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The Controversy of a Netherlands Tradition

By: Lisa Boussebaa

December 5th is a joyous day for the Dutch as it celebrates the St. Nicholas holiday in which everyone gathers for parades to watch Sinterklaas, the saint, hand out gifts with his helper. The legend goes that this sidekick stuffs bad children into a sack, beats them with a stick, and takes them back to Spain with him. Good children get gifts and candy in their shoes. The clownish helper, Zwarte Piet, translated to Black Pete, is a blackface character played by a white man with hoop earrings, an afro wig, and giant painted lips.

This tradition is increasingly seen as problematic and racist, eliciting everything from peaceful protests to riots. Those wishing to keep the tradition believe that it is an “innocent” tradition that has been a major part of Dutch culture since the Middle Ages. The news outlet EenVandaag conducts a yearly survey of the population on whether or not they believe this tradition is discriminatory. In 2021, the population was split 50/50, demonstrating how emotional this discourse is in the country. Indeed, many feel they cannot discuss their thoughts on Zwarte Piet in public. Every year during the holidays, tensions grow around this contentious topic.

However, protesters are making headway. In 2020, Prime Minister Mark Rutte spoke of institutional racism in the country. His opinion of Zwarte Piet has changed because kids feel discriminated against when Sinterklass is supposed to be an inclusive holiday. He predicts that this tradition will die out eventually. In fact, proof of this is already happening as many cities have decided to go without the afro wig and giant lips and instead opt to paint a bit of ash onto the faces of the actors. The character’s story has since changed to him having soot on his face due to the dust from the chimney, which prompted a name change to Chimney Pete or Sooty Pete. This change is still unaccepted by some, but others think it is an appropriate alternative. Either way, people just want a peaceful holiday filled with joy, not anger and discrimination.

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