Black Pete: a radical Dutch tradition

Black Pete. Photograph: Sander van der Wel/Flickr

The Black Pete character has returned again, dividing the citizens of The Netherlands a few months before the celebrations of Saint Nicholas’s day.

The character has been present in the Dutch folklore for about 150 years and he is seen as the companion of Saint Nicholas. Black Pete, who distributes sweets to children, accompanies the Sinterklaas figure in the parades around Saint Nicholas day on December 5th.

Black Pete is part of a tradition that provokes conflicts and debates across the whole country. The appearance of the character, namely his dark skin, curly hair, red lips and colourful clothes, has triggered multiple controversies. For example, disagreements between pro-Pete and anti-Pete groups, have been going on for the past 10 years leading to protests, threats and police involvement.

Black Pete is such a controversial character because of his appearance. Traditionally, he has black skin, red lips, curly hair and wears Renaissance colourful clothing.

“The character of the Black Pete is a cultural symbol of institutional racism,” says Willem van der Sluis, a team member of Groningen can do it: Saint Nicholas party for everyone.

The protests and conflicts that sometimes reach extremist level and would usually include thrown items, fights and attacks. The results of these fights are diverse. Among them is the recent ban of pictures on Instagram and Facebook of Black Pete, accompanied by Facebook removing big pro-Pete groups’ pages.

One of the leading groups for this movement is Kick Out Black Pete, and their demand is a change in the figure of the Black Pete. They have expressed their opinion on the topic by protests organised across the whole country.

Van der Sluis explains that Kick Out Black Pete is more about what the character does to the society, taking into account the housing market and labour market and how people of colour have been treated. “It was always about institutional racism, not so much about the Black Pete,” adds van der Sluis.

“We would like to tell our side of the story because we are called racist and we are not,” says the anonymous administrator of a facebook group named The Netherlands chooses Black Pete. The opposition, who is in favour of the Black Pete, fights for the preservation of the character but they are often accused of racism.

“It’s a kids party that grown-ups try to destroy,” says the admin, adding that the police have advised him to keep his name “a secret.”

A more moderate defender of Black Pete, Edwin Bonninga describes Saint Nicholas day as “a nostalgic, childhood celebration” and that Black Pete could be portrayed more as “a little bit of dirt stripes on the face of Pete.”

“There should be a more conservative way for people to remember the Black Pete without him looking racist,” concludes Bonninga.