Despite the growing anti-Pete movement, the tradition finds a strong bedrock of support in mainstream Dutch society, meaning it’s unlikely to disappear any time soon.
In 2008, a Museum in Eindhoven called off an anti-Pete exhibition after protests. The foreign artists received death threats. And when Victoria’s Secret model Doutzen Kroes said on national television in 2009 that Zwarte Piet is the one thing that has ever made her feel ashamed of being Dutch, the studio audience laughed at her.
Jan Pronk, a leftist politician who once served as the U.N. envoy to Sudan, dismissed her viewpoint on the show. ‘‘These are very old traditions,’’ he said, ‘‘I don’t think it’s so bad.’’
A Facebook page with the slogan ‘‘Zwarte Piet is Racism’’ has become a major platform for debate this year, though moderators have begun removing hate speech and personal threats.
One organization reinforcing the Zwarte Piet image is educational broadcaster NTR, which also airs ‘‘Sesame Street’’ in the Netherlands. It has developed a popular fake news program for kids, devoted to the doings of the wise white Sinterklaas and his many bumbling Petes, all with the traditional blackface look.
The program starts in early November and airs nightly until kids open their presents on Dec. 5. (Although the Dutch Sinterklaas is the source of the American Santa Claus, Christmas is a separate holiday in the Netherlands, where the present-opening tradition happens three weeks earlier.) The show draws more than a million viewers in a country of 16 million, and its spokeswoman, Helen Albada, said she was unaware of any complaints about its depiction of Zwarte Piet.
Several years ago, the broadcaster experimented with a story line in which the Petes were turned different colors after sailing through a magical rainbow. That drew thousands of complaints, in part because the backlash against immigration was cresting at the time: Fans said changing Pete was sacrificing Dutch cultural heritage to the forces of multiculturalism.
‘‘We didn’t intend that either,’’ Albada said. ‘‘Kids don’t see Pete as black, it’s the adults that give it a racial meaning.’’
In a recent editorial, one columnist for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper questioned whether the country really is as tolerant as it likes to style itself. He deplored the fact that even as the U.S. has re-elected a black president, not a single member of the Netherlands’ new Cabinet is of non-Dutch ancestry.
‘‘That’s because we, unlike other countries, have become completely colorblind,’’ Bas Heijne wrote ironically. ‘‘We don’t need a black minister, let alone a black prime minister: We have Zwarte Piet.’’