The UN group which became embroiled in the debate about the role of Zwarte Piet in the Sinterklaas celebrations says it is ‘deeply troubled by the virulent intolerance’ of people who could not understand critics of the character.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, called on the Dutch government to take the lead in facilitating the national debate on the role of Zwarte Piet, in order to ‘promote understanding, mutual respect and intercultural dialogue’.
The working party said it had asked the Dutch government to comment on concerns from individuals and organisations about the portrayal of Zwarte Piet and what steps had been taken to address the concerns. ‘This was not an “investigation”, nor was there any intention to reach a judgment,’ the statement said.
‘In late October, we began to receive disturbing reactions, including threats and insults,’ the statement said.
‘We were deeply troubled by the virulent intolerance expressed by those who could not understand that there might be problems with the way Zwarte Piet is presented or that the presentation might be perceived negatively.’
In addition, since the debate has escalated ‘people of African descent report being subjected to even greater racial abuse and ridicule’, the working party said.
Acknowledging that the future of the Zwarte Piet character is up to the people of the Netherlands to discuss and decide, the working party went on to call for calm.
‘In the meantime we ask for calm and an end to the abuse directed at opponents of the tradition in the Netherlands and the UN Experts,’ the statement said.
The working party’s chairwoman Verene Shepherd was attacked in the Dutch media after giving an interview in which she said she did not understand that ‘people in the Netherlands do not see [Zwarte Piet] is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop.’
She also said she did not see why the Netherlands wanted two Santa Clauses.
Every year the discussion flares up about the role of Zwarte Piet, played by a white person in black face make-up with a wig, red lips and gold earrings. This year protestors tried to have the traditional Sinterklaas procession in Amsterdam banned because of the role of Zwarte Piet.
Read the UN group’s statement.