AMSTERDAM – The “Black Peter” tradition in the Netherlands is under fire from opponents who believe the figure is a racist caricature and who asked Amsterdam officials Thursday to revoke the permit for a popular children’s festival because of it.
“Sinterklaas,” the Dutch version of Santa Claus, is portrayed as a tall white man who arrives to great fanfare on Nov. 5, accompanied by dozens of clownish servants called “Zwarte Pieten” – Black Petes. These are typically white people wearing blackface makeup with red lips and curly “Afro” wigs.
Festivities around the country last a month, culminating in a night of poems and gift-giving.
The tradition is an important part of Dutch culture, but in recent years there have been growing complaints that Pete is offensive.
On Thursday, dozens of protesters overflowed a hearing about the permit at Amsterdam City Hall.
One of 21 people who filed formal complaints, Imro Rietveld, described growing up as the only black-skinned child in his class. Every year, he said he was subjected to a month of taunts such as “your whole family is coming over in the boat” and “can you do tricks?”
He said some people are afraid to speak out against Black Pete because they are worried about being ridiculed or even losing their jobs, and he had been warned against coming.
“For the good of all the children,” Rietveld said. “This should actually be changed in the whole country.”
Opponents say the Sinterklaas festival should continue, but Pete’s appearance should be changed. Supporters dismiss opponents as “whiney-Petes.”
Mayor Eberhard van der Laan will rule on the Amsterdam permit by the end of the month.
“The mayor thinks this is a societal debate, not something for politicians to decide,” his spokeswoman Tahira Limon said.
But “if a segment of the population feels hurt, that’s something the city government has to take into account” in its decisions.
Watch a clip on the tradition below