By Toby Sterling
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - "Black Pete", a clownish figure in black face paint that is part of Dutch traditional winter holiday celebrations, leads to discrimination and bullying of black children and must be changed, a national children's rights defender said on Friday.
Discussions over "Black Pete" have grown increasingly fierce in the Netherlands in recent years, with opponents saying the figure is a blatantly racist caricature with big red lips and "afro"-style hair, while supporters argue he is a harmless figure of fun.
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In a position paper published ahead of the Sinterklaas festivities which run from mid-November through Dec. 5, national children's ombudswoman Margriet Kalverboer sided squarely with the opponents.
She wrote that Black Piet - "Zwarte Piet" in Dutch - "can contribute to bullying, social exclusion or discrimination, and is thus in conflict with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child."
She said that her office had conducted widespread interviews with Dutch children and youth, and concluded that many black children experience worsening discrimination in their daily lives around the time of the holiday.
Black people are believed to make up a little more than 3 percent of the country's 17 million population, many of them immigrants from former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean and Suriname.
Kalverboer said children of all backgrounds were unanimous that the figure should be changed if it was offensive to others, given that the gift-giving holiday is meant to be fun.
"Children also say that grown-ups are dominating the discussion in an unpleasant way," she said.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Toby Chopra)