Amsterdam, The Netherlands - For 50 years, the "Sinterklaas Centrale" - Santa's Headquarters in Dutch - has sent out dozens of gloved, white-bearded men wearing cloaks and miters to bring Christmas cheer.

But this winter, there are fewer Santas who will be visiting families in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam.

"Our staff is scared to act as Santa Claus," Henk van der Kroon of the Sinterklaas Centrale organisation told Dutch radio station BNR, adding some were afraid of assaults and quit.

Fearing clashes, Santa's teams are no longer going to Amsterdam South East this year, an area that is home to a large community of migrants.

It's not Saint Nicholas himself that's causing the problem - it's his helpers. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is traditionally accompanied by black-faced helpers called "Black Petes", or "Zwarte Pieten" in Dutch. Families celebrate "Sinterklaas" on the eve of December 5, and children often blacken their faces. However, the Christmas tradition has sparked an emotional debate in the Netherlands about whether it is racist.

[The tradition] won't go away if Black Pete is not black any more - because it's about something deeper rooted.

- Marc Gilling, guild of Black Petes

Critics argue the portrayal of Black Pete refers to the age of colonialism and depicts a slave, and is reminiscent of the racist 19th century blackface tradition. Others retort that Black Pete is an innocuous festival for children.

Misunderstood?

Critics refer to a wrong reading of history, says Marc Gilling, chairperson of the "Pietengilde" - the guild of Black Petes. He points out the depiction has existed for hundreds of years, long before the age of slavery.

"It's a mask that has nothing to do with skin colour," Gilling told Al Jazeera. Instead, the tradition points to the contrasts of summer and winter, day and night. "That's why the bishop is dressed brightly and has dark helpers."

Gilling said he understands the pain some people feel. "Most likely, however, it won't go away if Black Pete is not black any more - because it's about something deeper rooted."

Although the Black Pete controversy has existed for years, the debate escalated recently, with both critics and supporters of the tradition receiving death threats.

A court in Amsterdam ruled that Black Pete is offensive because of its role in continuing stereotypes of black people. During a parade in November, a man assaulted a 15-year-old girl who had her face blackened as Black Pete. At the re-enactment of Santa Claus' arrival in November, 90 protesters from opposing camps were arrested for demonstrating in unauthorised areas and disturbing the peace.

Supermarkets have removed products and figures that refer to Black Pete from their shelves. On Monday, a man pressed charges against a hospital where nurses had put up a nameplate that said "Black Pete" on the bed of a black baby whose life had just been saved. The hospital said it was a mistake, but some say it was an incident of racism.

The Netherlands is seen as one of the most tolerant, multicultural and liberal countries in the world. It was the first nation to allow same-sex marriage in 2000, and ranks among the four states with the highest gender equality, according to the United Nations Development Programme's Gender Equality Index.

Structural racism

But some in the Netherlands dispute the view of their country as a haven of tolerance. "Recent developments manifest the image and our self-perception is no longer tenable," said Gregor Walz, research team leader at the anti-discrimination office Radar in Rotterdam.

The debate about Black Pete reveals a broader trend, Walz said. Although racist acts against certain individuals may be uncommon, Walz told Al Jazeera that structural racism against entire ethnic groups remains widespread, and the Black Pete tradition is just one example.


RELATED: Court rules Netherlands' Black Pete offensive


Last week the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) called for the closure of all mosques in the country. "We want to de-Islam the Netherlands," MP Machiel de Graaf said in parliament. The PVV and its leader Geert Wilders has grabbed the headlines in the past with rhetoric targeting Islam and immigrants.

In the same week, the Turkish foreign ministry claimed that the Dutch government has "racist policies" towards ethnic Turks.

And last year, an Amnesty International report accused Dutch police of ethnic profiling, stopping individuals from visible minorities "not because of something they have done, but because of the way they look".

Un-paint it black

Researchers say it is necessary to raise awareness of unconscious racism in society, and plan to conduct a large-scale study in the coming months. Several thousand people in the Netherlands are expected to participate in a test developed at Harvard University.

The traditional figure Zwarte Piet [Black Pete] is the companion of Saint Nicolas during a yearly feast celebrated on December 5 [EPA]

"We can't measure racism directly, but we can test what people think implicitly," said Hiske Arts, creative director of Critical Mass, a Dutch organisation leading the campaign.

The test reveals what someone associates with a black person or a foreign name. Participants are shown photos of black and white people along with positive and negative concepts, measuring the strength of one's associations between the items. White people tend to associate white faces with positive concepts more easily, said Arts.

The test's goal is to enable people to rethink their behaviour and to collect data on a larger scale.

In January, a nationwide awareness campaign will kick off involving churches, sport clubs, schools, immigrant organisations and local communities.

"Implicit thinking doesn't change overnight," Arts said. However, if people are aware of their attitudes, she added, they may be able to change them.

Research in the US has made similar findings. "An implicit preference can lead to discriminating behaviour," Arts told Al Jazeera. If people are not aware of this, they may treat black people differently without noticing it.

The Black Pete tradition, meanwhile, may slowly be changing. The golden earrings often worn by the Black Petes have been removed. And this year, some of Santa's helpers painted their faces with different colours, a gesture of support for multiculturalism.

Follow Benjamin Durr on Twitter: @benjaminduerr

Source: Al Jazeera