Blackface 'Black Peter' popular among Dutch at Christmas

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In the Netherlands, everyone is quite aware of the Christmas character known as Black Pete. He’s a little African slave who helps out Santa Claus.

According to the Dutch tradition, Black Peter is responsible for carrying a book full of the names of naughty children, along with a rod and a sack to take the bad children away. He also scatters candy for children.

Since the character’s creation in the 1840s, the Dutch have defended it. They even dress up publicly in blackface, and claim that Black Pete is only dark from coming down the chimney — but he doesn’t wash clean.

Yet recently, Black Peter is causing more anger and controversy among the Dutch for the stereotypes associated with the Christmas character.

In fact, they became so mad that organizers of New Westminster’s Dutch Sinterklaas celebrations in Canada have pulled Black Peter from their traditional parade after complaints that the black-faced helper carried racist undertones. Members of the African-Canadian community complained that the character was offensive and outdated. It was the first time since 1985 that Black Peter will not accompany Sinterklaas as he heads to New Westminster Quay aboard a paddle wheeler boat, according to the Vancouver Sun.

Bernard Piprah, who was an organizer of the annual Black History Month symposium at Douglas College, argued to the Vancouver Sun that the Black Peter character comes loaded with offensive, racist stereotypes:

”[The character] is degrading, and it’s racist, and it’s incredibly outdated,” Piprah said told the Vancouver Sun. “You can’t erase that. You can go to your local library and read that this Black Peter was a slave. He beat children. He was dumb, and he spoke buffoonish Dutch. There are just so many insulting aspects to that character, and I can’t believe they’re celebrating it in New Westminster.”

Although many Dutch just want the tradition to stop, some would like to address the issue. In Holland, critics say that avoiding the racism implied in continuing the Black Peter tradition is a way of avoiding the thorny issue of immigration.

“It’s kind of something they should address, no matter what the culture, when an aspect of it is clearly offensive to a particular group,” Piprah told the Vancouver News.