Dutch self-image shaken by "Black Pete" debate

Tue Nov 12, 2013 2:03pm EST
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By Thomas Escritt

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The Dutch see themselves as tolerant pragmatists, especially adaptable if social harmony or commercial interests demand it.

But that self-image has taken a battering in recent weeks as a growing chorus of voices inside and outside the country protest against a Christmas tradition that many Dutch see as harmless fun but critics say is racist.

According to the folklore, Saint Nicholas arrives in the Netherlands in mid-November accompanied by his servant Black Pete - a part usually played by a white man in "blackface" with a curly wig and large, red-painted mouth.

Now the Dutch are being forced to confront the possibility that their enormously popular Christmas tradition might point to a latent racism which many thought was anathema to their culture.

Few debates have stirred such emotion among the cool-headed Dutch. Millions flocked to "like" a Facebook page backing Black Pete after an independent expert who reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council criticized the tradition.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte has rejected depictions of the Netherlands as insular and xenophobic.

"I do not recognize ourselves in that portrayal," he told reporters last week when asked whether the Netherlands no longer tolerated outsiders.

But that is the point that has been exposed by the debate, according to Quinsy Gario, an artist who has campaigned against the Black Pete tradition for years.   Continued...

Saint Nicholas (C) is escorted by his assistants called "Zwarte Piet" (Black Pete) during a traditional parade in central Brussels in this December 1, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/Files