A protester holds a sign reading “Black Pete Is Racism” during a demonstration in Amsterdam in 2013. Zwarte Piet or Black Pete is traditionally portrayed by whites wearing black faces, afro wigs and red lipstick. Bas Czerwinski / AFP via Getty Images Hide caption
Bas Czerwinski / AFP via Getty Images
Bas Czerwinski / AFP via Getty Images
The Dutch Sinterklaas differs from Santa Claus in a few essential ways. His physique is slimmer (less belly under the white beard), he does not live at the North Pole, but in Madrid – and instead of driving a reindeer sleigh, he takes a boat to the Dutch coast to bring presents.
And instead of relying on helper elves, Sinterklaas is supported by a character called Zwarte Piet or Black Pete – traditionally portrayed by whites wearing black faces, Afro wigs and red lipstick.
After Prime Minister Mark Rutte long defended the character and even admitted in the past to painting his own face black, he announced in June that his views on Black Pete had changed. Although he was on the verge of calling for a ban, he said social pressures would soon force the figure to retire. He also admitted that there were “systemic problems” with racism in the Netherlands.
Rutte’s announcement came after the Minnesota police murder of George Floyd, when large crowds of protesters took to the streets of Amsterdam and other Dutch cities to protest against racial injustice.
For Jerry Afriyie, who heads an Amsterdam-based advocacy group called Kick Out Zwarte Piet, Rutte’s words were long overdue. Getting others to see Black Pete as a racist has been his mission for a decade.
Over the years, Afriyie has been pelted with beer cans and bananas and targeted with death threats for his stance on Black Pete. Last November, in The Hague, a group of masked men armed with baseball bats and fireworks tried to end a peaceful meeting between Afriyie and other activists.
The Dutch anti-discrimination activist Jerry Afriyie, leader of the Kick Out Zwarte Piet movement, demonstrated in Rijswijk, Netherlands last November during the arrival of Sinterklaas and the blackface figure who traditionally accompanies him. Robin Utrecht / ANP / AFP via Getty Images Hide caption
Robin Utrecht / ANP / AFP via Getty Images
Still, Afriyie (whose middle names are Luther and King) is committed to dialogue. Every Sinterklaas season he leaves his home in Amsterdam and travels to Dutch cities and villages where Black Pete is still publicly celebrated in an attempt to reach consensus that Black Pete is racist.
“You talk and talk and talk and talk until you reach a consensus”
Last year, committees in several Dutch cities agreed that Black Pete should not appear in their city’s Sinterklaas parades, but more than a dozen smaller cities affirmed the opposite: Black Pete would be welcome at their parades and school performances.
He has been told by many of Afriyie’s associates that it is impossible to reach consensus on Black Pete’s issue; the country is too divided. But consensus building has a unique place in Dutch politics and society.
Some scholars say that the Dutch value attached to collective action is built into the landscape. Much of the Netherlands would be under water if it weren’t for a system of dikes to protect the country from flooding. The Dutch “polder model” of consensus building takes its name from the Dutch word for land below sea level, which used to be the seabed.
Former Prime Minister Wim Kok used his polder consensus-building skills to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001. This made the Netherlands the first country in the world to do this.
Amma Asante, a former MP and the only black woman in office during her tenure, says the polder model means “you talk and talk and talk and talk until you reach consensus” and “it works best when we do.” are able to do so “. to put aside our strongest beliefs about how things should be done or what the world should be like. “
From Black Pete to Chimney Pete?
Black Pete first came to prominence in the 1850s when minstrel shows became popular in the United States. The Netherlands outlawed slavery in their colonies in 1863, but previously some wealthy families were bringing enslaved people from those colonies to their homes in Amsterdam for work. Black Pete’s original costume with brightly colored satin sleeves mimicked the way families dressed enslaved black children.
Yet defenders of tradition often claim that Black Pete is “dirty” simply because he came down the chimney – he’s not even Black.
People line the street to greet Sinterklaas and his Black Pete pals in Amsterdam in 2013. Peter Dejong / AP
Peter Dejong / AP
Peter Dejong / AP
Afriyie always saw the chimney explanation as a way to silence black perspectives. He, Asante and many other black Dutch people were called “Black Pete” as an insult.
“The country is telling you, ‘Try not to see it,’” says Afriyie. “As if what you see is not true.”
But he wondered if this denial of the problem might actually offer a solution. He suggested replacing Black Pete with a new character named Chimney Pete with just one soot stain on his face – someone like Bert, the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins.
Black Pete’s defenders hated the idea. Blackface is the tradition, they argued. But many Afro-Dutch thinkers also disagreed. Gloria Wekker, author of White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, says Chimney Pete is “a surface solution.” Soot or blackface, tradition itself was tainted.
But Chimney Pete prevailed. In cities where Black Pete has been banned from Sinterklaas parades, Chimney Pete has taken his place. This November, the boat with Sinterklaas will again reach the Dutch coast, accompanied by an entourage of Chimney Petes.
Asante admits she doubted consensus building on racism could work, and she was surprised to see large crowds gathering in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the Netherlands this spring. Without all the years of “poldering” and dialogue about Black Pete, she wondered if the murder of George Floyd in the Netherlands would have sparked a conversation about racism.
“There is a danger that we could have said, ‘Oh, this is in the United States. This is not us,'” she says. “And now there is no more denial.”