In a year of Black Lives Matter protests, Dutch wrestle (again) with the tradition of Black Pete

As Black Lives Matter protests and social uprisings spread across U.S. cities in the summer, the civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote a personal letter to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte over an annual tradition that many believe to be racist.

Every Dec. 5, people across the Netherlands paint their faces black and don afro wigs to celebrate the arrival of Black Pete, the blackface servant of St. Nicholas who helps to deliver presents. …

Backlash against the tradition has seen such U.S.-based companies as Amazon and Facebook no longer allowing the depiction of Black Pete on their sites. In the Netherlands, too, the tide seems to be turning in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. Prime Minister Rutte has indicated that his views on Black Pete are changing, saying he is aware of the pain these depictions and performances might cause.

The Dutch tradition of the Catholic St. Nicholas dates back to the Middle Ages, while Black Pete has often been associated with Indo-European traditions of devilish characters with a mixture of black masks, horns, faces and clothes who would occasionally accompany a white, gray-haired man bearing gifts. While the tradition of Black Pete may not have been directly related to minstrelsy or slavery, its influence was unmistakable, and in the second half of the 19th century the Dutch character of Black Pete increasingly adopted aspects of minstrelsy performances, which were a popular element of the Dutch theater repertoire at the time.

By Ayanna Thompson, Arizona State University & Coen Heijes, University of Groningen for The Conversation

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