Peter Dejong / AP

Dutch must end Black Pete racial stereotypes, UN race bias body says

Figure celebrated in Christmas by the Dutch by wearing blackface is deemed a ‘vestige of slavery,’ says committee

The U.N.'s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Friday called on the Netherlands to revamp its Black Pete Christmas tradition, in which white people wear blackface, because many see it as a "vestige of slavery."

The comments will stoke an already heated debate on the custom, described as a harmless piece of fun by defenders but condemned by other groups as employing offensive stereotypes.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte quickly dismissed the recommendations, saying it was not the government's job to shape folklore. 

"Folk traditions. Come on. What Christmas songs you should sing, how you celebrate Christmas and Easter — this isn't what politics is about," he told reporters in The Hague

The Geneva-based U.N. committee, which does not have the power to enforce its recommendations, said the Dutch government should work to get rid of negative racial stereotypes in the depiction of Black Pete, an assistant to a white St. Nicholas. "[The stereotypes] are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery," it added.

Black Pete, often depicted with bright red lips and a curly black wig, has become a fraught topic in a country which has long regarded itself as progressive and tolerant.

In the run-up to Christmas last year, police arrested 90 demonstrators in Gouda, 40 miles south of Amsterdam, for picketing the annual St. Nicholas parade. Some carried "Black Pete is racism" banners as others demonstrated in support of the character.

Surinamese, Antillean and African minorities perceive the tradition as a legacy of colonial racism. The National Platform on Slavery, a group that campaigns for atonement for the Netherlands' role in the slave trade, said many black children find the depiction disturbing.

Last year an Amsterdam court ruled that the Black Pete depiction is racist, but the decision was overturned by the country's highest administrative court.


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