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Dutch PM deems 'Black Pete' tradition racist

Sou-Jie van Brunnersum
June 5, 2020

Mark Rutte, who once defended blackface as tradition, has now said he wants the custom to disappear. The decision comes as solidarity protests take hold in the Netherlands following the killing of George Floyd.

Anti-Black Pete protesters hold up hold up a T-shirt
Image: Imago/Paulo Amorim

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced on Friday that he no longer wants the Netherlands to celebrate the Saint Nicholas tradition of "Black Pete," whereby white people in blackface, afro wigs and exaggerated red lipsticks portray delinquent Moorish slaves from Spain.

Rutte described his new view point during a parliamentary debate on Thursday about anti-racism demonstrations in solidarity with US demonstrations after American George Floyd — an unarmed black man — died in police custody in Minneapolis.

Rutte said his attitude towards "Black Pete,"  known in the Netherlands as "Zwarte Piet,"  had changed since 2013. At the time, the prime minister had said: "Black Pete is just black and I can't do much about that." Rutte said he now hopes that the tradition will disappear in the Netherlands.

Defending 150 years of Black Pete in the Netherlands

'No more Black Petes… in a few years'

In the Dutch pre-Christmas tradition known as Sinterklaas, the revered Saint Nicholas —  who is portrayed as white —  brings gifts to children accompanied by his ensemble of disobedient helpers —  "Black Petes."

Rutte said that since 2013 he had met many people, including "small children, who said 'I feel terribly discriminated (against) because Pete is black'…  I thought, that's the last thing that we want" in a holiday intended for children.

"I expect in a few years there will be no more Black Petes," Rutte said.

Supporters of the tradition argue that Pete is a fantasy character who does not portray any race.

Racism a 'systemic problem' in the Netherlands

Linda Nooitmeer, chairwoman of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy, said Rutte's comments were important in a country that has a problem with acknowledging racism.

"The magnitude of a leader in a country stating this is enormous," she said, according to Reuters.

"You can have all the legislation you want ... but if the people in power, the leader of the country, doesn't seem to support it — and that's what it looked like in 2013 when he said that about Black Pete — then the struggle will be harder."

Anti-racism demonstrations honouring Floyd took place in Amsterdam and Rotterdam this week, with more upcoming protests scheduled.  

Rutte acknowledged on Wednesday that discrimination is a "systematic problem" in the Netherlands.

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