AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson has written Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte asking him to end the use of the pre-Christmas character “Black Pete,” which Jackson called a racist relic of colonialism.
“I am writing to urge you to heed your moral conscience and do what you believe and know to be right,” Jackson wrote to Rutte in a letter sent via the Dutch Embassy in Washington that was received in The Hague on Thursday.
The debate about Black Pete has gained momentum in the Netherlands in recent weeks as tens of thousands of anti-racism demonstrators protested the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and discrimination at home.
In the Dutch tradition, St. Nicholas arrives on Dec. 5 bringing gifts to children accompanied by numerous “Petes”, clownish servants usually portrayed by white people in black face paint wearing frizzy wigs and red lipstick.
Rutte said in 2013 that “Black Pete is just black and I can’t do much about that”. But this month, he said his attitude had undergone “great changes” after meeting people, including “small children, who said: ‘I feel terribly discriminated (against) because Pete is black’.”
The prime minister added his government was not planning any legal action on the matter, but that “I expect in a few years there will be no more Black Petes.”
Rutte’s office confirmed it had received the letter, but had no additional comment.
Supporters argue that Black Pete is not meant to portray black skin colour, but chimney soot. Several large Dutch cities have replaced Black Pete with “rainbow” Petes in recent years, but the practice is still widespread.
“Black Pete cannot be separated from the very offensive tradition of black face in the United States. The December 5 tradition of Black Pete is seen as an offensive relic of colonial times,” Jackson wrote.
“I believe with your moral leadership the good people of the Netherlands will respond positively to ban the offensive and racist Black Pete, for good. The whole world is watching,” he said.
(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Peter Cooney)