Netherlands Should Move to End `Black Pete' Stereotypes, UN Says

  • Dutch need to find `reasonable balance' on portrayal
  • `Black Pete' is black-faced helper of Dutch St. Nicholas

The Dutch state should actively work to end the negative racial stereotypes in the portrayal of “Black Pete,” the infamous black-faced helper to the national version of St. Nicholas, a United Nations committee said Friday.

The Netherlands should find “a reasonable balance, such as a different portrayal of ‘Black Pete,’ and ensure respect of human dignity and human rights to all inhabitants,” the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said in a draft report, noting that stereotypical depictions of the character are seen as a vestige of slavery by many of African descent. St. Nicholas is celebrated in early December in the Netherlands, with celebrations starting nearly a month before.

Long controversial, Black Pete has increasingly been the target of international scrutiny, especially since a UN report two years ago questioned whether the depiction of the character, who appears all over the Netherlands for nearly a month in the run-up to the national St. Nicholas holiday, is racist. Last year, almost 100 people were arrested for protesting at a nationally televised parade.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte batted away the critique at a news conference in The Hague Friday. “Black Pete is not a state issue,” the premier said. “I think the report is part of the discussions that have been going on for some time now about this tradition. But beware a government that decides what a tradition should look like.”

For generations, St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas in Dutch, has arrived on a boat each holiday season in the company of legions of “Black Petes” -- helpers typically portrayed by white people in blackface paint, red lips and curly wigs, wearing 17th-century costumes. Last year, for the first time, some of the helpers arrived without blackface. Some companies have already announced changes to their portrayal of the character this year, with children’s television network Nickelodeon pledging to portray Pete only using actors’ natural skin colors, according to Dutch news agency ANP.

Beyond that, Rutte seemed to want to leave it up to the Dutch people to make further changes. The Liberal politician was asked Friday if he thinks Black Pete is still Black Pete.

“It’s in the name,” Rutte said. “And it’s up to society how a tradition evolves and it’s not up to politics.”

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