There are first listeners. The Black Lives Matter movement reaches far beyond the United States. I'm Steve Inskeep. And today we have a special episode from NPR's Rough Translation. About one country where the winds of change might alter the season of Christmas.
Here's host Gregory Warner. The Dutch character of Sinterklaas is a white bearded guy in red robes who delivers presence each December to good little children. But unlike Santa Claus, Santa Claus shows up on December 5th, wears a pointy hat, kind of like the pope, and he doesn't live in the North Pole. But in Madrid, Spain, he sails each November by boat to Dutch shores.
And Sinterklaas arrives not with a band of elves, but with a helper known as Black Pete Zwaan to people every year.
White people in the Netherlands celebrate the season by painting their faces black, putting on Afro wigs, painting on big red lips and talking in a fake Afro Caribbean accent.
And that's the beat. Yes, as a kid is fine, and I didn't know much about racism, so I wasn't aware of it and I enjoyed it.
I'm a santé moved to the Netherlands from Ghana when she was six. And like a lot of Dutch kids, she used to look forward to Black Pete's arrival as a kid.
I did because, you know, you got presents. You can eat a lot of candy.
The whole month of November in school, she made Black Pete crafts with burlap and black yarn. Her parents even dressed her up as Black Pete for parties and at the city Sinterklaas parade. She laughed with everyone else when Black Pete was dancing around.
Black Pete really adds dumb and stupid, you know. And Santa Claus is the old, wise, white, generous, almost sanctified holy white person seated on his white horse.
So there comes a moment that you're like, oh, my God. Something doesn't feel OK, you know, especially when somebody is mad at you and they call you sweat to beat. Oh, my God. So it's an insult. You mean me? You think I'm black, Pete. You think I'm dumb. I'm stupid.
Soon, instead of looking forward to the season, came to dread it.
I hate the months, November and December. It caused so much pain. Armus parents were both factory workers. She grew up in southeast Amsterdam, a largely immigrant neighborhood with other Ghanaian families, as well as families from former Dutch colonies like Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.
I'm a working class girl. Yeah, I am. I'm a working class girl who, you know, has been able to emancipate herself through education at age 26.
I got her master's degree in international relations and that same year was elected to the Amsterdam City Council. Later, she became a member of parliament, making her the only woman of color in parliament at the time. And along the way, she started educating herself about Black Pete, how the tradition attained prominence in Amsterdam in the eighteen fifties around when minstrel shows became popular in the U.S.. How the original uniform of Black Pete with colorful satiny sleeves was the way wealthy Amsterdam families would dress their black child slaves.
When she raised these facts with Dutch people, they'd not only deny the Black Pete was racist, they'd say Black Pete isn't black.
There's no link between black Pete and black people. So why are you in blackface? She'd say just like, Yeah. He came through the chimney.
His face is just dirty because he came down the chimney delivering presents.
OK. So saw you are white. And when you go through the chimney, your head changes into Afro and you got big red lips and you start talking with an accent. So yeah. And now I'm a woman, a mother of two girls, and my children are called Black Petes by Death, while I'm what I wouldn't call them friends, but buddies, schoolmates. And it's painful.
This is rough translation from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. We got interested in this story last winter when the center class committees formed in several Dutch cities said that Black Pete would not appear in their parades. Black Pete was gone except in response. More than a dozen smaller towns affirmed the opposite. Black people would be welcome in their parades and their school plays. That same year, the annual Sit Cross Television program said it would not show Black Pete and its songs and sketches rival TV shows within launched just so Black Pete would have a home.
It seemed that the fight over Black Pete was becoming a wedge issue that reminded us of the wars we have in the US over monuments and military bases where one side says this is racist. It has to go. The other side says this is part of our cultural history. We're not going to race it. In fact, we're gonna dig our heels in more into preserving it. Here's the prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, up in 2014, Greenpeace or Grumpy Black Pete.
So I can change that. He talked about dressing up himself as black.
I can only say that when I'm playing for black beats, I'm for days trying to get off my face. The Netherlands, like other countries, grapples with its own disagreements and divisions. But unlike the United States and even unlike their European neighbors, the Dutch have their own unique tool for resolving situations where multiple sides do not agree. It's a system known as the pulled her model or polder model. The pull the model is really a Dutch thing. It forms a very important part of our political culture and the way that we get around with each other.
People discuss their differences. It's very civil and it can take a very long time.
It's like you talk, you talk, you talk, you talk, you talk until you reach a point of consensus.
AMA has used this polder model as a politician. Actually, when we reached her, she had just finished a years long polder about reforming the Dutch pension system. Hearing everyone out, listening to all sides and finally coming to agreement.
It's about negotiating and trying to understand their point of view. And, you know, the focus of the poll, the model is we have to make something out of this together. We are all in this together.
Before the poll, their model became part of Dutch politics. It was part of the Dutch landscape. Polder actually as a piece of land below sea level. That used to be sea floor. 60 percent of the Netherlands are polder lands protected from flooding by a system of dikes and canals. And those dikes, of course, have to be maintained by every generation or the country floods. And that threat is real. A rite of passage for Armus kids and every Dutch kid is to pass a swim test while wearing their coats and shoes.
So one theory about the term polder model is that it applies the same collective approach to the land, to Dutch politics. And it works the best when, you know, we are able to lay aside our most strongest convictions of how things should be done or how the world should look like.
It's the idea that in the end, we're all Dutch. We all live here. We should find some common ground.
This tradition in the Netherlands of compromise and consensus be used to get rid of a different tradition. Blackfeet. When rough translation returns. This is NPR's. Rough Translation. I'm Gregory Warner. I'm walking towards the library. Oh, good God. I'll be there in 30 seconds. Geria Fria lives in Amsterdam.
But during the holiday season, he is constantly on the road talking about Black Pete.
Jerry did not expect to become an ambassador of the antiblack peace movement. It actually started with a piece of performance art in 2011 when he was 30 years old. He was working as a security guard, writing poetry at night, and he and a fellow poet decided to walk around Amsterdam with T-shirts that said Black Pete is racism. They figured if they could get Dutch people to see this fact, they might start a conversation about other forms of racism in the Netherlands.
Gerry says can be harder to see.
I think that is the most visible one. That's why we are fighting and also fighting so hard to beat, only expose the country to its own racism that he's been acting like it's not day.
They called it an art project, in part because they worried about their safety. Gerry says when he wore his T-shirt to a Sinterklaas parade, he was pulled into an alley by three police officers and beaten up.
While the Netherlands prides itself on dialogue and civil discourse, taking on Black Pete seemed to cross a line as frontman for the organization Kickout Black Pete.
He has been pelted with eggs and bananas and beer cans. He's gotten death threats. One recently. Against his kids. And a month before we reached him last December, a meeting with his fellow activists about Black Pete was disrupted by shouts in the street and the smell of smoke through the windows. They watched guys armed with fireworks and baseball bats trying to break into the building where they were gathered, going and getting.
So they smashed all the windows in all this mess. All the cars that were standing outside, you know. So we are talking about real violence. Gerry's middle names are Luther King, and he has come to expect his nonviolent protests will be met with rage. In fact, over the years, he has continued to go where he is unwelcome, engaging with every kind of Dutch person in a very polder model kind of fashion. He leaves his home in Amsterdam and travels to cities and towns where Black Pete is still publicly celebrated.
Oh, yeah, definitely. I thought he was important to be on the countryside for that sake, to make people become aware that as long we are all Dutch. There shouldn't be any place left in the Netherlands where black people should be discriminated. We wanted to hear what one of those dialogues in the countryside might sound like. How would Jerry convince white Dutch people to take this beloved tradition connected with their cherished moments of childhood and just kick it to the curb?
And so last November, a sent across decorations went up in the shop windows and the sweet smell of ginger nuts filled the air. We sent a Dutch reporter to visit one of these meetings in the city of Alkmaar. And I might pronouncing it right. Yeah. Oh, my. This is could take a bear.
I'm journalist based in Amsterdam.
She took the train 45 minutes north to Alkmaar, which is politically a different world than liberal Amsterdam.
It's mostly very sleepy and quiet, though. Still a place where you can rent a bike from the train station.
You like that ride? Me being on a bike. That's very Dutch, isn't it?
Reportage by bike. Yeah.
She bikes best 17th century buildings with clay roofs past snowcapped green awnings, crosses, canals on bridges so low that boaters have to duck their heads. And finally, she arrives at an old school building now used as a community center and locks her bike out front. And when I came in, first thing I saw was two police officers. And later I heard that they were there for this event just in case cystine case Sync's would get out of hand.
Things got really violent. Yeah.
The event was organized by a local group against Black Pete, billed as a dialogue on ways to have a more inclusive sinter class. And the setup is this idea of pulled the model. The Polder model has Omma Santé explained. You get together and talk out your differences. The front rows of chairs are for people against Black Pete. The back rows occupied by black Peets defenders. The room is physically divided.
And it was decorated with senior class stuff which was all about Tippett's free fake presence.
Paper cups, plates, all black peat free. As if to say the center class feasts can still be a party without black Pete.
Ethical Siméus ofa fellow of manhood. One by one, the people in the front row stand up to tell their stories. Felt the beat is full of deja vu about the insults you hear as a black person. Roughly åkerlund up.
I'll bet you your own country and that sort of stuff.
A guy from the back row says he doesn't see the racism in Black Pete. And then a woman from the front responds with a song lyric.
Pokolbin expert possible. Gamein. It's a hoot. Even though I'm black as such, I mean. Well, and she says, you know, that's negative, isn't it?
Next, a black woman in a red dress who didn't give us permission to use her name or voice says she's been called Black Pete. So was her mom. So was her son. A guy in the back row jumps up.
He said, So if people pull you up, should we forbid apes in the zoo? You must like, let us give it up.
The meeting is just going back and forth like this. And then Jerry gets up and he's come to OK, Marty's support, the local activists who from. And he gives this big smile, says, thank you for having me today. He compliments the local soccer team and winning the championship. I said computer. He says he's from Amsterdam but can estimate on the bill. I have a thing for the underdog. And then he says he emigrated from Ghana when he's six years old.
He talks about his own kids in the zone.
Gerry says his daughter just quit gymnastics and drops a bit of TV dad humor. He says she should pay him back for all the gym classes he paid for.
In case it's not completely obvious what he's doing here, he actually spells it out.
Boss is a diva vibe over incomes in Kong.
These are the basic things that make us able to relate to each other, he says.
It must be interesting. And then he starts talking about when he's walking down the street, you'll see little children, four and five years old. Point to saying, look, Black Pete sort of beat him and then they hide one thing, but not because another job the Black Pete has is taking bad kids in a burlap sack. Back to Spain to work in Center Crosses factory. What Jerry is doing here with his whole speech. It is also part of Paultre Model where you lay out your position and then you wait for the other side to speak and it becomes a negotiation.
As Jerry is talking, there's a young white guy with gelled hair in the back row, the pro black Pete Rowe, who seems eager for his turn. His name is Thomas Van Elst. He's the founder of an organization called the Netherlands is My Fatherland. It's an anti-immigration group. The debate over Black Pete is often wrapped up with immigration and the question of who is really Dutch and who gets to weigh in on Dutch tradition. Tomas is reliably quoted in the press about keeping the Netherlands like it used to be.
And as he stands up to speak, you could just picture this moment, how would be in the States? He's going to say something inflammatory and people are going to argue and the phones are going to come out to record everything. It's going to all blow up.
Really cold compliment Mocca. He goes to lay organization. He's out for money, little organizing. He says that doesn't. He doesn't do anything.
Thank you, he says, for bringing up this issue. We don't talk about it enough on Schieber, on sell out. It's really cool that you do this. And he says we can agree on a lot.
Yeah, that's the first thing Thomas Ronnell said. We can agree that I think it's horrible. People go through and these racist elements we should get rid of.
So he was acknowledging that these are racist elements, actually. Yeah. Yeah.
Both sides agree that Black Pete is racist. Yeah.
But what they say the black elements are the earrings, afro hair. Oh, you live on the red mouth.
Those are the racist elements that Thomas suggests they banish right away. But you may have noticed there's one element of the black bee costume that is missing from his list, and it's a big one.
Smart is on top. Let's keep the black face for two more years and then we'll see.
And everyone was like, no, no, you just want to keep the black face. He even said at one, but we were so close. Like, we're so our positions are so close together. Exactly. We can get to a compromise. If you're not Dutch, this moment might sound promising a step toward actual consensus. But one of the hallmarks of the polder model is that people can be very proud to show off how willing they are to compromise when really their position is hardly changed.
The mass sidesteps the main issue when he negotiates about Black Pete as if he's a figure of the past. A character out of Dutch history instead of dealing with him is a stereotype of the present. That is, every year aimed at Afro Dutch and black Dutch people. It doesn't work.
It doesn't work.
Alma says she's given up on the polder model when it comes to racism.
You talk and talk and talk and you explain. And, you know, a friend of mine described as not the only way that white people will understand racism is when I stop crying and I put my pain on the table. I have to describe my pain all the time until, you know, my humanity is also accepted.
I wonder if the reason one reason it doesn't work is because it just costs too much. It's too much to ask a small minority to have to constantly explain.
Yeah, it costs so much. You you can't imagine how much it costs. I mean, the burden is always on you to prove that something was done to you or something or was said to you or was not done or not said came out of racist motives.
Gerry is familiar with this complaint. He hears it a lot from his team. In fact, that is the reason it's always him making these trips to places like Alkmaar.
Yeah, definitely. Most of the time I'm the one doing the work because a lot of people from our team, you know, they fade out like, you know, this has been going on for years. And before we were even born. So a lot of people are like, you know, tired of explaining to white people what racism is.
Do you ever get tired of explaining to white people what racism is?
No. And I was blown away. The thing is that there they are, two juries, the jury for the community, who basically doesn't do anything about it. And is important to the community and your jury, the person. Jerry, the person wonders if he'll ever feel at home in the Netherlands. But community Jerry regularly begins sentences with phrases like, Since we are all Dutch, Jerry, the person has been beaten by police. But Community Jerry meets with police to talk about reforms.
And Jerry, the person remembers every time that a teacher or coach or friend looked into his eyes and with a straight face said to him, But Black Pete came down the chimney. He's not even black. What a country tells you. It's tried to unseat baozi, could try to unsee it. That's what the country is telling people. You know, like what you are seeing is not true.
Jerry always saw this excuse as a way to silence black perspective.
But community Jerry thought, what if we make the denial of the problem into a solution?
And then we were like, OK, if we want to be if you want to continue to take into the community, then let's make it something that looked like it came out of the gym.
What do you mean? Looked like it came out of the chimney? Well, you know, like Mary Poppins, you know, they say it goes through the chimney and also make it look like a chimney cleaning.
Jim, Jim, Jim, Jim, Jim Carrey, as we've been lucky, as lucky can be the alternative, Pete, that Jerry has been talking about for years now at these dialogues is called Chimney Pete.
Chimney Pete has no Afro wig, no red lips and no accent. And instead of blackface, he's got a smudge of soot on his face. The defenders of Black Pete hate this chimney idea. You heard Thomas in the meeting.
The one thing he wants to keep is the blackface. That is the tradition. But on the other side, some activists and Afro Dutch thinkers also hated this compromise. They said that whether it's soot or black paint, you can't cover up the origin of Black Pete. He is modeled on a child slave. The tradition itself is tainted. Jerry's solution. They said it still didn't work this way. It's kind of like what happened in the U.S. this month when PepsiCo finally agreed to retire the pancake brand Aunt Jemima.
They tried to change her image over the years. They got rid of her head wrap. They gave her a lace collar and pearl earrings. But ultimately, people argued that you can't wipe out the characters origins in an antebellum song nostalgic for slavery. Aunt Jemima had to go. But with Black Pete, Jerry said we should get past this issue to move the conversation on to bigger problems of racism in the Netherlands. And so he argued that both sides had to give up a little of what they wanted to solve this.
Both sides had to Polder because I feel like, you know, I'm fighting racism in it. No tradition. I'm not fighting a tradition. I'm fighting racism. However you feel about Jimmy, Pete. It has caught on in the cities where Black Pete has been banned from the parade chimney, Pete has taken his place. And when the Sinterklaas TV show banned Black Pete from those songs and sketches, there was still a Pete.
Only now a guy with soot on his face was at the end of the dialogue in the city of Alkmaar after Tomas offered his compromise blackface for just two years.
Jerry responded that the compromise has already been made. We already have a Paultre Pete. He told him it's chimney sweep.
St. Pete is for them. Will do.
The meeting ended without consensus. But we wanted to call up someone from that meeting who is still defending Black Pete to see if any of his dialoging had made a difference.
So I think. Is everybody on the line? Yeah.
Yeah. They're not going to get this.
Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Shakr Rene Van Slatin teaches horseback riding in a stable near Ottmar. And when I tried to talk to him about Black Pete, honestly, he kept talking about how the Netherlands is changing too fast in Natans for Bolt with all the you can't smoke anymore.
Everything used to be normal, he says, and now it's not. One thing he and Jerry seem to agree on is the changing black Pete is just the tip of the iceberg. He came to the meeting not so much to defend Black Pete as to express his anger at Jerry and the protests filled in house and night.
I switched my motto to states. He says those protests only make the racism worse than the hatred worse. Oh, that's hard to beat. Discouraging.
I mean, listening to you, you're saying that the debate provokes more racism, but I think the other side would say that the debate exposes the racism.
Who the hell are you?
That's a really good one.
It was like he'd never heard that idea before. But Rene says that at that meeting in Armagh, something did move him. When he heard that woman in the red dress talk about being called Black Pete, he felt compelled to go up to her and apologize. And they talked for a long time.
Anything they'll say, she saw some molecules and disappear in days.
As Alma Santé would say, when that woman put her pain on the table, then she was hurt.
Did it change your mind at all about Black Pete? May not need to much of a study, chief?
No, not yet. At this point, I don't think we should change that tradition.
I reminded Rene that everyone at that meeting had agreed to change the tradition. Tamar said keep just the blackface for two years. Jerry suggests that soot on the cheeks. So which compromise had he preferred? Rene answers with this quintessentially Dutch phrase, an end and end or both end.
Maybe we should do both. As a compromise. A compromise of the compromises.
I mean, what would that look like?
Like whoever wanted to have chimney Pete would have chimney Pete and the people wanted Black Pete would have Black Pete. Yes, I think so. You think so? Yes. Rene says there should be Black Pete's chimney piece.
There's even a group fighting for Rainbow Pete. All the Petes are welcome because he believes in compromise.
Is it a solution to have a black Pete, a yellow Pete and a red Pete? No. No. Black Pete.
I'm a saint, he says. That's not a compromise. That is the status quo, which sums up her whole criticism of the dialogue approach when it comes to race. There is a lot of talking, but at the end of the day, it leads to people saying you can have your Pete, I can have mine. It doesn't stop her kids or any black kids from being taunted. It doesn't help Dutch people recognize racism. So when Sinterklaas season ended last year, there was still no consensus on Black Pete.
Not in Alkmaar and not in the country. People were still divided. And then on a street corner in Minnesota, George FOID was killed by police on the watched. Huge crowds in the Netherlands gathered saying black lives matter and not just in solidarity with the U.S. movement. They were looking at their own country. And then she turned on the TV to see the prime minister, an chef, a cult following.
Of course, Michael was right to beat.
The prime minister says my own thinking about Black Pete has changed. And he said over time, societal pressure will force the tradition out. In other words, he wasn't going to ban Black Pete.
By decree, we'll get there together, he said. As a country, I fell naturally.
I fell from my house. I was like, shall we trust him? Or, you know. Does he want to lead us into something?
This is a very conservative prime minister. The same guy who said it would take days to get the paint off his face.
You know, everybody was like, OK, who we wait and see we don't believe in. But OK, let's give him the benefit of the doubt.
And even more shocking drama was that the prime minister admitted that there were, quote, systemic problems in the Netherlands around racism. Now she is more optimistic than ever. The black Pete might finally be on his way out, and she concedes that if not for all those years of discussing and poll during the issue, Dutch people would probably not have come out to the streets in such numbers. There's wide a risk that we could offset all that's in the United States.
That's not us. And now there's no denial anymore. We are like, do you understand a crying and a finding and a movement of kick all sorts of feet? Do you understand it now? And they are like, yeah, we understand this November. The boat carrying Sinterklaas will once again arrive at Dutch shores. But for the first time, at least as of this writing, no municipality has agreed to host him and his entourage of Black Petes, not Amsterdam, not The Hague, not Utrecht and not Hökmark.
Black Pete. For now, anyway, has no Dutch Harbour. Today's show was produced by Autumn Barnes. Our editor is Lilo Koski, reporting by me and Mitchell Johnson with help from Katinka Baer and NPR's Joanna Kakissis. The rough translation team includes Derrick Arthur, Tina Antolini and Jesse James.
Special thanks to Jill Hudson, Robert Krulwich, Sun Acrostic of Rick Carr. Rachel Doyle. Kelly Prime. Amy just Duska. Dan Ephron. And Go Finn Weli and Jonathan Gruber. The rough translation executive team is Neil Caruth, Chris Turpin D Geikie and On Your Grundmann Mastering by Isaac Rodriguez. John Ellis composed music for our show with more music from Blue Dot Sessions. Additional scoring by Tina Antolini. We are saying goodbye this week to our wonderful producer, Autumn Barnes.
Autumn started as an intern with us last year. We're gonna miss her. She's done great work. By the way, that fall internship is still accepting applicants. So if you want, go ahead and apply this story about Black Pete actually started with a listener email. Thank you to that listener, Jamie Fairbank. And, you know, we love to hear from you, your story ideas, your rough translation moments, wherever you are in the world.
You can drop us your thoughts at rough translation at NPR, dawg, or on Twitter at roughly. I'm Gregory Warner. Back in two weeks with more rough translation. Rough Translation is NPR's international podcast with far off stories that hit close to home. Up first, we'll be back tomorrow to give you the news you need.