A Dutch court has turned down a request by activists to ban state television channels from airing images of a controversial ‘blackface’ Christmas holiday character known traditionally as Black Pete.
The activist group Majority Perspective Foundation sought to implement a €50,000 fine for broadcasters if they aired images of Black Pete characters with “racist characteristics.”
Judge Antoon Schotman rejected the bid, saying the motion had been filed too close to the holiday celebrations, but encouraged a national debate over whether the character was still appropriate or outdated and racist.
“There can be no doubt that Black Pete is changing. Some believe the change is too slow, and that’s fine. Others believe it is happening too quickly,” the judge said. “What is important is that the discussion continues.”
For years, anti-racism groups in the Netherlands have been highlighting what they believe is a racist tradition of white people painting their faces black and wearing frizzy-haired wigs to entertain children.
Supporters of the tradition, however, note that the character stems from a 19th-century children’s story in which a dark-skinned man helped Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) prepare for Christmas. In October, Dutch public service broadcaster NTR explained that “some Petes go down the chimney a lot, therefore they turn properly black.”
But even the United Nations has taken issue with the character, known as ‘Zwarte Piet’ in the Netherlands, saying that it was “experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery” and adding that “even deeply rooted cultural traditions do not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes.”
In a recent article for The Guardian, Dutch author Joost de Vries explained the debate which, he said, has become a “chronic national controversy.”
“The pro-Pete side rejects the notion that Pete embodies a slave; instead they see him as Sint’s friendly helper. The anti-Pete side points out that the relationship between white master and black servant is nothing but colonial,” he wrote.
A report published in 2016 found that the character can contribute to “bullying, exclusion or discrimination” of black children, particularly around the weeks when Black Pete is seen on TV and at Christmas festivals.
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In a bid to stem the controversy, new versions of the Pete characters were introduced in 2014, including yellow-faced ‘Cheese Petes’ and white-faced ‘Clown Petes’.
In the United States, with racial tensions running high, ‘blackface’ characters have been massively controversial. Broadcaster Megyn Kelly was recently fired from her NBC ‘Today’ show for commenting that when she was a child, blackface costumes were okay “as long as you were dressing like a character.”
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