Dutch TV Finally Ditches Blackface for Christmas Character ‘Black Pete’ After Years of Controversy

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A Dutch TV broadcaster is saying goodbye to blackface for the controversial Christmas character known as “Black Pete.”

This week, Dutch public broadcaster NTR announced that “Pete” would no longer appear in Blackface in its annual children’s program depicting the character’s arrival. The little helper of Sinterklaas has traditionally been played by white actors in blackface, parading around in afro-style wigs and bright red lips.

Black Pete
The presence of “Black Pete” sparks an annual debate in The Netherlands over whether it’s racist or not. (Image courtesy of Flikr)

The character has sparked protests across The Netherlands every year, with critics decrying the tradition as racist and a distasteful play on negative racial stereotypes rooted in the country’s not-so-distant ties to slavery and colonialism.

The Dutch have seemingly heard their cries, as actors portraying the character will now only have soot marks on his cheeks, reflecting his travels down chimneys to deliver gifts alongside ‘Ol St. Nick, according to NTR. The amount of soot on each actor’s face depends on how many chimneys he’s shimmied through. Additionally, the actors will have different hair and won’t be sporting gold earrings.

In a press release, the broadcaster said it was making the change in a way that respects the long-held tradition but also reflects changes in society.

“The NTR makes Het Sinterklaas news with respect for tradition and with an eye for developments in society,” it said. “Changes in tradition are reflected in the Sinterklaas news. Those who follow the Sinterklaas news year in, year out, see that we advocate a gradual change. Tradition and change go hand in hand.”

Every year, “Black Pete” is broadcast live as part of NTR’s annual “Sinterklaasjournaal,” a mock news program aimed at children celebrating the arrival of Santa Claus and all his helpers.

The decision to change Pete was cheered by activist groups like “Zwarte Piet is Racisme,” who called the modification a step in the right direction. There’s also been some opposition, however, particularly from those who’ve strongly defended the tradition.

According to CNN International, one of the nine regional groups scheduled to provide Petes for this year’s festival have backed out, vowing to host their own event with the characters in full blackface. Parliamentarian Remco Dijkstra seemed equally dismayed by the news, tweeting “Boy, I’m not watching [this year.]”

This year’s unveiling of Black Pete is set to broadcast Nov. 17, live from North Holland.

“We produce this program for the whole of the Netherlands and therefore we would like involve as many people as possible in these changes,” NTR said.

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