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Santa’s helper is a racist caricature

Lego Santa and Zwarte Piet

Pascal under a Creative Commons Licence

It’s been a month since Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan announced his decision to cancel Christmas. Or at least that’s how Anneka Hendriks laughingly describes it to me. Hendriks is one of the hundreds of people in Amsterdam who enjoy painting their faces black, donning afro wigs and gold hoop earrings, and celebrating the festive season by masquerading as Zwarte Piet (Dutch for ‘Black Pete’).

‘Hundreds’ is a conservative estimate; it’s probably more like thousands or tens of thousands when the rest of the Netherlands is taken into account. But no-one is keeping track of exactly how many Dutch people join Hendricks in her annual winter ‘jolly’, so I’m having a go at understatement here. Something you won’t find much of when it comes to the Zwarte Piet debate.

Did van der Laan cancel Christmas? Of course not, but he did strike an interesting, if slightly puny, blow against the Zwarte Piet tradition. Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) visits the Netherlands on 5 December every year. With his red cape and long white beard he has a lot in common with Santa Claus as portrayed in Britain and the US. They even share a book of children who’ve been naughty and nice.

But while Santa has elves to help distribute toys to the good children, Sinterklaas has Zwarte Piet to give candy to good children and to punish the bad children. Hendriks is quick to point out that the black paint Zwarte Piet wears is actually soot (he comes down the chimney, and everyone knows those things are bursting with afro wigs – all of this is up for debate). Unfortunately for Hendriks a Dutch court disagreed with this interpretation.

In July the Amsterdam District Court found that the character of Zwarte Piet was a racist caricature and they advised van der Laan to reconsider his licensing of the annual Sinterklaas parade. In August van der Laan got back to them and said that the character of Zwarte Piet would change over the next four years; the black paint, red lips and afro wigs would be ‘toned down’.

Many, including myself, have taken this as a sign that nothing will change in this years’ Sinterklaas parade. It doesn’t take four years to tone down a black face. It takes three minutes, some hot water and a towel. It doesn’t take four years to remove an afro wig, it takes a strong gust of wind. Despite this lacklustre response from van der Laan, emotions are still running high in Amsterdam.

Last week the judicial advisor to the anti-Zwarte Piet movement, Frank King, resigned from his position with the campaign after receiving a barrage of death threats. These death threats included an email saying the 50-year-old advisor from Leiden should be put on a 17th-century slave ship, just like his ancestors. Although King is only an advisor to the campaign, many people have decided he is the face of the campaign and directed their frustrations accordingly.

When a group of people famed for their tolerance are sending death threats about slave ships because they might have to stop dressing their children as a black-faced Christmas character, well, it doesn’t look good. It also helps explain why claims of race discrimination have increased three-fold in the last eight months. In 2013 there were 525 calls to the Discrimination Hotline in Amsterdam; so far in 2014 there have been 1,562 calls. This reflects a trend across the Netherlands with 3,143 calls in 2013 and 6,285 this year

It’s possible to argue, as Hendriks does, that the Zwarte Piet debate has stirred up racial tension that didn’t exist before people began protesting the Dutch tradition. What’s more likely is that the increased international scrutiny of the Sinterklaas parade has encouraged Dutch people of colour to speak out about the discrimination they face on a daily basis.

Whichever way you read van der Laan’s attempt to tone down Zwarte Piet, there’s no denying that emotions are running high; the next few months will be an interesting illustration of how he plans to bring racial sensitivity to the Sinterklaas parade.

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