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Santa's little blackface helper

Is the Belgian and Dutch tradition of Black Peter racist?

Initially Black Pete was a frightening figure who would whip bad children or bundle them off to Spain in his sack, while Saint Nicholas rewarded the well-behaved with treats. These days, Pete has mellowed into a mischevious scamp who assists his elderly boss with the present distribution business.

In this town named for the saint, there's no doubt who the kids are most excited to see. "Zwarte Piet, Zwarte Piet," they shout as the youths in blackface toss candy into the air while inhabitants of Sint-Niklaas — including several members of its sizable black community — celebrate the annual arrival of their patron saint on Nov. 15.

“In the past, December was not a happy time for me,” said Wouter Van Bellingen, the first black alderman elected to the Sint-Niklaas city council. “As a child I’d go out to the market and kids would shout ‘oh look there goes Zwarte Piet.’”

“It’s not like that anymore. Fifteen years ago they hardly saw a black person. There’s been an evolution, the culture has changed,” Van Bellingen said in a telephone interview. “People see Black Peter as a tradition, but kids don’t make a link with the black people they see in class or in the street everyday.”

Van Bellingen hit international headlines in 2007 when three local couples refused to allow the newly elected black councilor to officiate at their weddings. In a gesture of support for the center-left politician, 626 local couples gathered at the city hall weeks later to have Van Bellingen renew their marriage vows.

After complaints from immigrant groups, efforts have been made in The Netherlands to replace Black Pete’s blackface with rainbow-colored makeup, but such initiatives have had little success.

Van Bellingen thinks banning the blackface would be counterproductive — he thinks it will simply fade away.

“I'm convinced that Zwarte Piet will disappear. People say it’s part of Europe’s heritage, but Europe is changing, becoming more [diverse] … . In 20 years, Zwarte Piet will no longer be an image we see in Europe."

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct a photo caption.