The Netherlands’ 'Black Pete' Just Got Cancelled On Facebook

The social media giant is taking down large "Black Pete" supporters groups a few weeks after announcing they would ban the racist character from the platform.
September 4, 2020, 2:01pm
An entire family dressed in blackface.
Photo: Christopher Pugmire

In recent years, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) – the blackface character that’s a traditional fixture of Dutch Christmas festivities – has been gradually phased out of many city parades as a racist relic.

Now, he’s been removed from Facebook, too.

The social media giant has begun removing the largest groups for supporters of the racist caricature, some with tens of thousands of members, Dutch media reported Friday. The groups are being removed in line with a new policy, introduced last month, banning content that conveyed “implicit hate speech”, like blackface or anti-Semitic stereotypes.

“Zwarte Piet” certainly fits the bill. The character – the minstrel-esque helper of Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas – is traditionally played by white people in garish blackface, replete with curly black wig, red lips and gold earrings.

The character has been at the heart of a heated culture war in the Netherlands in recent years, which has only been fuelled by the growing focus on racism in light of the police killing of George Floyd.

READ: The Netherlands just had its annual Christmas blackface fight

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 throwback, which fuels negative stereotypes of Black people and has no place in modern Dutch society.

But efforts to cancel Pete, or at least change his appearance, have met stiff resistance, including from many on the right, who claim the character is an innocent part of Dutch Christmas traditions, with no racist connotations.

Many claim the character’s appearance is a result of him having climbed down chimneys to deliver gifts. When the Dutch public broadcaster changed the appearance of the character two years ago to attempt to mollify critics, it removed the wigs and earrings and said the performers would have soot on their hands and faces “because they came through the chimney”.

READ: A Dutch broadcaster dropped a traditional blackface character — and the far-right is fuming

Facebook’s move provoked a predictably divided reaction on social media Friday. While many welcomed the move as long overdue, others railed against the decision and threatened to quit the platform.

“What the hell is hateful about it?” tweeted Paul Meijer, founder of the right-wing populist party Forza! Nederland, along with a picture of himself dressed as Black Pete that had been flagged as in breach of Facebook’s standards.

Polling suggests that the Dutch public’s attachment to Pete has dropped off significantly amid the growing furore over the character in recent years. While one 2013 poll showed nearly nine in ten wanted the tradition to remain unchanged, by June of this year that figure had fallen to less than 50 percent.

Nevertheless, the battle over the tradition has raged on. Last year, pro-Piet supporters set up roadblocks around a village to block anti-Piet demonstrators from protesting a parade. Black Pete vigilantes even stormed the grounds of a primary school that dropped the character from its festivities, handing out flyers demanding his reinstatement.

Far-right parties have long been among the most ardent defenders of the tradition; on Wednesday, Geert Wilders’ PVV and two other parties submitted a joint resolution in the European Parliament to address “the growing censorship against Zwarte Piet”, complaining that giant companies like Facebook were improperly meddling in politics by taking a stand against the character.

But Facebook is undeterred, saying its efforts to remove the character are only just beginning. The company told Dutch news site NU.nl it plans to eventually use artificial intelligence to keep images of Pete off its platform.