Anti-racism campaigners criticise 'Zwarte Piet' tradition

Written by Martin Banks on 6 December 2017 in News

Anti-racism campaigners have criticised the continuing Advent tradition of Saint-Nicholas for its “negative stereotyping.”

Saint Nicholas 'Sinterklaas' meets with his Black Peter 'Zwarte Piet' in Emden, Germany | Photo credit: Press Association

The occasion is marked every 6 December in certain countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands.

It was criticised at a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday of the EU high-level group on combatting racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance.

The meeting discussed racism faced by people of African descent in the European Union.


It was also pointed out that the meeting took place on the eve of the children’s celebration of Saint-Nicholas “which is important in many EU countries.”

Saint Nicholas is known as the patron saint of children, which appropriately falls during the Advent season. St. Nicholas is referred to by many names throughout Europe such as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands or Nikolaus in Germany.

In some countries, such as Belgium, Sinterklaas is accompanied by his servant ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) typically acted by a white person dressed up in blackface, a curly wig, golden earrings and red lipstick.

They are said to play their role as the subservient, unintelligent, childish and clownish caricature helping the old, wise and kind white Saint to carry out the work. 

While many Belgian people see the Black Pete tradition as an innocent children’s holiday character, an increasing number of people are said to find it offensive and a caricature of black people.

Both the United Nations and the Council of Europe have also expressed concerns about the racist stereotypes perpetuated by Zwarte Piet, and the “continuing racism and racial discrimination” faced by black people in education, the labour market and other areas in the Netherlands.

A spokesperson for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) said, “Unfortunately, the persistence of discriminatory stereotypes in this tradition, including the use of blackfacing, is having negative impacts on children and perpetuates deeply rooted stereotypes about black people, which can exacerbate and justify discrimination and violence.

“We need to ensure festive celebrations are inclusive of all and free of racist stereotypes.”

Debating racism faced by people of African descent is, it was said, “a major step forward in recognising the prevalence of Afrophobia and acting to combat it.”

The meeting heard that black people in Europe are particularly exposed to racist violence and hate speech.

In Sweden, 17 per cent of hate crimes targeted black people in 2014. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency survey on minorities, to be published later on Wednesday, is also expected to highlight that a “significant” proportion of black people felt discriminated because of their ethnic background or skin colour and have experienced hate motivated harassment or violence.

The meeting heard that black women are vulnerable to discrimination at the intersection of race and gender.

Jallow Momodou, a representative of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) said, “The discussion was an important first step to end the current state of denial when it comes to Afrophobia in Europe. But much more needs to be done to tackle the structural racism that prevents black people from being included in European society.

“We need the EU and its member states to adopt specific measures to combat a specific form of racism. Europe has to recognise that contemporary racism and current enslavement of people of African descent is a legacy of the history of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism”.

The meeting heard that the EU has so far failed to mark the United Nations international decade for people of African descent.

ENAR says this milestone “is an opportunity for EU member states to commit to action towards justice, full participation and equal rights for people of African descent in their respective countries.”

It says specific measures to address racial inequalities and discrimination experienced by black people, such as an evidence-based national action plan, would be an “important step in the right direction.”


About the author

Martin Banks is a senior reporter for the Parliament Magazine


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