UN representative calls on the Netherlands to end “racist” Sinterklaas tradition

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS (BNO NEWS) -- Verene Shepherd, the chairperson of a United Nations (UN) working group on issues surrounding people of African descent, on Tuesday condemned the annual 'Sinterklaas' tradition in the Netherlands as "racist" and "a throwback to slavery."

Sinterklaas is a traditional winter holiday figure in mainly the Netherlands and Belgium, but his black helpers Zwarte Piet - or Black Pete in English - are a recurring subject of debate. The tradition, which is one of the sources of Santa Claus, involves annual welcoming events in which Sinterklaas arrives on a boat and rides a horse through the streets while being accompanied by his black-colored helpers.

Nearly two dozen people have complained against Zwarte Piet being used in the upcoming welcoming ceremony in Amsterdam, leading to a hearing attended by dozens of people and further igniting the discussion as to whether the helpers are being depicted as slaves. Those in favor of the black helpers argue that Zwarte Piet is "black as soot," as the traditional story involves the helpers climbing down dirty chimneys to deliver gifts to children.

"The working group cannot understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop," Shepherd said on Tuesday in an interview with Dutch current affairs TV program EenVandaag. "I feel that I, if I were living in the Netherlands, as a black person, I would object to it."

Shepherd leads the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent which is investigating the issue and expects to present a report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights by September next year. "We hope it will be discussed in the United Nations General Assembly," she told the program. "The UN can request the Netherlands to take action."

Her comments on Tuesday made headlines in the Netherlands, where a newly-released poll suggests that 95 percent of Dutch people do not associate Zwarte Piet with slavery. It also showed 91 percent of Dutch people do not believe Zwarte Piet's black color should be changed on the basis of a small number of complaints, and 81 percent of respondents would consider such a change unacceptable.

The chairperson said she was "obliged" to do further research as a member of the working group, and said the members could be proven wrong if they receive new information. Shepherd also called on Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who has said Zwarte Piet is not a government issue, to take action and influence cultural groups who organize and promote the event.

Attempts in previous years to introduce rainbow-colored helpers in some Dutch cities have been met with resistance and a large number of complaints. Still, a municipality in the country's northeast announced on Tuesday that it had decided to use rainbow-colored helpers this year to show "it does not matter whether you are a black pete or a green, yellow or blue pete."

"It's offensive," Shepherd added in Tuesday's interview, during which she suggested there is no need for Sinterklaas. "We don't go around saying all white people look like this or white people look like that. We don't do that. And what is wrong with one Santa Claus? Why do you have to have two Santa Clauses?"

In the Netherlands, however, even though Christmas is celebrated, Santa Claus is not as popular as Sinterklaas.

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  • Maaike Derksen

    ridiculous! 24 people in all? we’re a small nation, but 24 people in over 17 million is NOBODY! this tradition should be protected like the Perzian black guy in their feast. without Sinterklaas there would have never been a Santa Claus. and the end the debate, black pete was never a slave, they were workers, one of the reasons St Nicholas was so loved was that he PAID his workers fairly. and if that is not enough we’ll just say he is black cause he comes through the chimney! maybe the UN needs to go and worry about syria egypt and all those other scary places..

  • Jack Saat

    lol! Yeah as a Dutch person my self this was coming at one point! However the Zwarte Piet are not slaves they are their at the own free well!

  • Fabian Secker

    To quote: “We don’t go around saying all white people look like this or white people look like that. We don’t do that.”

    In all honesty, I’m feeling a little harassed by this. It’s not like we (the average Dutchmen) go out saying that. To be more accurate, nowadays zwarte Piet is mostly called Piet, and asociated with good things. It gives young children therefor a positive image.
    As to calling him a slave, the dutch word knecht, which is most commonly used can be translated to man servant, not slave.

    Besides, the chairperson calls for a complete abolishment of a holiday tradition centuries old and with roots to roman times. Is it not possible to adapt instead? To ‘make’ the chimney story the official one and change ‘Black Pete’ into “Choal Black Pete”. Just a thought.

  • agiberth

    Does this rather unknowing woman realise at all what she luxuriously paid for to do from taxpayer’s money? In Congo, four million people were slaughtered the last four years with the UN sitting and watchting not paying the tiniest bit of attention,leave alone doing anything. The ME is a chaos, Tibet is under oppression, and the UN nags about Sinterklaas, without taking the effort to properly inform themselves. Don’t these well paid world-civil-servants have anything better to do? Irritating at least, nor to say anything else about it.

  • Teun

    In Belgium, Sinterklaas is celebrated in the same way as in the Netherlands. Zwarte Piet is a character, who happens to be black, wears ridiculously looking clothes with lots of colors, feathers and the lot. We all love him. Childres don’t see him as a representative person for black people, he is in a category of its own. And yes, in the past it was a racist stereotyp to cast a black person for the role of helper, nut in present day Belgium and the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet is well loved and not looked down upon. I’ve played the character many times in the past in schools and scouts and have always been proud to be able to do so.

    TLDR: Even though Zwarte Piet was a racist sterotyp 100 years ago, he isn’t anymore and is very well respected and loved by people young and old. The UN takes this way to seriously.

  • Dirk

    This is so totally BULLSHIT, Black Pete has nothing to do with slavery and therefore not a racist tradition, 24 people from African descent has complained about Black Pete and as result a UN investigation, how stupid, everyone can life in peace in the Netherlands, they can freely believe their religions without the threat of being killed for it, also African people, and what is their thanks? they complained over an innocent tradition, against these 24 people i want to say SHAME ON YOU.

    The Dutch people DON’T accept this, and yesterday 2 guys started a Facebook petition called Pietitie to created a petition AGAINST stupid witch hunt from Verene Shepherd, on the moment that i write this they reached 978.000 likes, this is a clear signal that Verene Shepherd better can take their hands of from Black Pete, see https://www.facebook.com/pietitie

  • Dominique de Graaff

    They are black because of the grime you get when you go down the chimney. Thats what they taught me when i was a kid in the 80s. No racism at all. Banning zwarte piet because he is black.. that’s racism!!

  • Hester

    The fact she talks about the Coca-Cola Santa Claus as presumably being the original, and the Dutch Sinterklaas being the “extra”, just shows her complete ignorance in the matter. Someone who is that blatantly ignorant about a tradition that has its roots in the Midwinter celebrations of Wodan, should not be allowed to be on this working group. Speaking of insulting, this is a huge insult to a millenia-old Dutch tradition, as well as to our people.

    As a child growing up, the image of Zwarte Piet has always been extemely positive, in fact most children absolutely love him, and I don’t know anyone who would still associate him with slavery, or with black people for that matter. These associations are made by a small group of ignorant people who simply want media attention, and will come up with any false accusation or outcry just to get the cameras focused on them.

  • Alexander Wijnhamer

    t makes me sad that a prejudiced, under-informed UN committee member makes statements like this. The whole Sinterklaas (saint Nicholas) celebration dates back to the 15 century, it is actually older than the American slavery. Black Pete only came into the celebration at a later stage, initially the helper of saint Nicholas was not designated as black. It makes me sad that a prejudiced, under-informed UN committee member makes statements like this. The whole Sinterklaas (saint Nicholas) celebration dates back to the 15 century, it is actually older than the American slavery. Black Pete only came into the celebration at a later stage, initially the helper of saint Nicholas was not designated as black.

    The fact that Santa Clause is mentioned by Mrs. Shepherd only shows how under-informed this lady is. Santa Clause has been derived from the Saint Nicholas celebration, not the other way around.

    The whole discussion on Black Pete being racist is silly for multiple reasons. There is some discussion on if Black Pete is black because he is:

    1) A chimney sweep (not actually of African descent)

    2) A liberated slave who stayed in service with the saint after being liberated.

    The typical clothing used for Black Pete who is dressed like a page from the middle ages suggests the second more than the first. The page outfit does not stroke with Black Pete being a slave of the Saint. Is Mrs. Verene Shepherd then objecting against liberation of slaves?

    I think that prejudice is a bad thing, not only in interaction between people but maybe even more so in UN committees reviewing cultural celebrations. Perhaps the UN should review how appropriate it is that this lady leads this investigation.

  • Stechschritt

    There is really nothing to be defended here. Even if Zwarte Piet were to be racist, who cares? If immigrants don’t like anything, they can screw right off back to the third world shit hole they came from. You see, Europe is European land. It has been ours for over 40 thousand years. Remember that.

  • gdebruin

    The main reason why ms Shepherd will not find an attentive ear with the majority of te Dutch can be foud in the quote ” And what is wrong with one Santa Claus? Why do you have to have two Santa Clauses?” A rather simplistic look at tradition from a well-known and otherwise well-respected historian. Tradition is not a thing which may be changed by simply forbidding it. Talking about it, specially by a historian, in this way makes it rather easy to dismiss whatever else she has to say.

    Ms Shepherd’s misunderstanding of the two Clauses will not help her case. I’m afraid the ‘Dutch’ one came first. The ‘American’ Claus is a watery dillution of the original. And it’s not just a Dutch phenomenon. Sint Nicolaas’ (his formal name, a 4th century saint of oriental descent) Saintsday (died december 5 or 6) is celebrated in Germany, northern France, Belgium (including Black Pete!), Switzerland and other north European countries.

    Black Pete is a 19th century interpretation of Nicolaas’ servant Ruprecht or Rupert (still to be found in the German tradition). Not a black man.
    Yes, there’s positively a 19th century racist undercurrent, and no this undercurrent had long ceased to be part of the tradition but is now returning with vigour as part of the new populist, natonalistic approach of everything foreign (including the UN, the European Union etc).

    It’s more than a pity. Not only is a traditional kids festival politicized, but it has also brought out new fuel for the nationalist, racist tendencies in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

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