Is Black Pete a black mark on the Netherlands?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Santa Claus arrived in the Netherlands over the weekend. They call him Sinterklaas there, and instead of elves, he's got a sidekick called Black Pete. This holiday character's appearance can be shocking if you're not from Holland; he wears black face, red lipstick, and an afro wig. It's like a low country minstrel show, and that's not a compliment. But despite the Netherland's liberal reputation, this is one of the most popular Dutch traditions during the holidays.
I asked the BBC's Anna Holligan, in The Hague, who Black Pete is supposed to be.

Anna Holligan: The tradition goes back around 300 years. Originally, according to historians, Black Pete was this kind of demonic character who was in chains, and he would capture the bad children, the naughty children, and put them in his sack and take them back to Spain, which is where apparently he came from. And as the years progressed, he turned into a freed slave, and people here say, "you know, he's been liberated and Sinter Claus is his friend." And now, if you ask people now, "how did this character come to have black skin?" They say, "well, he goes down the chimneys, so it's just soot from the chimney, there are absolutely no racial undertones at all," and that's what the majority of people here in the Netherlands think about this whole controversy.

Werman: Do people buy that, "they just came down the chimney and got dirty" story?

Holligan: Not really.

Werman: [Laughs]

Holligan: A minority group in the Netherlands approached the UN Council for Human Rights, and explained their problem. The UN special representative wrote a letter to the Dutch government, expressing its concerns, and their key point is that sometimes cultural rights and people's rights to express their culture that has been historically okay, can sometimes be in conflict with human rights. This isn't a homogenous country anymore. After the second world war, there were lots of people coming from Turkey and Morocco, and people tell me that their kids are running home from school and trying to scrub their skin, because they've been called Zwarte Piet in class.

Werman: Wow.

Holligan: And it's painful for many people here.

Werman: But I gotta say, here in the US, if something like Black Pete were to happen, I mean, it would be instantly criticized and shot down. Is it a matter of time before this is, this ritual is no longer tolerated? I mean, is it a generational thing, do you think?

Holligan: It may depend on the international pressure. But I think really, if this is ever to be abandoned, it would be down to the Dutch people deciding that they want to move on and that they recognize that for some minority groups, now living in this country, calling this country home, it's no longer acceptable.

Werman: So Sinter Claus, with his Zwarte Piet in tow, arrived over the weekend in the Netherlands. How long does the party last?

Holligan: He did arrive in the Netherlands over the weekend, and we were there witnessing the ship arriving, and they were... there's a brass band of Black Petes playing, hundreds of them on this steam boat coming across according to legend. It lasts until the fifth of December, so on the fifth of December, that's the date where the Black Petes come down the chimneys, and you can leave your shoe by the fireplace and Black Pete will deliver gifts. Traditionally a chocolate letter, leave them in your shoe, by the fireplace.

Werman: A letter, like the letter of the alphabet, right?

Holligan: Exactly, like a letter of the alphabet. I'll have to bring an 'M' over for you.

Werman: Please do.

Holligan: Yes, but we're expecting to hear more from the UN towards the end of this month, so yeah, the debate is not going to go away.

Werman: Would the Dutch really take a steer from the UN if they said "you need to drop this?"

Holligan: It's hard to say. I was in a tattoo artist's in Rotterdam, speaking to people there about this, and I'd gone to meet this woman called Michelle, who was having a Black Pete tattooed between her shoulder blades. This brightly-colored, black faced character. And the reason was because she believes it's her cultural right to express her culture, as part of her human rights. Will they take a steer from the UN? I think we'll have to wait and see.

Werman: The BBC's Anna Holligan, in The Hague. Thanks very much.

Holligan: Thank you.