Netherlands Christmas parade to replace blackface make-up with soot

Zwarte Piet has traditionally been portrayed by adults wearing full blackface make-up

Critics say characterisation  of  Sinterklaas’s helper is a racist reference to slavery. Photograph: iStock

Critics say characterisation of Sinterklaas’s helper is a racist reference to slavery. Photograph: iStock

 

After years of debate and at times violent protest, this year’s Christmas-season Saint Nicholas parade in the Netherlands will not feature white people in blackface makeup, the public broadcaster that organises the event has said.

The Zwarte Piets, or Black Petes, who accompany Sinterklaas in the annual televised parade, which this year takes place in Apeldoorn on November 16th, will instead have sooty faces, the broadcaster said, in what it called “a logical next step”.

Last year, in response to growing protests by anti-racism campaigners, NTR introduced a mix of sooty and blackface Piets for the parade, saying it “respected both tradition and change” but felt it had to “reflect changes in society”.

Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas’s helper, has traditionally been portrayed by adults wearing gaudy costumes, large gold earrings, afro-style wigs, red lipstick and full blackface makeup, a characterisation critics say is a racist reference to slavery.

Many Dutch, however, strongly defend the traditional Piet, arguing that his face is black only because of soot from the many chimneys he has had to climb down to bring presents to excited children on December 5th.

In recent years, the controversy has drawn protests and counter-protests, sparking vandalism, violence and even convictions for incitement to racial hatred. In 2017, Zwarte Piet defenders blocked a motorway to stop opponents reaching the parade, and last year there were brawls, egg-pelting and arrests in Eindhoven.

“Today is a beautiful, historic day,” said Jerry Afriyie of Kick Out Zwarte Piet, who has been campaigning against Zwarte Piet since 2008. “This is a victory for everyone who strives for an inclusive parade that will delight all children. We want the tradition to continue for thousands of years - but adapted to the times.”

Mr Afriyie pledged to continue the fight against Zwarte Piets in blackface until the figure had disappeared completely. “The national arrival of Sinterklaas is the big one, but there are other, local ones,” he said. “We will fight for change.”

Polls show support for the traditional Piet is strong, but fading: in 2013, 89 per cent of the Dutch favoured blackface, a figure that had fallen to 68 per cent by 2017. More than half of young people between 18 and 25 thought the character’s appearance should change.

In 2015, the Dutch government said it would reflect on the character after a report from the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination said its portrayal “reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery”.–Guardian