Saturday Dec. 1st I attended the New York celebration of the ‘Sinterklaas’ holiday, organized by The Netherland Club of NY. As a Dutch equivalent of Christmas, Saint Nicholas is an elderly white man with a red suit and a long white beard, who gives presents and candy to children. Yet instead of having elves as helpers, Saint Nicholas’ servant is the figure of ‘Black Pete’.
Until a few years back, the Dutch represented this character by painting their faces black and their lips red, while wearing an Afro wig and golden earrings. In 2015, a committee of the United Nations turned the eye of the world onto the Netherlands by condemning this practice. This enlarged the Dutch debate around Black Pete and has inspired some townships and schools to abandon blackface, while others insist on continuing the tradition.
While the Netherlands are increasingly divided on the topic, Dutch expats in New York generally agree that change is necessary. At the Sinterklaas celebration organized by ‘The Netherlandsclub of NY’, the performing ‘Petes’ were not painted black anymore, but bright blue, yellow and red instead. While people in the Netherlands still annually parade the streets dressed up as caricatures of black servants, such a thing would be unthinkable here. Sandra Pellegrom, a parent attending the celebration, explains: ‘when you move to a diverse city like New York, you unavoidably realize how racist ‘Black Pete’ as a tradition really is’. One of the performers adds that ‘the fact that this is still being debated at home is something I cannot understand’.
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