Remko de Waal / AFP / Getty Images

Amsterdam mayor: Black Pete character will change

The blackfaced, Afro-wigged sidekick to Dutch Santa Claus will be phased out over concerns of racial insult

Amsterdam's Mayor Eberhard van der Laan and organizers of a large children’s winter festival unveiled plans on Thursday to reform the image of Black Pete — the sidekick of the Dutch Santa Claus — to remove perceived racist elements.

Van der Laan said Thursday that the “Negroid character” of Pete’s appearance would disappear over a period of years.

Black Pete, or Zwarte Piet in Dutch, has become the subject of protests in the Netherlands, as opponents say he is a caricature of an African slave carried over from colonial times. Pete is usually portrayed by white people in blackface, bold red lipstick and frizzy Afro wigs. In December the character descends on the city to hand out candy to children and assist Sinterklaas with his duties.

A large majority of the Netherlands’ mostly white population says Pete is a positive figure and deny any racial insult. But a court and racism experts have found his appearance offensive.

Last month a Dutch court ruled that Black Pete is a negative stereotype of black people and said Amsterdam should rethink the yearly tradition of welcoming him into its harbor.

The verdict came after years of heated debate on the tradition, which some trace back to a cartoon artist’s creation of a 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.

Last year Verene Shepherd, an adviser to the United Nations on cultural affairs, wrote a letter 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.

In November van der Laan wrote in a letter to the City Council that there is a need to try to “make Black Pete less black and less servant.”

Some have suggested Black Pete paint his skin purple and wear a red wig or simply smudge his face with soot.

But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told Dutch newspaper 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 should be considered but that the controversy fell outside the purview of the national government.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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