World / Social Issues

Dutch court rejects bid to ban 'Black Pete' pre-Christmas character


A court in the Netherlands has rejected a request by activists to ban the holiday character Black Pete from state television but encouraged debate over a tradition that has prompted protests on both sides.

Citing technical grounds, district Judge Antoon Schotman said a summary filing by opponents of Black Pete had been lodged too close to the festivities to be heard in time. But he said an issue that touches on the sensitive colonial past should be debated further.

The cultural discussion about the character known in Dutch as Zwarte Piet has sparked rowdy protests and arrests on both sides in past years. The annual children’s festival is similar to Christmas traditions in other parts of Europe but falls several weeks before Christmas in the Netherlands.

The character, usually portrayed by white people in black face paint wearing frizzy wigs and prominent red lipstick, traditionally appears in festivities marking the start of the gift-giving season on Nov. 17, televised across the country.

His appearance dates from a 19th-century story by Dutch children’s author Jan Schenkman, illustrated with pictures of a dark-skinned Spanish Moor as the sidekick of St. Nicholas.

In traditions across Europe that have pre-Christian roots, St. Nicholas is sometimes paired with a devil, sometimes black, who often warns children to behave. Such a chained and fire-scorched devil may have re-emerged as a black human in the early 19th-century Netherlands as colonial prejudices mixed with earlier traditions.

Disagreement over whether Pete’s appearance should be changed has intensified in recent years. Opponents say exposure to such imagery is hurtful to black people and damaging to children. Supporters say Black Petes, who are portrayed as acrobatic and mischievous, are a traditional, positive figure of fun, and deny the holiday is racist.

The U.N.’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2015 called on the Netherlands to revamp the tradition because it is “experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery.”

The Netherlands was a vast colonial power for centuries, with territories stretching from the Caribbean to the far reaches of Indonesia.

The Majority Perspective Foundation, formed by anti-racism groups, filed a suit saying government and public television broadcasters should be fined up to €50,000 ($56,000) each if images of Pete wearing costume elements deemed offensive are aired.

The public broadcaster that airs the festival, has gradually changed Pete’s appearance, continuing to show some Petes in full black face paint but introducing more and more with “smudges” said to represent soot from going down chimneys to deliver gifts.