Football might unite the Dutch, but a fierce debate over blackface is dividing them

Those who insist that blackface isn't racist are ignoring the country's ugly colonial past

Share

The Netherlands is currently draped in bright orange, as the country supports its football team at the World Cup. But the debate around the skin colour of the nation’s beloved Black Pete has reared its ugly head once again.

Growing up in The Netherlands, I eagerly awaited the arrival of Sinterklaas mid-November every year. Arriving by steamboat, the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus sits on his white horse as his “helpers” hand out sweets to the excited crowd.

Sounds harmless enough, right? But, here’s the thing – Santa’s servants are white people, blacked up. They are dressed like minstrels, with blacked-up faces, big bright red lips, an afro wig and gold hoop earrings.

Like most of my peers, I grew up thinking nothing of it. It was only when I was confronted with an image of a golliwog during a seminar on racism at university in the UK that I began to rethink this tradition.

Black Pete, also known as “Zwarte Piet” to the locals, has been Santa’s trusted helper for hundreds of years. He is said to obtain his black skin colour through climbing down dirty chimneys to deliver presents. But traditional songs, still sung today, have a disturbing undertone. Lyrics include: “…even though I'm black as coal I mean well…” and “Saint Nicolas, enter with your black servant.”

While the debate around Black Pete certainly isn’t new, it gained a new level of exposure late last year after an official complaint by UN investigators. But the Dutch government seems unwilling to get involved.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte even stated that “Black Pete is black, there is little we can change about that”. In November 2013, over 2 million Dutch nationals signed a petition on Facebook, stating that Black Pete should remain black. This suggests that the Dutch might not be as progressive as they would like to think.

Black Pete’s critics aren’t backing down, so last week the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage introduced an updated version to appease them. The servant’s curly hair has become straight, his earrings have been removed and his lipstick is slightly less red. But both sides are unhappy with the new Black Pete. Many people don’t want him altered at all, while the other side argues that the board has missed the point completely – after all, Black Pete’s skin colour remains unchanged.

Black Pete’s opponents put forward their own suggestion, in which Pete sports blue skin and pink hair. Their option wasn’t taken into consideration by the Centre.

  Demonstrators hold signs reading 'Black Pete is Rascism' and 'Free Black Pete' during a demonstration against Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in Amsterdam Demonstrators hold signs reading 'Black Pete is Rascism' and 'Free Black Pete' during a demonstration against Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in Amsterdam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Dutch friends seem largely indifferent. “It’s tradition!”, they shout. But this argument shows their ignorance towards the extensive colonial background of The Netherlands.

For hundreds of years, the Dutch were one of the world’s biggest slave traders, shipping and exploiting slaves around the globe to help grow the Dutch Empire. To this day, Black Pete continues to perpetuate the racist stereotypes that formed a large part of this appalling culture.

Unlike the golliwog in the UK, Black Pete’s disturbing connotations don’t seem to be recognised by most Dutch people. But this is beginning to change. Now that the traditional festivity has been thrust into a global limelight, the political and historical context of Black Pete can no longer be ignored.

The Dutch need to put their emotions aside to see the broader picture. Some say that racism won’t disappear overnight by changing Black Pete’s skin colour. But it’s a step in the right direction. By recognising Black Pete’s sinister background, the Dutch will stand united behind those who feel victimised by the backwards caricature. And that unity will endure far longer than a few weeks of football.

READ MORE:
An NHS boob job changed my life
Alan Bennett: Private school are unfair and un-Christian
Why the petition to comb Blue Ivy's hair is wrong

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Rohingya migrants in a boat adrift in the Andaman Sea last week  

Burma will regret shutting its eyes to the fate of the Rohingya boat people

Peter Popham
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor