The problem is that the character of Black Pete is so ingrained in the Dutch mind, that even black people from the Dutch Caribbean and Suriname black up to play Black Pete. For some reason they disassociate themselves from the character , although it's historically a black servant and not a chimney sweeper (see the photo in the book of Jan Schenkman from 1850, upper left) .
Another reason why some black people don't mind playing the servant of Sinterklaas is because most black Dutch Caribbean people have no knowledge of the racist American Blackface history, so blacking up apparently isn't regarded offensive (the photo below in the middle is a black woman from Curacao and the photo upper right is a black man from Suriname). But luckily there are also many black people who do find it racist.
The newspaper story (translated)
Sint Nicolaas once started out without Black Pete and it's now time to move on without Black Pete." For Amsterdam alderman Andrée van Es it's clear that the black servant of Sint Nicolaas [Sinterklaas] had its day. This makes her the first alderman in the country who openly distance herself from the phenomenon that seems inextricably linked with the popular event.
If it’s up to the alderman, the blacked up face will be replaced with a single sweep soot. That is also the proposal of John Helsloot of the Dutch culture research institute, the Meertens Institute. “Black Pete is essentially a racist phenomenon, " says the researcher today in an interview with this newspaper. "The phenomenon is in the tradition of an old notion that a subservient role for dark-skinned people is simply the best."
Helsloot points out to the ratification by the Netherlands of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. "A wonderful opportunity to say goodbye to Zwarte Piet." (Source: Parool)
It's great that the Dutch alderman is taking a stand, but history shows that what's on the agenda today will be off the agenda tomorrow. So a brief history of the protests.
In 1986 the movement Suriname left protested against Sinterklaas with the slogan "Sinterklaas is a racist" and in 1987 the group "White Klaas and Black Pete is not a celebration. Racism is everywhere" also campaigned against the celebration.
From 1994 until up to 1997 the Aktie commitee Zwarte Piet is Zwart verdriet ("Action Commitee Black Pete is Black sadness" ) protested against the character in Amsterdam Southeast. Amsterdam Southeast is the place where many black people life in Amsterdam. In a document the protesters wrote:
Our protest were met with aggression. People spitted on us, wanted to fight with us and wanted to pull the picket signs out her hands. Also the police responded aggressive. During our first demonstration they were present on horses, with buses and motorcycles. They stood in front of us with long bats and blocked our entrance. In 1996 even the national bureau against racism wrote in a letter, Black Pete is not a racist symbol. Since 1997 they have different opinion.
In 2008 two white Swiss artists planned an artistic protest march against Black Pete in the city of Eindhoven, but the march was cancelled after personal threats towards the artists and the museum who organized the accompanying exhibition.
And in 2011 after months of preparation and artistic activism of artist Quincy Gario and Kno'Lege Cesare, the protest against Black Pete ended in the violent arrest of the Gario at a Sinterklaas parade. Because his arrest was filmed and posted on YouTube it triggered huge media interest worldwide.
The tangible achievements of all the protest were the multicolored Petes and the fact that Schiphol airport abolished Sinterklaas. The airport cancelled it because they knew that not everyone could relate to this Dutch tradition. So how much I applaud the statement of elderman Andree van Es I have seen more in the past.
But there is good news. Although Quincy Gario's protest was short, it did put the issue back on the agenda. Perhaps as a result of the huge media attention last year and the debate in Suriname in the same year, the Sinterklaas celebration in Suriname was cancelled this year. The 70 year old Dutchman who played Sinterklaas for years felt he wasn't welcome anymore because of the ongoing debate about racism in the country. So exit Black Pete in the former colony.
But on the island of Curacao Sinterklaas it is still celebrated, at least last year.
And the excuse that Sinterklaas is only for kids is not entirely true. This year there will be a special celebration of Sinterklaas and Black Pete in the Municipal Theatre of Amsterdam on 5 December, especially for adults. Check how the "grown ups" party in an earlier celebration on YouTube.
Will Black Pete ever become white? I think eventually the story of Sinterklaas will be re-written and the white Pete will make its entrance in the celebration. If you can come up with a story that Black Peter is actually a chimney sweeper and not a black person, you can also find an excuse why Pete has become white. A black Sinterklaas isn't necessary and I accept a white Pete with curly black hair for now.