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

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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.

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