Meet St. Nick's Assistant Black Pete

By Julissa Catalan

While the Dutch pride themselves on having a progressive culture, one folkloric tradition is being protested for being racist. Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”)—a Blackface assistant who helps Santa Claus by either passing around Christmas gifts or taking away children who have been bad over the last year—sparked protests in Gouda during a parade to welcome St. Nicholas to the Netherlands.

Ninety demonstrators who picketed with signs reading “Black Pete is racism” were arrested at the annual parade, while others counter-protested saying the costume made up of Blackface make up, curly hair wig and red lipstick is not meant to depict Blacks.

Because this issue has been protested for the last few years, police sent eight officers undercover in their own Black Pete makeup during the packed town square celebration.

Pro-Black Pete activist Marc Gilling—who chairs the Guild of Petes, an organization aimed at preserving the Dutch tradition—says this issue has escalated over the years because of one major misconception.

“The problem is that there is a small minority of people in our society who mistakenly associate Black Pete with slavery,” he told USA Today.

“It’s not Blackface like you used to see in America, which is indeed racist. Pete’s Blackness has a symbolic meaning which dates back thousands of years, to the days when black represented winter and the Catholic bishop [St. Nicholas] stood for summer.”

In the United States, Blackface originated in the mid- to late 1800s in minstrel shows. White actors would paint their face black using burnt cork or grease to depict stereotypical and degrading Black characters, most likely representing slaves who spoke with a “plantation” accent. This explains why America is far less tolerant of the interpretation.

Unfortunately, Blackface has still managed to become a trend within the last few years.

This past March, Jeff Fugate, Pastor for the Clay Mills Baptist Church in Kentucky, came under fire for allowing his white assistant to wear Blackface makeup while participating in a staged boxing match at his church. Stereotypically, the Blackface boxer played the villain in the skit.

Last Halloween, actress and professional dancer Julianne Hough made headlines for sporting Blackface as part of her costume of Crazy Eyes from the TV show Orange Is the New Black.

However, the most offensive and ignorant costume was a team effort, and not courtesy of a celebrity. A couple of young adults gained a lot of negative attention for their costumes portraying Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. The man dressed as Martin wore Blackface makeup and a large gray hooded sweatshirt with blood splatter on the chest, while the man dressed as Zimmerman wore a T-shirt that read “Neighborhood Watch” while holding his hand like a pistol up to the other man’s head.

While the Netherlands remains in debate over Black Pete, a high-level Dutch court declined to rule on the controversy last week.

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