By Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his attitude towards "Black Pete", a figure from pre-Christmas celebrations that has been criticised as a racist caricature, had undergone "great changes" in recent years.
Rutte said his view had changed since 2013, when he said "Black Pete is just black and I can't do much about that".
Now he expects the tradition to disappear.
He was speaking on Thursday in a parliamentary debate about anti-racism protests in the Netherlands held in solidarity with U.S. demonstrations after the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis. .
In the Dutch tradition, St. Nicholas brings gifts to kids accompanied by numerous "Petes", clownish servants usually portrayed by white people in black face paint wearing frizzy wigs and red lipstick.
Rutte said that since 2013 he had met many people, including "small children, who said 'I feel terribly discriminated (against) because Pete is black'."
"And I thought, that's the last thing that we want" in a holiday intended for children.
"I expect in a few years there will be no more Black Petes," Rutte said.
While critics say Black Pete is offensive, a shrinking majority of white Dutch people argue Pete is a magical fantasy figure not portraying any race.
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.
"The magnitude of a leader in a country stating this is enormous," she said. "You can have all the legislation you want ... but if the people in power, the leader of the country, doesn't seem to support it - and that's what it looked like in 2013 when he said that about Black Pete – then the struggle will be harder."
The tradition is already changing. Some celebrations feature Black Petes with dabs of paint on their cheeks, representing soot from the chimneys he is said to climb down to deliver presents. Others include multicoloured Petes, dropping the word "Black" from the name.
Protests honouring Floyd were held in Amsterdam and Rotterdam this week, with more scheduled.. Rutte acknowledged on Wednesday that discrimination is a "systematic problem" in the Netherlands.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Nick Macfie and Giles Elgood)