An Amsterdam court ruled Thursday that the traditional figure known as Black Pete — the sidekick to the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus — is a negative stereotype of black people and the city must rethink its involvement in holiday celebrations involving him.
Debate over Zwarte Piet has raged in the Netherlands in recent years.
Black Pete is usually portrayed by white people in blackface makeup, with thick red lips and a frizzy Afro hairstyle. Opponents say that's a racist caricature. Most Dutch people — around 80 percent of whom are white — are fiercely loyal to their holiday tradition, saying he is a harmless fantasy figure and no insult is intended.
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The court said Thursday that Black Pete's appearance, in combination with the fact that he is often portrayed as dumb and servile, makes it "a negative stereotype of black people."
It also cited a publication by the country's national human rights commission this week that found that white Dutch leaders frequently react with "irritation and dismissal" when questions of racism are raised, even though workplace discrimination is well documented in the Netherlands.
Character is Santa's sidekick
The Amsterdam District Court ordered the city to re-examine its decision to grant a permit for one part of the annual winter festival attended by thousands of children: the arrival of St. Nicholas, or "Sinterklaas."
Adults dress up to play the Dutch version of the story, with St. Nicholas arriving by steamboat from Spain in November, accompanied by a flotilla of boats packed with Black Petes.
The kindly St. Nicholas rides a white horse accompanied by the clowning Petes, who hand out cookies. Festivities conclude later with a night of gift giving on Dec. 5.
Amsterdam has begun discussing possible solutions, including using different colours of face paint for Pete, or merely smudging his cheeks with soot.
Pete made headlines in Canada last fall, when a picture emerged of Nova Scotia MLA Joachim Stroink posing with a person dressed as Black Pete. The resulting controversy prompted the Halifax politician, who is of Dutch descent, to give an emotional public apology.