AMSTERDAM • Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said his attitude towards Black Pete, a figure from the country’s winter holiday celebrations that has been criticised as a racist caricature, has undergone “great changes” in recent years.
In a debate in Parliament on Thursday over anti-racism rallies in the Netherlands prompted by solidarity with US demonstrations, Mr Rutte said his views have changed since 2013, when he said “Black Pete is just black and I can’t do much about that”.
It is part of Dutch tradition that St Nicholas brings gifts to kids accompanied by many Petes, clownish servants usually portrayed by white people in black face paint, frizzy wigs and red lipstick.
Mr Rutte said that since 2013 he had met many people, including “small children, who said ‘I feel terribly discriminated (against) because Pete is black'”.
“And I thought, that’s the last thing that we want” in a holiday intended for children, he added.
While critics have said Black Pete is offensive, a shrinking majority of white Dutch people argue Pete is either a magical fantasy figure not portraying any race or a lively figure of fun.
Mr Rutte observed that the tradition is already changing. Some local celebrations feature Black Petes with dabs of paint on their cheeks representing soot from the chimneys he is said to climb down to deliver presents.
Anti-racism protests honouring Mr George Floyd were held in Amsterdam and Rotterdam this week, with more scheduled. The protests were triggered by the death of the unarmed black man while in the custody of police officers in Minneapolis.
Mr Rutte acknowledged at a press conference on Wednesday that discrimination is a “systematic problem” in the Netherlands. “Here too, people are judged by their heritage.”