'Rough Translation': The Controversial Dutch Character Black Pete A Dutch holiday character named Black Pete, who is usually portrayed in blackface, gets new scrutiny following Black Lives Matter protests in the Netherlands.
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'Rough Translation': The Controversial Dutch Character Black Pete

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'Rough Translation': The Controversial Dutch Character Black Pete

'Rough Translation': The Controversial Dutch Character Black Pete

'Rough Translation': The Controversial Dutch Character Black Pete

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/885141871/885141872" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A Dutch holiday character named Black Pete, who is usually portrayed in blackface, gets new scrutiny following Black Lives Matter protests in the Netherlands.

NOEL KING, HOST:

After George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, there were protests not just in the U.S. but all over the world. Lots of countries are questioning their attitudes about race and racism. In the Netherlands, for example, there's a Christmas tradition with a character known as Black Pete. He's usually depicted in blackface. The prime minister there, Mark Rutte, says he wants an end to Black Pete. He admits he's dressed up as the character himself. Here he is talking about it in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER MARK RUTTE: And when I'm playing Black Pete, I'm for days trying to get off the stuff on my face.

KING: So why the shift? Gregory Warner of our Rough Translation podcast reports it's about the protests, yes, but it's also about an old Dutch tradition of compromise.

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GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Amma Asante immigrated to the Netherlands from Ghana at the age of 6. And like a lot of Dutch kids, she looked forward to the arrival of Sinterklaas each year.

AMMA ASANTE: As a kid, I did because, you know, you get presents. You can eat a lot of candy the whole month of November.

WARNER: Sinterklaas looks kind of like a fit version of Santa - same white beard, less paunch. But instead of being helped by a band of elves, he's got Black Pete, Zwarte Piet. Every year, thousands of white Dutch people celebrate by painting their faces black, wearing Afro wigs and talking in a Caribbean accent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ASANTE: So there comes a moment that you're like, oh, my God. Something doesn't feel OK, you know, especially when somebody is mad at you and they call you Zwarte Piet. Oh, my God. So it's an insult? You mean me? You think I'm Black Pete? You think I'm dumb, I'm stupid?

WARNER: Asante rose to become a member of parliament, the only woman of color in parliament at the time. And along the way, she learned the backstory of Black Pete, how the tradition gained prominence in the 1850s, when minstrel shows became popular in the U.S., how Pete's costume of colorful, satiny sleeves is modeled on the way wealthy Amsterdam families would dress up their child slaves. But when she raised these facts to Dutch people, they'd sometimes say that Black Pete wasn't Black. He got dirty from going down the chimney.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ASANTE: OK, so you are white. And when you go through the chimney, your hair changes into Afro? And you get big, red lips? And you start talking with an accent?

WARNER: The chimney excuse felt like even more of an insult. And it did not stop the racist attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ASANTE: And now I am a woman, a mother of two girls. And my children are called Black Petes by their - well, I wouldn't call them friends, but their schoolmates. And it's painful.

WARNER: When it comes to intractable political conflicts, where neither side seems to see eye to eye, the Dutch have their own unique system for resolving differences, a system known as the polder model or poldermodel.

ASANTE: When you talk about poldermodel, it's, like, you talk, you talk, you talk, you talk, you talk, until you reach a point of consensus.

WARNER: Could this tradition of compromise work to banish the tradition of Black Pete? Well, that question led us last November to a dialogue in the city of Alkmaar, 25 miles north of Amsterdam...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JERRY AFRIYIE: (Speaking Dutch).

WARNER: ...Where one by one...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AFRIYIE: (Speaking Dutch).

WARNER: ...People stood up to express their pain at this holiday.

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AFRIYIE: (Speaking Dutch).

WARNER: Jerry Afriyie is the founder of the national organization Kick Out Black Pete. Over the last 10 years, he's gone to hundreds of meetings like this. He tells the crowd that preschoolers will point to him in the street, saying, look. Look. Black Pete.

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AFRIYIE: Zwarte Piet. (Speaking Dutch).

WARNER: They know Black Pete is Black, he says. So why do some Dutch adults insist he came down the chimney?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AFRIYIE: What the country tells you is try to unsee it, basically.

WARNER: Try to unsee it?

AFRIYIE: That's what the country is telling people. You know, like, what you are seeing is not true.

WARNER: Afriyie always saw this chimney excuse as a way to silence Black perspectives. But he came to wonder if the denial of the problem might be the solution. Some years ago, he started to suggest replacing Black Pete with a new character called Chimney Pete.

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AFRIYIE: You know, like, "Mary Poppins," you know?

(LAUGHTER)

AFRIYIE: They say it goes through the chimney, you know? So make it look like a chimney clean.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARY POPPINS")

DICK VAN DYKE: (As Bert, singing) Chim chiminey, chim chimeney, chim chim cher-ee, a sweep is as lucky as lucky can be.

WARNER: Chimney Pete has just a smudge of soot on his face. But the nature of the polder model is that each side gives their viewpoint, and it's a negotiation. So after Afriyie sits down, another speaker, Thomas van Elst stands up. He's the head of a local group that wants to end immigration.

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THOMAS VAN ELST: (Speaking Dutch).

WARNER: He proposes they get rid of some of the character's attributes, like the Afro hair...

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VAN ELST: (Speaking Dutch).

WARNER: ...The red lips.

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VAN ELST: (Speaking Dutch).

WARNER: But he says, let's keep the blackface for just two more years.

(CROSSTALK)

WARNER: Keep the blackface, the most divisive attribute of the character. Afriyie jumps up. Chimney Pete is already the compromise, he tells them - the polder Pete.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AFRIYIE: (Speaking Dutch).

WARNER: The meeting closed without consensus. And when the Sinterklaas season ended last year, the country was still divided. Some cities had replaced Black Pete with Chimney Pete in their parades, while other cities, like Alkmaar, dug in their heels and vowed to keep Black Pete.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ASANTE: It doesn't work (laughter). It doesn't work.

WARNER: Amma Asante, the politician, says she's given up on the polder model when it comes to racism. The compromise approach made for more varieties of Pete in the parades, but it was still upholding a negative stereotype. And then George Floyd was killed by police in Minnesota.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Black Lives...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: ...Matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Black Lives...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: ...Matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WARNER: Amma watched huge crowds in the Netherlands gather not just in solidarity with the U.S. movement but reacting to racism in their own country. She concedes that if not for all those years of poldering and discussing the issue of Black Pete, Dutch people would probably not have come out to the streets in such numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ASANTE: There's quite a risk that we could have said, ah, that's in the United States. That's not us. And now there's no denial anymore. Now we are like, do you understand the crying and fighting and the movement of Kick Out Zwarte Piet? Do you understand it now? And they're like, yeah, we understand.

WARNER: This November, the boat carrying Sinterklaas will once again arrive at Dutch shores. A lot can happen until then. But at least for now, no Dutch municipality has yet volunteered to host him and his entourage of Black Petes - not Amsterdam, not The Hague and not Alkmaar. Black Pete, for now anyway, has no Dutch harbor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: Gregory Warner is the host of the NPR podcast Rough Translation. You can hear more stories from them wherever you get your podcasts.

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