The public libraries of the Netherlands are removing from their shelves books that include the figure of Zwarte Piet (Peter the Black), the page of Saint Nicholas, because his appearance no longer fits with today’s society. According to tradition, the bishop’s assistant who brings gifts to Dutch children on December 5 wears his face painted black, a curly wig, an earring and red lips.
Considered a racist stereotype by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the measure coincides with a national debate that has supporters and detractors of the servant. The former consider it absurd to erase it from the celebrations of San Nicolás, comparable to the feast of the Magi, because it is a children’s party. The others see in the darkened face a clear vestige of submission to the white character, who offends a part of the population. Last august, Bol.com, the main virtual store in the country, eliminated from its catalog the works and products of the page in its classic version, and began to call him only Piet. Without allusion to color.
About 3.6 million citizens (one in five) are members of one of the 1,207 public libraries (between central buildings and collection and delivery locations) in the country, according to figures from the National Library.
The Association of Public Libraries has tried to clear things up. In the official statement posted on its website, there is talk of “following the spirit of the times”, to prevent the situation from being associated with a form of censorship. The center-right government has not approved a norm of national application on how to address the figure of Zwarte Piet, “so that some libraries withdraw these books, others include them in their collections, but they are not in public view, and some they prefer to keep them; each one chooses its own path ”, says the note. It also clarifies that any member of the national network can access the collection of all of them. The withdrawal of books is not exclusive to the large cities with the greatest population diversity, but rather reaches the centers of the periphery, according to the national press.
The disappearance of Zwarte Piet from the book collections has been slowly forging, among other things because the commercial machinery associated with the feast of Saint Nicholas relied on this somewhat giddy figure with a permanent smile. The turning point came in 2014, when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights first called him a “racist stereotype to be eradicated”, then urged the Dutch authorities to “review his representation as a clumsy black servant”. That same year, the Informativo de San Nicolás (Sinterklaas Journal, and Dutch), a public television program that follows his adventures in the country at this time, presented the first pages with smudged and not black faces. The explanation is that they had been stained with soot from the chimneys through which they hang down to leave the presents, and it was a way of washing the face of the assistant: the little ones adapted to the facial evolution of Zwarte Piet, and the chain it contained criticism of some programs where the page was a black-faced goofball. Or made up of different colors. The only cabal was the leader of them all, a kind of captain of the troop.
In 2016, the Ombudsman for Children pointed out that the image of Zwarte Piet “can contribute to harassment, exclusion and discrimination, all contrary to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, so that it must be adjusted so that children do not suffer the negative effects of the San Nicolás festivities ”.
Mark Rutte, the prime minister, argued that it was not for the government to decide the future of a tradition that society itself could adapt, but last June he was more understanding. He acknowledged that there were citizens who felt discriminated against because of the appearance and manners of the page, and he pointed out that he would lose himself.
Politicians of the populist right, such as Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, and his main competitor, Thierry Baudet, at the head of the Forum for Democracy, argue that such an ingrained custom should not be diluted, and they speak of “burning books ”. In Belgium, which also celebrates Saint Nicholas, the Flemish Association of Libraries, Archives and Documentation preserves the page’s books for now, but says that “it takes into account political correctness when making new purchases,” says the Belgian newspaper The standard.
These days the Association of Public Libraries of the Netherlands announces on its website readings for children on the feast of St. Nicholas. They are illustrated by a boy wearing the red ceremonial miter of the saint, who was bishop of Mira, in present-day Turkey, in the 4th century. Also known as Nicolás de Bari (Italy), according to tradition, he was a compassionate man with children. Zwarte Piet does not appear next to him.