The Dutch public broadcaster announced Wednesday it was changing the appearance of a traditional blackface Christmas character in response to criticism it was racist — a move that’s enraged the country’s far-right.
Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV), was so incensed by the changes to Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), that he branded the public broadcaster “culture traitors.”
“This — and nothing else — is what Black Pete looks like,” he tweeted, along with a picture of the traditional blackface version of the character — replete with curly black wig, red lips and gold earrings.
Black Pete, supposedly the helper of Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, is a fixture in Dutch Christmas festivities, one that in recent years has become the subject of a heated culture war over national identity.
In anticipation of the annual controversy over the character, Dutch public broadcaster NTR said Wednesday the character would this year be played by performers with soot on their faces.
“The NTR respects both tradition and change, but it is our public duty as an independent public broadcaster to reflect these changes in society,” the broadcaster said.
“Therefore the Black Petes this year will have soot on their hands and faces because they came through the chimney. They will have different types of hair and will not be wearing golden earrings.”
The issue of Black Pete has provoked a heated debate in recent years, with critics and defenders of the tradition growing increasingly active.
Critics — including the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which in 2015 said the character was a “vestige of slavery” — say the character is an obviously racist stereotype which has no place in modern Dutch society. Celebrations in some major Dutch cities have changed or removed the character from civic festivities in a nod to shifting public sentiment.
But the character also has strong defenders, who see it as an essential part of Dutch Christmas traditions, and typically explain his appearance away as a result of having climbed down chimneys to deliver gifts.
Last year, the battle over Black Pete led to dramatic scenes as dozens of pro-Pete activists, many believed to belong to far-right groups, blocked a convoy of buses ferrying anti-Pete protesters to a demonstration. In another surreal incident, activists wearing blackface and describing themselves as an “action group for the preservation of Black Pete” entered the ground of a primary school that had dropped the character from its Christmas festivities, handing out flyers calling for his reinstatement.
News that the public broadcaster was also dropping the blackface elements of the character drew an outraged reaction from Wilders’ PVV Wednesday, which last year floated a move to enshrine Black Pete’s physical characteristics in law, in order to “safeguard Dutch national identity.”
The party’s branch in Zaanstad, the municipality north of Amsterdam where Saint Nicholas is due to make his appearance in the Netherlands on Nov. 17, complained on Facebook that the public broadcaster was “trying to destroy our precious Black Pete.”
“Our own traditions are being turned around, but of course Ramadan and Eid are fine” for the broadcaster, read the post. Protests from both sides of the debate are expected at the Zaanstad event next month.
The announcement also drew a disappointed response from an MP from the ruling center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy.
“Oh boy, I’m not watching,” tweeted Remco Dijkstra.
Cover image: Zwarte Piet and his assistants at the Rainbow School in the small town of Voorschoten near the Hague. (Klaus Rose\ullstein bild via Getty Images)