Dutch ditch blackface at holiday parade, opt for 'sooty face' instead

Organizers behind the traditional St. Nicholas parade in the Netherlands are nixing a long-standing (and often criticized) practice of dressing up in blackface. Sort of.

White parade-marchers will continue to dress up as Sinterklaas‘ helper, Black Pete, when the event takes place on Nov. 16. However, they’ll apply their makeup as though it were soot, not black skin, according to parade organizers.

A Dutch child wearing blackface make up is carried during a demonstration in The Hague, Netherlands on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013.

A Dutch child wearing blackface make up is carried during a demonstration in The Hague, Netherlands on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013.

AP Photo/ Patrick Post

“This is a logical next step for us,” the parade organizer and public broadcaster, NTR, said in a statement to de Volkskrant.

The St. Nicholas parade is held every year in mid-November to welcome Sinterklaas, the dutch version of Santa Claus, to the village of Zaandijk. Dozens of “Black Petes” march in the parade and hand out candies to kids along the route.


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NTR ran the parade last year with a mix of seemingly black-skinned and sooty-faced Black Petes, despite years of public pressure and protest over depictions of the character. Several conflicts broke out on parade day between pro- and anti-Pete groups.

A Black Pete takes part in a far-right demonstration in a closed off area while police officers question two people, rear, during the arrival of Sinterklaas, the Dutch Saint Nicholas, in Maassluis, Netherlands, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

A Black Pete takes part in a far-right demonstration in a closed off area while police officers question two people, rear, during the arrival of Sinterklaas, the Dutch Saint Nicholas, in Maassluis, Netherlands, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Black Pete, or Zwartien Piet, is often depicted as Saint Nicholas’ servant in the Dutch and Belgian traditions. He is typically portrayed as a man with a black face in an outrageous black, red and gold costume. However, critics have long argued that the character is depicted using racist tropes, such as heavy red lipstick, afro-style wigs and blackface.

A Black Pete interacts with children during the arrival of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, in Maassluis, Netherlands, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

A Black Pete interacts with children during the arrival of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, in Maassluis, Netherlands, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Many have decried the character as racist in recent decades, but others have defended Black Pete as part of the Dutch tradition, which holds that his face appears black because he climbs down chimneys.

The Dutch switch comes amid a broader tumult over uses of blackface, after photos and video surfaced of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing makeup for several costumes when he was younger.


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Activist Jerry Afriyie, who runs a campaign called Kick out Zwarte Piet, celebrated the parade change as a victory.

“Today is a beautiful, historic day,” he told de Volkskrant. He added that while he’s happy to see progress in the main parade, he will continue to push for smaller parades to make the same adjustment.

“We will fight for change,” Afriyie said.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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