An annual debate in the Netherlands about the Christmas practice of white people blackening their faces, colouring their lips red and donning wigs to play Zwarte Piet, a sidekick to Saint Nicholas, has this year descended into street brawls, vandalism and a conviction for inciting racial hatred.
The characterisation of Zwarte Piet – or Black Pete – has divided Dutch society in recent years. In 2015 the UN stepped in to declare it was a “vestige of slavery”. Some major cities, including Amsterdam and The Hague, have refashioned Zwarte Piet’s image, or done away with him altogether, to avoid accusations of racism.
Others, however, continue to believe the character’s portrayal to be a harmless tradition. In a survey of 272 of the 388 Dutch municipalities, 239 said they would be sticking with the traditional image in 2017.