Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte wants to put the kibosh on the Netherlands’ “Black Pete” tradition. Although he had previously defended the figure who is part of pre-Christmas celebrations, he’s now admitting it’s problematic and believes it should disappear.
In Dutch tradition, St. Nicholas brings gifts to children every Christmas accompanied by clown-like servants called “Petes” — usually portrayed by white people in black face paint wearing curly wigs and red lipstick. Petes have been criticized for their racist nature for many years.
In 2013, when asked about the racism behind the tradition, Rutte had said, “Black Pete is just black and I can’t do much about that.”
But on Thursday, Rutte was speaking in a parliamentary debate about anti-racism protests in the Netherlands, and explained that his view of the Black Pete tradition had changed over the years. Reuters reported that Rutte explained meeting people, including children, who felt discriminated against because of Black Pete, which pushed him to reevaluate his attitude.
Linda Nooitmeer, chair of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy, said, “The magnitude of a leader in a country stating this is enormous. You can have all the legislation you want…but if the people in power, the leader of the country, doesn’t seem to support it — and that’s what it looked like in 2013 when he said that about Black Pete — then the struggle will be harder.”
Already the tradition seems to be changing. Some celebrations simply feature Black Petes with touches of paint on their cheeks, representing chimney soot, while others include multicolored Petes no longer referred to as “Black.” Although the disappearance of Black Pete might be slow and gradual, it certainly seems to be heading in the right direction.