When Santa Claus comes to town in Amsterdam, it’s not a cluster of elves leaping around the robust figure in red waving at cheering children and adults.
The dancing figures are “Black Petes,” white Netherlanders in blackface wearing Afro wigs. Servants of St. Nick, Black Petes are seen playing music, singing, on horseback, on stilts, climbing up the façades of department stores or cavorting atop six-story buildings.
This year, members of the country’s Black community demanded an end to the century-old tradition of “Zwarte Piet,” or Black Pete, and the racist imagery.
At a rally of several hundred people over the weekend, protestors carried signs saying “Free Pete” and “Let Me Love You Again, Netherlands.” One sign with a picture of President Barack Obama read, in English, “Leave Our Face Out of It!”
“Black Pete anywhere in the world would not be accepted,” said activist Quincy Gario of St. Maarten, a Dutch territory in the Caribbean. Gario was arrested in 2011 for wearing a T-shirt that read “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” at a Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) parade.
Still, the majority of the country supports Black Pete. Last month, a Facebook petition received 2 million “likes”—that’s in a nation of just under 17 million residents. And a recent poll revealed that more than 90 percent of the country would not change Black Pete’s appearance.