Dutch PM changes stance on 'Black Pete'

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his attitude towards "Black Pete" has undergone "great changes" and the controversial tradition may disappear.

Black Pete appears in Dutch celebrations just before Christmas and has long been criticized as a racist caricature.

In the tradition, St. Nicholas brings gifts to kids accompanied by numerous "Petes," -- his clownish servants who are usually portrayed by white people in black face paint wearing frizzy wigs and red lipstick.

Speaking in a parliamentary debate about anti-racism protests in the Netherlands following the death of George Floyd, Rutte said his view had changed since 2013 -- when he said “Black Pete is just black and I can’t do much about that”.

The prime minister said that since then he had met many people, including small children, who said they felt discriminated against because Pete is black.

He gave no concrete timings but said “I expect in a few years there will be no more Black Petes.”

Linda Nooitmeer, who chairs the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy, said Rutte's comments were important in a country that had difficulty in acknowledging racism:

"I think that it's really important because in this time of polarization, I just want to say that I think that it's good for Dutch people to see that it's really ok to change your mind. What I learned from what he said is that, after his talks with people of colour, people with other ethnic backgrounds, he came to the realization that the presence of Black Pete is not ok."

A shrinking majority of white Dutch people argue Pete is a magical fantasy figure not portraying any race, they say the black makeup represents soot from the chimneys he is said to climb down to deliver presents -- but critics say the figure is offensive, and the make-up a form of blackface.

The tradition is already changing. Some celebrations feature Black Petes with dabs of paint on their cheeks. Others include multicolored Petes, dropping the word "Black" from the name.