Africa: UN Investigates If Dutch Tradition of Zwarte Piet Is Racist

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights is investigating whether the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet perpetuates a racist stereotype of people of African descent. Zwarte Piet, which means 'black Pete' in Dutch, is a common character in the Netherlands' Sinterklaas holiday narrative.

In a letter to the Dutch government in January, UN rapporteurs of the working group on people of African descent, as well as rapporteurs of human rights, cultural rights and racism wrote that they "received information" suggesting "the character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism".

The majority of people of African descent living in the Netherlands either come from the Netherlands Antilles or the former Dutch colony of Surinam.

The UN rapporteurs requested that the Dutch government respond to whether the allegations of racism were true and to what extent the government has involved Dutch people of African descent in discussions regarding the choice of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet as expressions of cultural significance in the country.

The letter's signatories also warned that if the Netherlands wished to have the Sinterklaas festival declared Immaterial Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, it should consult communities comprising Dutch people of African heritage. Apart from people of colour, a growing number of other residents in the Netherlands feel that Zwarte Piet is outdated, to say the least.

So the story goes

As folklore goes, every year Sinterklaas, also known as Saint Nicolas, arrives to the Netherlands on a boat from Spain together with a great number of helpers. Each of them is known as a Zwarte Piet. In images as well as in the country-wide re-enactments of the event, they are depicted as black-faced men with big red lips and afro hair.

On the third weekend in November, in most Dutch cities it is common for children to watch the celebrated arrival of Sinterklaas with his helpers. The festivities include an invasion of the city by dozens, if not hundreds, of Zwarte Pieten, with Sinterklaas riding his white horse at the end of the parade.

Like Santa Claus or Father Christmas, Sinterklaas is said to bring presents to children who have been well behaved. The Zwarte Pieten assist him with this by climbing down chimneys to deliver the presents in the weeks preceding Sinterklaas' birthday on 6 December.

Some say that chimney soot is the reason Zwarte Piet's face is black.

Opponents, however, dismiss the explanation, saying it does not account for his lips or hair. According to them, it is a form of blackface, a historical practice in which white people would colour their skin dark and perform as stereotyped caricatures of black people.

Dutch response

In July, the Netherlands responded in writing to the UN rapporteurs. Signed by the Dutch ambassador to the UN Office in Geneva, Roderick van Schreven, the letter says that the allegations are incorrect. The refutation, though, is not of Zwarte Piet being racist, but rather that the Sinterklaas festival has been proposed for nomination on any UNESCO list.

Nowhere does it suggest that there have been consultations with people of African descent concerning Zwarte Piet. The letter states that people who feel discriminated against can file a report with their local anti-discrimination office.

The UN rapporteurs expect to discuss the reply letter and explanation by the Dutch ambassador in Geneva by the end of November.

Asked for his opinion on the debate last week, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte stated that the issue is not a matter for the government. He said that "Zwarte Piet just happens to be black and I can change nothing about that."

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