Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has admitted the controversial ‘Black Pete’ tradition where white people wearing blackface with conspicuous and exaggerated red lipsticks partake in an annual parade in the country is discriminatory.
Rutte’s statement comes after several years of protest against the wearing of the “racist” blackface to depict the controversial Dutch Christmas character, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
Speaking in a parliamentary debate on Thursday in the wake of George Floyd solidarity protests that are being held in the Netherlands, Rutte admitted his perception about the character had changed since 2013, where he initially said, “Black Pete is just black and I can’t do much about that.” The Prime Minister said he hopes the tradition eventually disappears in the country.
Every year, thousands of Dutch holidaymakers paint their faces black and lips red to parade the streets ahead of Christmas festivities depicting Black Pete – a Dutch folklore character who assists Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus or Sinterklaas in Dutch).
Black Pete first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam school teacher Jan Schenkman, who introduced him as a Moor from Spain. He distributes sweets and presents to children on the eve of December 5 which is the festival of Sinterklaas.
However, the blackface, afro hair and red lips have been widely condemned as racist by activists who equate it to the black minstrel shows in 19th century America when white actors wore black faces depicting black people as slow and dumb.
Thousands of activists have been arrested, assaulted and jailed annually for interfering with the Black Pete parade, while thousands of others cling to the tradition and parade to commemorate the arrival of Saint Nicholas and his companions from Spain by boat marking the beginning of the Christmas season.
Rutte said he had met and interacted with several people over last few years, 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,” he added.
Though he said the practice won’t be banned, he believed it is “changing over time, under pressure from the societal debate.”
“There are also people who say, ‘I do not want — while I am totally not discriminatory or racist — to be forced to let go of that symbol, which I have never seen as a discriminatory symbol.’ That makes this discussion so nuanced, and so complicated,” he said.
Speaking to Reuters, the chairwoman of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy, Linda Nooitmeer, said Rutte’s statement was important, especially in a country that has issues acknowledging racism. Rutte, on Wednesday, admitted discrimination in the Netherlands is a “systematic problem.”
“The magnitude of a leader in a country stating this is enormous,” Nooitmeer said. “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.”