Zwarte Piet “not racism”, says centre for equal opportunities

Summary

Belgium’s Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities says Sinterklaas’ sidekick is not racist, but calls for a constructive debate on the future of the tradition to avoid “unintentional stereotypes”

“Not discriminatory”

Sinterklaas sidekick Zwarte Piet, usually represented by a white person in blackface, is not an illegal form of racial discrimination, according to Belgium’s Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities.

Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is supposed to be a Moorish assistant to St Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, who, according to Dutch and Belgian tradition, delivers gifts to children every 6 December, living the rest of the year in Spain. Zwarte Piet was in times past a threatening figure who put children in his sack or beat them with switches if they were bad. Now he is seen as a jovial, though mute, assistant to Sinterklaas.

In recent years, accusations of racism have been levelled against the characterisation of Zwarte Piet because people representing him use blackface, colour their lips bright red and wear a big afro.

Some Zwarte Piet enthusiasts claim the blackface is supposed to represent soot on Zwarte Piet’s face, and this year in Amsterdam there is a move towards having the character portrayed not in complete blackface but with more obvious soot marks.

According to the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities, the law against racial discrimination would come into force if Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet were portrayed in conjunction with racially discriminatory speech or behaviour, which is not the case. The law against discrimination on the grounds of skin colour would apply if anyone were to be concretely disadvantaged by the Sinterklaas celebrations, an idea that the centre also rejected.

The centre did take the opportunity to issue a plea for a “constructive social debate on how we give form in the future to this popular tradition”. It called on Zwarte Piet “to be portrayed other than as a stupid, subordinate or dangerous black man through whom stereotypes, albeit unintentionally, are maintained”.

Photo courtesy De Standaard

Belgium’s Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities says Sinterklaas’ sidekick is not racist, but calls for a constructive debate on the future of the tradition to avoid “unintentional stereotypes”.

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