AMSTERDAM — Foreigners visiting the Netherlands in winter are often surprised to see that the Dutch version of St. Nicholas’ helpers have their faces painted black, wear Afro wigs and have thick red lips — in short, a racist caricature of a black person.
The overwhelming majority of Dutch are fiercely devoted to the holiday tradition of Zwarte Piet — whose name means Black Pete — and insist he is a harmless fictional figure who doesn’t represent any race.
But a growing number are questioning whether Zwarte Piet should be given a makeover or banished from the holiday scene, seeing him as a blight on the nation’s image as a bulwark of tolerance.
She said that historically her office received only one or two complaints per year, but the number jumped to more than 100 last year, and will escalate much further this year.
“It’s not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining,” she said, referring to people descended from the former Dutch colonies that once traded in slavery. “It’s all kinds of Dutch people.”
The debate escalates
There are various versions of the history of St. Nicholas — Sinterklaas in Dutch — and of Zwarte Piet, who made his debut as an African servant in an 1850 book.
“Nobody is against the Sinterklaas celebration or is calling people who celebrate it racist,” Ms. Silversmith said. “But it is time to consider whether this is offensive, whether there actually are racist ideas underlying Zwarte Piet.”
The debate comes after a decade in which the Dutch have rolled back many aspects of their famed tolerance policies, and in which anti-immigrant sentiment has risen sharply.
Zwarte Piet is frequently defended as part of Dutch cultural heritage, and those who don’t like it are often bluntly invited to leave the country.
Many Dutch say Pete is black from the soot he picked up while coming down chimneys to deliver presents — although that hardly explains the frizzy hair and big lips.
A sea change may have occurred during last year’s festivities, when four men were arrested for wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “Zwarte Piet Is Racism” outside a store during an appearance of Sinterklaas — and charged with protesting without a permit.
Police threw one, Quinsy Gario, to the ground, and kneed him in the back repeatedly as they dragged him away, though he offered no resistance.
A video of the incident was aired on YouTube, and the slogan began trending.