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Dutch PM changes opinion on controversial Zwarte Piet

Credit: Archibald Ballantine

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte now understands that people with dark skin colour feel discriminated by use of the controversial figure of Zwarte Piet (which translates as Black Pete), he told the Dutch House of Representatives on Thursday.

The Netherlands and Belgium have a long-standing tradition of celebrating the Winter holiday story of Sinterklaas, who is said to visit children’s homes to bring presents and treats on the evening of 5 (Netherlands) or 6 (Belgium) December.

As the story goes, Sinterklaas has a helper – Zwarte Piet. Adults and children dress up as him, donning blackface and black curly wigs, painting large red lips, and often large golden earrings. A lot of criticism has surrounded the character.

Major changes
Rutte had met people “with a dark skin colour, with children, who said: I feel unbelievably discriminated because Pete is black,” he told the House. “Then I thought: that is the last thing you want at a Sinterklaas party.”

“I also belonged to the group that said ‘Zwarte Piet is black after all’,” Rutte acknowledged, saying that he went through “major changes” when it comes to his point of view on the character.

“In a few years, there will be almost no more Black Petes,” Rutte asserted, though he doesn’t want the government to enforce such a change, as many love tradition. “It serves no purpose to force people to let go of the symbol,” he said.

The discussion in the House was fueled by the demonstrations against racism in the wake of the passing of George Floyd, who suffocated at the hands (or, rather, knee) of a white police officer in the United States.

Rutte acknowledged that there are “places where institutional racism occurs” in the Netherlands, though he “doesn’t want to use that term because, as he puts it, decent Dutchmen with good intentions could then get the idea” that they’re being accused of racism, said Wilco Boom of the Dutch public broadcasting system NOS.

Jason Spinks
The Brussels Times

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