint his skin purple and wear a red wig, or simply smudge his face with soot. Other suggestions by the Dutch Center for Folklore and Heritage include doing away with the curly hair, earrings, full lips and servile behavior, according to the Dutch newspaper NRC.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told NRC last year he couldn’t do much to change Black Pete’s skin color. “Zwarte Piet says it all, he’s black,” he said. He added that people’s feelings needed to be taken into account but that the controversy fell outside the purview of his government.