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AMSTERDAM — Six weeks before Americans celebrate Christmas, Sinterklaas comes to town. The Dutch Santa Claus travels by steamboat instead of sleigh and lives in Spain, not the North Pole. But the most different thing about him is his help.
Instead of elves, he has Black Pete — a character played by whites in blackface. Thousands of them startedpopping up over the weekend at children’s parades, at schools and in living rooms across the Netherlands like so many Al Jolsons.
But a wave of opposition to the beloved Dutch character of Black Pete is suddenly generating a fierce dispute over political correctness in one of the world’s most socially liberal nations. A stunned country is watching as the uproar unleashes a barrage of death threats and vitriol during the most joyous time of the Dutch calendar.
The outbreak of hostilities on social media, television talk shows and urban sidewalks and in the court system here is highlighting the increasingly tense question of race in Europe — where minority rights-groups are decrying the rise of the far right and a rash of racist incidents is challenging the notion of the region as a bastion of progressive thought.
“We thought we lived in a post-racial society; this was not South Africa, not the United States, where you had old racial wounds to deal with,” said Erik van Muiswinkel, a Dutch comedian who is white and regularly plays Black Pete at the Netherlands’ most important St. Nicholas festival. “But this is revealing a few ugly little things that have surprised us.”
In this country that has pioneered gay marriage and is famous for its marijuana-vending coffee shops, critics of Black Pete — a tradition dating back more than a century — have been around for decades. But the issue never truly exploded until this year, after human rights advisers to the United Nations — responding to complaints from minority activists — challenged the Dutch government on the custom. One of them, Jamaican scholar Verene Shepherd, told Dutch television in October that “Black Pete is the return to slavery and has to stop.”
Emboldened opponents then sought to have Black Pete banned from the children’s parade in the largest Dutch city, Amsterdam. This month, they lodged the first legal challenge aimed at having depictions of the character deemed officially racist in the Dutch courts.
The campaign has touched a raw nerve. Many Dutch who adore Black Pete consider themselves social liberals and are deeply offended by the suggestion that they are racist. They describe the opposition as a small group of overly sensitive Afro-Caribbean descendants and reactionary whites who are trying to steal a Christmas fantasy from children. In a nation of 16.7 million, a three-week-old Facebook page defending Black Pete has already surged past more than 2.1 million “likes.”
While the vast majority of Black Pete defenders may be average, mainstream Dutch, observers say the campaign in defense of the character is in danger of being hijacked by far-right nationalists.