For years, Edmonton’s Dutch community has celebrated the holidays with a polarizing figure.
Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is the traditional helper of Sinterklaas, or Santa Claus. He’s represented in parades and parties by people in blackface who paint their lips red, don black wigs and gold hoop earrings.
And for about a decade in Edmonton, the Dutch Delicious bakery has been welcoming Black Pete to their store, according to Global News.
“It’s meant as a family festivity to celebrate with the children and the spirit of giving,” owner Siebe Koopman told the outlet.
But not everyone thinks he’s harmless. Protests have sprung up in the Netherlands against Black Pete, and a United Nations committee even released a report last year recommending that the country promote the elimination of his racist features in celebrations.
“The character of Black Pete is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery,” the authors wrote.
Edmonton activist Jesse Lipscombe, who founded the Make It Awkward campaign to call out racism, told Global News tradition isn’t an excuse to be offensive.
“You know what else was a longstanding tradition? Slavery. But it offends people,” he said.
According to Dutch folklore, Zwarte Piet’s face is black because he is a Moor from Spain.
But children are usually told that it’s soot from going down a chimney, according to The Associated Press.
People opposed to his appearance have questioned why his face can’t be streaked with black instead. In the Netherlands, some have taken to calling the character “Sooty Pete.”
Tradition has already changed at one church
Koopman told the Edmonton Journal he’s open to changing the character’s appearance next year.
“We are totally leaning towards just having the streaks on Black Pete’s face, instead of his whole face painted black,” he said.
One local’s church’s annual Sinterklaas party was set to ditch the blackface for the first time this year. Instead, Zwarte Piet was to be represented by three people in different-coloured morphsuits on Monday.
“Because there is such a backlash in Holland, we don’t want to be of offence to people who don’t understand,” Irene Apon told the Journal.
“It’s trying to bring in the fun of it without trying to offend anyone.”
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